Video Version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oloKJJLp-4c&t=3s
The most recent Pokémon games, Pokémon Ultra sun/Ultra moon have been out for over 6 months now, and as far as remakes go, they are pretty standard (in the way Pokémon love them to be). They seek to add extra content and story to their predecessors, with minor graphical and technical updates. As I progressed further through the game, however, and reflected on my experiences with Pokémon Sun and Moon (The only game in the series I’ve even remotely considering “Catching them all” in), I realised that the seventh generation of Pokémon games have added more than a new layer of paint. It has, and in many instances, succeeded, in fixing one imbalance present in all other instalments of the 21 year-old series.
It’s no secret that the Pokémon games have changed very little over the last two decades. 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 of the franchise, fearing their money is going towards experiences identical to ones of the past. Compare this with the current state of indie gaming, arguably at its peak of innovation, and it’s hard to pitch to skeptics what makes the future of Pokémon worth being part of. You’ll find most Pokémon fans reminiscing over prior features than eagerly waiting for new instalments, and in here we find the key to Pokémon’s growing-pains. 2009’s Heart Gold and Soul Silver allowed the first Pokémon in a player’s party to follow them in the external world. The sixth generation saw the introduction of Pokémon amie, a feature that allows the player to interact with their Pokémon outside of battle, grooming and feeding their favourite monsters. What made these additions so great? And what additions did the newest titles bring that were so important? Well, they emphasised an important relationship that is (ironically) rarely developed in Pokemon games: between trainer and monster. Between monster and world. The ability to be fully present during your journey.
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, proving they are the best trainer in the region. In most storylines, the only Pokémon of significance are the “legendaries”, who are dormant until the last hour of the game. Further, As Pokémon are rarely seen outside of battle, they rarely interact with their environment.
In Sun, Moon and their sequels, more emphasis is placed on the Pokémon, and the roles they have within their environment. The player sees multiple cutscenes of various Pokémon running around the world, inhabiting various niches of the region, making the environments feel rich and diverse. Some environments have Pokémon sprites added within them, reinforcing the fact that the trainer co-exists with other organisms outside their own species (even if it was just background art that I couldn’t be interacted with). The addition of totem Pokémon 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.
Further, smaller game mechanics that have been developed in previous generations have been perfected in order to mimic an interactive environment. Pokémon 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 Pokémon can attack you from the skies, while others perch strategically in the trees. Even though they don’t necessarily add any significance to the plot, their presence really adds to the co-existence of player and Pokémon. In previous games, these encounters were still marked, but the sprites were less refined. You can also swim, ride and fly on specific Pokémon, making points of exploration less jarring than using a blue blob as your companion (as used in previous instalments). While an improvement in graphics does have some part to play in these engrossing experiences, the focus on Pokémon is apparent, and changes the dynamic, and in some instances, the goals a trainer will have while playing the game.
The addition of Pokémon 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 Pokémon are more likely to call for help) adding realism sprites rarely given an opportunity to enforce character in the games.
After adding advanced Pokémon behaviours and fresh concepts in this generation of Pokémon 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 refreshments need to be utilised, as opposed, like in prior instalments, adding extra powerful moves as a selling point for a new game.
In summary, an engrossing Pokémon game relies on its most appealing concept; Pokémon. If the player has limited interactions with Pokémon sharing their environment, particularly outside of battle, the game becomes a human world that Pokémon sometimes appear in, as opposed to an engrossing Pokémon world. Ultimately, the player needs to see the creatures 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.