I think we’ve lived this lie long enough. I say this as a big fan of the classic Nintendo Pokemon franchise- I own at least one entry of every single main “generation” of the series. I have a deep and abiding passion for the magical world it envisions, and the creatures that inhabit it, from Aron to Zapdos. The thing is, though, the game design was never very connected to what the games claimed to be about, and the rift has only grown with subsequent releases.
Simply put, Pokemon isn’t actually about the Pokemon. It’s a loot game where Pokemon are stand-ins for random swords or armor, and their identity as sentient creatures is completely irrelevant. The setting and characters of the series set you up for a grand adventure with six animal best friends, but in truth, the gameplay treats these creatures as magic items- some are good, and some are junk. There’s also the stamp collector element- gotta catch em all!
Let me give you an example. When I was playing Pokemon Black and doing my grind through the gyms, one of the members of my team was a Liepard. Her name was Sylvia, I caught her as a Purrloin, and leveled her up to be the most experienced member of my six-’mon unit. Indeed, she was several levels ahead of even the gym leaders I was encountering. Yet she hit like a mosquito, and dropped like a sack of potatoes when struck.
Pokemon defenders, let me save you some breath- don’t tell me about Evolutionary Values, stat-boosting items or anything like that. Those are band-aids on the gaping wounds the games have. Some Pokemon, from a pure stats and ability perspective, just suck. On the other hand, some are incredible. I was taken aback in Pokemon Alpha Sapphire when I went to the Battle Maison and tried to enter an endless battle-type competition. The game pulled up a screen asking me which Pokemon I wanted to enter, and politely informed me that my Mewtwo was ineligible.
Why was my Mewtwo ineligible? It’s not due to levels- the event automatically scales any ‘mon that’s overleveled. It’s a basic, species-level thing- some of the legendary Pokemon, like Mewtwo, are disqualified automatically because their stats are just too good. This isn’t for some player-versus-player tournament, this is a standard campaign activity. Some Pokemon are too shitty to be played with, while some are too strong for the game to let you use them at certain points. It’s a classic loot game problem, but even Destiny lets you carry your Exotics into every activity.
Now, you may be thinking, “So it’s a loot game, what’s wrong with loot games?” And the answer is, nothing, really. Loot games are fine. Diablo is a hell of a game. But the difference between Diablo and Pokemon is that Diablo tells you when an item sucks. That green rarity sword is not as good as your orange rarity sword, unless it’s significantly higher level. At a glance, you can tell if a piece of equipment in a loot game are better or worse than what you have.
In Pokemon, there is no easy way to compare stats, and stats don’t really tell the tale. You’ve got to consider their types, as well as their passive Abilities, not to mention what moves they know and are capable of learning. Some of this information is surfaced to you, and some of it is not- but none of it is made easily comparable to your other Pokemon. And even then, that doesn’t tell the whole tale- there are Pokemon out there that start off terrible, and then evolve into badasses. You’d think there was no reason to use Abra ever, but then he evolves into the powerful Kadabra, and then the straight-up killer Alakazam. Moments of surprise like that are delightful, but in a game where you’re trying to figure out if a piece of sentient loot is worth using, it’s frustrating that it takes so long to figure out if it’s capable of being strong.
Oh, and there’s also the part where you are treating living beings in the same way you treat a fancy gun. Sure, it’s a game, but the implications are gross all the same.
And more than just stats, some Pokemon are built for the purpose of sucking. What is the point of Garbador, the Garbage Pokemon, if not to be a joke about how some creatures are just not worth your time? And before you guess, this isn’t a Magikarp situation. Sticking with Magikarp long enough gets you a rad-ass water dragon, while sticking with Garbador long enough gets you a slightly larger pile of animated garbage. Literally.
With every release, Pokemon gets bigger and bigger. More Pokemon, more moves, more types, more abilities, more ways to evolve, more… almost everything. Side activities are cut now and then, but nothing related to the main combat system is ever removed. The developers just stack more and more on a foundation that was shaky in the first place. What the series needs is to prune… liberally. Cut tons of Pokemon, tons of moves, tons of systems, and get back to the start of what made Pokemon great: the Pokemon themselves. Make games about the creatures, not about the stat optimization problems that can arise around them.
The fact is, even now those creatures are compelling enough to drive customers. I bought Alpha Sapphire having already figured out what my big beef with the series is, and I’ll buy Pokemon Moon with no less knowledge of all the drastic missteps the series makes. Certainly, there are proponents of the dizzyingly complex battle system- there are not a lot of Nintendo games with a hardcore competitive community, but Pokemon’s obtuse and overwhelming combat has managed to attract one. I have plenty of respect for that- mastery of any complex game is pretty awesome thing to behold.
But is that what your main fans are really there for? Are they there because they want to maximize their EVs and capture the same Pokemon over and over until they find one with the right nature? Or are they here for the designs, and the atmosphere, and the tone that says you can relax and have a fun adventure with some new friends? I think you’ll find that it’s the setting and the creatures you’ve created that people are really attached to, and not the mechanics of Quick Attack vs. Extreme Speed vs. Protect.
The series mascot has always been Pikachu, but any player taking the combat seriously is going to evolve it into a Raichu for the stat boost. How’s that for emblematic of the tonal clash?