Updated: Mar 26, 2020
Going from a beloved handheld title and into the barbaric, cutthroat landscape of AAA console gaming. This is a continuation of a blog series I started in November. I’m terribly sorry for taking this long, but things get busy!
Thanks to James Somerton for making this graphic! (twitter: @thequeerpope)
I. Adapt or Faint
You’ll never see grown men getting their panties in a tighter knot than when it comes to franchises meant for children. That's a blanket statement these days, and we'll talk about Star Wars another time, but here's for another beast.
Pokémon Sword and Shield received considerable backlash both leading up to and following it’s release. But Game Freak's announced that they’ve waived the third bonus-title in lieu of bona-fide DLC — and now the sky is falling.
My final verdict?
Yep. It’s a Pokémon game.
Honestly I’m not sure what everyone was expecting. Somehow everyone seemed to hype themselves into believing that it would be Breath of the Wild meets Skyrim meets FFXV meets Kingdom Hearts. But somehow, it was also supposed to also serve up those same feels and formatted experience as Red and Blue. The first Pokémon game on a console!
Those who played the originals somehow felt that this needed to be both a re-imagining and a nostalgic remake of the originals. There was no way Game Freak was going to manage to appease everyone.
Yes… the animations could have used a bit more TLC, and the graphics were… pretty standard for what you’d expect. But they were and far better than Switch games that have received far more praise (Attack on Titan adaptation, Fire Emblem: Three Houses). If the games were still priced at their handheld cost, I’d be all here for it… except for a few gripes, but I want to talk about coverage of the game first.
There are two kinds of reviews of Sword and Shield that you will find. Negative reviews are relegated to (usually men) making impassioned complaints about certain tiny details — few of which had anything to do with gameplay. And most of which revolved around having expectations that they assumed everyone else must have had, but which they also feel shouldn't have needed to be explicitly stated.
Positive reviews would come from mass-produced video channels where a narrator would read a script that was written for them, in which they just gloss over the games’ features instead of actually offering up a critical review of it. There are an abundance of these shows where pretty people who went to acting school will read scripts about fandoms they are not part of. (Usually a woman, sadly, fuelling the 'women need to prove that they're real nerds' narrative that has chased many a fem-anon out of game shops)
The best part is when they try to make 'inside jokes' about the franchise or make 'everyone knows' statements, where it becomes abundantly clear that they have no emotional investment in these properties.
So, most of the reviews out there are either there to bitch about expectations that were never promised by Game Freak, or they're clickbait. As a gamer, neither are useful for whether I do or do not want to purchase a game. As it happens, I ended up deciding that even a bad Pokémon Game is still a lot of fun. Luckily, this game was the best fun I’d had since I picked up the series (XY was my first, and I went back to play halfway through Pearl).
At the end of it all, I’m still not sure what anyone was actually expecting. Not just from the game... but what was anyone expecting Game Freak to do? Shift their entire flagship brand and go out on a HUGE limb so that they could keep up with largely imaginary requirements for what facilitates a modern game?
'Cause in my dreams, I have a plan... if I got me a wealthy man
Pokémon is a very bankable franchise, and part of that is because gamers know what to expect from a game. There are shoot-offs such as Pokkén Tournament and Mystery Dungeon — and now the successful Lets’ Go titles. But all of those have more of a niche audience than the others. The franchise’s stability is derived from being able to re-hash the same game over and over again with graphical and mechanical enhancements.
It’s a very delicate balance to manage trueness to the brand and engaging audiences with new features. Some are welcomed (Mega Evolutions), others are not (Beauty Contests). With a generational flagship Pokémon title, you know what you’re getting more or less.
Pokémon is Game Freak’s only real income so they NEED to make sure it succeeds. Seeing how the formula consistently succeeds, it's only going to change by small, safe increments to test the waters first. For instance, the times when they have vastly stepped outside their comfort zone have been met with strong criticism— like swapping out the Gyms for the Island Trail. Promptly, they switched back to the Gym system.
Swapping out the routes for an open world is a huge risk, and they dipped their toe in with the Wild Zone. It’s super popular, so we can probably expect to see more of it in a new game. If it wasn’t a hit, we wouldn’t see anything like it again. But even like making Pokémon look ‘more realistic’ is a tough one for Game Freak because everyone holds on to their own different version of what ‘realistic Pokémon’ would look like. Game Freak sticks with a proven model, but they just increase small details. The safest move is to keep them the same.
'Open world' is kind of becoming a gimmick for games that don't necessarily need to be. Does Pokémon need an open world to be a good time? Once upon a time, Pokemon games could have been described as 'open world' because there were no prohibitions on where you could go. I feel that Pokémon as an open world would be very successful — but I don't think that every game benefits from it.
I can understand that people are a bit upset about the exclusion of so many Pokémon but — once again — this isn’t anything that hasn’t been in Pokémon before. Games haven’t had the full Pokédex since Gen. 2. And after that to complete the national Pokédex, you had to import them: first from link cables, then from Poké-Bank. the Switch doesn’t have access to the Bank, so no — it’s not possible to get the full Pokédex. That sucks for those who have Shines, hidden abilities, perfect IVs, and Legendaries that they want to trade over, but I always insisted would be a solved issue when Pokémon Home was launched.
Given that Pokémon Home is being launched in February, I’d say that’s not a problem for much longer.
In fact, the whole DLC debacle has been far more of an ordeal than it needs to be. What were you expecting? Pokémon Throne? Or some other third title, vaguely distinguishable from the other two games except lacking version-exclusives and featuring a new Legendary on the cover for which you would have to pay full price? And you would buy it, because that’s just the pattern we’ve settled into. (Guilty…) At least BW had a sequel story.
You’re getting TWO NEW AREAS. For LESS than the cost of a DS game. The gaming population is getting to an age where our younger friends don't remember how heavily the early-mid gaming industry depended on 'expansions'. DLC isn’t new, by all means. It’s an integral part of the gaming atmosphere. Developing new material for a product that consumers already have is a low-cost way to expand income while giving consumers more content.
Don't lie you're gonna buy it anyway.
Yes, it is true that DLC can be very predatory, when games are spliced up before they're released, and the whole game is sold back to you when you paid sticker price for what was ostensively a demo. But there's a whole game in Pokémon Sword and Sheild... it’s also probably the case that Game Freak and Nintendo fully intended to release DLC for this game. Nintendo's been rather fond of post-release content for Switch games — a lot of it is free.
And then there’s all the whining about the frame rates and the Pokémon poofing in and out of oblivion at a certain range and honestly, Pokémon was never made for high-octane first-person action OR stunning photorealism — so why are we suddenly expecting this of the franchise NOW? The whole game format and aesthetic quality isn’t going to drastically change now that it’s on the Switch.
The Switch isn’t even THAT MUCH MORE powerful than the DS…
Game Freak, granted, is using an older engine, and is carrying over a LOT of previous-game data that’s attached to the engine so they could be making better use of the hardware by streamlining their coding. I mean, yeah it sucks that we’re having to play through Game Freak’s console growing-pains, but as long as gamers keep demanding these games at a faster pace, this is what we’re going to get.
At the end of the day, it’s a Pokémon game. If you didn’t know what you were getting into, it wouldn’t have been.
It just happens to be a very GOOD Pokémon game… but that shouldn’t suggest I don’t have my issues.
III. Mechanical Problems
There are three significant problems I have with this game. (excluding the fact that Toxic is no longer a TM so you can't teach it to Aegislash so like... what's the point?) Primarily… why the crap can’t we use the touch screen?
No seriously there’s no option to use it. It’s not like they couldn’t pull it off! And it has nothing to do with being able to play it on console because plenty of games handle the console/handheld transition just fine. It’s not like Game Freak doesn’t have experience working with touch screens.
Secondly: I love Hop. And it SUCKS that he never wins a battle against you. He literally cannot. It’s one of the few features I really did love about Sun/Moon — when you lost to Hapu, it was part of the game. You didn’t melodramatically loose consciousness like a damn queen. I’m sick of Pokémon protagonists being so sore-ass losers that they will resort to feinting like some whispy victorian.
Look. I just want to give him a win. He tries so hard and you just go around and steamroll his dreams into the ground.
I really hate the theme of ‘undefeated champion’ in the game. That’s a terrible message to send to people. You only really learn by loosing, but now Game Freak would like to tell us that real Champions are born with inherent knowledge and aptitude. Narrative-wise, I wished they’d handled it a bit better.
(I actually haven’t really finished playing the story yet. I got caught up trying to catch ‘em all when the map unlocked and then I got playing RDR2 again and… as it goes. But I’m at a point in the game where it’s becoming clear that it’s about Climate Change and I’m also not on board for the wealthy aristocratic businessman who’s out to protect the environment from these damn kids who want their battles. Like. That’s not fair, given whose policies have wrecked the climate.)
The thing that I loathe the most, to such a degree where I was prepared to swear off the franchise altogether — was the removal of Mega Evolutions.
IV. Mega LAAAAAAAME
Game Freak. That was SUCH A COOL FEATURE you had! Christ. It was so cool. I mean, it could have used a streamline, but it factored into tactics and changed gameplay without upsetting how the game was played.
Z-Movies were just… stupid. They were lame. They took WAY too long to do, they threw off battle pacing and more or less resulted in a 1HKO. I LITERALLY never used them because the little dance your always-smiling psychopath did were just stupid and annoying and Jesus Christ they took way too long. But Mega Evolutions were the absolute best — and let Game Freak take their minimalist monster designs and let then embrace something that was a little bit closer to the opulence of Square Enix. It was a fantastic compromise, both strategically and aesthetically.
Hey guys. It's a TOTALLY different game feature. TOTALLY.
Granted… Mega Evolutions would clash with Dynamax battles. How would you balance that? A Dynamaxed Mega-Evolution? Pokémon who had a Dynamax form can’t hold a mega stone? I guess. But if they’re gonna clash, just don’t do Dynamax. Or have it that mega evolving in certain places would result in Dynamax!
I mean... I guess they’re cool? But it’s a huge shame that only like… 10 Pokémon actually have a unique Gigantimax form. No. No-no. It doesn’t make any sense at all that only SOME Pokémon would have special forms. After that, you’re just in a weird ‘this is a rule, but there are exceptions’ territory. Just like every final-stage evolution should have had a mega form. Especially after ORAS and Let’s Go both made strong use of Mega forms, it’s just a huge break in the pattern when SM tries to make you avoid using them, and then they’re just not at all in SwSh.
This is a problem, Game Freak. You’re building your games around gimmicks and then you aren’t letting those gimmicks carry on into subsequent installations. You should have been focused on flushing out the number of mega evolutions, not getting distracted with dancy-dance super-moves — and then also abandoning DDR moves altogether with the next installation. Why are you going to so much effort to re-shape how the game is played in each generation if you undo it in the next game? What would it have been like if, after Generation 2, y’all decided that Pokémon breeding was passé?
(Riding my bike around in circles, collecting and hatching eggs only to discard all but one of each like some kind of Spartan Shaman holding a newborn over a cliff to inspect it for imperfections is 80% of my time spent on these games. Probably not what it was intended for.)
What reason are you going to give new and old fans to invest time and energy into getting familiar with these gimmicks if they aren’t going to be a mainstay?
I’m disappointed in that. And it’s more about not having a sense of stability for how to build the way I play these games. Which… is a little upsetting for someone like me who functions off of routine. At this point, I don’t even see a reason to collect gigantimax forms at all. Especially given that I compulsively catch—
E V E R Y T H I N G
—in premier balls for uniformity, and dynamax Pokémon disappear if they break free ONCE. Am I going to adapt and start using ultra balls? Absolutely not. I’d rather not have them than have a disorganized hodge-podge of Pokémon. Why not… let us do a Pokéball swap once we catch them? Pokéball customization? Or — have a special Pokéball that you can only use during raid battles.
She's sleek. She's stylish. She's held together with the blood of your enemies. Classy.
Or. Bring back Mega Evolution.
You know… I do get you want to cash in on the popularity of Niantic’s Pokémon Go, by trying to mimic the same feel of group battles in a self-contained open world. That’s cool. Not opposed to big Pokémon. I think I’d have an easier time with it also if only *some* Pokémon were special and got their own special forme. Especially seing as how you only get to USE these forms in like. 10 pokemon battles in the entire story.
(That said, gigantimax Gengar is totally cooler than Mega Gengar. Maybe just… make him smol. Smol-er. Regular-sized. Make that his mega-form, yeah?
All things considered, this is the most fun I’ve had with a Pokémon game — mostly because I came to the franchise late because my mom wouldn’t let me have a Gameboy. I am in love with many new features — the new moves seem streamlined and more unique. This is the most fun and stimulating new generation of Pokémon since Gen 4, I’d say. The English translation isn’t so insane. (Partly because it’s set in the UK, and therefore, it’s not out of place for NPCs to be saying things like ‘Right-i-o.) But overall the writing is approached with a bit more subtlety and maturity than the last few. SM and XY were over-dependant on long, monologues speeches about friendship from your rivals, and droning, nonsensical soliloquies from villains, desperately trying to explain why their motivation matched their objectives.
Actually I don’t want to talk about SM at all anymore.
V: Closing Remarks
But SwSh though… is far more gay than I would have ever dreamed of. You have Bede and Opal who… both use He/Him pronouns. You have Leon and Raihan who are obviously a couple. You have Hop who has the same romantic reverence to the protagonist in spite of gender and appearance. And you have numerous NPCs referencing their dissidence from heteronormative nonconformity. On top of the Pokémon anime introducing a major non-binary character. Like… listen Disney — that IS visible representation. And it’s all very light on the ‘sex’ part of sexuality. And more or less approaching it from a matter-of-fact perspective. Boys are gonna like boys; girls are gonna like girls; boys are boys because they say so, girls are girls because they say so, and some people are neither because they say so.
(And the non-canonical [kind of canonical] shipping is — really — it’s top-notch.)
Pokémon's first Bad Dragon trainer. Premium members of his OnlyFans get to see his collection.