Out of Control: New Pokémon games aren’t very effective…

February 4, 2015

Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver version are the greatest installments of the series to date.

There. I said it.

Pokémon is the undisputed champion of handheld role-playing games. It is a franchise that now spans generations with brothers and sisters passing it on to siblings, cousins passing it to cousins, and a few fathers and mothers passing it on to their offspring.

And given the series’ 19-year run, it seems almost inevitable that the latest iterations have innovated far beyond what was contained in the large Game Boy Color cartridges of the late 90s. But, as a Pokémon veteran who remembers his days spent with Blue version with fondness, I can assure you that Gold and Silver were a set of games the likes of which have not seen in years, much to the chagrin of older fans.

Back in 1999, the Pokémon franchise was still young. There was a realm of possibilities awaiting the employees of Game Freak, and with the release of Pokémon Gold/Silver, they showed just enough imagination and just enough restraint to create a set of games that pushed the boundaries of the series while also staying within the realm of believability.

For starters, they established a series mainstay by introducing a horde of new monsters for catching, almost all of which were totally awesome. Sneasel, Skarmory, Heracross, Donphan, the list just goes on and on. Even the weaker additions to the cast found their own merit. Why? Because no Pokémon was an HM slave. No Pokémon had a defined role on your team based on moveset. None of the trends or staples of the series were codified yet. Everything was fresh.

The realm of believability was still completely intact. Game Freak didn’t introduce anything into the series that was totally out of sync with the narrative of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue. In fact, Game Freak made the incredibly savvy decision to introduce an element of continuity in the series by having the hero of Gold/Silver return to Kanto for a second round of competition after conquering the gyms in his own region.

Wandering back to your old stomping ground to see how it had changed in the years you had been away was an experience that generated a sense of wonder and nostalgia that older players could understand and younger players had never experienced before. Combine that sick, nasty, and totally badass final battle with the spirit of your character from the first game on top of a mountain? Who in their right mind wouldn’t have been totally hooked?

Later games have tried to incorporate that same sort of continuity. The events of Pokémon Black/White 2 take place two years after their predecessors and many of the locations or characters met in the previous iterations aren’t included.

The traditional gaming media met the expansions with praise saying that it broke the mold that sequential releases in the same generation had established. While that might be true, the extension of the story felt forced, especially after two generations that had done away with that kind of recapitulation.

In fact, many of the supposed “innovations” in recent games have seemed artificial.

The introduction of Mega Evolutions, where a Pokémon can hold a certain item to attain its ultimate form, in Pokémon X/Y is less a groundbreaking addition to the game model, and more a get out of jail free card for developers who knew they couldn’t keep adding evolutions to pre-existing Pokémon without fans accusing them of recycling old game concepts. Sky battles, where a trainer battles flying-type Pokémon in the sky, and horde battles, where a trainer must battle multiple enemies, are cool, but they seem to be very much an innovation aimed at bringing the games closer to manga and anime rather than building an immersive experience.

Remakes are great. 3D graphics are great. New Pokémon to hunt down and capture are great. But none of these supposed innovations are anything that fans of the series weren’t expecting.

I am a traditionalist, and I love the Pokémon game model. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable, and, for the most part, it’s good. But it could be great. Game Freak pushed the boundaries of the franchise with its second installment and then got comfortable.

Until they can start thinking like they did during their sophomore success, they should prepare for trouble. And make it double.

Help Chris catch them all  cdc67@georgetown.edu

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