How New Pokémon Games Can Bring Back Past Fans

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet release in a matter of months, but excitement from the fanbase seems to be lower than ever. For some, the franchise just doesn't offer enough to keep returning after nine generations. What can new Pokémon games do to win back the players who lost interest?

How New Pokémon Games Can Bring Back Past Fans

Of all of the Nintendo flagship franchises, Pokémon seems to have the most controversial reputation. Compared to the publisher’s two other powerhouses (Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda), its recent entries are the worst received by both fans and critics – according to Metacritic. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet release on November 18, 2022 – just a few months away. That means they’re probably in their final state by now. But that hasn’t stopped a lot of ideas coming up about how it, or new Pokémon titles after it, could change to bring back past fans.

Perhaps what makes Pokémon so contentious comes down to how attached so much of its fan base is. The series was quite literally the reason I owned a Game Boy Advance and later a Nintendo DS as a child. One of the first games I ever played was Pokémon Blue on the original Game Boy; it was maybe the reason gaming is such a big part of my life. These experiences are far from unique. Formative experiences like that are a double-edged sword. While it’s a great feeling to see franchises you hold dear still kicking around, it can be frustrating when it seems like they take a direction you don’t support.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet will have to change some things to bring past fans back.

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet will have to change some things to bring past fans back.

With that in mind, I want to talk about how I think new Pokémon games could make to bring back fans who lost interest. To do so, I’ve decided to focus on one of the most heated debates in the fanbase: difficulty. Difficulty in Pokémon games has long been a hot-button issue for fans. Complaints about new releases becoming easier are the most common reason people cite for losing interest. But there are a lot of things at play here that often go ignored.

In Defence (Kinda) of Some Recent Features

Concerns over Pokémon games becoming too easy are well founded but often broad. Always-on EXP. share and hand-holding through game progression are some of the more common complaints. But this is where it isn’t as simple as just undoing new features. Grinding on hordes of low-level Pokémon is hardly an enjoyable feature. Likewise, anyone who played one of the earlier titles is familiar with having to tirelessly search for one specific NPC or interaction to progress the story. These aspects were filler content that lengthened the game, rather than made it challenging. Changes like these aren’t inherently bad.

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl were criticised for being so much easier than the Generation IV games they were based on.

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl were criticised for being so much easier than the Generation IV games they were based on.

At the same time, it’s fair to point out these problems. EXP. share quickly leads to over-levelled teams that sweep entire gyms with one Pokémon. Similarly, simplification of the story has gotten to the point where more recent titles are lacking in the memorable puzzles that were a staple of Pokémon games. 

The fix for the first issue is straightforward, and one that fans advocate quite often. EXP. share should be toggleable, maybe by having the game’s professor ask whether the player wants it active.

The second is a more complex issue. A common reason given for the simplicity of the story progression is the intended audience being younger than past fans. This feels like kind of a copout, though. Younger gamers – especially nowadays – have such a level of video game literacy, so to speak, that omitting or simplifying puzzles for that reason seems kind of patronising. This can have a similar fix to EXP. share, though slightly complex. Being able to choose if puzzles are present in gyms could look like an option at the start of a playthrough as to whether, say, the entrance of a gym leads to a puzzle room or the leader’s room.

Pokémon Sword and Shield lacked the compelling puzzles of past titles.

Pokémon Sword and Shield lacked the compelling puzzles of past titles.

Pokémon Needs New AI 

Reintroducing puzzles in some form, along with making EXP. share optional might be helpful to bring old fans back to new Pokémon games. But neither of these really address what I think is the biggest issue when it comes to correct usage of difficulty in Pokémon. A more dynamic solution to the issue is to make improvements to trainer AI.

Trainer AI in Pokémon titles is infamously bad in virtually all battles. Besides occasional gym leaders and endgame encounters, rarely do trainers effectively use any of the mechanics such as battle items, set-up moves, or switching Pokémon. Even the ones that do still do so poorly and infrequently. Since the player has access to these, the skill gap between the player and opponents is too wide for any challenge to ever appear.

AI difficulty for most trainers may as well max out at the skill of a youngster.

AI difficulty for most trainers may as well max out at the skill of a youngster.

This is one of the places where it’s evident how much the Pokémon formula’s age works against it. Within days of their release, even new Pokémon are effectively solved games. Most returning players going into any Pokémon game understand item usage, type matchup, and other mechanics.

The key decider usually comes down to those type matchups. It means that players can predict what it will be like going up against even a brand new Pokémon based on its typing (hopefully the terastal phenomenon coming in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet shakes things up here). They understand how pretty much every battle will play out pretty much before it happens. This makes gameplay repetitive and lends to it feeling too easy.

Addressing Difficulty Issues

A potentially controversial, but effective fix to the issues above is the addition of difficulty settings, so long as they’re well implemented. Difficulty settings take some nuance to be actually effective in video games. Changes like ramping up enemy HP or damage are unimaginative and artificial ways of adding difficulty to games and don’t add valuable gameplay. It would also interfere with the established stats of Pokémon and moves already in the game. It’s, therefore, best to avoid that route.

The terastal phenomenon might be the most impactful battle gimmick yet.

The terastal phenomenon might be the most impactful battle gimmick yet.

But there’s an interesting place Pokémon could take inspiration from to make difficulty settings work – survival horror games. Instead of turning enemies into tanks, games like BioShock or Dead Space approach difficulty settings in a more inventive way. Resources become more scarce. Gathering them becomes more difficult. AI becomes more efficient. These are the lessons new Pokémon titles should borrow.

Money in Pokémon titles becomes so abundant just hours into the game that potions and revives are almost unlimited. If the titles had difficulty settings, they could reduce the prize money of battles to make item use more strategic. Higher difficulty settings could also come with more advanced trainer AI. Mechanics like Pokémon with high friendship surviving KOs could be removed. Or level-scaling could be present in the higher settings to avoid easy sweeping.

Overabundant healing items make battles very low-risk.

Overabundant healing items make battles very low-risk.

Some may point out development issues here. Having different modes for difficulty requires more complex programming and a greater quantity of it. But, while its absence was pretty understandable in old games, modern technology and budgets allow for features like this to be incredibly accessible. If it’s possible for Pokémon fan games, a developer as enormous as Game Freak would have even less trouble.

This even kills two Pidgeys with one stone. It retains the option to keep games at their current difficulty, or even to add a lower one for those who need it. That way the appeal is still there for young audiences, without neglecting fans who have been around for multiple generations.

A More Improbable Fix

A more outlandish approach to addressing some of these issues is for new Pokémon games to borrow from the place where the franchise innovates best: its fanbase. There’s a reason why challenge runs like Pokémon nuzlocke playthroughs are basically the only traffic for the franchise on Twitch. They add a level of complexity that the base game simply lacks. If new instalments found a way to work in these fan additions, it could be what brings back players in droves.

Challenge runs like nuzlockes or ironmon can add unexpected variety to Pokémon games.

Challenge runs like nuzlocke or ironmon can add unexpected variety to Pokémon games.

It would also be an interesting way to address how stagnant the Pokémon formula has become. Spanning over two decades, nine generations, and 905 Pokémon (excluding the 11 new Pokémon confirmed in Scarlet and Violet), the core gameplay has remained virtually unchanged since its inception.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus did some things to address this. A well-realised open world, the more live feeling of encounters, and the attack style mechanic all shook things up in an interesting way. Hopefully, those new mechanics make it into the new mainline Pokémon games too. But even so, the unique features of some fanmade modes could be what is needed to tackle an ever-staling formula.

I’m aware of just how unlikely this would be. Nintendo famously doesn’t take well to fan projects and mods. But it’s far from a new concept. When SEGA realised the Sonic series had grown stale for its fans, it called on them to help breathe new life into it. The result was Sonic Mania, the franchise’s biggest critical and commercial hit in years. Mods have even birthed entire iconic franchises, like DayZ and Counter-Strike.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus was a much-needed refresh on the decades-old formula.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus was a much-needed refresh on the decades-old formula.

Closing Thoughts

Overall, I agree with the criticism that the Pokémon franchise has become a bit too easy to enjoy. At the same time, I see how this is a product of both franchise and me growing older. It’s a fair argument that the game’s main audience is young, but it’s also quite clear how broad its player base actually is. It’s the combination of these facts which has informed the ideas above. They’re changes that I believe would allow the game to cater to all camps.

But these are just what I think new Pokémon games could do to get, at least, me back into mainline games. Now we’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think these changes would work? If you’re someone who abandoned the series, what would bring you back?

Second Trailer | Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet