I am just going to say it: I love the Pokémon series. It is foundational to the way in which I love not only video games, but also much of pop culture in general. I have played every generation of Pokémon games, starting with Pokémon Red and continuing all the way up to playing the remake Omega Ruby. (I’ll admit I am partial to the games that most closely associated themselves with the color red–also, people hate on Ruby and Sapphire way too much.) So with the series now in the midst of celebrating its 20th anniversary and the most recent announcement of the release of the next generation, Pokémon Sun and Moon, I thought I would write just a little bit about how Pokémon has managed to stay so compelling all these years.
At its core, the Pokémon games are video game comfort food. These are games that you have enjoyed in the past, and you know what you are going to get each time you play them. There is a certain level of joy you know you will get each time, and that brings a level of relief as you play them. Not every game has to swing for the fences; instead, some can simply allow you to have fun each time you play it. There is just something calming about such games, in that you don’t have to worry about anything in it stressing you out too much. Instead, you simply slowly figure out which Pokémon you want to use, and then go. That is why I have always appreciated that Pokémon games come out rather regularly, because it means that once year or so I can just sit back, relax, and battle my way against gym leaders and the Elite 4, just like I could when I was a kid. I can remember the struggle to catch the original 150 (stupid Tauros took forever to succumb to those Safari Balls) or, well, 151, as I tried desperately to make the urban legend about Mew come true. I remember the absurdity of MissingNo or how the original way to get the Regi-line of Pokémon is so damn random (seriously, Wailord in the first party slot and Relicanth in the last?). I remember it all each time I play, because that is what Pokémon is all about.
This fundamental sameness has always been one of the series’ greatest strengths because it works on two levels. First, it allows new generations of players to get the same rush as older players when playing for the first time. This creates a feeling of connectivity between young and old players that few game series have. There is a sense of camaraderie that allows the Pokémon community to be one of the friendlier ones out there, even online (well, compared to other online communities, so maybe this isn’t really saying much). The second level that Pokémon works on is that it allows older players to enjoy a nostalgic reminder of times past. The 28-year-old you can feel the same as the 8-year-old you for the briefest of moments, and this feeling of positive nostalgia helps elevate each new entry from a game to an experience. Pokémon is a deeply personal experience that can still be shared with many others. This has allowed it to resist becoming stale over the years, even though it has only made incremental changes in its form over the past two decades.
But those strengths don’t mean that these are perfect games by any stretch. While it is always comforting that Pokémon has changed so little over the years, it is also frustrating that the games have’t modernized its core gameplay in many ways. The PC system is still unnecessarily clunky, there is absolutely no excuse for only having one save slot, the villains are roughly the same each time (except for Black and White, which basically made the bad guys PETA and at least acknowledged the troublesome nature of what making Pokémon fight each other really means), and HMs… don’t even get me started on HMs. The core game play of Pokémon is so strong that it is certainly frustrating that the games haven’t experimented more on that solid foundation, or at the very least fixed certain clunky aspects that only exist because they were present in the original games. But over the years you grow to embrace this sameness, as it all adds to the series’ quirky charm and becomes the previously mentioned strength more than a true weakness. Ultimately, the only real frustration for the series is that for some reason Nintendo has always ignored the cash cow that a home console version of the game would be, and instead kept the game confined to the handheld systems, outside of the Pokémon Stadium–like games that are nothing like what everyone actually wants (though we could all use more Pokémon Snap). Not to mention that a MMORPG version of these games would make all the money. For some reason these versions are just not meant to be, which is sad.
One of the greatest strengths of Pokémon, however, is that the game is far more complex than people realize, which is why it is so appealing to people even once they grow up. There are two layers to the combat in this game. The first layer is the main storyline, which basically runs on a simple rock-paper-scissors format that holds true throughout the entire game. Whoever is using the Pokémon with the type that is strong against the opposing Pokémon’s type is likely to win. The main storyline has a couple of challenges here and there, but it is never meant to be anything that tough. This makes it perfect for younger video game players who are just getting started. The second layer is where things get interesting, because that is the layer that comes from the multiplayer aspect of the game. The Pokémon games were ahead of the times in terms of how interacting with other players would affect game play, whether that was the fact that different versions of the game had exclusive Pokémon (which encouraged trading between people first in real life, and later online), or the fact that once you start battling other people everything changes. Pokémon battles have a level of complexity and strategy that most people simply don’t realize, either because they never battle against other human beings, or because you can really only access that level of play after you defeat the Elite 4, which is when most people simply stop playing the games. The later versions of the game started offering post-game trainer challenges, which required a different level of patience and skill to do, but were completely optional if you didn’t want to bother with it. These challenges helped prepare you for what competitive battling would be like once you realized that simply using a strong type against a weaker type is often not enough to win. Instead, at this higher layer, the dominant strategy of choosing the right type and the strongest attack is supplanted by multiple techniques, like coordinating buffs and debuffs, predicting and punishing when opponents switch out their Pokémon, and taking advantage of less broadly useful attacks in specific situations. At this level of play, you have to think things out more. That added layer of complexity in the game, which you will probably only experience once you are older, has allowed Pokémon to continue to stay relevant even as its players age out of the game’s traditional demographic.
All of this leads us to Pokémon Go, which could either be one of the coolest things ever or another innovation that we weren’t quite ready to implement yet. Augmented reality was always going to be best used for something like Pokémon, where the idea of traveling around the world to catch different Pokémon is exactly the kind of thing that the ten-year-old version of yourself always dreamed of. The chances of it being anywhere near as cool as the advertisements for it is slim to none, but if it can even approach the excitement in the video, it will be a key step in moving video games as a medium forward as we figure out more and more how to integrate video games with the real world. Who’s to say what the answer to all of this is going to be? But I for one am excited to see the world in which augmented reality and Pokémon are going to attempt to work together in harmony.
Pokémon has been highly influential over its 20 years of existence, and hopefully it will continue to be for 20 more. I could continue on and on about this franchise, but instead I will simply leave you with this haiku.
Never change, Pokémon…. except HMs, please change HMs.