Pokémon's Struggle in the Battle for Quality

Image provided by The Pokémon Company.
Image provided by The Pokémon Company. /

Pokémon: a name familiar to all and loved by many. Known as the highest-grossing media franchise of all time, this well-known RPG is a juggernaut both in and out of the gaming industry. With identifiable iconography on par with Mickey Mouse and Super Mario, Pikachu has ushered in an era of pop culture that defined a generation.

As the series reaches its 25th anniversary this year, fans look back at everything Pikachu and its colorful companions have accomplished over their lifespans; many embarked on their own journeys with their starter companions in the main games, united together to catch them all in Pokémon GO, and watched Ash Ketchum’s journey from novice to champion over the span of 20 years. 

Yet, things aren’t as peachy as they could be when it comes to the video games, specifically the mainline series. They’ve been critical and commercial successes across the world, yet they remain the greatest points of intense debate among fans, and the contention isn’t unjustified. The quality of the mainline series has been on a decline since Pokémon X and Y. On top of the games simply not packing that much of a punch anymore, the controversies only continue to grow. 

But before anyone can determine the series’ fall from grace, Pokémon’s rise to power must be accounted for.

Pikachu and the first 150 of its friends took the world by storm in 1996 with the multinational release of Pokémon Red and Blue, created by longtime developer Game Freak. This underdog RPG with simplistic graphics somehow found success and became one of Nintendo’s staples. Not only was this the game where it all began, but this would be where many of the series’ veterans would take their first journey as Pokémon Trainers. 

One player who's been there since the very beginning is British content-creator Daniel Patterson (@Patterrz), known online as “Patterrz,” whose first game was Blue. As a fan of Pokémon from his early infancy, Patterson saw the Kanto region as the playground where he would soon mature into a bonafide Pokémon Trainer.

“I started with Blue in 1999, when I was about three years old or something,” Patterson said. “I couldn't even read. I was just walking around, and I saw the funny pictures on the screen. I've been playing it literally ever since Pokémon first started.”

The impact of the first set of Pokémon games was astronomical, and would go on to inspire a whole generation of fans to further pursue their passion for the series beyond the screen. One such person is Joe Merrick (@JoeMerrick), the webmaster of the popular Pokémon fansite Serebii. Similar to Patterson, Kanto is where it all began for him.

“I first played Pokémon Red just before it came out here in the UK,” said Merrick. “I managed to convince my parents to import it, and that's where the love began.”

Riding high off of the success of Red and Blue, Pokémon Gold and Silver were set up to be the greatest Pokémon games yet, and the last ones. Aiming to be Pokémon’s last hurrah, these Game Boy Color cartridges were jam-packed with many fan-favorite features. The Second Generation had a sense of finality, but after selling massive amounts of units, the show had to go on.

From the Third Generation onward, the games began to evolve from the simplistic formula that the first two established. Graphics improved, eventually making the transition into 3D with Pokémon X and Y. The Pokedex expanded with every new region by a hundred or so new Pokémon. The games began to shake up the way players progressed through the region. Features were integrated that assisted newcomers, while leaving optional content for hardcore veterans, like Exp Share and Black and White 2’s “Challenge Mode.” On paper, these are fundamental changes that any series could benefit from, and they were made in hopes of evolving the games to be greater than ever before.

So what went wrong? Even with a constant flow of new titles, an ever-growing playerbase, and a societal presence that’s as big as Disney, the mainline series of Pokémon games remains the biggest point of contention within the community. It’s important to establish that while they aren’t bad, they just don’t seem to have the same impact they once had.

It’s no secret that there seems to be a divide between the eras, aside from the jump to 3D. Many fans will cite the sixth generation as the point where things began to go downhill, and the series grew stagnant in terms of true innovation. The series is stuck in a place where, while it can improve, it’s been improving in the wrong ways.

Take Pokémon Sword and Shield, for instance. As the latest generation of Pokémon games, these titles were some of the most controversial entries the franchise has faced thus far. From the laughably easy difficulty curve to the advent of paid DLC expansions, then adding in a lack of replayability, these games saw intense backlash from the fanbase and gaming outlets. However, no controversy loomed over these pair of titles greater than “DexIt.”

There seems to be a common misconception regarding the movement; many cite the lack of every Pokémon’s presence in the game as the sole reason for the outcry. In reality, the exclusion of the National Pokedex was only a factor. It was announced by Game Freak themselves prior to the game’s release that Sword and Shield would be the first Pokémon games to no longer contain every single monster the series had to offer, a move made in favor of ramping up graphical fidelity and overall immersion of the titles. 

“DexIt was an inevitability when you think about it,” said Merrick. “With the sheer volume of Pokémon, all not [are] able to be motion captured with various skeletal structures. The amount of animations and creation of [those] animations will take a long time. If something goes wrong in shifting to a new engine and they have to redo or retest things, that'd take a significant amount of time.”

Many fans, while still irritated, were understanding. Unfortunately, the products that fans were presented with were anything but immersive and graphically improved. The fan and media backlash was immense, and no location saw greater criticism than the Wild Area, infamous for it’s randomly-appearing Pokémon and it’s inconsistent-rendering of trees. 

“I don't think people really care that much about not having every single Pokémon in one game. I think it's because [Game Freak] tried to make a reason for it,” said Patterson. “They made an excuse and it didn't turn up.”

Despite the backlash DexIt generated, it’s a small piece of the much larger picture. Modern games seem to be lacking in meaningful content, fun little minigames that grant rewards, or engaging post-game content. For example, the once-featured Battle Frontier at every journey’s end provided the player with twisted variations of the classic battle format, though it soon saw a replacement in favor of copy-and-pasted reskins of the Battle Tower. 

In addition to the lack of content, the Pokémon games have difficulty catering to both sides of their fanbase. On one hand, the focus on young players has ushered in controversial design choices such as permanent Exp Share and linear gameplay progression, most noticeable in Sword and Shield. On the other hand, the constant catering to veterans of old resulted in the shoehorning of old characters and callbacks to the past regions, specifically Kanto. It all comes off as awkward; the modern games just have an inconsistency that feels similar to an identity crisis.

Merrick comments that the constant fanservice to Kanto is inevitable, as those who aren’t as heavily invested in the series will only respond to familiar characters who originated from their first games. Seeing as how Pokémon Red and Blue still hold the record for the most sold Pokémon game of all time, the decision to make Kanto the nostalgia-based region makes sense.

However, this approach only caters to old Pokémon fans. More often than not, modern fans will be placed in an awkward situation; references fall on deaf ears or fans become annoyed with the constant emphasis on classic monsters.

In short, Pokémon fans view the mainline series as one at a standstill, with no true evolution that can recapture the magic and allure previous games once had. It’s understandable that a series like Pokémon needs to have this balance between old and new for all players, but it’s costing the series it’s authenticity and, in turn, a majority of its fans. True innovation needs to occur if the franchise is to enter another Golden Age.

Game Freak has a reputation of not communicating with their fanbase, and it’s a major contributor to the stagnant state of the series. This out-of-touch method of shooting from the hip during development is what results in the inconsistent experience for every player. The games are financial hits, so any negatively-received ideas and mechanics ultimately don’t hinder the games’ success. But does this mean that the ideas implemented in each release were good ones?

“When you consider [that] it's the biggest media franchise in the world and they have this insanely huge company, the game series seems quite stagnant,” said Patterson. “I think that people kind of expect more, and Game Freak and The Pokémon Company don't feel the need to give more.”

Even past adventures aren’t safe from the endless fan scrutiny, as remakes are also a constant point of contention. Fans frequently compare modern remakes to Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver, games that are considered the paragon of Pokémon remakes thanks to the plethora of content and features available to the player.

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are the next entries in the mainline series, releasing November. Serving as the remakes of Diamond and Pearl, the series has found itself in that awkward situation yet again where the games attempt to cater to both sides of the fan spectrum. TMs have now returned to their original, single use function, catering to the veterans while serving as an inconvenience to modern fans. On the other hand, EXP Share has been left on as a permanent function, benefitting newcomers while leaving those returning to Sinnoh angered at the sudden loss of difficulty.

The demographics are what Game Freak really needs to pay attention to, as the issue of games suffering from an identity crisis bleed into both new and revisited entries. How many of the game’s players are veterans, and how many are new? While there may be tons of newcomers flocking to each entry, the presence of returning fans cannot be ignored either. The studio is often wishy-washy with design choices, since any ambitious ideas must be kept to a minimum to appease classic players, while disappointing newcomers who were looking forward to what the game offered. 

Game Freak cannot make the games too hard, as newer players face getting demolished by the difficulty curve. They cannot make the games too complex, as younger players could lose track of what’s happening. They cannot make the games too old-school, as fans who came from the Pokémon anime will be disappointed by the lack of modern spectacle. Most importantly, they cannot make the games too merciless, as the modern audience will feel left out from what was clearly designed for experienced players.

It’s all about giving the player choices for how they want to tackle the games. While it’s going to require more effort from Game Freak to add gameplay options, it’ll ultimately give the players an experience of their own making. Maybe it’s time they brought back the difficulty settings from Black 2 and White 2, or they can finally give the Exp Share its on/off switch back. Maybe there could be an optional, harder path a player can take to progress a region, or players could select a rival that’ll make for an easier opponent. There’s lots of room for creative solutions here, and for a company like Game Freak, it’s not a tough task.

But despite the flak the games get, it’s important to remember that Pokémon is a series beloved by many for numerous reasons. The games are arguably average when compared to others in the RPG genre, and the newer games aren’t revolutionary. So what makes people love this series so much?

Well, it’s just the fact that it’s Pokémon! These fictional monsters have been with people throughout their lives, and the pull of nostalgia is often too hard to resist. 

Patterson notes that the Pokémon themselves and the comfy feel of the regions draw him into the games. To him, there’s no better feeling than taking on a region side-by-side with his favorite companions.

“The characters are easily the thing that draws everyone to this series,” Patterson said. “Everyone has the ones that they like and the ones they don't like.”

Despite all of the shortcomings the series may suffer from, the music is still as iconic as ever. The fanfare blares with the bootup of every game. The smiles and grimaces of every single Pokémon fill aspiring Trainers with determination. With the sights, the sounds, and the scenes, people often grow attached to their experiences in Pokémon. If people still continue to have those comfy feelings and experiences in modern entries, that’s OK.

“My favourite Pokémon games are Sword & Shield,” said Merrick. “They're the realisation of Pokémon as a kid and have just so much content. They're not perfect, but I enjoy them and they're the games I have kept coming back to.”

Pokémon is just in a place where it could be more. The games are well-loved and they sell extremely well, but the discourse amongst the fans is a shadow that constantly lingers over the series. Many believe that the series could be better than ever before, and all fans want is to be heard by the developers, as the lack of outreach and developer transparency is what caused such a discourse to begin with.

“I'm cautiously optimistic and I really want them to succeed in doing something different, even if I don't have the most faith in them,” Patterson said. “ I think if they really came out with a banger, they could really shake things up and change people's opinions.”

All eyes are on Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. Given that they’re being developed by ILCA Inc instead of Game Freak, things could really be shaken up in a direction that satisfies everyone. Maybe this studio will achieve the balance between casual and veteran that Game Freak longs for, and the game will be a smash hit that could please both sides of the spectrum. A game like this could redefine modern Pokémon if executed correctly.

However, should it fail, the series could find itself at odds once more. The last things many fans want is yet another title with linear progression, inconsistent difficulty, and stale gameplay. 

There’s an opportunity for the mainline Pokémon series to redeem itself. It’s just depends if Game Freak can catch it.