for slate.com, | November 22, 2021

How Pokémon Lost Its Way

It’s getting harder and harder to stay in love with this video game series.

Read at slate.com

Out now on Nintendo Switch are Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, remakes of the Pokémon series’ fourth generation games and the first mainline games in the franchise since 2018. And as a huge, lifelong Pokémon fan, I couldn’t have been less excited for them. Ever since Pokémon jumped from Nintendo’s handheld systems onto Switch, its hybrid handheld-home console, the series has taken a distinct nosedive, revealing a lazy carelessness that leaves me wondering who these games are even for anymore.

In its prime, Pokémon was a thing of intricate beauty. After the series’ exciting-but-imperfect debut on the Game Boy in 1998, which featured a vibrant world full of playful new monster friends but still quite a few gameplay kinks to work out, each subsequent pair of entries—or generation as fans know them—began to shine, stuffed full of love, care, and with an abundance of content. The second generation (2000) introduced a real-time clock that affected gameplay (something Nintendo hadn’t actually fully figured out, and which has since been rendered unusable due to long-dead batteries within the original Game Boy cartridges’ plastic shells) and new types of Poké Balls. The third generation, made up of Ruby and Sapphire (2003), gave us weather conditions (which thankfully weren’t dependent on the same kind of real-time hardware as their predecessors). And each of these entries came with tons of new, interesting Pokémon to discover and quality-of-life improvements all the way through the fifth generation’s pair, Pokémon Black and White (2010).

Pokémon developer Game Freak also started gifting us with impeccable remakes of the early games, starting with 2004’s FireRed and LeafGreen. These two games revamped the original releases, Red and Blue, with new graphics and features that improved upon the six-year-old Game Boy games. In 2009 came HeartGold and SoulSilver, second-gen remakes that contained rich new stories while still remaining true to the spirit and world of the originals. These games added exciting features that fans loved, like traveling with a Pokémon walking right behind you, online options, and—best of all—a battery that wouldn’t die, letting you experience the time-based benefits without fear. These remakes had all the kinks worked out.

But in 2013, the series started showing cracks with the release of the sixth generation, Pokémon X and Y. These games, set in a strange, pseudo-France, came with a sharp reduction in difficulty and hideous Pokémon designs like Litleo (the harbinger of an empty barrel of design ideas), but there were some highlights, namely the beautifully rendered 3D space and detailed sprites. And things looked up when, in 2014, Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire launched and established themselves as the best remakes in the series thus far. The pair made it that much easier for us to look past the imperfections of X and Y.

But that progress was undone only two years later, starting with the release of mobile game cash cow Pokémon Go. In a craven attempt to capture that sweet, sweet microtransaction cash, Nintendo stopped caring about the quality of their flagship product and started focusing on the soulless, smooth-bodied 3D renderings of our favorite monster pals. Pokémon Go had hardly any challenge to speak of, nor a story to grant it the series’ iconic sense of adventure. The turn-based gameplay was replaced with finicky swipe mechanics that never captured the same sense of magic we feel in a classic Pokémon battle. That your grandpa and random neighbors were talking about Pokémon Go wasn’t a good sign—it was a warning sign for fans that expected the brand to be synonymous with exploration, collection, and a sense of achievement, not basic swiping gameplay and simplicity. I didn’t want to Pokémon Go to the polls in 2016; I just wanted it to Pokémon Go away. We still got Sun and Moon, the series’ final original mainline titles to debut on a handheld , which featured a fresh approach to the typical story progression arc, a great new cast of characters, and some of the best (and worst) new Pokémon designs. But in retrospect, the innovation and care brought to those games read like a final sendoff to a bygone handheld era.

But then, in 2018, Pokémon jumped onto the Switch, and things couldn’t have gotten worse for longtime players. First, there were Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee!, simplifications of the first-generation games featuring Pokémon Go mechanics in place of standard battles with wild monsters—a clear ploy to try converting all the Pokémon Go players into the larger Nintendo fold. It seemed to work, gaining largely positive reviews and selling boatloads of copies. But the major differences from the games that these two were aping didn’t portend good things for what was to come next.

Following the Let’s Go! games came Sword and Shield, the eighth generation of mainline entries—and the most mediocre games ever released by Game Freak. In addition to the bland, empty landscapes, difficulty level that even a young child would laugh at, and crummy flop of a story, the developer started replacing all the beautifully rendered 3D characters so well executed on Nintendo’s handheld system with their smooth, pixel-less counterparts from Pokémon Go. The love and detail imbued in every design disappeared, and the engrossing world of Pokémon was replaced with a bizarre, soulless version, where every place, person, and Pokémon was run through Facetune to remove any imperfections or hints of life. Each town to visit felt empty and forgettable, as did the much-ballyhooed new area where wild Pokémon roamed free among … almost nothing else of note.

Part of the joy of playing these games as a child was the increasing difficulty that required an understanding of how moves worked, or at least a willingness to grind out levels ceaselessly until you could wallop your strong, endgame opponents. In Sword and Shield, I could defeat any boss with one single Pokémon, never having to worry that any of my team would be knocked out. Yes, I get it: These are games for children, but children aren’t idiots—back in the day, children beat Battletoads on their own, after all. I find it hard to imagine a child nowadays running into any challenge whatsoever with these games, and these games feel designed to let them breeze right through. The new Pokémon games come across as if they’re designed for some focus-tested concept of children, rather than any actual child.

Now, with the long-awaited remakes of the fourth-generation games, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, Nintendo seems to be hammering home its disinterest in making these mainline games something really special or intriguing anymore. I’ve only played a few hours of the games so far, but it’s clear that these remakes of 2006’s Diamond and Pearl are uninspired reproductions of the 15-year-old originals, using all the shortcuts possible to generate a blandly shinier take on the originals, but without any of the love for them. Instead of adding rich detail like in the excellent remakes of the first three generations, tagged-in developer ILCA has applied the charmless, glossy Switch filter onto the entire game, only adding a handful of superficial tweaks, like letting your favorite monster follow you around on the map; making hidden machine moves, moves that are necessary for solving puzzles outside of battle, useable without wasting a move slot of any team member; and the ability to swap Pokémon on and off your team on a whim. I’d even argue that some of these additions, like displaying move effectiveness in battle so the player no longer has to have any knowledge of how the different Pokémon types affect each other, are actively bad, further eroding what modicum of challenge Pokémon games still have to offer.

Unable or unwilling to fully abandon the original’s standard movement grid in favor of the modern freeform over-world movement, the game tries to split the difference by allowing your sprite to move freely, but keeps every NPC glued to their grid-like tracks. And then there’s the bizarre chibi art style used across the overworld, a failed attempt at recreating the pixelated look of the originals that makes every adult and child on screen look like a bobble-headed toddler. All these “improvements” are meant to trick us into thinking it endeavored to do anything different this time. And I’m not alone in this: Some early reviews of these games affirmed my initial impressions, albeit a little more gently.

At this point, it feels like these Pokémon games arrive more out of necessity than interest, an essential arm of the larger franchise revenue stream. The good thing is that not all hope is lost; developers are spending their time on other creative avenues, like the delightfully detailed New Pokémon Snap from this past spring and the upcoming, ambitious-looking Legends: Arceus, both for Switch. I advise Nintendo, Game Freak, and the Pokémon Company to continue pouring the love into making the greatest side games imaginable, instead of wasting resources and snubbing fans with such comparably lackluster mainline games—especially since those latter releases are the ones that regularly get all the promotional attention, which feels increasingly undeserving. Listen: I love Pokémon and always will. But I understand that Pokémon needs to die in order for Pokémon to live on–sometimes, that’s what love is.