Hey kids, let’s talk about Pokemon!

No no, not that Pokemon. While the original TV show remains a nostalgic guilty pleasure that most of us would rather forget, we’re talking about the actual games that started this whole lunatic craze. Pokemon has and probably always will hold a special place in my heart, if only because unlike so many of the big Nintendo franchises–Mario, Zelda, Metroid–Pokemon started and got big during my gaming life–in fact, right at the start. I was 6 years old when Pikachu first reared his adorably marketable head upon the world stage, creating a media sensation on par with Beanie Babies, Tickle Me Elmo, and–if you ask me–formally starting the invasion of all things Japan into the Western (and especially American) media world.

Looking back, it’s kind of funny how insane us kids went over anything and everything Pokemon. We ate up the trading cards, the action figures, the insipid-yet-strangely-entertaining cartoon, the whole nine yards. Pokemon became the status symbol of the elementary school social circles, and if you weren’t in, you weren’t anybody. But putting aside the possible social, psychological and emotional impact these games had on us, let’s actually talk about the games.

Pika Pika

This is the culmination of centuries upon centuries of successful marketing

Pokemon Versions Red and Blue hit the states in 1998, a full two years after Japan had been growing increasingly obsessed with them. They established the formula that has unerringly continued to this day–you, a young boy (or, in later versions, girl) wake up one morning in your sleepy small town, visit the local scientist, and end up getting sent out on a quest to catalog each and every one of these strange, pseudo-sentient creatures called Pokemon. To do this, you must find and capture them, and then train them to battle other Pokemon, either in the wild or under the commands of rival trainers. Eventually, you end up taking the “Pokemon League Challenge”, where you must prove yourself by beating 8 tough trainers in 8 “gyms” across the land, then challenge the ultimate Pokemon masters at the end. Thus, you have basically two goals–become the Pokemon Champion, and…well…catch ’em all.

The first game had 150 different Pokemon, requiring both versions to get all them. Now, 14 years later, there are about 507, and more on the way, as Pokemon Black and White has been announced, which will expand the Pokedex even further. Pokemon games remain incredibly popular and incredibly successful, though the fervor in the West has died somewhat. Now, as gamers who once played the games when they were six hit adulthood, they have to find more fulfilling reasons to invest their time in these games than they used to.

Nowadays, you check any message board about Pokemon where the average poster is older than 15, and you’ll find that Pokemon has become less a game about catching cute critters and battling with them, and more an absurd mathematical experiment in number crunching as it correlates to the growth of digital monsters. Pokemon’s all about numbers now–you got your IVs, EVs, DVs and STDS. You have websites dedicated to the refining of these values, to the development of perfect movesets catered to each and every Pokemon, and a healthy online battling circuit, complete with tournaments. Pokemon has completely warped an entire generation, and that generation continues to play these games even now, despite–or maybe because–the fact that these games haven’t changed in 14 goddamned years!

I’ve been playing the latest Pokemon remakes, Heart Gold and Soul Silver, and while I am aware that they are shamelessly cashing in on my childhood nostalgia in order to drum up revenue, I cannot deny that Pokemon games remain engaging. The monster-collector genre (or subgenre, if you prefer) is never better represented nor refined than in Pokemon games, with each and every genre taking the basic formula and improving upon it in subtle ways. Fans of the game will take great pains to illustrate to you just how different Pokemon games are from generation to generation, and while they aren’t technically wrong, they are just as full of it as you might think.

Generation 1

Generation 2

Generation 3

Generation 4

Just…just look! Besides the spritework being cleaned up and improved upon, more detail and more effects put in, the games all look alike. There’s common visual style at work, sure…but it remains true that no essential or important aspect of the Pokemon franchise has changed since the series’ inception. Even on a handheld that can easily produce very good-looking 3-D models, Pokemon remains 2-D, handheld and turn-based.

I’ve played every major Pokemon release and some of the spin-off games too (more on those in a sec) and I can tell you what–nothing essential about the experience has changed for me since the beginning. Yes, the games play a lot better now–battles are more streamlined, the options and customization of your various mons have never been broader or deeper, there’s more to the games’ storylines than “catch ’em all and be the best” and the music/graphics have all improved considerably. But the essentially experience of playing a Pokemon game? Unchanged–much like every other Nintendo franchise, Pokemon seems content to do what it does and simply perfect upon it.

It works. It may not be the best use of technology or innovation, but this approach…it works.

Now, whether it works for the best? Well, that’s arguable. Pokemon games sell 50% on nostalgia. The only reason any adult or close-enough-to gamer is picking these games up is because they still remember how much fun they had with them when they were a kid. They want that experience again, and hey–if there’s a bunch of new monsters, new challenges, and if the system is improved, why not go down that memory lane again? Sure, you’re essentially buying the same game over and over again, but if it’s fun, why complain? I mean, eventually the well will run dry, but by then a new generation of kids will be hooked on the mons, and Nintendo will continue to reap the profits.

I admit, Pokemon games don’t enchant me nearly as much as they used to. I still enjoy them–I think my love for the Pokemon universe, the various creatures and their colorful, elaborate designs will never fully fade away. The main Pokemon games retain a child-like innocence in tone and an inviting, relaxing atmosphere that I can just sit down with whatever the latest game is and let all my troubles fade away. I can engross myself in finding new monsters whom I’ve never trained before, leveling them up and discovering their untapped secrets and potential–but with every generation, I love it less and less. I mean, how many times can you play the same game before you get bored of it? Pokemon will probably be the test of that.

There is some hope though–or at least, an alternative. The Pokemon franchise has grown so big that not even a single game series is enough for it. There’s a variety of Pokemon spin-off games, ranging from bland (The various Stadium games) to entertaining, but shallow (Pokemon Colosseum) to surprisingly inventive (The Pokemon Ranger games). There’s even a Pokemon rogue-like dungeon crawler series that’s supposed to be pretty good, though I’ve never tried it. The more I see the Pokemon franchise expand, the more I realize that its growth and development seems isolated to only these spin-off franchises. None of the innovation–be it good or ill–is vested into the main generation games. They remain untouchable, and I think that’s not healthy for the franchise as a whole.

Yeeeeeeeaaaaah!

Seriously, check out the Ranger series. It's childish, but surprisingly fun.

Games have a sad tendency to get stuck in ruts. Due to the high costs of making games, and the fickle nature of the market, most developers will play it safe in order to ensure making ends meet. Pokemon is one franchise that could absolutely get away with experimentation, has a system that lends itself well to branching off and exploring all manners of gameplay and story progression, and has the financial capital of gaming giant Nintendo backing them up, but refuses to do so. Brand loyalty is one thing, but seeing how creative the spin-off games can be, and how much potential remains untapped within the Pokemon world, it comes across as less loyalty and more laziness.

I’d love to see Pokemon shrug off its turn-based shackles and boldly try something new. Even Dragon Quest, a franchise that literally advertises itself as old-school and unchanging, decided to discard series traditions with Dragon Quest IX. Pokemon is just as established and arguably even more popular. Pokemon had such an impact on my childhood because it was something radically different. Yes, monster-raising sims existed before Pikachu was even a twinkle in his Raichu daddy’s eye, but none were so accessible and so mainstream. As times have changed, Pokemon hasn’t, and what is accessible and mainstream today is nothing like what it was when I was young.

If Pokemon wants to regain its former glory, retake the gaming throne once again, it needs to step up and become relevant once again. Challenge us, excite us, give us something we’ve never seen before.

Of course, this is Nintendo we’re talking about. I’m wasting my time, I’m sure. Still…it’s nice to dream, eh? Now, if you excuse me, I’ve got one last Gym Leader to clobber…

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