Many people agree that Pokémon is in dire need of an overhaul. The games have remained fundamentally the same in terms of gameplay, story, and exploration since the original releases on the GameBoy in 1996. People have also dreamed of a full-fledged, home console Pokémon game for just as long. What would it be like to explore big, open environments, catching Pokémon and building a team to save the world? Towns would be bustling and rural areas would be brimming with wildlife. These thoughts were in many fans’ minds during the early morning hours of February 27th, 2019 as they eagerly awaited the reveal of what would end up being Pokémon Sword and Shield, the first home console main series Pokémon games. The game presented hardly seemed to be what those who have lobbied for change were hoping for.
For years Pokémon fans have clamored for something new in the main series Pokémon games, with few changes ever being made and even fewer of them being of any significance. The core gameplay has remained almost completely unchanged since Pokémon Red and Green launched over 23 years ago in Japan. Since then Game Freak has added new types, new moves, some double Pokémon battles, and some more gimmicky additions like Mega Evolutions and Z-Moves. These changes are all fairly minor as they build on Pokémon battles that remain mostly slow, turn-based, 1v1 encounters. In recent iterations, Game Freak has dedicated more time to create stories that feel more robust, but still mostly have the same beats and uninteresting antagonists. The player is still tasked with beating the leaders of gyms (or the Kahunas of Island Trials), collecting their badges, and conquering the Elite Four to become the Champion of the region. Exploration of these regions also remains markedly similar to how it was in the original releases.
With each new generation of Pokémon games, there comes a new region to explore. Despite the variety of regions, ways to explore them remain very limited. Other than using Pokémon to traverse terrain or cut down trees blocking a path, there is really no way to interact with these environments, and exploration is mostly restricted to towns, demarcated routes and small areas that branch off from them. In addition to this, the player’s view is still quite limited. Game Freak took a small step toward allowing players to see a bit more in Pokémon X and Y with a fixed, computer-controlled camera that panned around automatically to show some different angles in certain areas of the game. However, they have not yet allowed player control of the camera, presumably because the original 3DS only has one circle pad which can make camera control difficult. With the announcement of the home console, main series Pokémon RPGs at E3 2017, fans were hopeful that some of these designs would change.
The overall reaction to the Pokémon Sword and Shield trailer was interestingly divided. Many fans were happy to have a Pokémon game that was a visual upgrade from Pokémon Sun and Moon, while many others felt spurned by what they saw as mostly another Nintendo 3DS game dumped onto the Switch, instead of the console level experience they had hoped for. Perhaps some fan expectations were unreasonable. Grandiose rumors had been dropping for years about a potentially revolutionary Pokémon game for the Nintendo Switch that would change combat completely and place players in a massive open world similar to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild, among other things.
Game Freak has never been a developer to take huge strides in changing their games (it took until the seventh generation of Pokémon to finally get rid of HMs; arguably something that should have been gone by the second or third generation), so the larger than life rumors that popped up everywhere probably shouldn’t have raised fans’ expectations. However, even when we dismiss these rumors, fans can’t be blamed for having at least slightly higher expectations considering the level of attention Junichi Masuda and Shigeru Ohmori (Pokémon Sword and Shield‘s producer and director, respectively) asserted they give fan comments and desires in an interview with Game Informer. Also in 2017, Tsunekazu Ishihara suggested in an interview that Game Freak would have to change the way it designs main series Pokémon games to suit the Nintendo Switch.
Taking all of this into account, I can understand why people are disappointed. If the Pokémon Sword and Shield trailer is to be taken at face value, many of the fans’ wishes seem to have been outright ignored by Game Freak. Since even the first 3D outing with Pokémon X and Y, fans have realistically expected a controllable 3rd person camera to make an appearance at some point. This feature’s absence from Pokémon X and Y and Sun and Moon could be excused by the lack of a native second circle pad on the 3DS (although that didn’t stop other games from using the shoulder buttons or touch screen to give camera rotation to the player). With this excuse effectively gone on the Nintendo Switch, fans were rightfully dismayed when the trailer showed what looked to be another locked camera, particularly when a controllable option is so easy to implement on a console with two analog sticks and when the draw distance of these games is quite good (as shown in the trailer). More disappointment centered on the routes that are clearly demarcated and reminiscent of every Pokémon game that has come before. Since the series burst onto the scene in 1996, fans have been dreaming of what all a 3D, console level game would let you see and explore. Fans have hoped for years to get bigger regions and areas to explore beyond canned, mostly linear routes. The trailer mostly shows routes and towns that look all too familiar to anyone who’s ever played a Pokémon game before. Defined routes restricted by knee high fences or small differences in topology are the only wilderness areas that we see the player characters travel through in the trailer.
The trend has been for console games (especially those that emphasize exploration) to feature controllable cameras to enhance world immersion and exploration of large areas for decades. Even The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64 managed to be 3rd person games with user-controlled cameras and large, explorable areas when Pokémon was in its infancy on the Gameboy. With all this, it’s hardly unreasonable to expect similar freedoms from the first console game of a series that people have been wishing for since 1996.
Another thing in the trailer that has fans upset is the return of random battles. Random battles are almost an anachronism in video games today. They were popularly used in JRPGs of old because the hardware of the time couldn’t handle rendering dozens of enemies on screen all at once. Developers and fans alike have almost all moved completely away from them, with one notable exception being Pokémon.
With the myriad complaints against it, these games look to be completely standard fare for Pokemon. So is that it? Is there nothing more to these games? Or could there be something more hiding in plain sight?
I’ve spent more time sifting through this almost minute of footage than I’ve ever spent looking at any other video game trailer. I’ve watched multiple breakdowns of it (several exceeding thirty minutes) and tried to find everything. On first glance (and a few subsequent glances), it’s easy to say that the camera is fixed from the shots where it clearly is. It’s easy to say that all there is to the exploration are some disappointingly narrow paths that serve to move you from one point to the other and through the story. It’s easy to say that battles will continue to be the same thing they’ve always been. This is how I initially reacted. I thought: “This is the same thing I’ve played over and over. That’s it, Pokémon will never really change. Game Freak will never listen to dissenters and try truly new ideas.” For a few days I simply wrote these games off as another samey entry into the series that, to me, would resemble more of a cash grab than fully realized games. And yet, as I kept watching the trailer and analyses of it, I slowly started to change my mind. I’m much less certain about what these games are now.
It’s true that there appear to be some absolutely fixed camera angles in the trailer, but many of the angles shown in the trailer are irregular and curiously close to the player characters. These shots feel distinct from those in Pokémon Sun and Moon which are stiffly locked on the character’s back or head and don’t feel terribly cinematic, even when moving in to or out from the character.
In my pursuit of more information, I’ve done some digging and have come up with an interesting and unlikely comparison. The 2017 Super Mario Odyssey trailer shows some remarkable similarity to the Pokémon Sword and Shield reveal trailer. It begins with a wide, panning shot of New Donk City as Mario pops up from a manhole. Similarly, the Pokémon Sword and Shield trailer opens with several wide, panning shots of large areas. What follows in the Super Mario Odyssey trailer is mostly shots of the camera following Mario moving and jumping through the world, but it rarely appears to move independently. We all know that Super Mario Odyssey gives free camera control to the player for the most part (actually taking it away in certain levels and platforming sections) because we’ve all played it, but you’d be forgiven if you glanced at the trailer and thought there was a sophisticated, computer-controlled cinematic camera, especially with the legacy of Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel that had a camera that gave the player almost no control (with the exception of being able to re-center it behind Mario).
Upon very close inspection of the Pokémon Sword and Shield trailer, there are almost no shots of the player characters that are the same. The camera angles and distances are almost all different, though some are familiar to anyone who’s played a Pokémon game. This is similar to the Super Mario Odyssey trailer where there are many camera shots following Mario, most of which are at different angles and distances from him.
Here’s where the similarity between the Super Mario Odyssey and Pokémon Sword and Shield trailers seems more than a little coincidental. At the 50 second mark in the Pokémon Sword and Shield trailer and at the 1 minute 22 second mark in the Super Mario Odyssey trailer (can be seen below), we get curiously similar shots of the camera rotating around the player characters and Mario with different backdrops of places that are not simply rendered in engine, but are obviously locations in the games. My analysis and this suspiciously similar shot make me question my preconceptions about Pokémon Sword and Shield.
If we’re all wrong about the camera (at this point I’m not convinced that there is a player controlled camera, but I’m moving away from being convinced that there isn’t; at least not totally), then what else could we be wrong about? We’ve really only seen a little over a minute’s worth of footage with no single shot that lasts for more than a second or two. In addition, most of the shots we see in the trailer appear to be early on in the game, judging by the map of Galar that was released along with the trailer. Could Game Freak be planning to funnel us along a linear path in the opening hours of the game as an introduction to the world and mechanics only to eventually set us free into big, explorable areas? Random battles appear to be returning, but is that all there is to encountering Pokémon? Game Freak has dabbled with shadowed Pokémon ambushing (or being ambushed by) the player in previous games. Could Pokémon Sword and Shield have more of a mix of overworld Pokémon and random encounters? Technically all we saw in the way of wild Pokémon was one random encounter and one that didn’t show the setup.
When the Pokémon Sword and Shield direct aired I was as disappointed as anyone, but after reviewing the trailer over and over again, the inconsistencies in the camera angles give me pause. The peculiarly similar shot in the Super Mario Odyssey trailer takes it a step further and truly fills me with doubt that we’ll have no control over the camera. As a result of all this digging, I am seriously starting to wonder if Game Freak is pulling a Hideo Kojima and sandbagging us with this trailer.
Now, it’s very possible that I’m being too hopeful and generous with my observations. I have longed for Game Freak to reinvent Pokémon for years, so I’m naturally biased. The last Pokémon game I played was Pokémon Sun and despite trying desperately for almost 70 hours to like it, I was largely beset by boredom. Every battle was an exercise in extreme patience as a vast majority of the time was spent pressing “A” just to get through unnecessary text boxes to select another attack. The often criticized weakness triangle was just as exploitable as in any other Pokémon game. Selecting the right attack to fell almost any Pokémon in seconds made the entire game feel like I was often times selecting a win option from a list. Wilderness areas felt like they existed for the sole purpose of introducing new Pokémon to catch and facilitating movement to the next area. Towns felt like empty buildings populated by lifeless NPCs surrounding Pokémon Centers. The world as a whole felt like a dirty secret. Something that Game Freak really only wanted you to see parts of and interact with sparingly in part by having a fixed, computer controlled camera.
I know I sound like a broken record about the camera, but the reason I spent so much time fixated on it is because introducing a player controlled camera into a Pokémon game would be a sign that Game Freak is really looking at different design philosophies. If this is the case, these games could be the change that many of us have been dreaming of. Whether or not there is a player controlled camera and a different design philosophy really remains to be seen. There are clearly some fixed shots in the trailer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a totally fixed camera. Many of us jumped to the conclusion that there was only a fixed, computer-controlled camera in Pokémon Sword and Shield, which led us to jump to a more distant conclusion that these games are just higher polygon re-skins of Pokémon Sun and Moon with a different map and some new Pokémon. This could be the case and there’s definitely lots of precedence pointing to it, but in fairness, we’ve only seen about a minute of footage that’s clearly from an early build and not every shot in it is cut and dry.
In the coming months, we will undoubtedly be inundated with information on these games. When that information rolls in, I hope I’m not completely off base.