About three months ago, I purchased a New Nintendo 3DS in tandem with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D. In addition to Majora’s Mask, however, I made the decision to reintroduce myself to a franchise that had once been one of the highlights of my childhood. I speak, of course, of Pokémon.
There was a time in my life when Pokémon and I were inseparable. I tore through the original Blue and Silver versions voraciously, combing every inch of Kanto and Johto in search of the irresistibly collectible pocket monsters. In the case of Kanto, I did it all again with pride when FireRed and LeafGreen hit shelves in 2004, games I still revisit from time to time on the basis of pure nostalgia. My last experience with a Pokémon title was in 2005, with the release of Emerald, a “remix” of Ruby and Sapphire that was my first and only introduction to the third generation.
However, innocence soon gave way to time, and I found myself increasingly drawn more towards console titles, to games that focused more on storytelling than mechanics, and graphics technology that lent itself to maintaining an atmosphere of realism. And as my attention shifted from my Game Boy Advance to my Xbox 360, and the world’s attention shifted from the third generation of Pokémon to the fourth, I left the franchise behind with hardly any regrets. From an outsider’s perspective, the game wasn’t evolving to suit my needs for a more complex gameplay experience. In a way, the manner in which my relationship with Pokémon fell apart was my first experience with franchise fatigue, as I suffered the same symptoms of boredom and apathy for the series as I later would with Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty several years later.
Fast-forward ten years, and one of my favorite games of all time, Majora’s Mask, is being remade for the 3DS. This alone was enough to get me to consider a purchase, but given the simple fact that it’s incredibly unwise to purchase a console on the merits of one game alone, I chose to begin building a small library of titles around my new device. I began with three games: Majora’s Mask 3D, Super Smash Bros., and Pokémon: Omega Ruby.
Omega Ruby was a fitting place to resume my relationship with Pokémon for a number of reasons, the least of which being that it was a remake of the generation in which I ended that relationship. I enjoyed Emerald, but I wasn’t as smitten with Ruby and Sapphire as most of my friends were (in my opinion, the Gen II games remain, to this day, the series’ greatest installments). However, Pokémon had become a far more social experience than it was when I left the game behind, and my friends were adopting the remake with nothing but praise, so it seemed like a logical place to start.
From an outsider’s perspective, it can seem like Pokémon is a franchise stuck in a rut. And in a way, that’s true - the core gameplay experience and plotline have followed the same tenets for the past 19 years: The game is a turn-based RPG. You’re a Pokémon Trainer, travelling the world collecting creatures that you can train to succeed in battles against other trainers. You defeat 8 Gym Leaders in an effort to obtain badges that grant you access to the opportunity to fight four more Gym Leader-esque opponents, and finally a “Pokémon League Champion” in an attempt to claim his title. Along the way, you encounter some sort of criminal organization trying to complete some nefarious plot that usually connects at least tangentially to the lore of the region you’re traveling through and the legendary Pokémon that inhabit it. It’s the song that Nintendo and Game Freak have been playing for the past two decades, just repackaged with fresh coats of paint each time.
However, despite what some may think, the landscape of Pokémon has changed in a multitude of ways, both overt and subtle, positive and negative. This was a revelation that struck me several times during my experience playing Omega Ruby. So, without further ado, here are some of my thoughts on the ways the game has evolved since the third generation.
Back when I was first engaged in Pokémon, the game was only partially able to live up to the purpose it was designed to fulfill: to be a game through which people could connect and form bonds through traded creatures and shared experiences. Everything about the game’s design, from the manner in which the generations always released in two versions to the evolutions that could only be facilitated via trade screamed “connectivity”. Yet, unless one had a link cable and a close group of friends that shared their passion for the collectible creatures, Game Freak’s vision was little more than a pipe dream. Upon firing up Omega Ruby and plunging into the game’s “PokéNav”, however, it suddenly became very clear to me what the series was missing all along.
What Pokémon was missing was the internet.
Right now, I’m pretty sure that I can hear every single soul who’s been playing Pokémon since at least the DS era uttering a collective “Duh.” But I found the manner in which wireless internet connections have lent themselves to Pokémon’s connectivity-based functions astounding. Nintendo tried to achieve a watered-down version of this conceit with the Wireless Adapter that released with FireRed and LeafGreen, but those were limited by range, and had no way of creating the vast network that now runs through modern Pokémon titles. The moment that I activated Omega Ruby’s internet functionality via the Player Search System and names simply began to flood into the passerby section, I was floored.
Here was a way to connect and make friends with other trainers that didn’t hinge upon convenience. Evolving Pokémon through trade, obtaining those locked behind a separate version, and the overall completion of the Pokédex now seemed like much less of a pipe dream. (The only online mechanic in Omega Ruby that I find inherently flawed - and fail to understand what on earth Game Freak was thinking when it conceived - is Wonder Trade, a concept introduced in X and Y. I’d be intrigued to meet the person who came up with the concept of essentially gambling Pokémon away in hopes of obtaining a better one. And what the look on that person’s face was like the first time they received a Bunnelby.)
Then there’s StreetPass - whoever came up with the idea to transmit Secret Base locations via the local wireless service deserves a medal. And then there’s the PokéBank, which finally solves the problem of inter-game Pokémon transfer without the need for a second handheld and cartridge. The ability to send your friends “O-Powers” - temporary stat boosts - in the middle of their own adventures adds an extra layer of cooperation to the overall experience. And those are just a small sliver of the game’s online capabilities.
The highest-selling entries in the Pokémon franchise remain, to this day, Pokémon Red and Blue. Playing Omega Ruby now, I can’t help but wish that there was a way to change history so that we could have gotten the package presented in the remake first, because the online connectivity and infrastructure make for a much stronger, more social experience that truly lives up to Game Freak’s original vision.
I’m not going to spend too much time on this topic, as the fact of the matter is that Pokémon gameplay mechanics have hardly changed at all over the course of two decades. You travel the world, whittling the health of Pokémon down to a fine point before capturing them. You can carry six Pokémon at a time, and each Pokémon can only use up to four moves at a time. Each Pokémon has strengths and weaknesses that turn the game into a glorified Rock-Paper-Scissors RPG. I’m not criticizing this - the core mechanics on which the franchise is built are as strong now as they were the day they were conceived. Instead, I’ll focus on a recent addition to the series that has changed the pacing of the main game as we know it.
I’m talking, of course, about Experience Share.
Exp. Share has gone through a variety of iterations over the course of the series. In the first generation, experience was distributed equally among all Pokémon. In later generations, it distributed it based on which Pokémon entered battle. Now, in Gen 6, it’s gone from being a held item to a Key Item, and distributes experience to all Pokémon in the party - all Pokémon not in battle gain 50% of the total experience points accrued during a battle.
You get Exp. Share fairly early in Omega Ruby, and the first thought I had upon activating it was this:
Dear God, they’ve given Pokémon an easy mode.
My feelings about Exp. Share are mixed, due mainly to the fact that (full disclosure) I find it difficult to play Pokémon in what some would consider to be the traditional fashion. Raising a full team of six Pokémon was a time-suck in the olden games, and as a child who liked the concept of swift progression and little effort, I would usually just end up fighting every single trainer in the game with my starter, thus increasing its powers to levels that defied type charts. I would later train a full team of six during the post-game. Omega Ruby’s Exp. Share changed all of that for me, and became the first Pokémon game with a main storyline that I played to completion with a full team. Exp. Share radically increases the pacing of the average Pokémon adventure, as any decently trained team levels up at a rate that eliminates the need for grinding.
However, I can’t help but be conflicted, because isn’t the whole point of a Pokémon game that you form this team through hard work and determination, personally forming connections with every single one of your creatures? That might not be the way I used to play the game (or would play it if Exp. Share didn’t exist), but I can appreciate the experience that hardcore fans value, and Exp. Share seems to fly in the face of that very conceit. By the end of my battle with the Champion, there were at least two Pokémon on my team that I had hardly spent any time with that were at least level 50. Something about it didn’t sit well with me, but I couldn’t really complain. After all, I was walking out of the Hall of Fame with a team already ripe for competitive play.
Which brings me to my next subject.
I just spent 526 words extolling the virtues of the impact that the internet has had on the Pokémon experience, and I’m not going to contradict myself now. However, I do have to note how the attitude towards competitive play has changed as the game has moved onto a landscape in which such competition has become common.
When I play Pokémon, the last thing I think about is numbers. If I’m looking for gameplay advantages in any shape or form, it’s going to be through typing. Otherwise, I just tend to hunt Pokémon that contribute to a well-balanced team prepared for any sort of type combination that one could encounter. However, with the advent of the internet, serious Pokemon competition has turned into a game of numbers and statistics, and it’s resulted in the creation of a competitive scene that’s very difficult to infiltrate.
When I play games, I like to win. That’s pretty common - after all, who doesn’t like to win at things? However, I have no overwhelming drive to win at Pokémon, due largely to systems that, at first glance, appear almost too complex and driven by chance for my liking. The meta-game has become a separate experience unto itself, one driven by ideal Smogon move sets, EVs, IVs and natures. Breeding has become a game of chance where, if a Pokémon doesn’t hatch with exactly the correct stats that lend themselves to competitive play, it’s essentially useless in that setting. And that setting has become arguably the core pillar upon which the post-game is built.
Game Freak wants me to be immersed in its world to the point where I accept these creatures as living entities that are to be cared for, beings that I can form bonds with. Reducing them to numbers breaks that immersion. I’m not trying to eviscerate the metagame, because I have plenty of friends who love it. It’s just slightly disappointing that, after years of longing for a world in which battling with other trainers was as convenient as it was fun, any sort of success in that arena comes down to hours and hours of searching for that one-in-a-million creature. With that in mind, I’ll stick to the core narrative.
Which leads me to my final point.
As a writer and someone who’s increasingly critical of narratives, I find that Pokémon presents an interesting dichotomy when it comes to its narrative choices. Most Pokémon games try to tell two stories, both of which are generally the same in each game. There’s the interesting one, in which there’s a criminal organization, and interesting lore, and backstory, and centuries of mystery and intrigue with ancient Pokemon...
Then there’s the main plotline, which is defeating thirteen trainers of varying strength in order to become champion.
That core structure - the eight gym leaders, the Elite Four, and the Champion - is great when it comes to teaching you how to play the game, but after a few successive generations, it starts to feel stale. There have been times where I’ve wished that Pokémon would ditch the “group of children battle to be the very best” conceit altogether and instead focus on telling a compelling story within its established lore and universe. And for a brief moment towards the end of Omega Ruby, following my defeat of the aforementioned Champion, I got a brief glimpse of what that world would look like. It’s called the Delta Episode, and it’s my favorite thing that I’ve experienced so far in this game.
The basic conceit of the Delta Episode is this: There’s a meteor headed for Hoenn, and it’s your job to find a way to stop it before it obliterates the entire region. Scientists have one idea on how to fix it, and a mysterious former Team Magma agent by the name of Zinnia has another entirely. However, this meteor ends up sparking a series of revelations about the cosmic forces at play in the Pokémon universe, shedding light on a heretofore unexplored component of the lore that incorporates one of my favorite sci-fi concepts: [SPOILER ALERT] parallel universes. [END SPOILER ALERT] It all ends up culminating in one of the most cinematic moments in a Pokemon game, one that definitely couldn’t have been done ten years ago.
Pokémon is a world populated by hundreds of species of creatures with devastating powers and complex histories. It’s also a world where you can walk up to a kid and he’ll tell you how he feels about his shorts. As I grow older, it’s become difficult for me to reconcile one of those worlds with the other. (I also have to note that Omega Ruby features one of the franchise’s most well-developed characters to date in May, who goes from the thinly-portrayed neighbor girl we met in Ruby and Sapphire to a teenage girl with genuine thoughts, feelings, and conflicting emotions. More characters like this, Game Freak.)
Overall, it’s been fun returning to a franchise I once loved. At the moment, the jury is out as to whether I would play another Pokémon game. However, if my experience with Omega Ruby is any indication, the answer is more than likely yes. Pokemon is taking baby steps towards evolution into something greater than I could have envisioned ten years ago, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.