I'm a gamer, anime fan, and writer spearheading "Kiss Me Sweet", a initiative pushing to get Sakura Wars 1-4 brought to North America on the PC via digital distribution.
I also run a blog called Atlanta Fried Critic where I try to be funny and mostly fail, and I published a book about serial killers, forbidden romance, and annoying Game Boy Music called "Twisted Complex: A Love Story."
April 21st, 2007. I go to bed in my clothes and shoes, ready to wake up the next morning. Little thirteen year-old me is giddy with excitement over waiting in front of GameStop the next morning. Why? Because of Pokemon, of course. The fourth generation was at hand, and according to reviews, the series was better than ever. So I got a ride to the store from my generous mother, ready to play the hell out of both versions. With my collectible styluses in hand, I sank untold amounts of hours into those games, much like I did with the first and second generations.
A similar thing happened with the fifth generation. This time, though, I only bought one version. After all, I couldn't possibly finish both games, what with high school, and other games, and other commitments. I knew people who had the other version, so I'd just trade with them, right? Fast-forward to college, and the fifth-gen sequels come out. I put a few hours into a version, then never touch it again. Now, with the sixth generation here, I've been enjoying myself, for sure, but I'm coming to realize something now, more than ever.
Pokemon, at its heart, is a game for children. It is training wheels for broader gaming experiences, and while still very well-made games, they are ultimately not fulfilling enough to sustain my interest. Here are some reasons why.
There's Very Little Actual Challenge
When I was a kid, battling the Elite Four was a terrifying proposition. I scrambled to make sure my party was leveled up enough, but still made sure that I had enough room for my favorites. I wasn't going abandon my starter, or my cool-looking one, or my cute one. Somehow, in the end, I always managed to push my way through with my favorites in tow. That was on top of pushing through challenging trainers, caves infested with wild beasts, and other obstacles. In recent years, however, I've begun to realize something about the game. There is a set formula for blazing through the narrative, and once you learn it, there ends up being very little fun to be had. Make sure you have the right types, stay a level or two above the trainers you encounter, about five to ten levels above most wild Pokemon, and at the same level as the gym leaders. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat. Any challenge to be had relies on nothing more than pure chance, like a leader getting consecutive critical hits or something like that. The difficulty is artificial, and the formula is way too simplistic to keep my interest.
The Story Is Rudimentary At Best
Hunting down the legendary Pokemon, bringing down the evil group attempting to control the world, meeting the eclectic characters... these were the staples of my childhood experiences in this franchise. Every entry made me so excited to do all of this, and much, much more. But with each entry's increasing emphasis on plot and characters, I'm starting to see something that should have painfully clear from the very beginning: these stories have never been very good. The characters are pretty one-dimensional at best, the villains are superficial, the legendaries no longer all that special. Basic narrative devices stay unchanged despite the addition of new elements that fans claim to be "darker" and "edgier." Reviews and casual players alike have commented on how the story has been getting better with each entry, but honestly? The narrative is still pretty shallow when held in comparison to other RPGs out there, with characters that are more complex, worlds that are more fun to explore, monsters that are more fun to catch. Sure, it's still addictive, but is it very good? In terms of gameplay and fun, yes. In terms of narrative and intrigue, not particularly.
What's The Point In Catching Them ALL, really?
It's right there on the package. "Catch 'Em All!", the print ecstatically demands. There was a time, yes, where I really cared about doing that. But when I look at a Pokemon that's a split-open garbage bag, an ice cream cone, a panda, a sapling... well, I start questioning just why I'd want to catch them. Sure, there are Pokemon that I like, and love raising and discovering their abilities, but honestly, there are more of them that I think are flatout stupid. It doesn't matter what I personally feel, according to series fans, just catch them and hoard them, give them to other people. But what's the point in using my time that way? I'm sinking several dozens of hours of my life to catch little in-game creatures that, bluntly, I couldn't give two damns about. It's not like I can do anything with these little beasts that I don't care about. Trading is an option, but eventually, I can only trade so much. It gets to a point where I realize that I'm becoming the virtual equivalent of a hoarder. I'm not really into the story, or the world, or the characters, and I don't have any attachment to what I'm collecting, yet I press on. For what? And really, that's the question: what am I getting out of this?
It's Always Been Shin Megami Tensei For Kids
Around the same time I got my hands on the fourth generation of Pokemon, a friend at GameStop set aside a rare game for me that he thought I might enjoy. I'd vaguely heard of it, and so I decided to give it a shot. What I found was an intriguing plot, fantastic characters, an imaginative setting, an excellent amount of challenge. Not only that, but it also had a monster collecting element (just like Pokemon, right?!) that was deeper, allowed combination, encouraged experimentation, and taught me how to let go of attachment. That game was Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army, and it was my induction to the MegaTen franchise. Later on, I realized that Atlus had created the same thing Pokemon popularized, but better and with more complexity. With characters that had real depth, and stories that actually meant something. Furthermore, it was never the same thing regurgitated with each new entry. MegaTen's influence can be seen in Pokemon X/Y, even. The increased focus on a cast of young teens, and the friendship that builds between them, reeks of Persona 4; the horde battles are ripped wholesale from Shin Megami Tensei IV. Pokemon, at its very core, is a series that took something popular among a niche audience and made it easy to consume, easy to market, and easy to capitalize off of. And it worked, because last time I checked, there's no Jack Frost balloon next to Pikachu at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Pokemon, at a very base level, is not a bad franchise. Far from it, actually. With each entry, it manages to implement new features that function flawlessly, and to crank out legions of cute little creatures for people to catch and argue over. However, that's just the thing: in my mind, the series can only be taken at a base level. Because if you compare it to peers in the same genre, it begins to come apart at the seams, much like a Trubbish spilling out into a Garbodor. The story is mindless, the characters are trite, the world fails to give any real sense of exploration. It is to RPGs what Call of Duty is to first-person shooters. That's not a bad thing, by far. I still enjoy playing the occasional entry in Activision's flagship franchise, just like I stillgive Pokemon a whirl to see what new stuff they've implemented.
But in the end, I will never be able to get real satisfaction from the series. It's passive fun, but it will never grab me like Shin Megami Tensei IV, immerse me like Persona 3, challenge me like Soul Hackers. I'm left feeling like Stevie Nicks in the Fleetwood Mac classic, "Landslide." I climbed a mountain, and turned around; I look around at children getting older, and realize that I'm getting older as well. And with each passing year, the idea of catching them all gets a little less enticing. It tears me up to say this, and honestly, I'm getting choked up as I accept this about myself.
Then again, I guess learning to cry is part of growing up, isn't it?