Pokémon! We all love them, we all love getting irate about them and the franchise is about as huge as its ever been in its decades long lifetime. But if you take a step back and look at the series, you might realise that almost all of the enthusiasm around the series is directed in so many other places other than the mainline series these days. To the point where older, more basic fans like myself start to wonder how important those main games are to Nintendo these days.
If you start talking Pokémon around the general Video Game community these days, you’re much more likely to get people bringing up Pokémon Go, the TCG (Trading Card Game) or now the divisive new MOBA Pokémon Unite. The mainline games have become just one more small part of a massive, all-consuming media franchise, arguably a less important one amongst both fans and the developers themselves.
At least, that’s how I feel given the efforts in the 7th and 8th generations.
I can’t claim to know the inner workings at Nintendo and Game Freak, and how accurate the reports of crunching time restraints are on the developers to keep pace with the unrelenting march of cross-media releases. The anime and mountains of merchandise feel like they’re dictating the development of the games and not the other way around.
It seems exhausting and probably not a great environment for the developers to work in with crunch culture being what it is, combined with Japan’s already intense work culture. Which is why I hold some amount of trepidation around the next six months and the Pokémon Franchise.
For a while now, I’ve thought that maybe Nintendo should stop being so precious about the mainline games in the franchise and start outsourcing development of the main games to third party developers. Doing so is already giving us some fan favourite games like Pokkén Tournament and Pokémon Go, as well at Pokémon Unite proving to be a hot game already.
The two major upcoming games in the mainline Pokémon franchise seem to be doing something akin to that, but not in a way I had expected. The much demanded 4th generation remakes; Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are the first “mainline” Pokémon games that Nintendo have outsourced to another development studio. While its not the first traditional JRPG style Pokémon game to come out from a different developer (Pokémon Colosseum), the remakes have always been treated like mainline games regardless.
Which might go some way to explain why details of the Gen 4 remakes have been spotty this close to release. Historically, Game Freak’s remakes have been pretty big deals, adding a ton of new content to the games as well as modernising them to bring them up to speed with the most recent generation games out on the same platform, this time, they’re only overseeing the development of the remakes, leaving the bulk of the work to a smaller tram called ILCA.
This studio, which have been around since 2010, have primarily been a support studio. Not really having any major original releases to their own names. Which makes the the status of these remakes, as pure remakes with nothing original, make a lot more sense in hindsight. Game Freak are very hands off on this project, and are incredibly unlikely to allow another team to develop original assets for their franchise.
Nor are they willing to divert the creative resources needed to write original story nor design some original Sinnonian regional Pokémon or new Gigantimax forms. As you’d usually see from these main generation remakes based on their historical track record.
That’s because, for the first time, it seems like Nintendo have afforded Game Freak the time and space to go and try something totally new and original. While ILCA toil away with what looks to be a very uninspired set of remakes, Game Freak proper have been working on the upcoming game that mainline Pokémon fans are actually interested in: Legends: Arceus.
Also set in the ancient Sinnoh region, Legends seems to be the first in a new style of Pokémon games that features a historical setting and a much different approach to Pokémon while still using the core mechanics as a basis. While also allowing what seems like more fluid, Breath of the Wild, style open world gameplay. In a world where Pokémon are dangerous and the player can actually take damage from them.
It’s the exact thing I’ve been saying I’ve wanted Nintendo to do with the Pokémon franchise for years. Taking the core of the games; the combat, the typing’s and the levelling and then inserting those fundamentals into totally different kinds of games and different kinds of stories. We’ve had over 20 years of near identical games now, it was past time that the developers started doing something wild with the mainline series.
Legends: Arceus feels like exactly that. Game Freak making something totally new and seeing how it lands amongst the fans. A proof of concept that they can just call a failed experiment if it doesn’t work. Like what A Link Between World’s felt like as a precursor testing the waters before Breath of the Wild came out.
And I’m very excited to see what Arceus ends up being, however my biggest worry is one of execution. Sword and Shield were the developer’s first foray into a a proper home console after spending their entire time with handhelds before then, and it really showed. The Wild Zones in Sword and Shield lacked in terms of performance and fidelity. I’m no graphics snob, but even I had to admit that the games did look great.
The graphical shortcomings, coupled with the pretty uninteresting story within those games really left me feeling pretty cold on Sword and Shield. Which causes me to worry that Arceus might suffer those very same issues. Again, Game Freak are under pressures and time constrains that a lot of other developers are not, meaning putting out half baked games is sometimes out of their hands.
But given the experimental nature of this spinoff game, you’d have hoped they’d been afforded the time they needed to make it, and that delaying it would be something they could actually do if they needed to.
So, what if Arcues comes out and has an interesting idea behind it, but still fails to meet standards either graphically or narratively? If the world still chugs along with an uneven framerate or the the open world is a mess of PS2 era textures? If that were to happen then I’d really start to voice that it may be time to put Game Freak out to pasture as a main developer for the Pokémon franchise.
After playing a fan game this year: Pokémon Xenoverse; which had one of the best Pokémon stories I’ve played since Black and White, my eyes were kind of opened to the fact that Pokémon games don’t just have to be games purely carried forward by their mechanics and little else. I love the Pokémon franchise, but there are very few compelling stories told within the world.
As cool as Pokémon Snap 2 was, it’s story might as well have not existed. All boiling down to a power of friendship style message at the end. For a company like Nintendo, there really shouldn’t be a need to pick between mechanics and story. But then again, that’s mostly their style. They’re a gameplay and mechanics driven developer. Usually handing off their narrative experiences to third party developers.
So maybe that’s what they need to do with the mainline Pokémon games. Leave Game Freak in charge of design and art and give someone else the chance to actually write and develop the game. I don’t want to say Arceus is Game Freak’s last chance… but maybe it is their last chance.