Dreaming Of A Different Pokémon Game
A successful video game in the hands of a successful publisher often leads to a sequel. If that follow-up is a hit, a series is born, and before long, we may see spinoffs that explore just how much range this property has. As technology improves, most successful franchises evolve and adapt to the new landscape of gaming, some undergoing dramatic changes to find new ways to entertain.
Grand Theft Auto is the prime example of a successful video game that became something far greater as technology improved. This beloved series didn’t roar out of the gates as the trendsetting blockbuster we know today. Unlike anything on the market at the time, Grand Theft Auto was a somewhat niche action game, violent and edgy, but held in check by technological limitations. Although players could freely roam across a city, the overhead blimp viewpoint wasn’t ideal for the crime capers Rockstar was trying to achieve. Driving 100 miles an hour with no hint of when to turn was problematic, and the entire experience lacked intimacy, thanks to your character looking like an ant. Despite these drawbacks, the series had a dedicated fan base, and Rockstar clearly had a road map for how it could improve.
Enter the PlayStation 2. Grand Theft Auto transitioned from selling hundreds of thousands of copies to the largest franchise in the world. Swinging the camera placement down to behind the protagonist gave players the perfect view of a sprawling open world filled with traffic and people going about their lives. It was still Grand Theft Auto at its core, but the enhancements were so pronounced that it felt like an entirely different experience, genre-bending even. Rockstar took a huge risk in evolving the series into something different, but it paid off.
To hammer home the point I’m about to make, Fallout and Metal Gear are two other series that benefited greatly from a shift in perspective, as well as a boost in technology that allowed for the respective visions of a post-apocalyptic world and stealth espionage to truly crystallize into something meaningful. Heck, even Mario, a franchise that continually delivered some of the best games ever in the 2D space, made a risky leap to 3D. Most big game series have at least attempted to shed their original skins, be it Metroid, Castlevania, or Final Fantasy.
So why hasn’t Pokémon? From 1996 to 2017, the core Pokémon formula hasn’t changed much. Even the newest entries – as enjoyable as they are – bask in an air of nostalgia. The saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” certainly applies to these games. Fans can’t get enough of them, and developer GameFreak has done a fantastic job of subtly evolving the core game to deliver new ideas. The series still has enough gas in the tank to make fans buy two copies on launch day.
Transitioning the core Pokémon games to polygonal graphics was heralded as a big leap for the series, but the core gameplay experience wasn't affected by the switch. You may not like hearing this, and I’m not trying to be negative when I say this, but Pokémon is about as retro of an RPG that you can find. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with random encounters, but…well…wow…random encounters? Still? For a game that is all about hunting down and catching creatures in the wild, you’d think GameFreak would play up that aspect of the game. Walking over a clump of grass until a bird appears is an archaic and unfulfilling formula. I don’t think anyone is still saying “Yes! I love random encounters!” I would love to stumble upon Pokémon in their natural habitats.
What would that evolutionary step be? If GameFreak aimed to create a different Pokémon experience that took advantage of the latest in technology and gameplay innovation, what type of game would it be? Perhaps an open-world experience like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where players plot their own course, and hunt the wilds for Pokémon? Or how about an MMO that unites gamers in their search for the rarest of critters? It could be anything; so why haven't we seen it?
Nintendo’s handhelds have played a big role in dictating what this series is. GameFreak has adamantly said the Pokémon games are social, mobile experiences, and Nintendo's handhelds have clearly kept the vision of the series in check. But what about Nintendo Switch?
I've been hearing people say, "I want a Pokémon RPG on console," since the series' inception in 1996. Switch may finally make this long-running dream a reality. Fan excitement has swelled to the point of absurdity. Even I’m guilty of sharing wild thoughts of what I want from it. The Switch doubling as a handheld and console changes the script. This new Pokémon needs to be as engaging socially as much as it is something we can sit back and binge on our TVs. Does that mean the game needs to change? Visually, probably. The core experience? I don't know.
My gut says GameFreak won't alter the formula too much. The Pokémon series is consistent, and its success hinges on hitting the notes that resonate with fans. GameFreak has clearly made the right call in holding steady up to this point, but I would love to see what would happen if, for just one game, the development team embraced the latest in gaming technology to evolve the experience dramatically. At the very least, let me see what it would be like without random encounters.