The Pokémon video game series is one of the best-selling of all time, and one of Nintendo’s most valuable properties, exploding in the 90’s when Pokémon fever first swept the nation and maintaining relevance today, with many Pocket Monsters’ faces remaining pop culture icons after more than 20 years. The games have sold over 290 million units, making Pokémon the second best-selling video game series of all time. With success of such a monumental scale, it is fascinating how similarly structured all of the core entries are. The release of Pokémon Red and Blue in 1996 (Red and Green in Japan), struck a formula that blended elements of roleplaying games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy with Pokémon’s unique monster capture, raising and battling. The gameplay of Pokémon’s main-line entries have developed and advanced over the years, but never has developer Gamefreak gone off the rails to try something fresh. That needs to change in Pokémon Switch.
New ideas involving the Pokémon series are often relegated to outside studios and received with varying levels of fanfare. Some games, such as Pokémon Snap and Pokken: Tournament are well received and critically applauded, while others like Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness or Hey You, Pikachu! are poorly executed and disappointing. Despite the various offshoots, fans can always count on another new Pokémon RPG for Nintendo’s handheld platform at some point in the future. The handheld Pokémon games Nintendo releases nearly annually are some of the best-selling games the company puts out, and only offering them in this format greatly helps push console sales; if you want to play the newest Pokémon RPG, you need the newest Nintendo handheld to do so.
These games all make use of the limited power available on these devices, but not developing them for Nintendo’s more capable home consoles has had a direct effect on the series and has played a part its stagnation, especially when compared to Nintendo’s other pillar-franchises: Mario and Zelda. Pokémon is being held back by what it was and has been, instead of blossoming into what it could become.
Pokémon Switch – The Dream
Discussing what a core Pokémon game could look like on a more powerful console has always been a daydream for players — schoolyard banter about how they could create one enormous world with all of the different regions included and all of the gym leaders able to be fought, and most importantly: every Pokémon to be caught. Those hopes slowly began to rot after new regions were introduced with each new generation, direct sequels and remakes became the norm, and hundreds of new Pokémon were created. The more worlds Gamefreak developed, the less this fantasy seemed within reason and the more my childhood wonder began to diminish. Instead, I began to try and imagine a more reasonable evolution to the Pokémon games. But after Nintendo’s E3 Direct this year, where it was confirmed a new Pokémon RPG was in development for the Switch, my imagination exploded with possibility again and my mind began to race. Was this what Pokémon fans have been asking for since the Nintendo 64; a home console, main entry Pokémon generation? What would Pokémon Switch like that even look like.
The Pokémon games have had many characteristics that have not wavered in many years and among these characteristics is the world design. Players always begin their adventure somewhere on a peninsula or island and immediately trek out on a mostly linear adventure with adversaries getting stronger as the player progresses. Abilities like flying, surfing or moving boulders prevent exploration into areas the game’s designers want to be explored later, where stronger Pokémon and trainers lurk. I want this trend bucked entirely.
Nintendo’s recently released masterpiece, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild proved that allowing the player to explore wherever they want in any order they wish works incredibly well. The world should be vast and varied, similar to Breath of the Wild, with sprawling mountain ranges, deep lakes, arid deserts, and dense forests. These biomes already exist in current Pokémon games, they are just represented in an isometric view, and scaled back for play on a handheld console. I want to be immersed in an interconnected world, no longer segmented by routes. Seamless exploration would lead to a more immersive world and is a perfect fit to the games’ design.
The overall difficulty of other trainers and wild Pokémon could scale with the player’s average level, maintaining adequate challenge throughout. Gym leaders could strengthen as the player does, making each new leader continuously challenging and require the player to consider type advantages and item usage to emerge a victor. Some caves or forests could possess frighteningly strong legendary Pokémon where players shouldn’t venture early, but instead of roadblocking the area, let them explore it, even if we they crushed over and over again. This sort of freedom would allow for exploration that is truly surprising and unpredictable, making stumbling across a new Pokémon as novel as it should be. Pokémon Switch needs to offer all this
The turn-based combat and trainer battles of the Pokémon series is a hallmark, and one that shouldn’t go anywhere. Overcoming an opponent by utilizing type advantages is as satisfying today as it always has been. Getting stomped on by a gym leader who is using electric-type Pokémon? Learn that ground-type trumps electric-type and then go find one to assist you through the fight. If if the game was as open as it could be, deduce that a ground type would likely be found in a desert or mountainous biome, then simply get there, catch one, train it and
come back when you’re ready. It’s such an obvious solution, but currently that kind of problem solving isn’t so easily completed.
Allowing the player to have camera control and create a truly 3D Pokémon game is paramount for the entire project to feel like the next step in the series’ evolution. For every game thus far, each route, town, gym or cave are all experienced through an isometric (or top down in the older games) camera angle, never giving the player the ability to look around as they wish. And only with the release of Pokémon X and Y did the games move away from a 16 bit-JPG-style grid movement system. Random encounters with wild Pokémon in a completely 3D space would still work, with pathways between fields of grass allowing players to bypass areas without constantly running into wild encounters, and wild Pokémon still only located in designated areas — tall grass, caves and water. Even trainer battles could be adjusted, where instead of having to be in direct line of sight to instigate a battle, just being within a certain range of someone would trigger them to spot you and battle. All of these ideas should be on the table when Gamefreak discusses Pokémon Switch.
As for which Pokémon would be included in Pokémon Switch, it’s difficult to say. Lately, Gamefreak has utilized nostalgia for the original Pokémon to market the games, mixing familiar faces with the newly designed creatures instead of just relying on new Pokémon to bring players back. Obviously the dream would be to allow all 800+ monsters to be collectable, but that may be a task too daunting, not just for the developers but also for the player. There would certainly be new
Pokémon that hadn’t been seen yet, as with every new Pokémon generation, but calling back to fan favorites would be a great way to reward players for exploring areas thoroughly. Having the largest initial Pokédex available would accommodate a much larger game world, as more creatures to capture would also keep players exploring. Pokémon Switch needs to be the biggest game the series has ever delivered.
Narrative in a Pokémon game has always taken the backseat — the games’ success is due to the Pokémon themselves and the gameplay. Despite this, Gamefreak has always tried to create a compelling tale to move the player. This started with players foiling Team Rocket’s plans to exploit Pokemon for monetary gain in Red and Blue, but with recent releases, a more cosmic threat eventually becomes evident that the player must defeat to save the world. To me, this is all unnecessary to a Pokémon adventure. If a Team Rocket, Aqua, Magma, Plasma, equivalent must be involved, having them act more as widespread nuisances would make their existence
less intrusive. Stumbling upon them bullying a random trainer out in the world and having the opportunity to interfere and help would make the wold feel more lifelike as well.
The goal for the player is to eventually come face to face with the champion of the Elite 4 and emerge victorious, thus becoming the most powerful trainer. This underdog story of rising from the bottom to become the best has always been the most captivating part of the game’s story. Popularized by the anime and Ash, the quest to become the very best is in the DNA of Pokémon and the main reason why trainers catch, raise and battle them. If the player could see a visual representation on the horizon of the Elite 4 as their final challenge, similar to Breath of the Wild’s corrupt Hyrule Castle, the motivation would always be to become stronger and get the 8 badges necessary to face them. Pokémon Switch needs to break this up. In the recent outings, this was explored through a more fluid gym system – but that needs to be taken further.
In the end, no one can really know what the next step for the Pokémon series is except for Nintendo and Gamefreak. As the series has gone on, my enjoyment with it has continually waned. I still play every single release and I love the franchise as much as ever, but I always hope something completely new will come of it — not just a marginal refinement such as visuals, but an overhaul of what the Pokemon video games are. Pokémon Crystal Version is my favorite game of the series and to this day no Pokémon release since has come close to capturing me as that one did, and none likely will, nostalgia aside. Unfortunately, Gamefreak perfected the “classic” Pokémon format with Gold, Silver and Crystal and has not topped them yet; I don’t think they ever will. Until Pokémon makes a fresh, new leap, I don’t know that I will ever be enraptured by a Pokémon game again. So when it comes to Pokémon Switch — here’s to hoping.