It was this time last year when Nintendo, fresh after delivering their signature Nintendo Direct for E3 2019, passed the mic to Nintendo Treehouse – their traditional after-show of gameplay and Q&A with the developers of titles teased moments prior. Here, Junichi Masuda, producer on Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield (and founding member at Game Freak), informed viewers that the next main games would not contain every Pokémon currently in existence. Meaning, while some Pokémon seen in previous generations COULD be used in the new games, and brand new Pokémon would be present, some Pokémon wouldn’t be playable.
Just before the games’ release in November 2019, a leak revealed the games would contain a total of 400 Pokémon, new and old (and importantly, which Pokémon did and did not make the cut). The following January, an expansion pass was announced. This was a purchasable DLC package containing two parts, ‘The Isle of Armor’ and ‘The Crown Tundra’, planning to feature additional storylines, fresh characters, new legendary Pokémon, and over 200 older Pokémon not previously accessible in the original game.
So Many Monsters, So Little Time
Game Freak’s main reason behind the decision is there are well over 800 cartoon combat critters now. Making models, animations and programming for all of them isn’t something they had the time or resources to accomplish this time. Apparently, multiplying the workload by adding 100ish Pokémon every 2-3 years is unsustainable. Therefore, taking advantage of the Nintendo Switch’s capabilities, they chose to focus on making the setting as entertaining as possible; a fictional version of the UK so on-the-nose that your rival won’t stop calling you “mate”, there’s an off-brand London named “Wyndon”, and the entire map is almost an upside-down Great Britain. They chose to focus on choosing Pokémon most suitable for the ecosystem, both in terms of thematic place and battle balance. They chose to focus on giving the selected Pokémon the most expressive animations possible. Which includes having the player regularly chased by a renegade plush toy, like a jaguar looking for a quick snack.
The other advertised advancements include max raid battles with huge ‘Dynamax’ Pokémon, the wild area and its free-control camera. Features that aren’t likely to win over any players who’ve experienced Pokémon Go, an open world game or any video game since 1998. And even though players who don’t purchase the expansion pass cannot natively catch the re-added 200 Pokémon within the Isle of Armor & Crown Tundra, it’s possible to get them through trading, free give-aways over Mystery Gift, and transferral from past games through Pokémon Home (their cloud storage system). But… Not being able to play with every single known Pokémon didn’t sit well with the fans. And they made that very clear.
A once dedicated fanbase turned on Game Freak, firing enough continual abuse and criticism for Junichi Masuda to plead to be left alone on his birthday. At time of writing, the initial announcement video has 89K dislikes to 23K likes. Calls to boycott the titles flared up and the hashtag #Dexit began circulating online (a play on words combining the National Pokédex, the games’ UK-setting, and the real-life United Kingdom going through an agitated separation with the EU dubbed “Brexit”…you had to be there, it was very clever). Pokémon Sword and Shield were the fastest selling Nintendo Switch games to date, so while the boycotts didn’t have a massive impact on Game Freak’s wallets (and this could be another case of a very vocal minority), what exactly were the fans angry about, do they have a point and is the expansion pass at fault?
Let’s address the front line grievances. Some claim the games were rushed to release. Tsunekazu Ishihara, President of the Pokémon Company, announced development had started before June 2017, giving a development period of at least 2 and a half years. So it’s fair to say the Sword and Shield that came to market were the Pokémon games they intended to make.
Many fans don’t believe their resources were being used for expressive animation, citing simple or recycled animations. Many argue it’s commonplace for past Pokémon models to be reused in future games, and the same could have been done with a mixture of assets from Pokémon Go, Pokédex 3D Pro and the Nintendo 3DS games. The animation and model requirements for Pokémon behaviour in the wild area and Pokémon Camp, are different to those from previous games. It’s entirely feasible that previous models weren’t designed to thump you whenever you waved a stick. So, new models would have to be built. And considering many Pokémon have gender differences, form changes, regional variations (and even Mega Evolutions if they decide to add those in) claiming Game Freak are being lazy would be an unfounded accusation on these grounds.
Immediately following the announcement, there was sceptical speculation that Game Freak were planning on holding Pokémon back as paid DLC, placing a previously free privilege behind a paywall and monetising nostalgia. Since this was before all knowledge of an expansion pass, the claims were unjustified. However, with the addition of ‘The Isle of Armor’ & ‘The Crown Tundra’ DLC packs bringing 200+ Pokémon to the games, comes an ethical dilemma. And this is where the crux of the issue lay.
The real status problems
Many fans, in one way or another, felt a sense of betrayal. The Pokémon franchise seemingly having turned its back on the original mantra, “Gotta catch ‘em all” (even if it was dropped around the 3rd generation, except for the occasional youtube video). Pokémon games offer a breadth of gameplay which can be enjoyed on many different levels, to varying degrees of devotion. And each player’s personal position on that sliding scale influences the magnitude of the betrayal felt.
Some players are in it to collect. Many people happily catch as many Pokémon as they can until they get bored, whereas some aim to complete the Pokédex. So Pokémon that wouldn’t be catchable in-game but could be transferred in – they wouldn’t matter to the first group, but the completionists may feel let down.
There are casual players who engage in the 30ish hour campaign, enjoy the visuals, story and gameplay and put it away when the credits roll like any other video game. They wouldn’t notice if you couldn’t catch a Growlithe in the next game, like no-one would notice if you couldn’t cast a Ramuh summon every Final Fantasy game, or find the same Glock 19 in every Grand Theft Auto. Whereas competitive players relish in the deeper battle mechanics, the preparation of a team and the mindgames & sport of the competition. These players may be hurt if the most competitively-viable Pokémon are found in The Isle of Armor and/or The Crown Tundra (DLC-exclusive areas), creating pressure to pay extra money for ease of access.
Despite repeated debates and frustration, Pokémon’s core demographic is children, but each game is made to be played by anyone whom it may be their first time (e.g. players coming from Pokémon Go, or watching the anime). These players aren’t affected at all by cut Pokémon. They’ll enjoy hanging out and making curries in Pokémon Camp with a poisonous chimney stack top hat, a ghost in a teapot and a dog with a shield for a face. But, on the other end are the long time players who bring their original Pokémon with them, generation to generation. These players feel an ownership of their Pokémon and the franchise, and feel the most scorned if their favourite Pokémon is on the no-fly list. Understandably so. Every Pokémon is someone’s favourite, and having it suddenly Thanos-snapped out of existence will hurt. Especially when the seemingly random cull dictated much-loved monsters like Aerodactyl or Dragonite be expelled, but the permitted guests include Meowth, Cherrim, Barboach, and Meowth again.
The men and women at Game Freak knew the impact the decision would have on their long-time fans, and made an exceptionally difficult logistic choice which is valid. And, while excessive abuse is never condoned, the wounds felt from that decision in accordance to each person’s level of investment are also valid. I’m a longtime Pokémon fan, having played through a game from every generation since the beginning. I consider the main campaign of Pokémon Sword & Shield an enjoyable experience, evocative of the original feelings of “catch-em-all”-like exploration and discovery – and I expect the Expansion Pass to bring the same sense of joy. The lack of the full Pokédex doesn’t take that away, but rather it’s a single issue among others (e.g. lacking storyline, Max Raid Battle mechanics) that would bring my review score down a couple points.
Plus, it’s a bit embarrassing that fellow Nintendo Switch games, Pokémon Let’s Go and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX contain Pokémon unobtainable in Sword and Shield, and they can’t let go of the pixel art in favour of the nicer line art they made ages ago.
Junichi Masuda has confirmed future games will not feature every Pokémon going forward. Like it or not, Pokémon has entered a new phase. It could be argued the near-annual nature of major Pokémon releases is a problematic factor. If there was the option to forego a new Pokémon game for a year in order to take the time to create every model, animation and code, there are very few Pokémon fans that wouldn’t take them up on that trade off. It’s this humble writer’s hope that every new generation takes us to a new region, only allowing play with a new 100-or-so battle bunnies à la Pokémon Black and White. And then, players could transfer Pokémon back and forth to the Pokémon MMORPG in the cloud that we’ve all been waiting for. That’d be an expansion pass I’m sure everyone would enjoy.