GET UR FROAK ON
While most of my online acquaintances were geeking out today at the thought of a new David Bowie album, our house was far more excited by the announcement of new Pokémon games – Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, the first on Nintendo’s 3DS console(1). The announcement was made by the President of Nintendo himself, in a style not far off the Queen at Christmas.
The announcement makes Pokémon creators Game Freak look canny – widely criticised for releasing this year’s games, Black 2 and White 2, on the older DS machine, the rapid follow-up of X and Y shows they’ve been simply holding off until they’ve got a game ready (and a high enough user base to make it worthwhile)(2). After all, if these games make their ship date it will end up that the gap between console release and first Pokémon game is pretty much identical for the DS as 3DS.
So, good business. But good games? The reviews for X and Y are likely to be very similar to the last few Pokémon games, because X and Y themselves are likely to be similar. In fact you could write them now: global franchise, remarkable longevity, but will these be the last, finally they’ve included ____ but a change to ____ is long overdue.
In the case of Black and White the first blank was “a proper plot”(3) and the second was “the graphics”.
In this case your first blank will be “3D graphics” (duh) and the second will be – I’m guessing “the storyline”. Pokémon – like most franchises – is reviewed based on how much new stuff each iteration brings in, which is fair enough. But I think there’s an interesting disconnect between the game and its critics on what needs to change each time.
FENNEKIN YOU FEEL IT?
The main criticism of Pokémon games isn’t to do with the monster-battlin’ gameplay – addictive for kids(4) and generally acknowledged to have surprising strategic depth – it’s because the frame of the games is the same every single time. You start as a kid with a single Pokémon, catch and train others, and travel around beating eight Pokémon Gyms before taking on the Pokémon League – 5 battles in a row, and then you’ve won. Along the way there are shenanigans with villains – cue more battles – and a friendly rival or two to spar with.
This is the formula for every Pokémon game. It seems to make critics tear their hair out, but there’s no indication that X and Y will be much different. They MIGHT be, in which case this whole post will seem a bit silly, but I doubt it. The fans, after all, show very little sign of tiring of this stock storyline. (Though people who’ve stopped following it often cite the repetitive stories as a reason) (5).
Why do critics get hung up on this, and what are they missing? I think the answer lies in the kind of game Pokémon is, which people seem not to get – despite Game Freak mentioning it occasionally in their rare interviews. Before that, though, let’s talk about what it isn’t.
It isn’t – at least in the main games – a strategic or cerebral game, like Chess. And not just because chess doesn’t make its money by releasing new pieces every three years. Battles in games tend to be difficult only because of the relative power of your Pokémon, not because of the AI’s mostly basic tactics (6).
It’s also not entirely a RPG. This is shakier ground to be on, because obviously it plays exactly like a RPG. In fact my argument for it not being one is circular – the very consistency of the storyline and core battle gameplay in each game suggests it’s evolved into something else, a hybrid, getting away with a level of invariability which other franchises might envy. If it WAS a pure RPG, I think we’d long ago have seen the ‘open-world’ console version people keep moaning about.
CHESPIN ME RIGHT ROUND
A hybrid with what? I suggest that Pokémon is at heart a sports management sim. In a Wired interview last year, Game Freak’s Junichi Masuda tipped the wink – “what we concentrate on is that the gameplay is really solid — like a sport, like soccer or basketball”. But in the Pokémon games you’re not a player in this sport, you’re the manager – calling the plays, choosing the squad, scouting for new recruits, then sending your team on to victory. The franchise Pokémon is most like isn’t Final Fantasy or Zelda, it’s Championship/Football Manager. As if the final battle being called the “Pokémon League” wasn’t clue enough.
The structure of main series Pokémon games is very like a sports game – a set series of matches, between which you can train, improve your team, tweak your tactics, enjoy practise games, etc. Like most sporting sims, it’s a little bit utopian – apparent no-hopers can go on to win the league. Admittedly if you don’t win a match, you just try again until you do – no football sim is this generous – but this is a kids’ game, after all. One unusual feature is that unlike a football sim, where the sport created the management videogames, here the sim appeared before the sport: competitive Pokémon play – generally run on online simulators, wholly separate from the Nintendo games – shares rules and tactics with its originator, but is as brutally unforgiving as a real league would be for armchair managers.
Once you understand this, you can work out exactly what fans are getting from an apparently identikit Pokémon release – the same things as sports sim fans get from each year’s new iteration. Improved graphics, yes. Gameplay tweaks, yes – but at base they want the rules to be consistent and the storyline too: take a team to glory by winning the competition.
Instead what matters are the new players to weigh up, new tactics to try out, and a whole lot of texture. In real world sports sims texture is provided by the player: real life fandoms, rivalries and news stories. In Pokémon, with no real world analogues, not only must the players and tactics be created fresh each generation, the texture must too: hence the cities, villain teams, and rivals to give a framework for the Pokémon league (7). But make no mistake – as in a sports sim, the league’s the thing, which is why I’m so sure it’ll structure the main games in Pokémon X and Y, and why I’ll be rather sad if it doesn’t.
(1) these names, not terribly imaginative at first blush, are thought to be a reference to two of the three planes of a 3D graph
(2) you suspect Nintendo would have liked X and Y a little sooner, since Pokémon sells hardware as surely as vice versa, and the 3DS was something of a slow starter.
(3) this is debatable – Black and White won plaudits for their ‘complex themes’ mostly because they lampshaded the main thing wags objected to about Pokémon in the first place i.e. isn’t it a bit mean to keep these things on ice in Poke Balls?
(4) YES OK, Dads too. As an older Pokémon player at the start I’m now in a good position to enjoy playing it with my kids, and it’s great fun. I suspect we’re 5 or 6 years away from this Pokémon as cross-generational bonding effect being a significant element of the brand, a la Doctor Who, Lego, Star Wars, etc. If Game Freak can keep going for another couple of iterations it will do well out of this.
(5) the other reason given is the poor quality of new monsters. This is mostly nostalgia I think, given how rubbish some of the original ones were.
(6) not meant as a criticism – Pokémon is a kids game and kids’ tactics are pretty crude too. The effectiveness gap between average in-game tactics and potential ones – among Pokémon of the exact same level – would make the much-longed-for Pokémon Online MMORPG a horrorshow for new players.
(7) so texture is partly what separates good Pokémon games from lesser ones – and obviously every player has their own favourites. I keep meaning to do a review of Black 2 and White 2 exploring this – they made some interesting textural decisions which critics mostly glossed over.