During the big summer Nintendo Direct stream last month, we finally got our first glimpse at Detective Pikachu Returns, the sequel to the 3DS adventure game that spawned Pokémon’s first live-action movie. The upcoming Switch game will reunite the titular sleuth Pokémon with Tim Goodman as they continue their search for Tim’s lost father, Harry. But because the game and the film deviated in the end—the movie actually concluded the story, where the game left it on a cliffhanger—it’s likely Detective Pikachu Returns will bring a whole new story with new mysteries to solve. So if you’ve only seen the movie and it’s got you wondering about playing Detective Pikachu Returns, I implore you to give the original 3DS game a chance too, because it’s one of the best embodiments of what makes the Pokémon franchise great.
When 3DS Detective Pikachu launched in the States in 2018, I was feeling a bit dejected over the franchise. I still played all the latest entries, but wasn’t devouring them in a day or two like I always had before. I no longer even really cared about beating each game’s eight gym leaders and becoming the Pokémon League Champion. What made Pokémon compelling to me wasn’t competitive sport, it was existing in its world alongside my Pokémon friends. However, at the time, I was really into detective games like Danganronpa, so the prospect of a Pokémon mystery game was immediately more appealing to me than another run of catching ‘em all while thwarting some evil organization.
Detective Pikachu is not a complex game; it’s clearly meant to be an all-ages mystery that even the youngest Pokémon fan can play through. But its use of Pokémon’s world is what elevates it for me. The cases Tim and Pikachu work through are deeply embedded in the Pokémon universe in a way that makes it really rewarding to play as a long-time fan. For example, if you know Burmy has different forms based on if it builds its cloak out of leaves, dirt, or trash, you might figure out that it was involved in an incident based on the components it left behind. The game is full of little details like this which build off established Pokémon worldbuilding, and it makes each case feel like more than a mystery with the Pokémon name bolted onto the side of it. There’s a sense of world that plays into every mystery, and it makes the game feel distinctly Pokémon.
While the mystery side of things is compelling, what makes Detective Pikachu stand out to me is the setting of Ryme City. If you’ve seen the movie, you know this city was founded on the idea that Pokémon and people should live together in harmony, rather than ascribing to the trainer/Pokémon dynamic that’s central to basically everywhere else in this universe. While the game doesn’t interrogate that as much as the movie does, it’s still a fascinating idea that has stuck with me since the original game launched.
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In Ryme City, Pokémon are treated like citizens. They have jobs, such as Ludicolo working as a barista, or a Machamp being a crossing guard. That’s how we get the titular Detective Pikachu. He was Harry Goodman’s partner, who helped him solve mysteries around the city. Even if Detective Pikachu never gets around to saying it out loud, there’s something fascinating about an entire city interrogating the core conceit of the entire, multi-billion-dollar franchise. This has kept that original 3DS game and its film adaptation in the forefront of my mind, even as more recent games like Scarlet and Violet have since returned to the usual gym battles and Pokédex filling.
Outlawing Pokémon battles so the little guys can be a part of society rather than trapped in a Pokéball leads to so much intriguing, tacit worldbuilding. From a practical standpoint, this lets Detective Pikachu explore the world in a different context without having to deal with too many Pokémon battles, but even if Ryme City was made this way just so Tim and Pikachu couldn’t Volt Tackle their way through every mystery, it’s just a more interesting framing with which to engage with the Pokémon world. Pokémon has always been about friendship, but Ryme City is one of the only places in the Pokémon world with actual legislation to ensure trainer and Pokémon stand side-by-side as equals. It opens up so many new possibilities for the world because it’s diametrically opposed to the structures of a typical Pokémon game. I love the storytelling potential of Ryme City, and that’s what makes the upcoming Detective Pikachu Returns so exciting.
While the original Detective Pikachu might not be the most complex adventure-mystery game, it still remains one of the best, most hopeful portrayals of a world that is already incredibly optimistic. As a 3DS game it was caught up in Nintendo’s 3DS eShop shutdown, but plenty of physical copies are still out there. As of this writing, it’s still around $40 on sites like eBay, but as Detective Pikachu Returns’ October 6 release date nears, those prices might go up.
So this is my PSA to you: Don’t sleep on Detective Pikachu. Even if you’ve seen the movie, it wasn’t a 1:1 adaptation. From its smallest cases to biggest reveals, you’ll have a great deal of new stuff to experience in the 3DS game, and if you’re even considering playing Detective Pikachu Returns, I can’t recommend you play through the original enough.