I’ve recently started replaying Pokémon Red (after paying a somewhat exorbitant price for a copy of it off eBay). It’s been a wonderful trip down memory lane with a game series that I mostly abandoned following the second generation.
It’s easy to dismiss the monumental success of the series as a result of its appeal to children, but playing through Red in a more critical manner than I would’ve perhaps done back in 1998 (has it been that long?) reveals an almost flawless RPG, one where complex mechanics and depth are expertly communicated through memorable character and level design.
The two main gameplay tenants revolve around battling and collecting, with each of them designed to garner the maximum amount of player satisfaction out of the experience. Finding a Pokémon out in the wild requires the player to weaken it with their own Pokémon, until they are confident that it is weak enough to be caught. the sheer tension, excitement, and ultimately relief (or disappointment) brought on during an encounter is wonderfully palpable. The turn-based nature of the battle system, while purely statistics driven (and utilised by more in-depth players), initially feels as if it is driven by chance. It promotes a ‘risk/reward’ relationship for the player, ensuring that its consequences, whether positive or negative, are felt. For a game built upon highly repeated gameplay sequences, this is an absolute must.
The battle system does fall apart at times, particularly when the player encounters a Pokémon that they have previously captured. In this situation, there is no real reward for the player beyond a trivial amount of experience points, although it does potentially ramp up the excitement when a useful encounter occurs after a string of useless ones.
Even the music and sound effects serve to amplify (no pun intended, I assure you) the experience: the music for the battles is suitably intense, but with a thread of stoicism and determination. It’s then contrasted sharply with the victory motif, which is celebratory and also quite relieving.
Battle music from the first generation Pokémon games.
The surprising characteristic of the second tenant is that the act of collecting Pokémon is, for the most part, optional. The game can be adequately completed without really requiring any more than 6 different types of Pokémon in the player’s roster, despite the extended cast of 150 types that exist (at least, in the first generation). It’s a testament to the solidness of its design that many players actively pursue the game’s tagline of catching them all: the allure of seeking out and completing the set outweighs the relative lack of purpose in doing so.
The Game Boy’s rudimentary hardware necessitated simplification, not only in the amount of information communicated to the player, but also in terms of overall scope. It was not a platform for cut scenes or gratuitous amounts of dialogue, but one that bred clarity and conciseness. Pokémon is one of the most prime examples of this, and a successful one at that. It’s certainly one that’s stuck in my mind, despite the 15 year gap between plays, and I don’t imagine I’ll forget it any time soon.
The Pokémon games are a huge selling point for Nintendo’s handheld system, and no doubt the release of Pokémon X and Y on the 3DS will boost hardware sales of the console. However, Pokémon has never had a huge presence on Nintendo’s home consoles.
Sure, there are a few spinoff games on the consoles, and notably the Pokémon Colosseum series has survived in some form all the way through to the Wii with Pokémon Battle Revolution. However, these are just battle games, and they only have limited (if any) story modes.
With the Wii U currently at the starting blocks, waiting for a big injection of games to shoot forward and start selling some units, Nintendo are now poised better than ever to get a full Pokémon RPG onto their main console. Ignoring any statements made in the past about why they might not want Pokémon on a console, let’s look at why it could work.
Pokémon is one of the biggest selling points of any Nintendo handheld console. We already know that the Wii U needs to move more units, so there is a good incentive for Nintendo to do it. But Mario and Zelda move hardware, too, so why would Pokémon be any better? The key here is that Mario and Zelda are already very established on home consoles, while Pokémon isn’t. Basically, it’s something new for the series – and new experiences are something that the Wii U needs right now.
Looking at Pokémon’s target audience – it’s much larger than many would expect. Nintendo and Game Freak both know it well enough, but there’s a market for Pokémon outside of the primary target of children aged 8 to 14. There’s quite a bit of hidden complexity sitting underneath the forward-facing simplicity of Pokémon, and there’s quite a large hardcore community who appreciates this complexity. Another group of people simply grew up playing Pokémon, and like to enjoy watching the series evolve and improve over time. All of these target audiences for the handheld games would transition over to the home console just fine. (As an anecdotal aside, a full Pokémon RPG would definitely get me to buy a Wii U.)
The "console experience" would allow the mechanics of the series to expand, as well. There’s potential to turn Pokémon into a much more interesting, immersive world, utilising the mechanics that most JRPGs have had for years. A 3D game world would enable fights to take place on the field, rather than shifting off to battle mode. Also, the gym battles and the elite four sequence would be made much more interesting and would bring the feel of the gameplay closer to that of the anime series.
Anyway, now is the time for Nintendo to strike with Pokémon on the Wii U. Even if they’re not going to be doing a full RPG on the console, perhaps it’s time for a revisit some older spinoff titles. Notably, Pokémon Snap would be a perfect fit for the Wii U: The controller could act as a camera of sorts, using the "virtual space" 360 degree movement tracking that the Gamepad provides as a way to track down Pokémon in the scene. Another potential spinoff to revive is the Pokémon Trading Card Game, which would work well on the touch screens of either the Wii U or the 3DS.