Video Version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oloKJJLp-4c&t=3s
The most recent Pokemon games, Ultra sun/moon have been out for a while now, and as far as remakes go they are pretty standard (in a good way). They seek to add extra content and story to their predecessors, with many graphical and technical updates. However, as I progressed further through the game, and thought back to my experiences with Sun/Moon, I’ve realised that the seventh generation of Pokemon has added more than a new layer of paint. It has, and in many instances succeeded in attempting to fix one imbalance present in all other instalments of the 21 year old series.
It’s no secret that the Pokemon games have changed very little over the last decade. The core mechanics have remained almost identical, each generation usually offering little more than a graphical update to the last. This repetitious cycle has deterred many fans from playing more recent instalments, fearing their money is going towards the same game they’ve played numerous times before. However, there have been some standout features added over the years that have left fans craving more; 2009’s Heart Gold and Soul Silver allowed the first Pokemon in a player’s party to follow them in the external world. The sixth generation saw the introduction of Pokemon amie, a feature that allows the player to interact with their Pokemon outside of battle, grooming them and feeding their favourite monsters with treats. But what made these features so great? And what additions did the newest titles bring that were so important? – Well, they emphasised an important relationship rarely developed in Pokemon games (ironically), the bond between trainer and Pokemon outside of battle.
The most important addition to the 7th generation is a more balanced relationship between the Pokemon, players and their environment. Each generation primarily focuses on the protagonist, as they battle other trainers and attempt to defeat gym leaders, rivals and evil organisations in order to prove that they are the best trainer in the region. In most storylines, the only important Pokemon are the “legendaries”, who are dormant until the last hour of the game. Further, As Pokemon are rarely seen outside of battle, they don’t seem to interact with their environment either. After playing ultra sun/moon and then going back to play black/white, the differences in Pokemon interaction, and therefore world building, is quite staggering.
In Sun, Moon and their sequels, more emphasis is placed on the Pokemon, and the roles they have within their environment. The player sees multiple cutscenes of various Pokemon running around the world, inhabiting various niches of the region, making the environments feel rich with diversity. Some environments have Pokemon sprites added within them, reinforcing the fact that I was co-existing with other organisms outside my own species (even if it was just background art that I can’t interact with). The addition of totem Pokemon as boss battles emphasised an intricate relationship between these creatures and their environment, where the strongest of the bunch become leaders of the pack. It’s now important to understand the different Pokemon on each route, because interacting and defeating them is necessary in order to progress throughout the game. I genuinely believed I was exploring a world full of diverse, wondrous creatures that I could run into at anytime.
Further, smaller game mechanics that have been developed in previous generations have been perfected in order to mimic an interactive environment. Pokemon that run at you in the grass and burrow towards you in caves can provide interesting and sometimes (if you’re unprepared) startling experiences. Flying Pokemon can attack you from the skies, while others are perch strategically in the trees. Even though they don’t necessarily add any significance to the plot, their implicit presence really made me believe I was sharing this world with the Pokemon. In previous games, these encounters were still marked, but the sprites were less refined. You can also swim, ride and fly on specific Pokemon, and while there is only one choice for each, it makes the scenarios less jarring than using a blue blob as your companions (as used in previous instalments). While an improvement in graphics does have some part to play in these engrossing experiences, the focus on Pokemon is apparent, and changes the dynamic, and in some instances, the goals a trainer will have while playing the game.
The addition of Pokemon calling for help is also an interesting mechanic. By adding more complex behaviours in the mix, GameFreak has allowed its creatures to develop even more unique traits, (more timid Pokemon are more likely to call for help) adding realism to what were once just colourful sprites.
After adding advanced Pokemon behaviours and fresh concepts in this generation of Pokemon games, what should Nintendo do in order to make the next game in the series less repetitive? For one, they need to change certain structural templates they use when designing their games. In the seventh generation, the concept of trials instead of gym battles felt more fluid and made the game feel fresh and unique. Those types of innovative ideas need to be utilised, as opposed to adding an extra powerful move to the mix and using that as a selling point for a new game.
As I’ve previously stated, an engrossing Pokemon game relies on its most appealing concept; Pokemon. If the player has limited interactions with Pokemon sharing their environment, particularly outside of battle, the game becomes a human world that Pokemon sometimes appear in, as opposed to an engrossing Pokemon world. Ultimately, the player needs to see the Pokemon they acquire as friends where bonds can be strengthened along their journey, as opposed to tools that are conveniently placed in the world to help the player achieve their goals.