Soapbox features enable our individual writers to voice their own opinions on hot topics, opinions that may not necessarily be the voice of the site. In this piece, senior video editor Alex Olney explains how he would “fix” the Pokémon series…
Pokémon is a series that has always been extremely dear to me. I was the perfect age of just under 10 when it first came out in the UK, and the perfect breed of just-about-nerdy-enough to become obsessed with it, but partly in private, so it gave it even more allure. As a result of this, it’s deeply embedded in my head and I don’t think it’ll ever get out.
The first games were a triumph, it was bonkers just how much of a game they squeeze onto such a tiny cartridge, and it had all the mystery of a new game with the limitations that made it slightly awkward and frustrating, but only to a point that overcoming these frustrations made it all the more worth it. Animal Crossing: New Horizons still employs this idea today, that’s why you can’t craft more than one fish bait at a time.
The games were also a little bit tough the first time you played them, regardless of your age. Typings were spread thin, and when you came across Lance’s Dragonite you had no idea what was strong or weak against it, because you likely didn’t even know Dragon Pokémon were a thing, and whoops! It’s resistant to the starter you’ve been using to tank all the other members of the Elite Four. Not unreasonably difficult by any means, but the tension was so real.
And that in my view is what’s missing from Pokémon games these days. Later entries built upon the same ideas and are by no means bad games, but they don’t exist in a vacuum; I’m so painfully familiar with all the tropes and stylings of the older games that by now after more than twenty years of The Pokémon Company and Game Freak playing the same tune, I’m just not feeling it like I used to. Rival battles, Gym battles, the Elite Four, the Champion, legendaries, it’s the same as it’s always been. There have been some minor wigglings with the formula but they don’t change enough to make the games anything of a challenge or invoke any real tension, but it’s nowhere near beyond saving as we’ll explore here today.
Pokémon Sword and Shield did a few things right with the world, specifically opening things up tremendously, and then doubling down on that for the DLC packs. Sadly there were still way too many instances of those horrible windy routes with zero exploration or any real merit, and to put it bluntly, they’re outdated, dull, and they drag out the experience. Bin them.
Instead let’s get something bigger, broader, more open. I’m trying to avoid saying ‘open-world’ because I don’t think we have to necessarily go down that route, I’m thinking maybe something more akin to Xenoblade Chronicles, where large, individual open areas are present, but smaller, more interconnected areas that branch off them are just as important. We saw this a bit with The Crown Tundra and that’s a great sign, but it needs to stretch out throughout the whole world. Hide special items, rare Pokémon, interesting trainer battles, make the player feel rewarded for going off the beaten track.
A reason to explore and a layer of mystery adds a huge degree of wonder to the game, it’s one of the reasons The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is still so celebrated; despite having some fairly basic principles, they intermingle and react with one another in such a consistent manner that new things are being discovered even today. Sometimes laying everything bare isn’t the best way for players to enjoy things… but only as long as you actually have a pay off, unlike the mysterious girl in X & Y, for example.
And the world should be a joy to traverse, give us some options to make moving fun, not just a means of getting from A to B. The Wild Areas are great, but all you ever do is ride around on your bike because it’s the fastest mode of transport, and not being able to jump off land edges is absolutely horrible and painfully archaic. Again, I’m thinking Xenoblade-like.
There’s no reason it has to be linear either, the idea of scaling the game already exists in a convenient form thanks to Gym Badges, so why not let us run wild and free, and possibly into areas of extreme danger that we’re really not prepared for? A cave system guarded by a level 50 Snorlax is doubtless going to stop players in their tracks, but if they’re able to conquer it, the reward of exploring a dangerous area with exotic Pokémon before you’re ‘supposed to’ is hard to beat.
And for the love of all that’s good and lovely, populate the world a bit more. I’m not expecting the number of NPCs to be like the main square in Novigrad, but have you seen how barren the supposed capital of Galar is? It makes you wonder where all the people that fill the stadiums actually live.
The way in which Wild Pokémon were handled in Sword and Shield was largely very good, I like having the mix of Pokémon hidden in the grass and some poking out above it, but there are some things that could definitely be improved upon, the most important of which is rare and powerful Pokémon.
Seeing a massive Steelix that you were hopelessly underequipped to deal with was an amazing feeling in Sword and Shield, and knowing you could come back and deal with it when you’re stronger later on gave you a reason to return. What wasn’t so interesting was that it always appeared in the same place and became tired and predictable for something that was initially so imposing. The DLC packs are even more guilty of this, a monster such as the originally elusive Milotic can just be found meandering around minding its business at a stupidly high level. It’s exciting at first but then when you see it respawn moments after catching it, it takes the excitement out of the experience.
Rare and powerful Pokémon should be rare. Imagine you’re in some nondescript area early on that only has Pidgeys and Bidoofs most of the time, only to suddenly see a fully evolved Pidgeot swoop down in front of you, but should you miss it, you’re unlikely to see it again. A Pidgeot’s not even that exciting, and you can get one just from levelling up a Pidgey, but to see one in the wild and have it be an event is a way more exciting prospect. Fully evolved Pokémon as a whole should be a rare sight, something to relish, something to tell your friends about, not something to be expected.
And what about researching Pokémon in the wild in order to get a better chance of catching them? Whip out a camera, snap some lovely photos, and depending on the rank of the photo-taking composition, angle and all that into account, you get a boost to your catch rate for that Pokémon’s evolution line. I’d love to be able to whack out a first-person view and see Pokémon mingling in the wild, and then to have a reward for it? I literally couldn’t ask for more. With that in mind here’s everything else that I want.
A big thing for me that I feel has been lacking for a while is Gym battles, specifically with the Gym Leaders. Sword and Shield managed to bring some gravity into them with the Dynamax feature and the setting, but it was still often too easy to absolutely annihilate them without artificially limiting your party or something. This is an easy fix, every time you enter a Gym your Pokémon’s levels are capped just like they are in online battles. Not only would this make Gyms significantly more challenging, but it would force you to rethink your approach rather than simply over-levelling your Pokémon, but without arbitrarily stopping you from doing so for the rest of the game’s world. You could be absolutely destroying the local wildlife outside, but inside a Gym which is meant to test more than just your ability to farm EXP, you might find yourself scuppered.
What’s more, the Gyms could also expand upon the big, wide-open world and be beaten in any order. Let’s say you ignore Gym A and go right for Gym D, you’ve still got no Gym Badges so the leader would select a pair of weaker Pokémon between level 15 and 18 with the level cap at 20, but if you walk in with three Gym Badges they pick four Pokémon between level 40 and 43 with the level cap at 45. I largely pulled those numbers out the aether don’t go telling me the fourth gym shouldn’t have Pokémon at those levels.
And isn’t it about time we chucked out the idea of monotype Gyms? There are so many other interesting ideas that could be employed, such as a Gym Leader that uses only big Pokémon, or yellow Pokémon, or mid-evolution Pokémon, or fluffy Pokémon, the scope has the potential to be far more varied and interesting than it currently is.
Other Features that Don’t Neatly Fit into a Category but Flow Best at this Point
Why one Earth can’t we unlock the ability to hold more Pokémon in our party? I’m not talking more than six, I mean starting out with perhaps two, and slowly unlocking more and more slots as you progress through the game, maybe even have them as simple to find but completely optional. Can you imagine having to Google ‘how to have more Pokémon in your squad’? Glorious!
Oh and that Pokémon levelling thing that happens in gyms? What if the primary antagonist has a hacked version of the same device that doesn’t affect their own Pokémon and is cranked to 11? Think of the first time you bump into Giovanni or whoever and you challenge him to a Pokémon battle rather than just calling the police or something. The battle begins, he whips a device out of his jacket pocket, and your Pokémon are all tanked back down to level 10 for the battle. You then essentially are forced to lose, or perhaps just use crazy tactics to overcome him using status effects and clever use of held items. Now that’s an imposing battle!
Cutscenes and NPC interactions are also painfully underutilised; the few instances that appear in Sword and Shield are glorious, drastically expanding the feel of the world and making it seem far more alive and rich. It’s criminal that there aren’t more of these in games as massive as the mainline Pokémon games.
The post-game in recent entries has been a bit meh overall. Not necessarily bad, just like the rest of the games’ content, but definitely lacking a lot of longevity. Well, when you become the Champion of the region, you could become essentially lord and master over all Gyms in the region, switching up the available Pokémon (so long as they remain within the same theme), and then you can have the fun of trying to battle through your own creations to prove your worth as Champion. Better yet fans from the region who like your changes could send gifts of rare items to show their appreciation.
And why stop there? How about a new Gym in your hometown that you can set up with any kind of theme, any kind of Pokémon, and any level cap you like? Then you can head up your shiny new ‘Champion’s Gym’ to take on tough opponents with your own limitations in place, and even upload your Gym to the internet for people to try out a la Super Mario Maker 2. Get a positive response and you get great in-game stuff, it’s got loads of potential.
But What About the Children?
That’s a fair point, Pokémon is meant to be accessible and not necessarily a crippling challenge for everyone, but there’s a simple solution to all of this as well: a hard mode.
Game Freak had a pop at this in Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 but there’s so much more they could do. When you get your Pokédex for the first time you’re given a choice, do you want to take the Rotom Dex with all its new and fancy whizzbang features, or do you want to take your mum/dad’s old Pokédex that has lost its battery backup? Professor Fig or whoever can easily update it to be able to register more Pokémon, but it’ll never be able to, for example, tell you which of your moves will be super effective against an enemy Pokémon like the Rotom Dex can, it can’t distribute EXP to your entire party, the level caps are stricter in Gyms, it doesn’t ever give you any hints on the gameplay or holds your hand, the list is endless.
Whilst there are some elements in this article that I would really like to be implemented across any difficulty, I do concede that I’m not the only person with an opinion and skillset when it comes to Pokémon. Yes, there is the argument that when us older lot were children we still managed to work out how to play Pokémon Red and Blue, but there’s no reason that accessibility shouldn’t be considered. More than that not everyone will necessarily want to go into a new game and be heavily tested, some people just want to be able to have a breezy time, and I don’t think these people should be discounted, even if it’s a mode I personally wouldn’t choose.
But what about you? Is there anything you’d like to change about the Pokémon mainline games and their future examples? Let us know with a comment in the usual place.