The Pokemon franchise has been a long running and consistent companion for me from when it was first released in the UK back in 1998. The first choice of which starter to take (I choose Squirtle), opening my first booster pack of trading cards to reveal a shiny Zapdos, finally leaving Mount Moon after getting lost there long enough to have a Blastoise, first seeing the second generation games when a neighbour down the street had a Japanese copy of Pokemon Gold, first discovering online battle simulators in the fourth generation…honestly, that sentence was originally just going to be three points long but I just kept finding things to add to it.
Pokemon, for those unaware (however many there are left; one of the things I found funniest about the recent trailer for the live action Detective Pikachu movie was how it assumed everyone watching knew the world already), is an RPG game franchise set in a world populated by the titular Pocket Monsters, or Pokemon. It is a mainstay of Nintendo consoles, and is one of the company’s signature games along with the likes of Mario and Zelda, but it isn’t actually developed by Nintendo, being spilt between the companies Game Freak and The Pokemon Company. The player takes the role of a Pokemon trainer, journeying through the various regions of the world, catching Pokemon in devices known as Pokeballs and battling other trainers. The ultimate goal of each game is two-fold; to defeat the Pokemon League, the best trainers in that region (each game being set in a different location in the world), and to complete the Pokedex (an encyclopedia of Pokemon) by catching every Pokemon in the area; hence the tagline “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!”. Usually along the way you must battle a team of criminals, with motives ranging from Pokemon trafficking to awakening Legendary monsters to boil the sea, flood the land and/or rip apart space and time, or in the case of the wonderfully pathetic Team Skull, not get beaten up by random children.
The series was first imagined by Satoshi Tajiri, a long time lover of collecting bugs and exploring the woods where he lived as a child. He wanted to bring that joy to children in urban, built up environments. The idea of Pokeballs came from the series Ultra Seven, a children’s TV show where the hero used giant monsters contained in small capsules to help him fight villains. The series has gone through seven generations of games, each building on the core mechanics of the game in small ways. Like the Pokemon themselves, which are capable of evolving into new forms while keeping the base game intact. Around this is a vast array of media, the animated series with a theme song I still get stuck in my head after 20 years, merchandise, movies, and of course side games, most notably Pokemon Go, the Pokemon mobile game where you can catch Pokemon “in real life”. The most recent games, at the time of writing, are remakes of the first generation of games set in the Kanto region. Unlike most of the core series, where the games are named after colours or precious materials (such as the first games, Pokemon Red and Blue [or Red and Green in Japan, but that’s another story] on the Gameboy), these games are named after the signature Pokemon that you get given in the game as your first partner; Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee, released for the Nintendo Switch. Pikachu has been a long standing mascot for the series for years, being the main partner of Ash in the anime, while Eevee is a super popular fan favourite, capable of evolving into a vast array of different forms.
One of the great appeals of Pokemon is the idea of travelling with fantastical beings, who help you explore the world by letting you cross the sea and climb mountains. Much of the text, that is the actual words of the game, is based around talking about how much Pokemon and people support each other, how the best thing to do is not to focus on strength but on your bond with your Pokemon.
To quote Karen, of the Johto Elite Four from the second generation games,
“Strong Pokémon. Weak Pokémon. That is only the selfish perception of people. Truly skilled trainers should try to win with their favorites. I like your style. You understand what’s important.”
There’s a phrase in video game criticism, Ludonarrative Dissonance, where the story and narrative of a game as told through dialogue and plot is at odds with the actual gameplay, and Pokemon is possibly the most classic example of it. While the text tells a story of friendship and mutual trust, the actual mechanical core of the games involves you using your Pokemon to battle others. The games have been aware of this since the beginning and has been trying to mitigate it; the second generation introduces the concept of friendship, making your pokemon happy by walking with them and battling with them, a mechanic that has been added to over time with things like Pokemon Amie in the sixth generation. Story-wise, the games have settled on a general idea that Pokemon enjoy battling, and the only wild Pokemon you encounter are those who appear to you to test if you are a good enough trainer for them to trust you. Under this vague idea, trainers fill the dual role of helping Pokemon get better at battling, and also stopping the battles before any major damage is actually done. This is why you can’t catch a wild Pokemon if you’ve knocked it out; you’ve proved you can’t control the battle well enough for them to trust you, so they don’t want to be your partner.
The Let’s Go games feel very much like the next step in that. Rather than battling wild pokemon, you encounter them in the same way you do in the mobile game, Pokemon Go, in a simple minigame where you try and catch the Pokemon by throwing Pokeballs at them while they jump around and dodge. The trainer battles are still there, but the removal of wild Pokemon battling means that battling is no longer the only mechanic used to explore the Pokemon world. There’s also more focus on interacting with your Pokemon; the partner Eevee or Pikachu you get at the start is constantly on your shoulder, and you can let another member of your team out of its pokeball to follow you around, or in some cases, for you to ride. The battling mechanics have been toned down as well; concepts such as abilities, introduced in the third generation, have been removed, which both simplifies the game for new players jumping in (see FilmCritHulk’s incredibly fun twitter thread as he plays Pokemon for the first time ever), it also reduces the hyperfocus on battling. Still, the dichotomy is still there. It is baked into the games themselves, and ultimately I don’t think it can be removed without never making a main series Pokemon game again.
As an aside, honestly, while I have really enjoyed Let’s Go Pikachu, I do also really enjoy battling. As I note above, I play in online battle simulators, which allow you to build teams of Pokemon using the surprisingly deep mechanics for calculating how strong Pokemon are, and pitting them against other teams. I’ve done a whole series of streams with a friend of mine, which you can find on my youtube channel here (so I guess this is also a Spades post?). With over 800 Pokemon spilt between 18 different types, there’s a huge variety of tactics you can play with. Curiously however, there is one way that Let’s Go gets closer to the experience of online battling, not further away. Consider the way online battling works; you do one six on six battle. At the end, your team is healed, and any further battles start from a blank slate, both sides fully healed. In the main series games, it is far more of a gauntlet; a series of battles that wear down your Pokemon and your ability to keep them healthy. Removing the wild Pokemon battles makes the fights you do have with trainers feels far more independent of other battles. While it still isn’t quite the same as online battles, it feels closer than other games have reached.
So, that’s one dichotomy of Pokemon; battling verses caring for your Pokemon. But I mentioned two in the title, so let’s look at the other one. As I noted in the third paragraph, the designer of the series, Satoshi Tajiri, wanted to install in kids the joy of exploring nature and catching insects.
In many cases however, Pokemon basically inspired people to sit down and explore the world of Pokemon.
The world of Pokemon is a genuinely attractive place. Besides the obvious appeal of exploring with a team of super-powered creatures on your side, everyone is friendly, there is free healthcare in the form of Pokemarts, it is rich in history and fascinating natural locations that don’t require you to trek through mud to reach and, most importantly for a game series primarily targeted at children, you can explore by yourself. The sense of freedom is the cherry on top of the perfectly crafted escapist fantasy the Pokemon games create, one that I think games can do more than any other medium because, well, you are the one controlling it; you are the one moving around the world and exploring.
This isn’t exactly unnoticed in the franchise itself. A core idea of the games is that there are two different versions in each generation, with slight differences; some Pokemon can only be found in one of the two or three games, forcing you to trade Pokemon between them to complete the Pokedex. While this obviously has the benefit of meaning you can sell two games for the development cost of one, it also means that the games have a built in motivation to get players interacting with each other; while you can, if you have the funds, just have two copies of the console and a copy of each game, most kids will only have one of each, so the idea is that you trade and battle with friends who have the other versions. All the main games have been released on handheld consoles (including sort of the Switch, which switches [hehehe] between being a home console and a handheld one), so if you find someone to trade with it is easy to take the game to them.
In terms of trying to get people out and about, in the fourth generation on the Nintendo DS, the remakes of the second generation Gold and Silver games, HeartGold and SoulSilver, came with the Pokewalker, a pedometer you could transfer Pokemon from your game onto and then have them gain experience, find rare and useful items and even encounter rare Pokemon while you walk around. I actually had one, and I quite enjoyed using it, but it wasn’t carried over to the next games. The really big jump in Pokemon games based around the player actually getting outside was Pokemon Go, which you may remember from it’s sudden massive popularity and then sudden vanishing from the media landscape, although it has been quietly popular ever since its release. Pokemon Go is, without Nintendo revealing they have been genetically creating Pokemon in a lab, the closest we are going to get to actually exploring the world with Pokemon in it. Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee is a step back, but still tries a bit more than usual. The biggest thing is that they link with Pokemon Go, allowing you to transfer over Pokemon caught in Pokemon Go to the Switch to play with and interact with. You can also control the game using a device called the Poke Ball Plus, sort of a cross between the Pokewalker and a Nintendo Switch Controller, although it isn’t a pedometer any longer.
Let’s be clear. I’m not saying that Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee has had these dichotomies in mind from the beginning of their development; given the name and the mechanics taken from Pokemon Go, it is likely that the main idea behind them was to provide a jumping in point for people who play Pokemon Go but either haven’t played the main games for a while or perhaps never played them before. The battling is taken back to basics and the intimidation factor of learning 800+ plus Pokemon has been reduced to just the original 151 Pokemon. However, while playing it I was interested to see how much of it feels like a response to the two dichotomies I’ve examined here. Just because something wasn’t intended doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and it’s entirely possible that these issues where involved, just not as the primary motivation, particularly given the original vision of the games and the way the writing of them is so focused on the themes of friendship and exploration.
As a final note, at the time of writing, I’ve just beaten the fourth gym leader Erika in my Let’s Go Pikachu run, and it has been really hard not to just write about how much I love my Venomoth. I just…really love her. Really really love her.
Yeah the games are REALLY good at getting you to get attached to your team. There’s a reason this series has survived for this long.