It may surprise the dear, loyal readership, but I have a secret: I’m kind of a nerd.
Yes, it’s true, I tend to spend a lot of time on the internet and in real life gushing about games and comics and whatnot. Shocking, I know. And, as a result, a lot of the people I meet in real life are also of the nerdy sort. So it was a while back when I was introduced to a friend of a friend – let’s call him Gary. We chatted it up for a bit, and soon discovered we were both into Pokémon. Thus, he asked me the requisite questions: Favorite Pokémon? Region? Generation? And I responded in kind – Torterra, Johto, Gen V.
He stopped too look and blink at me. “Gen V?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Black and White, you know?”
He paused for a moment, confusion spread across his face. “How long have you been playing Pokémon?”
“Since the beginning,” I replied. “Pokémon Yellow. In like 1999.”
“Strange,” he said, “I didn’t think it was possible for someone who played from the beginning to like Gen V.”
I was a bit miffed at the comment, but I didn’t do much more than roll my eyes and shake my head. There were plenty who disagreed with me, and I was fairly used to it. But Gary never seemed to let go of my taste, to the point where he called me “Gen V” until very recently (when he realized “Ben V” doubled as a pun). He’s not a bad guy, of course, but the fact that he’s constantly holding that over my head has always seemed bizarre. Do people really care about that sort of thing so much?
Of course, having spent so much time on the internet, I know the answer. Pokémon has been around for a good 20 years at this point, so those who played it on the elementary school playground when it first released are now having kids of their own. And in that interim, countless more have picked up a Game Boy or DS and experienced the adventures of the Pokémon world within. But for every person that lauds a certain generation, there are two more who deride it.
In fact, that sort of argument extends beyond generational appeal, and to seemingly every aspect of Pokémon as a whole. While the popular consensus may swing one way or the other, just about every Pokémon, gym leader, NPC, enemy team, region, etc. has fans and haters to some extent. There are few franchises that inspire such heated emotion within the fanbase – and yet, much like the so-called “Zelda Cycle” of popular opinion, so too does the conventional wisdom of the Pokémon fandom seem constantly in flux. No matter what Game Freak adds or removes from an upcoming title, chances are some people will be happy and others upset. Why is that?
Obviously, it’s mostly different people expressing their opinions at different times. But that’s what we’re looking at today – why Pokémon brings forth so many different types of fans; why most fans in general tend to prefer the generations of their youth; why few fans reach an unanimous decision on anything involving the franchise; and why – unfortunately – GF will almost certainly never make a Pokémon game that will please everyone.
An amorphous game
Pokémon, at its core, is a monster-collecting RPG. It’s not the first game of its kind – you can see its roots in SNES-era titles like Shin Megami Tensei or Dragon Quest V – but it certainly wasn’t a venerated genre when Red and Green released in 1996. The series tends to follow general RPG game design to a T – fight mobs to gain experience, which allows you to level up, which allows you to progress farther in the dungeon/world, and so on. Its main added wrinkles are the rock-paper-scissors type elemental system (far more complex than, say, the classical Final Fantasy fire-ice-lightning triangle) and the variety of Pokémon you can train.
But while the whole “use an electric rat to beat up a purple one” concept seems simple on the surface, scratch even a layer deeper and you’ll find a stunningly complex – perhaps even genius – game on your hands. Each Pokémon has its own individual set of stats in addition to its various attributes as a species that make it special. Couple that with things like Effort Values that allow you to affect the way Pokémon grow, and various other bits and pieces that affect stats, and you have highly unique – and sometimes exploitable – creatures to work with. There’s a reason the franchise has persisted so long, and it’s become one of the few RPGs with any sort of competitive scenes to speak of.
Pokémon also was one of the first games to really rely upon a social aspect as a function of its core design. From the beginning, Game Freak designed it so that players needed to trade and contact with others in order to complete everything. Was this a function to make more money? To an extent, sure, but Pokémon was perhaps the first franchise to actively focus on social elements as part of its game design, and all the more prescient for it.
Thus, Pokémon became easy to learn, and difficult to master – at once a simple RPG for children of all ages to enjoy, and a hyper-complex game of chess and strategy that makes Fire Emblem look like checkers. And for a brief, fleeting moment of time, all loved it. But, of course, it was not to last.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment the so-called “Genwunners” – those with reverence for Gen I and complete bile for everything afterwards – came into existence. Given that Gen II still received fairly unanimous praise (even if its popularity didn’t reach the insane level of its predecessors), so it seems safe to say that Gen III was around the point it started. Suddenly, more and more fans began lamenting that Pokémon “wasn’t like how it used to be” and “sucked now.” Why? Well, the reasons varied from legitimate (Gen III didn’t allow you to transfer Gen I/II Pokémon over) to asinine (all the new Pokémon suck), but the bottom line is that a rift began to form – one that has never fully healed.
To this day, there’s a large contingent of Pokémon fans who swear off everything after the originals, or maybe after G/S/C. They’ll tend to remember the old games with pure love with no mind for flaws, not recalling the insane bugginess or horrendous balance or derpy art, but simply the adventure. It’s almost precious, in a way. So why do they only ‘member the good old days?
Well… nostalgia glasses. It seems a rather banal answer, but it’s really the truth. A lot of these types played when they were children, and then when they didn’t grow with the games into adulthood, they assumed it was because the games changed instead of them. They didn’t formulate any fondness for newer Pokémon because they didn’t play it during their innocent days when they’d accept a lot more from games. This doesn’t hold for everyone, of course, but nostalgia is undoubtedly a huge factor. It’s particularly irritating to hear from these sorts of people that Pokémon “isn’t what it used to be”, because few other franchises have stuck to a formula so stringently throughout their history.
And that’s just the thing – that very formulaic approach dissuades another set of people. Those who loved Pokémon enough to play multiple generations, but also grew a more critical eye as they aged. They believe that because so much of Pokémon remains the same (grass/fire/water starters, bad guy team, eight gym leaders) that it’s really just a fresh coat of paint each time, and doesn’t really innovate. They welcome certain changes, but are frustrated because so little of the base ideas or design is ever tampered with. Comparing it with a franchise like Mario or Zelda – those that have myriad sequels, but frequently change or mix up elements – it’s understandable why they’re frustrated.
So you have two main sources of dissenting opinion – those who want Pokémon to be exactly like it was in their idealized childhood (which is impossible, because there was never a time when the series was perfect) and those who want truly fresh ideas for the franchise going forward (which is unlikely, because that has the risk of turning off some of the more loyal fans). But the worst comes from when these seemingly mutually exclusive opinions somehow collide.
“Pokémon is dead, long live Pokémon”
A couple days ago, I read a post on Destructoid that lamented the Pokémon Sun & Moon demo, claiming that it showed how stagnant and formulaic the series had gotten. While that point isn’t necessarily disagreeable on its own, the article contradicts itself – claiming that it’s simultaneously changed things away from the good old Game Boy originals and that the franchise’s design is static over the past 20 years. It’s not particularly well written, and brings up some baffling points (does anybody really care about the games’ level cap?), but what frustrated me the most was how I agreed with most of the problems the author assessed… just none of the solutions.
This, I feel, forms the crux of the issue surrounding the Pokémon franchise’s struggle with how much it should change and how much should remain the same – so many people like Pokémon that there are a multitude of opinions at hand that relate to how the games “should” be. While there are certainly people who align themselves with certain schools of thought, there’s rarely a unified agreement (except for the fact that there are too many Fire-Fighting starters; that one’s unanimous).
Think of all the types of Pokémon fans out there. There are the hardcore folk who visit Smogon daily and optimize strategy without a care for personal preference. There are the breeders who in attempts to get shinies or Max IVs will utilize digital eugenics to the point a fascist would blush. The very personality-oriented people who want not only cute/cool/interesting Pokémon, but the same thing from characters and the world. The classic RPG fans wanting a good story to supplement the tight gameplay; some wanting a darker and more “mature” take on the universe, and others more open to a standard if well done adventure. And, of course, the legions of kids on the playgrounds who will probably play the games anyway.
To Game Freak’s credit, you can’t say the company’s never tried to change anything. After Gen II (which was really sharpening and improving just about everything Gen I did) each new set of games has added something to the table. Gen III gave abilities and natures to make Pokémon even more exceptional than before. Gen IV offered the physical/special split to enhance and really change the way older Pokémon operated. Gen V focused on the story, offering an introspective look at what it really meant to be a Pokémon trainer. And Gen VI once again rebalanced the gameplay, adding in the Fairy-type and Mega Evolutions and offering more control over raising Pokémon through Super Training and Pokémon-Amie. Gen VII will undoubtedly bring more changes. Each one offers different tastes for different people – that’s why everybody has their favorites and their… not-so-favorites.
In a sense, it’s amazing what Pokémon has been able to achieve, and how many people have grown to love the franchise. For a game that’s ostensibly for children, it’s managed to keep the attention of many of those kids as they grew into adults, and today the franchise appeals to all ages more than ever. Some may say that it’s still not the same as their youth, or hasn’t made enough substantial changes to be worth noting… and maybe they’re right, to an extent. It is quite literally impossible for Game Freak to make a game that will please everybody. But it’s managed surprisingly well thus far.
Forever catchin’ ‘em all
My sister made an observation about a year or so ago: “Everything from the ’90s is being brought back, except Pokémon because it never went away.” Fads come and go, but this series has endured. Why? It’s a complex issue – one that warrants an article of its own – but I think the bottom line is this:
Pokémon isn’t just going to up and become some “adult” and mature series. It’s not going to change much from its origins as a solid monster-collecting RPG series that – at the end of the day – is for children. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had changes or tweaks over the years. It doesn’t mean that the games are ill-designed or somehow less inspired over the years. If you seem to believe that the franchise has declined over the years, and you can’t put your finger on it, ask yourself – was it only the games that have changed? Or was it you? Obviously the games aren’t free from criticism, but don’t chalk up personal preference to some sort of objective fact.
Pokémon is many things to many people. For some, a light distraction on their way to work; to others, their entire livelihood, a series so near and dear to them that their entire childhood revolved around it. It doesn’t always please everyone, but it doesn’t have to. I’ve met people whose favorite Pokémon is Vanillite, people who adore R/S/E’s trumpeting soundtracks, people who defeat the Elite Four with only a Magikarp. The way the series has reached out and touched so many is something that is truly, wholly special.
As for me – Pokémon has always been there. My earliest memory is playing Yellow Version in Hawaii when I was… three, maybe four years old. I’ve grown quite a bit since then, but when I play the games, I still feel that adventurous spirit well up inside me. Looking back, I was terrible at the game, had a completely skewed team, and was hopelessly lost… but I still loved it. And I probably will always love it, until the day I die.
And, to me, that’s all that will ever matter.Leave a Comment