For the last 20 plus years I’ve been a loyal Pokemon fan. With a new Pokemon game around the corner I’m nostalgic to open that box again and begin anew. Since the wonder years of the original Gen1, and the fascination I had of a deeper world within Gold and Silver, to the Pokemon 20 trailer tapping into my inner child, this franchise has always been a staple to my gaming hobby. However, plenty of growth within gaming has occurred over the many generations of Pokemon Games. Graphical updates, four platforms, and a total of over 800 little Pocket Monsters to collect. Yet one thing has remained the same over all these years, how we play.
I look at other long-standing franchises, Final Fantasy saw change in gameplay consistently over the years always making small adjustments and updates to combat, introducing ways to make your party unique to your personal play through, and only dipping into action until FFXV. The Tales of series remaining relatively the same overall, but changing combat over each console generation brought a fresh feel to the game. One franchise I really want to call attention to is that of Dragon Quest, a franchise that has spanned 11 mainline titles and for the most part has remained unchanged. Combat has not changed much at all, the monsters we encounter are now iconic staples to the series, we get a great new adventure or story to dive into with each iteration. Despite the minimal changes the popularity of Dragon Quest has not dipped and only increased over the years. I wonder, can Pokemon drive that same interest and save itself work in the long run?
If we look at Pokemon over the years the one consistent update to the game is more little monsters to catch. As I said earlier, we have over 800 Pokemon to collect now, and the roster has grown so large that competitively we don’t get to see most of them. On the other hand, for the casual crowd this is great to have so much variety. You can choose any archetype of Pokemon that interests you from cute, cool, scary, big, or small. By this point we can agree that Pokemon has figured out its Gameplay loop. You start the game in a new place, you pick a starting Pokemon partner, you catch more, you battle Gym Leaders and make your way to the top. All the while you’ll be side tracked by smaller stories that I like to kindly refer to as the B-Plot of the game, which I think could take a larger focus to distract from the rinse and repeated Gym Challenge method. The shake up, albeit a small one, happened with the previous Pokemon games Sun and Moon where they replaced the Gym Battle experience with “Island Challenges” making the player go through a unique puzzle, maze, or an objective before facing a boss Pokemon battle. Ultimately this was still very much akin to the Gym Challenge experience with the final Boss fight being against a Totem Pokemon unique to the game and region.
Outside of the main series we’ve had games like Pokemon Snap, XD Gale of Darkness and Coliseum, Pokemon Ranger, and the latest for Mobile fans Pokemon Masters. These games are usually where the Pokemon franchise branches out into unique experiences, while the main stay series continues down the path of believing “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” Which I would agree, the Pokemon experience isn’t broken, but I think the franchise is beginning to rely on introducing new creatures to collect and not building upon what is already there. The formula feels stale, and while each generation of potential new Pokemon fans arrives its pretty baffling to think we started with a new mechanic in each game to see it remain in that game and never grown upon. Mega Evolutions were sidelined fairly quickly, Z-moves are on the way out as well, the aesthetic of a Pokemon partner following you now left behind. Many things that enhanced the Pokemon Adventure are usually experience left unexplored after one iteration.
Dragon Quest is a classic title, we can all recognize what a Slime or Golem will look like in these games. They’ve remained that way for many years. Dragon Quest combat is turn based, much like Pokemon, and has not really altered that mechanic. Each title has you battling the same way you have for years, facing the same monsters you have for years, but each title has a new adventure to journey through. New locales, new characters to care about, a new motivation for your main character. The story has many side quests that can give you additional immersion into the world of Dragon Quest. The Dragon Quest series continuously gives memorable stories and adventures while still delivering a very classic tried and true JRPG experience. They don’t add additional monsters, they don’t create a new mechanic in each iteration, they build upon what originally started it all and have grown since.
So, what if Pokemon did the same? What if Pokemon simply stopped adding monsters, and stopped creating new mechanics to implement each generation and just built upon what they already have? We can agree by this point battling is pretty well figured out, and the “Catch ‘em All” experience isn’t what it used to be with the age of the internet. If Pokemon decided to build upon its story I think the games would then have the ability to produce memorable stories and adventures. In many cases Pokemon has remained a very simple adventure, and granted these are adventures mainly targeted for kids. The simplicity is important, but the addition of more Pokemon with varying type mixtures doesn’t allow for simplicity and creates an artificial depth to the game. We haven’t changed what we’re doing but have changed the choices of Pokemon partners that we battle with based on the creatures and types that they hold. Often, I find myself sticking to favorites, or forcing myself to play with Pokemon I’ve never used previously. While that is my own personal choice, competitively the vast majority of Pokemon are left unused. The depth is there when it comes down to stats, and that is plenty for the competitive scene. But if it boils down to an issue of deciding what Pokemon to include for proper game balance, why continue to add so many each generation?
When it comes to story, Pokemon Black and White posed an interesting question, are Pokemon okay with being forced to battle? That’s a very interesting question to ask a child, especially in a world where a child essentially can control space and time without any repercussions. Ultimately Team Plasma, the antagonist criminal organization which is a repeating trope of the series, devolved from an almost PETA like team to just another bad guy stealing Pokemon from people. You still had to gather Hidden Machines to progress through certain areas, you still had to get gym badges, the gameplay loop repeated itself once again. But the question of “Are Pokemon okay with being forced to battle?” never gets truly explored and drops hollow pretty quickly in the game. There are side stories and moments like this in the world of Pokemon that I find in a way similar to the side stories of Dragon Quest.
Back in Red and Blue we visit the Ghost Tower in Lavender Town, we come to find out that the ghost was the mother of a Cubone that had been bullied by team rocket. It was such a sad story and a moment to remember and explore. In Gold and Silver we get to team up momentarily with Lance a previous member of the Elite Four, had we played the previous game we would know that this was a big deal as Lance was a powerful trainer. There are constant reminders that the world of Pokemon is extremely vast, and they don’t live in a microcosm of their own region. The rest of the world happens around them, and it would be interesting to see the world grow each generation. A kid shows up and stops a criminal organization on several occasions, a kid showed up to stop an Earth-Shattering disaster from occurring whether it be a massive flood or intense draught. However, at the end of the day each game is about progressing by getting badges and beating the Elite Four.
I would challenge Pokemon to try and create another generation without new creatures to catch and discover. Without a series of Gyms to participate in to progress forward in the game. Dragon Quest Monsters created a story in which you gathered partners and went on an adventure to save a realm from destruction, they made additional DQMs with the same monsters from the legacy of Dragon Quest and added a new story building upon mechanics they found to work well. Perhaps break the mold, Pokemon end games have consistently shown interesting stories and adventures, why not just a game like that?
For over 20 Years I’ve chosen a starting Pokemon, caught everything I encountered for the first time. I stopped the group of bad people from taking Pokemon, I beat all the Gyms, I conquered the Elite Four and became champion. Perhaps just one time I want to see what else is within the world of Pokemon as a trainer without the need of Badges to show my progression through the game. I’ve personally wondered about what if they told the story of an upcoming Trainer that’s a detective, and each case was essentially your “Gym Challenge” where you thwart bad guys from mischief or mayhem. What would you like to see out of a Pokemon Game? How would you break the mold of the tried and true “Catch ‘em all” formula? It hasn’t been about catching ‘em all for quite some time, and I think it’s time Pokemon changed for a new generation.