Note: This was written literally days before the announcement of the Sinnoh Remakes and Legend of Arceus. Some information might be out of date, but as these games are still in development, nothing was so concrete as to warrant edits. Thanks, and enjoy!
It feels weird to say that Pokemon is the highest-grossing media franchise of all time. Mickey Mouse, Hello Kitty, and Star Wars all fall short of an electric rat from a video game that came out in 1996. This franchise that spawned the long-running anime, dozens of spin-offs, and now a live action movie has a long and storied history, but there has been a definitive shift in the last few years. Pokemon is not the same as it once was.
When I say a shift, I mean that there have been a whole host of big changes for the series. When Nintendo abandoned their handheld consoles, Pokemon followed suit, and a mainline title made its debut on a home console for the first time with Pokemon Let’s Go, Pikachu! & Let’s Go, Eevee! However, the Pokemon Company made a bigger splash when they announced that the next installments, Pokemon Sword & Shield, would do away with the National Pokedex and be severely trimming the roster of available pocket monsters.
This issue was not so grave as to sink Pokemon; Sword & Shield are in the top five best-selling Switch games, outselling their immediate predecessors. But the problem with Pokemon is not one of sales, but of identity. The Pokemon Company may be able to shake off the controversy surrounding ‘Dexit’ with ease, but soon they will have to come to terms with the fact that they aren’t sure who they’re making games for anymore.
Ostensibly, Pokemon is made for children. They’re bright, light-hearted affairs about capturing marketable creatures and being the best like no one ever was. Even so, it’s never been a game just for children. The competitive Pokemon community is large, there are whole scenes built around speedruns and challenges like Nuzlockes. Twitch Plays Pokemon Red is one of the most significant achievements in gaming history, and without a broad appeal across age, that wouldn’t be possible.
I’ll be using data from Pokemon Go for this segment, as it’s really quite hard to get demographic data from the Switch or any previous console. While researching for this essay, I came across this wonderfully informative article from medium.com and found that 80 percent of Pokemon Go players are over the age of eighteen. 20 percent are teenagers, and they don’t even report any players being children. Pokemon Go is the easier and more accessible than any game in the franchise, yet its audience does not reflect that.
It’s simple; children don’t have the disposable income to buy a $300 console and $60 games every other year. Sure, there was always that one kid in this grade who had an XBox 360, PS3, AND a Wii, but that’s because Ricky’s dad travels a lot for work and has to buy his son’s love. Adults are a majority of the revenue behind every Pokemon game, but with the recent trend in the series, you wouldn’t be able to tell.
These games are just pitifully easy. Pokemon was never brutally difficult, but pretty much every game prior to Gen V had a steep level curve that could not be overcome by just fighting every trainer. Fighting wild Pokemon and grinding experience was an option, but it was highly inefficient and tedious. Heartgold & Soulsilver have a wicked level curve at the midpoint and postgame, while Platinum is fairly difficult, but with a smoother incline on its level curve. This changed with Gen V for the better.
Audino is a normal type Pokemon that specializes in healing, status effects, and support style gameplay. What makes this unremarkable pocket monster different from the other 900 is that it is an experience point machine, offering vastly higher rewards for defeating it in the wild than nearly every trainer in the game. In Black & White, Audino could be found in the rare shaking grass, but players quickly found that by running around the grass long enough, it was easy to spawn shaking grass to get your team up to snuff. The grinding that would take hours last generation could now be done in a fraction of the time.
However, Black & White and their sequels were built with this in mind. Experience was now more widely available, so the gaps between you and your opponents were set wider than they were before. Grinding was now relatively painless, and almost completely optional. This would change with the next generation, and the release of Pokemon X & Y, the first games released on the Nintendo 3DS.
In X & Y, the player receives the Exp. Share after defeating the first gym leader. In previous games, the Exp. Share was a held item that would split experience points won in battle between the battling Pokemon and the one holding it. But this was not the same item as before.
The Exp. Share now gives experience to all members of the party, and it is given to the player as turned on automatically. Simple enough to turn off if you want more of a challenge, but the problem lies in that these games are not designed to be played with it on or off. Using it means your team is severely over-leveled, while refraining means your team is going to struggle against even the simplest of trainers. The first time I played Pokemon X, I was underwhelmed and bored when I realized that the Elite Four and Champion, the most powerful trainers in the game, were 20 levels shy of my team.
This came to a boiling point in Sword & Shield, where all Pokemon were given experience from battles automatically with no option to turn it off. Common for a JRPG, but new for Pokemon, and still not designed to provide a significant challenge. These games feel completely neutered as a result.
Pokemon games don’t need to be very hard to be fun, but there needs to be a sense of accomplishment when the player succeeds. Your rival in Sword & Shield, Hop, praises you every time you use a super-effective move against him, even though he is designed to pick the starter Pokemon that is weak to yours. It’s not that these games need to be hard, but when it is built with catering to the player in mind, it feels insulting. It feels unearned.
That’s the problem with Sword & Shield, and recent Pokemon games in general; there’s no sense of accomplishment. The series was defined by the player being a rookie trainer making their way up the ranks slowly, making a name for themselves by defeating Gym Leaders and thwarting villainous schemes. Now the games stoop to your will at every turn, and you feel less like an up-and-comer and more like the only adult in a world of children who seem amazed that you have figured out that rock beats scissors.
Sword & Shield were not awful games, despite the backlash of removing so many Pokemon from the roster. They had a lot going for them: the Wild Area, the fun tournament arc style of Pokemon League, or that people actually acknowledge you as the Champion after you beat the game. It’s just that they’re held back by preventable problems.
Give the players the option to turn up the difficulty, it’s a standard feature in every AAA game nowadays. Install a Challenge Mode like there was in Black 2 & White 2, or just change the level curve based on whether or not the player wants their party to gain experience all at the same time. This is just a fantasy, but I’d kill for a Nuzlocke mode built into the game. They’re a fun way of instilling challenge into a cakewalk, and they’re popular enough that incorporating them wouldn’t be weird or out of place.
The likelihood of GameFreak or The Pokemon Company changing the series’ direction at this point seems small, especially with Sword & Shield’s massive success despite all the big talk of a boycott. However, there’s no reason that a spin-off couldn’t be more adult-oriented. I mean, whatever happened to Pokemon Colosseum or Gale of Darkness? They’re beloved by players, so bringing them back and actually tuning a sequel to cater to the tastes of players who played the originals would be a viable strategy.
Pokemon might not be in trouble right now, but if they show that they’re unwilling to change when so many classic Nintendo franchises have had to adapt in the age of the Switch, it could be on the horizon.
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