For a franchise all about monsters who evolve in superior forms, Pokemon is pretty stagnant. While Nintendo is very conservative when it comes to updating its beloved games, it also recognizes when its time to do something cool and experimental, like send Mario to space or turn Zelda into an open-world masterpiece. But core Pokemon games, the role-playing games that serve as the backbone for the entire enterprise, never get to be that radical.
The Pokemon Company argues that because these games primarily appeal to childrenany Pokemon game will be some generations first Pokemon gametheres no need to overcomplicate the proven, 25-year-old formula. Whether you buy that reasoning or not, its hard not to feel like it excuses laziness. The #Dexit controversy was ridiculous and overblown (there are already too many Pokemon to begin with), but I think fans wouldve accepted cutting down the number of Pokemon in Sword and Shield if those games overall had higher production value.
However, Pokemon endures as an institution arguably bigger than gaming itself because of its richly realized world teeming with fantastical life, a world people of all ages want to become a part of. Its a world bristling with potential for awesome innovative gameplay ideas, just not in the core games. Instead, for the Pokemon games that truly change and push things forward for the better, play the spin-offs.
This year saw the return of one of the most imaginative Pokemon spin-offs with New Pokemon Snap. Where main Pokemon games get snarky criticism for being kid-friendly, dog-fighting simulators, New Pokemon Snap is fully committed to non-violence. It uses the bones of a rail shooter to create a first-person photo safari adventure. Players snap pictures of Pokemon in their natural habitats not battling anyone for the humans entertainment.
As a game about photography, New Pokemon Snap places a huge emphasis on visuals. And thanks to its relatively small environments, the game sports gorgeously detailed graphics that put traditional games in the franchise to shame. Using the full HD power of the Nintendo Switch, the game renders legendary Pokemon like Lugia and Xerneas with all their majestic splendor. Watching baby Grookey and Pichu sleep in the grass is as adorable as it needs to be. New Pokemon Snap is a fantastic example of how spin-offs are free to offer fascinating new perspectives on the Pokemon world that the RPGs simply cant.
Before it made New Pokemon Snap, Bandai Namco made the bonkers Pokemon fighting game Pokken Tournament. Using ideas from Namcos own Tekken series, Pokken ditched traditional turn-based fighting to instead let players act out the action-packed, real-time battles we previously only saw in the anime. Who doesnt want to pull off electrified wrestling moves with Pikachu Libre or burn opponents as the haunted chandelier Chandelure? Like New Pokemon Snap, Pokken presents the pocket monsters with far more visual detail than were used to seeing. Of course Lucario is covered with fur, its a psychic dog.
Other developers have also found success putting a Pokemon wrapper on a surprising genre. Pokemon Conquest mixes strategic monster battles with actual Japanese history. The Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series makes the infamously punishing roguelike more tolerable. Weve seen Pokemon puzzle games, pinball games, and racing games. Soon, well get a Pokemon MOBA mashup with Pokemon Unite. And while there are far too many Pokemon fan games to list here, one of my favorites from back in the day was an extremely clever Pokemon tower defense game. Theres far more creativity in this franchise once you branch beyond the RPGs.
We want Pokemon to be real. We want to have a partner Bulbasaur, Charmander, or Squirtle of our very own. We want to look down on the street and see Trubbish, not a regular, non-living bag of trash. The best Pokemon spin-offs fulfill our desire to see Pokemon as plausible living creatures, as actual animals, and not just a collection of stats for RPG battles. Hey You, Pikachu! may barely be a video game, but letting you talk to Pikachu with a microphone is an incredible pitch.
Just look at the unprecedented success of Pokemon Go. Thats another game where the gameplay is very thin and arguably pretty bad (despite having some hidden depth if you know where to look), but it doesnt matter. Turning on your phone, walking down the street, and seeing Pokemon pop up in front of you and your friends is an experience too powerful for anyone with a heart to resist. It single-handedly justifies augmented reality as a new form for consumer technology. This is Pokemon in the real world.
The movie Pokemon: Detective Pikachu is extremely not a video game (despite sharing its title with another charming left-field Pokemon spin-off) but it delivers this need to see Pokemon in the real world unlike anything else. Laugh all you want about disturbingly realistic Mr. Mime, but witnessing an entire society where live-action humans and CGI Pokemon interact is what dreams are made of. Its Blade Runner for children. Beyond the mind-blowing aesthetics, Detective Pikachus plot respects Pokemon lore in all of these little ways, from Cubones dead mother to the implications of Dittos body-morphing to Mewtwos whole elaborate backstory. Its characters take things just seriously enough for the world to have real weight, however light, alongside wacky hijinks with superpowered pets.
Of course, the reason why these spin-offs can take big chances the mainline games cant is because they dont have to shoulder the risk. They dont have to prop up the brand. They can take their time because they dont need to synchronize with the anime, trading cards, and other merchandise that needs to stay on a strictly profitable schedule. We get a new Pokemon generation about every three years. Meanwhile, New Pokemon Snap came out 20 years after the original game.
Even if progress happens too slowly, innovation does eventually trickle into the core Pokemon RPGs. They have 3D graphics now, not 2D sprites. Pokemon Lets Go Pikachu and Eevee integrated smart ideas from Pokemon Go into its Pokemon Yellow remake. Pokemon Black and White had an honestly intriguing story that interrogated the very morality of harnessing Pokemon for battle. And for all its unpolished issues, Pokemon Sword and Shield introduced the open world Wild Area that teased the most exciting leap forward for the franchise yet.
I cant wait to see how that open world concept finally evolves into the upcoming full-blown action-RPG spin-off Pokemon Legends: Arceus, the Pokemon game fans have envisioned in their heads for years. Whether or not Game Freak can execute on the idea, its at least promising that the team recognizes that taking ideas from Breath of the Wild is the right radical direction for modern mainline Pokemon games.
Adults and hardcore gamers who play Pokemon should probably come to terms with the fact that theyll never be Pokemons target audience. The RPGs will never ask you to seriously care about esoteric mechanics like EVs and IVs or whatever, and they shouldnt.
But just because these games arent difficult and complicated doesnt mean they cant be fresh and original. If you want weird, entertaining, and unexpected Pokemon gameplay experiences, dont play the games about catching them all. Play the games about taking pictures of them all, fighting them all, or walking past them all on the street. To see real Pokemon evolution, play the spin-offs.
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