To be the very best

Hello there! Welcome to the world of Pokemon!

My first memories of Pokemon came with an issue of Nintendo Power. Back in 1998, when Pokemon was just another Japanese thing destined to not reach American shores, Nintendo Power made inserts, half walkthrough and half comic, to insure us that yes, Pokemon was coming, and it would be good.

These inserts were a thing of beauty. Not like pictures you frame and put on your wall, but they were honest to god beautiful. They showed us a world, where you were able to go on the adventure of a lifetime. There was no story besides the story that you created, the path that you forged through friendship with Pokemon. Pure escapism, glued and stapled inside a magazine.

And, eventually, Pokemon came out, unlike all the other Japanese games we saw images of in gaming magazines, and we could play it. It was a physical thing, in our hands. This was the most confusing thing about it. We were used to seeing hordes of Japanese games, only to have the best, the brightest, not release for years, if at all. And here was this game, the most brilliant of the brilliant, getting a physical, stateside release. It was baffling. It was unheard of. It was fantastic. The only games I was more excited about when they came out were Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII, and they were franchises with years of history behind them.

So at the end of September, 1998, we went out and plunked down our hard earned allowance on one hundred and fifty Pokemon, in a Red colored cartridge. When we got it, when we jammed the thing into our old, brick Game Boys in the back of our parents’ car and turned on the power, we saw this:

Pokemon Red and Blue are different from other games. Sure, at its roots, Pokemon was a game like every other: you were a youth, you got a quest, you solved the quest through some sort of supernatural power. That’s very true. The difference, though, was how the story of Red and Blue begins. Other games thrust you into an unlikely role as hero, or begin with a day in the life. Red and Blue do, too, but they are like jumping into someone else’s shoes on Christmas Day. It’s not just any day, it’s the day the character, you, you as the character go out into the world, catch your first Pokemon, and undertake this massive coming-of-age quest innate to the Kanto region.

Sure, Pokemon’s coming of age quest was like if we as twelve year olds had to go on a quest around the country, playing Pogs with everyone, but it made sense. It was the kind of journey a twelve year old boy who had trouble playing with others dreamed of. Make friends with magical, ass-kicking animals and sojourn through the world, leaving everyone else in your wake? That was the stuff dreams were made of.

In a video game community obsessed with immersion, first generation Pokemon is, ironically, one of the few actually immersive games I’ve ever played. The easiest way to connect a player with a character is by having them share a strong emotional experience; the first moments of Pokemon, moments of exhilaration upon setting out on a long awaited quest, certainly qualify. Other games attempt immersion with graphics, sounds, believable characters; Pokemon had none of these things, but was more immersive than all of them. Even if the player is a small, gray blob moving slowly across the screen, it’s immersive if the pixels are doing what you’ve always secretly dreamt of doing.

Pokemon Red is also a profoundly easy game. It is a game about successes. To beat it, you’ll never actually have to grind. You may have to train up some new additions to your team, but that’s it. No running around a field to level up for an hour every gym to have a hope of beating it. And nothing bad ever happens. It flagrantly violates Kurt Vonnegut’s number one rule of good fiction (having bad things happen to good people) and comes out the better for it; everywhere you go, you systematically foil Team Rocket’s not especially evil plans and come out the victor. Which levels up your Pokemon, to boot.

It’s a game of forward motion, and exploration. Evil exists, but you quash it under your (or, rather, Bulbasaur’s) boot heel. Team Rocket never comes close to success. Gym leaders are often swept by the might of your team, and other trainers rarely bother you for more than a good natured battle. It is a journey without speed bumps. It’s a journey that was so good, it could spawn a franchise.

And that’s what happened. A franchise. Four main games, two remakes, countless side games, series upon series of anime and manga, and a dozen movies later, all thanks to Pokemon Red’s simplistic wish fulfillment. Pokemon Red was the spawning point for the franchise, and what a fertile childhood it gave the series.

And since First Generation, it’s gone off the rails a little bit. Purists state that the reason for this decline has been the introduction of hundreds of watered down Pokemon to the world, for variety. Casual gamers think everything’s too complicated. Hardcore Pokemon players think it’s gone uphill, not down, with the introduction of intricate mechanics, breeding, and natures.

The truth, as always, lies at an angle to convention. For this reason, I played a game from every Pokemon generations: Red, Crystal, Emerald, and Platinum. Despite their very similar, vanilla structuring, they’re very different games, and playing them consecutively provides an interesting view of how the Pokemon series has evolved.

Fittingly, Pokemon Crystal, Second Generation, was the most interesting, from an evolutionary perspective.

Are you a boy, or are you a girl?

Pokemon Crystal does not start by welcoming you to the world of Pokemon. It begins a trend of focusing on you, the player, and not the world. Whereas Pokemon Red introduced the concept of the world first, in Pokemon Crystal, you take top billing. It’s said that the most important thing in a story comes first, and this is, by and large, the problem with the Second Generation.

Not that Second Gen were bad games! In fact, one could say that Pokemon Gold and Silver were the best Pokemon games, and they’d be about as right as you can get. Second Generation is a fascinating set of games, and I could write volumes about it even though I’ve only recently played it*.

I would go so far as to say it’s possibly the best, and least Japanese, sequel of all time.

Pokemon Gold and Silver take the good ideas of Pokemon, then switch the focus to the player character. It’s something most sequels are afraid to do, especially Japanese ones: when given the opportunity to continue a franchise’s success, most Japanese studios opt for more of the same (an idea now permeating American development, as well). Gold and Silver, however, flaunt this theory by giving you a dramatically different game in substance, if not appearance. Yes, the general plot is the same, so most would remark on it as a clone. But the focus is different. In the world of Pokemon, the emphasis is no longer on experiencing the wonders of the world. I bet you can’t describe a whole lot of locations in Pokemon Gold and Silver just as a physical description. Sure, you remember the National Park (because of the Bug Catching Contest) and Whirlpool Islands because you catch Lugia there, but…everything else is kind of a blur. Whereas I can describe to you about half the landscape in Red and Blue, and I’ve only played it three times**. Not, “I did this here!” but “Route 9 has these features”. Specific stuff, unrelated to the plot. Second Generation didn’t have this; you remember happenings, not locations.

This is because of the focus. Red and Blue was designed so you drank in the landscape, and the Pokemon who lived there. The Pokemon were the stars. The tall grass, and the Pokecenters, and the caves, they were the stars. It was an immersive game, designed to bring you into the world. Gold and Silver, on the other hand, cared about the player, and about your Pokemon. I would go so far as to bet that you don’t remember your team from Red and Blue (unless it was your first Pokemon game; if it was, you might. I half do), but you remember your team from Gold and Silver. You remember all the cool stuff you did, too. Gold and Silver featured a lot more in the way of resistance: battles were harder, encounters were a bit more epic, and there were sixteen gyms, instead of eight. While in Red and Blue you were yourself, a plucky newbie who managed to harness the world and use it to conquer the Pokemon League, in Gold and Silver you were pretty much a badass from the start, prepared to conquer. And it gave you, the conquering hero, the epic encounters you craved, the spotlight your training skills demanded.

Welcome to the World of Pokemon

Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire begin with the line “Sorry to keep you waiting.” This might as well be the developers talking to the player, apologizing, in a profoundly Japanese way, that there wasn’t an immediate sequel in the pipeline after the success of Second Generation. It’s said that Game Freak didn’t want to do a third game, but were forced to when their brand became the major thing keeping Nintendo afloat. So they were “Sorry to keep you waiting” because their sense of obligation and duty had made the game a necessity.

Following that, though?

Internet buzz at the moment is scared for Pokemon Black and White because it is shaping up to be similar to Ruby and Sapphire. Third Generation is the black sheep of the family, the uncle you secretly know is gay and can’t wait to gossip about when he goes out to get more beer. Fortunately, I don’t think the third and fifth generation comparisons hold much water. But let’s get down to why Third Generation was such a failure.

And it was, most assuredly, a failure. I’ve played all four major games in the series recently, and during Emerald was the only time when I wasn’t having fun. It’s a very forced game. To use a good metaphor, Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire is Death Magnetic, Metallica’s newest album. It was Game Freak going back to their roots, mining the “sound” of their youth, except they aren’t as novel any more, so the ideas feel forced and flat.

A wise man might have once said that novel things are only novel once; afterwards, there is only the memory of newness. Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire is a game trying to be Pokemon Red and Blue, but with a foot still firmly in the character centric boots of Gold and Silver. It is trying to be everything at once, a game to satisfy all branches of the Pokemon community, and it fails. It fails pretty hard, in fact. If one made a poll asking “Which Pokemon is your favorite?” the only people who would pick Ruby and Sapphire played it once, it was their first Pokemon game (or had some special meaning to them outside the game itself), and they remember it being awesome.

The interesting question is why it failed. And here, we find that the public perception and the actual reason are markedly different. The consensus opinion is Ruby and Sapphire failed because it had a lot of new, overly complicated Pokemon, and got rid of the old guard. That’s a good theory, but it’s ultimately wrong. Fourth Generation had about the same density of new Pokemon to old, and succeeded. And Third Generation had some great new Pokemon, some of my favorites. Numel, Lotad, Seedot, Wingull, really they’re all pretty “good” Pokemon. Further, I like to think we’re not all such slaves to nostalgia that a new Pokemon game would suck because there are new Pokemon. That seems ludicrous.

What doesn’t seem ludicrous is looking at the thematic and pacing based elements. Thematically, Ruby and Sapphire were trying to do an awful lot of things. On the one hand, they were a decided attempt to return to the roots: emphasis was placed on new Pokemon, and on the world, itself. Ruby and Sapphire’s towns and areas try to have as much character as Red and Blue’s, but they ultimately fail. They’re definitely trying to tug at the nostalgic heartstrings, though (even in the game colors). Areas like the Weather Institute and the areas with tall grass and the various mountains are trying to be visually distinctive and novel, but we’ve seen these jams before in both Red and Blue and Gold and Silver. They’re not new, they’re your oldest toys with a new coat of paint.

On the other hand, they’re also trying to keep Gold and Silver’s focus on the player character and on your team. The competitive battling scene had begun to take off, and the new game had to cater to that, too. So new mechanics were introduced, making the game more complex, giving you even more control over your team. Suddenly you had to worry about EVs and IVs, mechanics that were never explained to the player, and much more complex typing. Suddenly there were things like fighting/psychic, frequent /ground typing, and more ghost types. These typing issues were the real problem. The new Pokemon weren’t uninspired, they were difficult, and a neophyte to the series would see them and freak out. How do you hurt ground/psychic? You may know, because you’ve read this far, but to someone new to Pokemon? Sure, it’s weak to everything, but to someone who hasn’t memorized the weaknesses of Pokemon, it sure seems impregnable.

And on a third hand, they were trying to emulate the friend-focused narrative aspects of anime: that’s why the Teams (Aqua and Magma) execute more dastardly schemes, and your rival has more friendly appearances, and why there are more recurring characters. They were going for personality, and a gripping story, and while that can certainly work, it can’t work if your focus is also on competitive battling and an immersive, free world. As a result, R/S/E is much more linear than previous games. You have to do everything in the proper order, and there’s often little indication about what that order is. While playing through Emerald, for instance, I ended up back in Rustboro City at some point, with the objective on the other side of the world. I say objective because there was nothing I could do besides backtrack through the world and go to the right place. The game progressed like the Pokemon anime, which might make a good show but not a good game.

It’s no wonder the game was such a mess. It was trying to be warm and nostalgic, suck you back into the world you loved as a kid, all while trying to provide content to keep the hardcore devotees entranced and provide a gripping, anime like narrative. It’s a mess, trying to be everything for every player of the game. Hardcore players like myself get bogged down in the unceasing attempts at memorable events places that fall flat; newer players get stuck because the battles are difficult and require you to have a good grasp of the mechanics.

This creates a messy game, who doesn’t know who’s playing it.

Hello there. It’s so very nice to meet you.

With those words, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl open, and show they know exactly who is playing them.

Fourth generation Pokemon knew exactly who it was targeting. What it realized was that most of the casual fans who loved the anime would buy the product no matter what. They’d enjoy it no matter what. What they wanted to appeal to was the gamer, the 20 year old who played Pokemon. Why? Because when you have a mainstream phenomenon, you need to make sure you keep your hardcore fans. While the Wii exercised the exact opposite approach to marketing, you can see in the coming year Nintendo taking a Pokemon like approach to the system: the casual gamers have been sold. They will buy whatever Nintendo deems the killer app. Now it’s all about making prestige games, that make gamers say, yeah, Nintendo is the best company in the world. It’s about rewarding the early adopters and providing them with a compelling experience.

That’s what Diamond and Pearl did. They knew that the anime fan would buy anything slapped with the Pokemon name, so Game Freak made a game for the hardcore gamer, who cared about the mechanics and the battles of Pokemon. The interesting things you remember from Fourth Generation are the battles, the blood and guts encounters at the heart of the series. It’s the most difficult game in the series, with a lot of additional competitive content at the end, and that creates a game which is very crunchy.

Might this have been a reaction to places like Smogon? Third generation felt out these hardcore Pokemon fans, and in the wake of the continued development of the hardcore Pokemon community Fourth Generation said okay, you guys are pretty cool, we’ll make a game that satisfies your needs. The result was a balanced, nuanced competitive game that really focused on the combat, rather than the world. The world of Sinnoh is, on the whole, pretty unmemorable. There’s some routes. There’s a couple lake. That’s all I remember, personally. Nothing sticks out, besides maybe Mt. Coronet, which gets bonus points for being huge. Otherwise, it’s a very stock world, but one where a lot of exciting battles happened, and an exciting stable of Pokemon live. I remember most of the gyms, for instance, because for once they were more than speed bumps in your way. I remember the Pokemon I caught, and how easy it was to make a team of Pokemon I like, old and new. By the first gym, you have a choice of twelve distinct non-starter types of Pokemon, more if you evolve them. By comparison, you had five type choices in First Generation, with a whopping two additional (Poison/Ground and Bug/Flying) if you evolve them. These choices made the game a lot more rewarding for hardcore players. On the other hand, none of these choices were things that were especially complicated; new Pokemon are introduced later in the game, for the most part (besides the Pidgey/Ratatta/Pikachu replacements), and the early game mostly gives you solid typed Pokemon who are easy to use.

That’s how Second and Fourth Generation differ. G/S/C didn’t really think about team building; it provided a lot of choices, but it gave you these choices slowly, drip-feeding you variety. Platinum, while also focused on battles, gave you so many options up front that it was liberating to those who liked developing complicated teams that fed off of each other. Additionally, all the starters were replaceable: in the first area you had Ponyta, a pure fire type, Psyduck, a pure water type, and Budew, a pure grass type. Lots of options provides the major difference between the two, and the area where Platinum exceeds its player-focused predecessor.

And that’s the kinship between the two. Pokemon games, actually, adhere to a bit of a pattern in this regard (admitting the small sample size up front). Red and Blue and Ruby and Sapphire tried to focus, with varying degrees of commitment, to creating a vibrant, exciting world. Second and Fourth Generation focused on the battling and the raising. It’s no wonder that Red and Blue were remade in Third Generation, and Gold and Silver were remade in Fourth; the major games of each generation shared the same general theme with the remake.

But what will Black and White be going for? What’s their hook?

Welcome to the World of Pokemon

Any informed observer knows exactly what Black and White are going for. Entirely novel cast of Pokemon? Pre-release features focusing on memorable areas of the world like Black City and White Forest? The addition of seasons to the game, as well as a visually distinct Pokemon Dream World, which looks to fulfill some of the promises of the Underground from Diamond and Pearl?

And I bet the game opens with the traditional “Welcome to the World of Pokemon” tagline. At the very least, it won’t open with “Nice to meet you,” because the world is the star here.

Personally, I think they’re going in the right direction. Ruby and Sapphire tried to be like Red and Blue, but ended up being a slightly derivative take on the old material. It was Death Magnetic: a band, twenty years older, trying to be them in their youth, and getting all the numbers right but none of the soul. Black and White seems more like something like Dinosaur Jr.’s Beyond: an old band, back together, releasing material more timeless than their original material***.

Black and White doesn’t seem like it’s going for novelty. Ruby and Sapphire had very few new features. In fact, they took away some features, like time of day. Black and White seem intent on providing new, novel things for the player to uncover: different, distinct areas between the games, more visual distinction in the places you go, and a whole new, 3-D graphics engine. The focus seems to be on providing us with the things that really made Pokemon Red and Blue exciting: the land, the Pokemon, the discovery. What I’m hoping is that they’ve discovered the balance between novelty and competition that eluded them in Ruby and Sapphire; the trick, I think they’ve learned, is to make a novel game, where new things happen and excite the player, and then provide a robust endgame for the more hardcore, competitive player, who would appreciate the game itself to familiarize them with some new ideas, then go into the endgame prepared to raise hell. While the less devoted play the game, enjoy the new ideas, then put it down.

And hopefully Game Freak found that balance between the two brilliant ideas they had in First and Second Generation.

*I never played Second Generation. I played SoulSilver when it came out, and then played Crystal recently, all the way to Red (who was a chump).

**Making this more impressive than my photographic memory of Chrono Trigger, which I’ve played twenty times.

***I’d apologize for the music metaphors, but you make an assumption that gamers have heard of Metallica in their depressed teenage years and everyone should have heard of Dinosaur Jr. because they are possibly the best band in existence.

****You may wonder why Fourth Gen gets a picture of its cover while the others get screenshots. Well, Nintendo DS emulators (the only good way to get screenshots) are fuckers. And while I played the first three games via emulator (safety note: I own a whopping 4 copies of R/B/Y, 1 copy of G/S/C, and 1 copy of R/S/E, so I feel it’s well within my right to emulate them), Platinum gets played via actual DS. I would have felt least bad emulating it, too, because I have 2 copies of it.

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About Tom Auxier

This space intentionally left blank.

Posted on September 2, 2010, in Feature, Opinion and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This really makes me want to play Pokemon again! All the versions sound interesting, I had no idea they did so many different things after Red/Blue (which I have fond, intense memories of!)
    : )

  1. Pingback: Pokemon Black and White Impressions « Nightmare Mode

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