When it comes to Pokémon, I am a scrub. My familiarity with the series amounts to little more than “I think Digimon has the better cartoon and monster designs,” and a few hours with Fire Red half a dozen years ago. But when I recently acquired a New 3DS XL, my first Nintendo handheld, I decided to try last year’s Pokémon: Alpha Sapphire. Here’s what I learned.
Pokémon is an adventure game in which you collect monsters. Beat the crap out of a wild Pokémon. If you’re lucky, you capture it, sticking it in a little prison where it stays unless you decide to subject it to duels to the death against other monsters. In the cartoon, defeated Pokémon always got At Signs in their eyes. They were knocked out, so I guess nothing’s actually dying, but honestly, when you’ve got a monster that’s described as being able to lift mountains punching a cute fluffy bug monster, it seems like, yes, the bug should probably cease to exist the first time it takes a punch.
Let’s be serious. This is not Dogfighting: the Game. This is A Cartoon. It’s not trying to replicate or comment on real (and despicable) human behavior. This is actually one of the first things I learned about Pokémon: it’s a game that must be taken on its own terms. Try to treat it like anything else, and it won’t make any sense. Accept it for what it is, and you’ll have a good time. Pokémon is a world where monsters want to be captured by worthy trainers and battles never cause permanent harm. It’s best to approach any game on its own terms, because it was designed on those terms, but especially Pokémon, because it’s such a unique series.
Pokémon’s approach to non-player characters is interesting. In many games, you have your mix of story characters, mute NPCs who do nothing, and a mix of quest-givers and enemies to fight.
Outside of cities in Pokémon’s world, most humans are hostile trainers. Their life purpose is to wait until you show up, then demand a fight. Nobody’s polite enough to request a fight, oh no, they just walk up shouting “HEY YOU LET’S DO THIS.” It’s cute the first time, but it can get annoying later, especially when you’re going up against people with Pokémon that die in one hit. Dodging lesser trainers turns Pokémon into a not-so-fun stealth game.
If you’re not prepared to accept Pokémon on its own terms, this can be infuriating. Accepting that this is a world where everyone’s honor-bound to duel each other, and you’ll have a lot more fun.
Pokémon’s story is that you’re some kid who has to go through a series of arenas to become the champion. Along the way, you’re repeatedly accosted by two children, either May or Brandon (you play as one, and the other becomes your ‘rival’) and Wally. The addition of ecoterrorist organizations Team Aqua and Team Magma, who want to leverage an ancient monster to destroy the world, should make it a fun story.
It does not. The story serves no purpose other than “hey, you should go to the next area,” yet the game is burdened with drawn out and irritating sequences to advance its uninteresting plot. When May showed up during the credits, asking me to battle her “one last time,” I didn’t feel bittersweet melancholy as my journey came to an end; I felt irritated by her interruption.
May is awful. Basically, her entire job is to make long-winded speeches about things, express doubt in your ability to beat everyone you come across, and force you into battles. It’s that last bit that’s most annoying. Then there’s Wally, who, like May, also makes long-winded speeches about things, expresses doubt in his ability to beat everyone he comes across, and forces you into battles.
Pokémon’s characters love saying in five hundred words what they could say in five. The game does too. Do you want your Pokémon to learn a new move? It’s going to spend like five dialog boxes to do after you’ve picked the new move. One of those dialog boxes is dedicated solely to the word “and.” Seriously. The only thing it says is “and,” and to progress, you must press a button.
Sometimes, the dialog boxes seem completely pointless. Like, hey, I walk up to a tree and try to interact with it—any other game is going to allow me to interact or give me an alert saying “you can’t do this yet,” but not Pokémon. Oh, no, it has to ask me if I’m really sure I want to cut down this tree so I can get past it, or if I’m really sure I want to go surfing or something.
More time-wasting: Lengthy attack animations are enabled by default. You can turn them off, thankfully, but that doesn’t prevent the game from finding other ways to slow things down. Remember the old Sailor Moon cartoon? The protagonists had transformation sequences where they’d go from being high school girls to superheroes. Recycling animation made sense for a low-budget cartoon; not so for Pokémon. Having Kyogre revert to its primal form every time it enters battle, then having the camera tilt up to the sky, show the sky begin to rain, then tilt back down to show my foe? That’s a waste of time.
You might think that a game as wordy as Pokémon would have a lot of helpful things to say. It doesn’t. If you forget where you are in the game, there’s no journal to open to remind yourself what you’re doing, which means you can end up stumbling around the game blindly. Happen across one of the game’s sidequests—like helping a girl find her shroomish, and if you happen to get distracted by something else, you might forget to go back and finish it. If someone says “hey, do you have an X?” and I don’t have one, then I might have to go find it, capture it, and bring it back to show them. There’s a chance I might forget. It would be great to have a quest log.
Many friends told me that Pokémon was a deep, complex series. I’m finding something that’s more complicated than complex. It’s got a ton of information to keep track of but few good ways to track it. Many of the game’s items seem like duplicates with no good way of explaining what does what and why.
Pokémon seems to rely on a lot of assumed knowledge. Coming into it, I get the impression that this game was made more for people who already know Pokémon intimately than people who’ve never played the series before. For instance, I found a screen that tells me that my breloom has a “quiet” nature and is characterized by “good perseverance.” The game has both “HMs” and “TMs,” but I’m not sure what the difference is. I have no idea what these things mean, and, as far as I can tell, the only way to find out is to go to online.
There’s a lot of stuff here, but I’m not always sure what it is or how to keep track of everything. I’m sure series die-hards know all this stuff, and I might look silly for not knowing this, but can you blame me? It’s my first real Pokémon game.
I think Pokémon’s biggest problems are connected: rather than just rethinking concepts and continually improving the series, the developers just keep adding ideas to the pile. Many of these ideas are great in isolation, but as the saying goes, too many cooks can spoil the broth. I’ve asked several friends for help or understanding on certain mechanics, and the response is often “oh, yeah, that’s just a holdover from past games.” Vestigial mechanics should be cut. The fat should be trimmed. The games can be better, more focused.
A traditional loot-driven game, like Diablo or Borderlands, sends players to areas where they have to kill lots of enemies. Some of these enemies will drop loot. Some of this loot will be worth using. Loot is categorized by power and rarity; white gear is the least valuable, followed by green, blue, purple, and finally something orange. These items are usually randomized to some degree.
Pokémon is different. The monsters themselves are the loot. At its core, all the mechanics are about finding and capturing more Pokémon. Not only that, but to obtain some loot, you’re required to be carrying another kind of loot. Like, oh, hey, you want that Kyogre? Well, keep in mind that fire types are weak against it, so you’ll want to have some grass types in your party.
(Screenshot via Pokémon Database)
To me, this kind of synergy is super cool; rather than focusing on a single character’s build and then limiting yourself to the loot that benefits that character, you’re actively seeking out all the loot in the game, and you’re best served by using all the other loot to do it. As far as I can tell, despite the series having something like 700 Pokémon, they’re all worth something, even Magikarp.
Now, this could present a problem: if all loot is predetermined, then play styles might be as well. One of the big draws of a loot game is that players can build their characters the way they want—loot’s very much about finding the gear that lets you play the way you want to. Fortunately, Pokémon uses the training element of the game to let you customize things a bit. All Pokémon have four abilities, but they have a potential for way more. My shroomish can learn something like 13 moves, and while some are just stronger versions of others, there’s still the potential for me to build completely different shroomishes.
Basically, the game has predetermined loot, but that loot can evolve as you use it, allowing you to tweak it to your individual play style. It’s a brilliant middle ground with the advantages of both predetermined and completely randomized loot.
Games often rely on more than just being really fun to encourage players to keep playing them. In the days of arcades, that was through score systems. During the late-90s and early-00s, games used a 100% completion system. More recently, games have relied on experience points and achievements as a means of compulsion. Some rely on quick deaths and respawns as a way to hook players.
Pokémon’s core conceit—the famous “gotta catch ‘em all”—is its primary motivator. There’s this gigantic checklist you have to complete, and the game constantly reminds you of it. Not only that, but the promise of new Pokémon encourages activities you might not pick up otherwise. For example, Pokémon contests don’t seem interesting to me, but by engaging in them, I can win a cosplay pikachu.
Not only that, but learning new abilities and using certain items is crucial to catching more Pokémon. Partaking in various activities and exploring the world both help you get closer to that goal; finding a castform, for instance, and having it in your party means that you can go catch Thundurus. Exploring a particular area of the world means you’ll obtain a fossil that can be revived into a Pokémon that can’t be obtained any other way.
That emphasis on catching all the Pokémon is a great way to motivate players to fully engage in a ton of activities that might otherwise seem optional or unnecessary. It’s great, and the urge to complete my pokedex by catching all the Pokémon is the primary reason I’m still playing, even though I’ve beaten the main story.
I really do want to catch ‘em all.
Pokémon’s “I’ll release two versions of almost the exact same game” seems like stereotypical corporate greed. I get that Nintendo wants you to trade Pokémon, and one of the ways they do that is by creating an artificial trading scarcity, but it comes across as a video game approach to rent-seeking. In politics, rent-seeking is a way of increasing one’s wealth without creating more wealth overall. Taking wealth without offering any in return. This is good for a few and bad for most.
With Pokémon, Nintendo changes a few minor details and passes it off like two different games. If you want to catch ‘em all, you’ll need to buy these two virtually identical games. Nintendo benefits, often being able to sell two games for the price of one. You? You’re basically paying double the value for a few additional Pokémon. Most companies offer DLC that will provide the same value for less.
Long-time fans of the series seem to be okay with this—after all, Pokémon is one of the most popular franchises in the world. As a newcomer to the series, this approach rubs me the wrong way.
One of the most criminally underlooked elements of the series is actually one of my favorite elements: treasure hunting. In most loot games, if you want a particular piece of loot, you go to a certain boss, kill it, and hope it drops the loot.
With Pokémon, hunting legendary Pokémon is a cool take on the treasure hunt. You have to figure out how to trigger this or that thing, have a particular Pokémon in your party, go to a certain place at a certain time. It’s really neat and far more engaging than running around in the grass. To me, this problem-solving is super cool. I’m grinding for a level 100 Pokémon right now so I can go capture a zekrom, and my excitement is building.
At the end of the day, I like Pokémon so much that I can’t wait to jump into Pokémon Y the second I finish Alpha Sapphire. The games are fun; the ‘catch ‘em all’ idea is super satisfying.
I know some people will argue that the series is just a bunch of silly kid’s games, but it’s also tremendously good fun. For those of you who are diehard fans of the Pokémon series, it’s been great to finally join you.
GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can’t get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon. For more of his Kotaku work, check out the GBB tag.