The story of a young person travelling the world for adventure and conquest is a tale as old as time…or at least as old as manga. Add some fire-breathing wildlife however, and you’ll get a globally successful franchise and a bunch of angry tweets from people complaining you haven’t done anything different.
2019’s Pokémon Sword & Shield sold extremely well and Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl (remakes of games released on the 2nd highest selling console ever, most likely being the first Pokémon games for many fans) has enjoyed impressive sales as well. But endless requests and criticisms sent directly to the series producer have shown (in the words of Director of Consumer Marketing for The Pokémon Company, J.C. Smith) “there’s a desire for maybe something”. Enter Pokémon Legends Arceus.
After its announcement showing a semi-open world, action gameplay and new Pokémon in a historic setting, Game Freak had the older Pokémon fans curiosity. But realising this must mean the new Pokémon must go extinct, now you have my attention. Pokémon Legends Arceus was marketed side-by-side with Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl, releasing separate trailers simultaneously throughout 2021, epitomising the different desires of original fans and more modern ones. Setting aside the awkwardness of treating a duo of games with the same value as one, this isn’t the first time the game-makers have tried to appease the whole fanbase.
Criticism of mainline Pokémon game increases year-on-year, with long-time players often citing substandard graphics, repeated story elements and ever-decreasing difficulty. But Pokémon’s gameplay loop is an addictive experience for someone playing a game for the 1st, 2nd or 3rd time. What’s often overlooked are the quality of life improvements over the generations. Minor touches exist that stop new players needing to learn charts of information to play the game well, such as indicators showing which attacks are super/not very effective and which stats are buffed/debuffed based on the Pokemon’s nature.
‘Exp. Share’ has caused controversy in the Pokémon community. It has enabled an entire team to passively level up over time which reduces the game’s challenge. Personally, I wondered why unlimited access to stored Pokémon wasn’t more contentious; surely increasing a team of six to your entire catalogue would be sacrilege? However, utilising both means players idly level up Pokémon they’ll never use to evolve them and fill up the Pokédex.
Some players may appreciate changes over time like streamlined tutorials, customising character appearance, and the entirely of Pokémon Sun & Moon. HMs have been dismantled in recent years (causing fans to rejoice as much as the Legends Arceus announcement), where now Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl has the player access them through an app. Having full-sized Pokémon in the overworld (sort of) lets players avoid potential fights if they want, as well as just enjoying cartoon creatures living in the environment. And if nothing else, warm yourself with the thought that kids today won’t remember the epilepsy-inducing panic of rushing a poisoned Pokémon back to Nurse Joy before it kicked the bucket.
The mainline games tend to introduce something to the battle system or the Pokémon, in an earnest attempt to keep things interesting for new and old players. Admittedly, not every innovation has been a brilliant shining idea. For every good idea like ‘horde battles’, there is a less-than-good ‘rotation battles’. Changing the terrain added a new layer of strategy; meanwhile combining pledge moves was situational and unattractive. Legendary Pokémon getting form changes is great, but 70 different versions of Alcremie based on how long you spin around in a circle…not so much.
Often overlooked side games have been fertile ground for experimental gameplay. Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu & Eevee re-imagined the first generation with controls seemingly designed to assimilate the masses of players brought in from the popular Pokémon Go. The franchise pushed into the MOBA genre with Pokémon Unite, offering real-time team-based strategy and a Blastoise in a boater hat. And now Pokémon Legends Arceus lets fans dodge roll, throw Pokéballs like a third person shooter and face murder at the hands of a charging Ursaring – action you won’t find in the Diamond & Pearl remakes.
To many seasoned players the real meat of the Pokémon experience is the competitive scene. Defeating other players with an unbeatable team by analysing the metagame and exploiting hidden mechanics is a fun challenge. The developers have supported this in-game, with features like berries, vitamins, mints and Hyper Training that let you engineer any Pokémon into its ultimate form. The company have also supported this out-of-game, with regular online tournaments and official video game championships.
It’s clear the creators have tried many ways to entertain all audiences which has garnered increasing sales and appreciation from millions. But animosity occupies an increasing fraction of the discourse, and it’s approaching a “Star Wars fan”-level of entitlement. Toxic behaviour is never acceptable, but any fan having an opinion based on their own personal history and reason for playing the games is fine. In this writer’s humble opinion, if fans are disappointed in any recent or future games, being honest in certain ways may help.
Every new generation of Pokémon has swept up a legion of 10 year old fans who (between Red & Blue to Diamond & Pearl) are now in their mid-20s to mid-30s, wondering why their beloved games are still being marketed towards 10 year olds and has taken so long to go from the small screen to a big open(ish) world like Pokémon Legends Arceus. It may shock to realise that Pokémon may not have been made for you, but anyone who happens to be 10 years old when it comes out. Pokémon has functioned basically the same since inception. Like MegaMan that came almost a decade before or Minecraft that came more than a decade after. Happening to be the right age when something is invented is pure coincidence, but no-one argues for The Sims or Rocket League to grow up with its audience.
Desires for a more adult story are fairly misguided too. Diamond & Pearl arguably have the highest stakes of any Pokémon game, featuring a genocidal maniac plotting to destroy the universe and start afresh as its God. Yet it carries the same emotional tension as the games where everyone inflates to the size parade floats during a glorified sports tournament. Pokémon isn’t a story, it’s a formula. A cocktail of finding your favourite, developing their capabilities and overcoming obstacles (maybe even bringing them to future games with a Pokémon Home account); designed to foster feelings of attachment to a drawing of a yellow mouse with red cheeks. Demanding mature story from Pokémon would be like asking for an opera based on the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices.
J.C. Smith said to Axios, “we try to focus on making the core accessible to everyone”. But, despite flourishes to entice all audiences, making the games palatable to everyone leaves those wanting a specifically catered experience frustrated. A player should walk away if they aren’t fulfilled anymore. As so many members of the general public do (who don’t follow video game news). That’s fine. You didn’t write an angry letter to Saban or Hasbro when you got bored of Power Rangers. You stopped watching the show.
The creators will continue to try new strategies to attract old and new fans, whether it’s making different games like Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl vs Pokémon Legends Arceus, or just re-hashing nostalgia. Somewhere out there in a Pokémon HQ office exists a whiteboard with several demographics written in overlapping circles, and a creative director whispering to themself, “gotta catch ‘em all”.