Is Game Freak playing things too safe with Pokemon Sword and Shield?
February 28, 2019

When I finished watching the Nintendo Direct that Nintendo broadcast on YouTube early yesterday morning, my first reaction most decidedly was not "Well, this will get a lot of folks up in arms!" I was too excited, a grin plastered across my dopey face. I couldn't remember when I had been more thrilled at the thought that in less than 10 months, I'll get to play a new Pokemon game.

Looking around online, my opinion is not as common as I expected. There are a lot of folks who are excited like me. They're discussing which of the new starter Pokemon they'll use when they start their adventure. To my way of thinking, this is the correct response to the video, which spent 7 minutes teasing the game's new visual style, region and a few of the new critters that populate it, while promising that more Pokemon surprises--even beyond the game itself, it seems--are on the way.

There are different opinions, though, and the people who have them are quite passionate. While I and many others are delighted with what Nintendo and Game Freak showed, there are many players who feel that the developers are lazy, fearful and unambitious. Those developers are being mocked for not finally ditching turn-based battles in favor of real-time brawls, for not presenting an open world on the scale of the one featured in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for failing to incorporate MMO elements, for not including extensive backstories for the villains and mature or "hardcore" elements like something Monolith Soft might produce, and in general for making Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield (as they are called) look too similar to the many Pokemon games previously released.

I find the suggestion that the new Pokemon games need to be more "hardcore" rather laughable, to be honest. This is a series that still caters to players of all ages, with a strong preference toward younger players who are surely looking forward to playing through a new adventure without mom and dad having to watch over their shoulder to help them read or appreciate complicated dialogue. Those kids would probably get bored of Shakespearean soliloquies from the game's villains in quite a hurry. And to be perfectly frank, so would I. They don't really have a place in the mostly soothing world Game Freak maintains.

Real-time battles strike me as a terrible idea, for the same and for similar reasons. But then, I was one of the people who was quite vocal about my distaste for such a change when Dragon Quest's developers were considering it, back in the day. Not every series needs to have "real-time" battles. Stripping away the strategic elements and the emphasis on ingenuity in favor of reflexes and combos doesn't inherently make an RPG's combat system better. I consider it a turn toward the worse, actually. Some players like to be able to take as long as they wish to make decisions about which Pokemon to use, and which string of abilities will best topple an enemy crew.

Here I feel it also makes sense to point out that the Pokemon franchise has in the past flirted with other ideas, and quite aggressively. Those other ideas just don't always show up in "mainline" games like Sword and Shield. There are all sorts of offshoots, including Pokemon Rumble and the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games, even Pokemon Conquest. A lot of those titles are definitely designed for more experienced players who want something different from the norm. They tend not to do as well on sales charts, because they're not quite what a lot of returning Pokemon players actually prefer.



I don't know about you, but when I think of Pokemon, I think of a comforting and largely familiar experience. They're gaming's digital equivalent of a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich on a cold day. You just know they're going to hit the particular spot desired. If you sat down to yogurt and granola and a plate of kale greens, well, there are people who would say those are a superior option. But they're not necessarily what's right for the occasion.

Game Freak isn't lazy simply because it is preserving the classic formula. The classic formula is precisely what many of us want. I look forward to spending some time agonizing over my starter, before I venture into a world with low stakes where I will find Pokemon sneaking through the grass while other trainers stand on corners, waiting to challenge me to a duel. I want to see how my favorite characters evolve, master their best moves, and triumph over cartoon villains using the power of friendship as I forge my way through a mostly soothing world. That is precisely the experience the Nintendo Direct promised me.

The new Galar region presented looks beautiful, with a surprising aesthetic. It reminds me a lot of the World of Light from another recent Switch release, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. It just has a similar vibe, with buildings and objects that look like they were inspired by photographs of England in 1950. I saw rolling hills, lush forests, bustling towns, parks and more, and I realized immediately that I wanted to explore virtually every inch of it. And no, it didn't look like the sprawling wilderness depicted in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

So let's consider that for a second. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is my favorite game from the last two decades. I love it, and that expansive world was a big part of the appeal. I loved getting lost in the wastelands and surviving on my wits as I battled fierce monsters and searched out new shrines and challenges. It was bliss. But it's not right for Pokemon. And it wasn't right for the Game Freak team, which tends to be much smaller. Hundreds of people from multiple studios worked on Breath of the Wild for a half-decade to produce that monstrous world and epic adventure, while the last major new Pokemon game arrived in 2016, with a follow-up in 2017. The schedules aren't remotely the same, and don't tell me most of the people complaining about this new Pokemon would want to wait four more years. They just wouldn't.

There's no reason Game Freak should staff up with hundreds of new hires--who would then likely require extensive training to find the desired tone and skills necessary to contribute substantially to a new Pokemon--to put together a dramatically different take on Pokemon that many fans wouldn't even care to see. Failing to take that approach that isn't "fear." Instead, it shows a welcome sense of familiarity with the property and a keen understanding of what many in its audience most want to see. The changes I have seen proposed would produce a game that in many ways doesn't feel like Pokemon, all for the sake of appealing to a very specific section of that audience... a section of the audience, mind you, that probably isn't going out and buying the trading card games and the cartoons on DVD and such. It's true that many older gamers are spending money on Pokemon these days, but a lot of them are buying to play with their kids, or for the familiar experience they associate with the brand and remember enjoying in their youth.

Pokemon has grown into a huge property, and that's thanks largely to the stewardship of creative developers who know that ambition is useful only when it is properly directed. Pokemon Sword and Shield represent the next iteration of the franchise, and early indications are that the crew at Game Freak is headed in precisely the right direction with its current work. At least for now, the Pokemon identity that makes the franchise so special is still being carefully preserved. That's cause for excitement, not reason to complain.

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hastypixels hastypixels - February 28, 2019 (02:25 PM)
I can think of at least once instance where reinvention has done a franchise no favours, and is now looked back on with disdain. There was that time Microsoft decided that reinventing Bomberman was a good idea, and the aesthetic didn't jell with the expectations of the fans. It was all serious, gritty and 90s as hell, and most of all didn't capture the identity the game banked on.

It was promptly forgotten and never saw release, thankfully. At the time the change seemed to fit the new identity of the Xbox 360, which was more multiplayer focused than ever, sporting Halo and that Final Fantasy Online thing.

We're at the point now with franchises that we expect them to be available to us at regular intervals, like Saturday Morning Cartoons. Pokemon is one such game. Its iterations are predictable, consistent and vary little between releases. Just like the meals we get from the fast food joints we attend. Maybe we get the chicken burger, but usually we stick with the hamburger, because we're too tired to make much of a fuss about it.

Pokemon doesn't have to reinvent their wheel, they just need to spruce up last season's model so that it sparkles when you look at it before plunking down your cash. I don't see a problem with that. It's not as though the players who want something different are starved for options - just how many of those protesters are parents, anyway?

I'm looking forward to another Pokemon title - I've played through three of them now, and the idea of a comfortable, predictably enjoyable game for my Switch is a really pleasing one. There are times when I don't want to exert the sort of energy that Breath of the Wild or even Super Mario Odyssey requires.
honestgamer honestgamer - February 28, 2019 (02:32 PM)
The Bomberman game you're talking about did release, at least here in the US, and I've reviewed it on this site. It was... not good.
JoeTheDestroyer JoeTheDestroyer - February 28, 2019 (05:22 PM)
Grimdark, open world, real-time Pokemon sounds cringey to me. As you mentioned, it's a game aimed at families and kids. Doing something more "mature" seems like adding edgy material where it doesn't need to be. Just... don't. Don't do that.

Also as you mentioned, I could see an open world or MMO Pokémon game working as a side entry, maybe.

I haven't played Bomberman Zero, but it looked awful and I've avoided it as a result.
hastypixels hastypixels - March 14, 2019 (08:49 PM)
Good gravy, it did? I guess that's what happens when obscurity swallows you whole.

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