9
Aug 14

Going Back To My Routes: Johto

FT5 comments • 495 views

packshot This is the second in a series of critical essays on the Pokémon games, one for each generation.

Where Pokémon Blue delighted in technology, Pokémon Silver sinks into history. After being given your starter Pokémon, your Pokedex and your mission, you walk into the deep woods of Johto and encounter in quick succession a tower built around an ancient, giant Pokémon; 1500-year old ruins filled with strange carvings and an entire race of enigmatic beings, and a well whose significance to its local village dates back four centuries. In that village lives Kurt, master of the art of Apricorn carving, a skill that predates the Poke Balls you use. Like the great trunk of Sprout Tower, the Pokémon world is putting down roots.

Pokémon Silver’s fascination with history culminates, of course, in its revisiting the game’s own past – all of Kanto (in somewhat edited form) is laid out for you to explore. But Kanto is as shiny as ever: it’s the newer region that feels more ancient – its primary legends, of Pokémon killed in fire then resurrected, are memorable and resonant in a way later game backstories can only envy.

sprout It helps, perhaps, that they’re relatively small potatoes. That origin for Johto’s “legendary dogs” is at the right scale for local folklore – a handed-down tradition, a village haunting made flesh. Even the game’s more powerful legendaries, Ho-Oh and Lugia, are minor godlings at most – credited with a few miracles but not with any wider cosmological role. And this fits with their game mechanics – by the time you nab one, it will comfortably be the most powerful creature on your team, but not something set up to defeat the League Champion by itself.

But the presence of mythic Pokémon, and the introduction of myths, brings with it an inflationary effect. The temptation is to make the legendaries more important, the stories more epic, and it is not resisted. That creates further distortions in the Pokémon storyline, centered on the specific role of the player – and the very type of stories the game wants to tell.

disaster Who are you, in the Pokémon games? You’re young, of course – this is a kid’s adventure story, and in most of the games you’re around 10 or 11. Kids running around with Pokémon is normal in the gameworld, and the gym system is set up to deal with this rite of passage – a “Pokémon journey” is a cross between the scouts (master skills, earn badges) and student Gap year travel (discover the world). Not everyone does it, but it’s a normal and well-respected part of life in whichever region we’re in.

So you’re a kid, but an unusually talented one. On this journey, you bump into other trainers – some (like Youngster Joey) are your age and tend not to be terribly good at what they’re doing. On the other hand, people you meet are constantly being surprised by the strength of your monsters and your skill with them – you (and your rivals) are especially precocious. From Silver onward, other characters in the game improve: your new friends who continually ring you up are training up their monsters – not quite as fast or as well, though. And something else – they don’t catch any new ones.

yjoey2 This is the other thing that makes your character unusual – the range of Pokémon who will trust and obey you. This is much more implicit than your strength – but most trainers in the game are specialists of one kind or another, and those with a range of powerful and unusual Pokémon tend to get names which reflect that: Pokemaniac, Ace Trainer, Veteran. But you have a bunch of evolved, multi-type Pokémon too, just like they do. So the game is subtly telling you, even before you get to the Elite Four and wipe the floor with them, that you’re special.

The question of just how special you are changes over the game series – and what drives it is the increased role of legendary Pokémon. As the games go on, legendaries become more powerful and the myths around them more ornate, and at the same time they get more central to the plot. Kanto’s legendary birds are almost late-game Easter Eggs, a matter of schoolyard kudos more than storyline – by the time we get to Black you have to catch the main legendaries to finish the game. So the games are pushed closer and closer to suggesting that there has to be something special about your character even beyond your precocity as a Pokémon trainer.

weirdtree Young protagonists in kids adventure stories exist on a scale of specialness. At one end are characters who triumph over baddies by being brave, resourceful, and lucky: Nancy Drew, or Tintin. At the other are “chosen ones” – characters destined or expected to achieve great things: the Harry Potter model of child heroes. As we’ll see in later games, the protagonists across the Pokémon games move steadily up this scale, until by Black there’s a heavy indication we’re a kind of chosen one ourselves (though the game also subtly interrogates these expectations). We’ve moved by then from adventure romp to epic children’s fantasy. But in Blue and Silver we’re still the plucky (if exceptionally talented) adventure hero.

This eventually necessitates some big shifts – in the structure of the story, and in the role the villainous teams play. I’ll look at the changing nature of the villain team more in the third post, since in Silver, Team Rocket are mostly interesting for how marginalised they are. They are barely a threat in this game, a villain team without a purpose, milling around rudderless trying a bunch of different things before launching a truly pitiful final plot: take over a radio station to beg their exiled boss to come back. In Red, the fights with Geovanni were pivotal, and his Pokémon presented a decent challenge. There’s nothing comparable in Silver: the ascent of the Radio Tower is fun, the rogues’ dialogue satisfyingly sneery, but the threat level is minimal. Pokémon Silver is a game about history – honouring it, revisiting it, and breaking free from it. Team Rocket’s failure, ultimately, is the failure to break free.

rockets However, this de-emphasis doesn’t make Team Rocket worse villains. Under Geovanni, their main scheme – taking over Silph Co, presumably to get hold of Master Ball technology – made complete sense given their aims of stealing and controlling Pokémon. In Silver, the Rockets are less of an organised crime group and more just spiteful bullies, given to petty and vicious rackets like cutting off Slowpoketails and selling them. There’s a cruelty to them which makes them just as memorable, even if they’re easier to defeat and they sniff around the margins of the story.

Here’s a possible problem, though. If the Rockets are on the margins of Silver, what’s at the centre? Nothing in particular: the main body of Pokémon Silver – up to defeating the Champion – is a shorter game than Blue, and a more incoherent one. It sets up three separate main plots – Mr. Pokémon’s discoveries about breeding, the history of the legendary dogs and the mythical Pokémon who created them, and the Rocket villainy – but these never intertwine. Even when the game’s later remakes bolster your rival’s backstory (he turns out to be Geovanni’s abandoned son) it gets shunted off to a special event most players won’t ever see.

yawn Does that disconnection make Silver a worse experience? Not at all – the payoff instead is that this game, more than any of the others, is confident that simply playing with Pokémon is a joy in itself. Later instalments amp up the plots, while the original game was still nervous that its core mechanics might not be that compelling, so dumped in a lot of RPG faffing with mazes. With Silver, though, the franchise is in as strong a position as it ever will be. It has a huge audience which knows what it wants, which is more of all the core stuff. More Pokémon – clearly the main draw of Silver – more Gym leaders, more Types, and all in colour. (The colourisation gives a texture, and a scrumptious chunkiness, to Johto – for the first time the Pokeworld becomes a place you want to wander in, not an environment to trek through.)

The success of the first Pokémon games guaranteed a long franchise – what they didn’t guarantee is that the franchise would work by applying a formula as closely as it has. It’s the success of Silver and Gold which did that – showing Game Freak that Pokémon was a solid game with even the most pared-down plot. But setting the formula in place – guaranteeing that the basic progression through the game would never change – also pushed the games towards more complex or epic storylines. Storylines in a game defined by formulaic mechanics and progressions are texture, just like sprites or music. But that texture is vital – it’s what makes each new game feel different. So the Pokémon games started paying more attention to it.

rival Silver represents a crossroads moment for the franchise: a game that is, wonderfully, “more of the same”, but at the cost of a slightly weaker story. Could a third sequel game have balanced things better – included new creatures, and new locations, and all the old ones, and still keep things texturally rich with a strong story? It’s unlikely – Silver packs a magnificent amount in, but it’s reaching more than a technical limit. Hard choices lie ahead.

A JOHTO GAZETTEER

night DAY AND NIGHT: “Good evening! You’re out late” – tiny shifts in detail can create enormous changes in atmosphere. The shift in the outdoor colour palette to muted purples and greys as evening falls in-game (and out of game, assuming you’ve synced your clock to the real world) combine with these five words from Nurse Joy in the Pokémon centre to bring the new day-and-night cycle in Silver vividly home. Suddenly your Pokémon journey feels more like an adventure, one you’re too excited by to sleep through, and the night is full of the promise of mysteries not to be witnessed by those timid souls who don’t stay “out late”. That the mysteries largely turn out to be level 5 Hoothoots doesn’t diminish the frisson of Nurse Joy’s comment.

phone THE POKEGEAR: The early 00s iterations of Pokémon all have the player carry around devices whose function is essentially adding breadth to the gameworld – via maps, interaction with NPCs, and bits of flavour like the Pokémon radio stations. Like the day and night counter, the Pokegear – receiver of endless phone calls from Youngster Joey et al. – is designed to give the impression that life in Johto bustles merrily on however you’re doing in your quest. It also sets up the obvious idea that the trainers you battle on the way are also improving, and might be ready for a rematch. The games have never quite made this idea work – the phone calls in Silver are half-charming half-annoying – and in recent games the focus has far more been on the meta-gameworld represented by Wi-Fi play, with efforts to round out the NPCs falling down the priority list. As of Silver, though, the idea of a region as a busy little NPC ecosystem was still very much a direction the series might go in – and the Pokegear, for all its clunkiness, is an evocative reminder of that.

alph RUINS OF ALPH: The Ruins Of Alph serve a vaguely similar function to the haunted Pokémon Tower in Red and Blue – a game location designed to feel eerie, speaking of deeper and stranger things than the rest of the world can countenance. There’s no real attempt to integrate Alph with anything else in Johto: it’s irrelevant to any of the three plots, and its only Pokémon inhabitants, the Unown, behave quite unlike most other Pokémon (and are ultimately useless, as I – and many others – learned after hard and futile grinding of one). The Unown even get their own separate Pokedex. In game design terms they’re a loose end or a free lunch, and the Ruins Of Alph is the appendix in the body of Johto. But in atmospheric and thematic terms they work beautifully. With Pokémon Tower in Blue the stakes-raising element was the supernatural – Pokémon even weirder than the rest of the weird world you’ve wandered through. With the Ruins of Alph it’s the obscurely ancient: in a region obsessed with history, this area with its freaky, variable primitive inhabitants is something unknowable, a piece that doesn’t fit.

ilex ILEX FOREST: Like the Ruins Of Alph, the Ilex Forest contains mystery – a “forest shrine” that’s home to a mysterious guardian, never seen in normal play. This is in fact the set-up for an encounter with “mythical Pokémon” Celebi, a time-travelling creature who will only appear via a secret event triggered by a downloadable item. This kind of cryptic extra – part of the game to this day, though nowadays the mythical creatures appear via an unceremonious wi-fi data dump – is one in-game response to the franchise’s enormous popularity. There was such a demand for secret content in Pokémon that the original fanbase took great pains to mythologise completely imaginary features and events: no wonder the designers responded by building more real obscurities in. Luckily even for those of us who never got a sniff of a Celebi, the Ilex Forest and Shrine is a seamless fit with the rest of Johto – its gentle, dim paths and hinted forest spirits building up the region’s sense of history and creating a forest location that’s more enticing than any other game’s.

miltank MILTANK USED ROLLOUT: If Silver is a game that revels in the basic concepts of Pokémon – more creatures, more gyms – it’s also happy to play a little with the format and include sly jabs and jokes at its emerging routines. The Gym Leaders are an obvious place to have fun with this – bend the formula without breaking it. So you get Claire, the final Gym Leader, who haughtily decides that (despite just losing to you) you’re not ready for the badge yet and sends you on an unwelcome side mission. But you also get Whitney, who it’s easy to read as a joke (perhaps a slightly sexist one) on the idea of the Pokémon noob – everyone else was getting into Pokémon battles, so she did too. The punchline, though, is on you: this fake Poke girl serves up one of the most difficult and notorious battles in the game: an encounter with the apocalyptic happy cow Pokémon Miltank, devastator of unwary players unlikely to have the levels to cope with it. (As is usually the case, when you yourself get hold of one of these monsters it’s frustratingly hard to achieve remotely similar effects: I am become death, the grinder of levels.)

bugcatch BUG CATCHING CONTEST: Civic life in Pokémon Blue was centered largely on the gyms – in Silver, the games begin to build out their world, and the day/night cycle helps them imply a daily routine. The Bug Catching Contest, held on regular days in the National Park, is the shining example of both this, and Pokémon Silver’s desire to pack in little minigames and bits of side business. Johto is an old, benevolent region threatened only at its fringes, and touches like the Bug Catching Contest, the charcoal burners in the forest, and the Apricorn trees show Pokémon inching towards the bucolic, routinized existence celebrated in games like Harvest Moon. Again, it’s an idea the series never quite returned to.

dogs WHO LET THE DOGS OUT: As well as integrating its big legendary Pokémon into the game plot, Silver works out something new to do with its second-tier ones – some action the player takes in the mysterious Burned Tower in Ecruteak City releases three of them into Johto, and they roam the game map appearing intermittently ever since. Roaming Pokémon are an answer to a question the games will keep returning to again and again – once people know what the deal is with Pokémon, how do you introduce challenging elements? This is one answer: tantalise them with monsters that are very – but not quite unfairly – hard to catch. If you snagged one of the “legendary dogs” you felt it meant something.

lighthouse OLIVINE LIGHTHOUSE: After the concentrated rustic mystery of the first half of your Johto quest, the rest of Silver becomes a bit less evocative – a succession of not terribly imaginatively realised small towns, with no great sense of place and mostly notable for what they’re next door to. The atmosphere in Cianwood, Olivine, Mahogany Town and Blackthorn mostly comes out of the stuff you need to do in them. The Lighthouse in Olivine – and its associated plot – is the part I’m most fond of, with its mission to heal a sick Pokémon who powers (or is) the lamp. There’s something very Johto-ish about it being a creature, not technology or a power plant, that does the job, and it creates a nice justification for your meandering trek along a sea route. Even so, it’s hard for me not to get the sense that the second half of Silver’s main game is a jigsaw of scrappy mini-quests, and one that suffers a marked drop-off in charm.

redgyarados THE RED GYARADOS: The Pokémon games are littered with add-ons that are mainly in-game signals of their console’s fancy technology – that exist purely because suddenly they can. The most enduring and important of these are shinies – variant-colour Pokémon of extreme scarcity, which could only exist after the games switched up from black and white. Shinies are a showoff feature that actually got more significant and well-known over time – in Silver the word “shiny” is never used, and there’s no in-game hint that any might exist bar the Red Gyarados you battle at the Lake Of Rage (who of course isn’t rare at all, there’s one in every game). Shinies have never made a jot of in-game difference to battling or collecting – they are creatures of pure scarcity value, and as we’ll see in later pieces, they start coming into their own as Game Freak find it harder and harder to introduce in-game rarity into Pokémon.

Meanwhile, every Silver player potentially gets a Red Gyarados of their own – a powerful creature in its own right. The specifics of individual Pokémon aren’t really what this series is about, but Gyarados is worth a mention: it evolves, of course, from the famously weak and useless Magikarp, and is a useful reward for a trainer who perseveres in raising that floppy fish. The Magikarp payoff is an example of the kind of currency of knowledge Pokémon games initially relied on. Evolving one is something any player could do, but many wouldn’t, so there would have been kudos in being the first in your group of friends to get a Magikarp up to Level 20 and spread the word about what happens next. Even by Silver, that kind of knowledge-based scarcity is under threat. The success of Pokémon meant a growing, attentive online audience – who could swap knowledge, even if they couldn’t easily swap creatures. Obviously, by then almost every player knew about Magikarp, and the Red Gyarados ties a nice bow on one of the original game’s most enjoyable discoveries even as it ushers in a new kind of rarity.

championfight THE CHAMPION: While battling Team Rocket at the Lake Of Rage, you get help from Champion Lance and his Dragonite – a return of one of Blue’s tougher NPCs, and cool to see in its own right. But it sets up a tradition that’s continued ever since, of the League Champion as an in-game NPC who will pop up from time to time to offer help and advice. It’s a necessary step – the games find it hard to replicate the initial excitement of the final showdown with your Rival in Blue, so the Champion needs building up as a major figure in advance of any battle. It’s particularly the case on Silver, where the slight charisma gap of the main game’s second half extends to its final battles. With no Geovanni, and the Rival dealt with before the Elite Four, the Champion battle steps up as the climax of the main game: it has to feel important. Except, of course, Pokémon Silver has another card to play…

magnet_train KANTO AGAIN: The return to the Kanto region – or a miniaturised version of it, with routes and locations cut down for space reasons – redeems Silver’s midpoint sag: the game has been saving its best idea for last. The sequence is part romp – you breeze through locations that took hour after hour originally – and part a way of revisiting old battles and triumphs, now scaled up and made more challenging. Saving it for the postgame is a typically tidy Game Freak decision – new players need not feel excluded by the veterans’ delight. It’s here that the care taken to establish Johto as a region with its own personality pays off – Kanto is still a land of busy suburbs and neat technology, now more compact than ever compared to the forests and whirlpools of its neighbour.

The only problem is that it sets up an expectation the rest of the Pokémon series can never quite fulfil. Silver is a sequel to Blue in a way the series doesn’t attempt again for over a decade – the next games try aggressively to be a clean break. But the Kanto sequence is one of the most beloved parts of all Pokémon – to this day, every time a new title is announced, a second region to explore is high on fan wishlists, and the Kanto return is at the root of the endless fan longing for a console version of Pokémon that will include every region. It could be wonderful. Why don’t Game Freak do it? The clue, I think, is in Silver’s scrappy plot. As I’ve said, this is as disposable as the game’s storyline ever gets, and it’s because the story of Red and Blue is so simple and complete – the villains defeated, the rivals humbled, a happy ending. From now on, the series starts putting more and more weight on its story, and it’s not until 2010’s Black and 2012’s Black 2 that a game is designed to leave room for a sequel.

mtsilver MT SILVER: Pokémon Silver ends with its most obvious but also most haunting idea. The main problem with a Pokémon sequel isn’t even the need to cram everything in all over again. A far bigger issue is what you do with the previous player character – the triumphant victor over Team Rocket and the region’s champion. The answer is – duh – you fight him. But Red can’t be a villain, and he can’t be a hero (or he’d be sorting out the job you do in the main game). The answer is to make him a hermit – training on top of the secluded and snowswept Mt Silver, honing his ultra-levelled Pokémon and silently waiting for challengers. Fighting him, in a cold high place overlooking the Pokemon universe, is fighting your former self – and you are likely to come up wanting. The bleak location and the wordless confrontation make for one of the series’ most bewitching and mysterious moments, a final encounter with history in a game all about them.

NEXT: Hoenn! A playthrough of Pokémon Ruby, and an essay on difficult choices, fantasy environments, and a life on the ocean wave.

Comments

  1. 1
    Tom on 9 Aug 2014 #

    This post was based on a playthrough of Pokemon Silver (using a pirated ROM – my original copy of Gold’s internal battery has died)…. which I haven’t actually finished. Current team (just before the E4):

    Lugia (L41)
    Ampharos (L42)
    Piloswine (L38)
    Granbull (L38)
    Feraligatr (L37)
    Gyarados (L30)

  2. 2
    abcfsk on 9 Aug 2014 #

    Enjoy these a lot! Great take on the world, again. Never played Gold/Silver except over the shoulder as a friend got it and awed me with the real time system.

  3. 3
    Tom on 11 Aug 2014 #

    As a quick appendix, I also did this http://www.slideshare.net/tomewing/how-big-is-pokemon – a useful frame for later instalments perhaps…

  4. 4
    Cédric on 14 Aug 2014 #

    As a Pokemon noob who has just started my first game with Y a couple of months ago, I’m enjoying these a lot, even if they’re full of spoilers for games I may yet get to, I get to learn how the game got where it is today.
    What I’m wondering though, is why you choose to mention only one of each generation’s game (Red, Silver, Black…) almost as if the other didn’t exist. I mostly picked Y over X at random, so I’m curious.

  5. 5
    Tom on 14 Aug 2014 #

    Hi Cédric! Glad you’re enjoying it. Each post is based on a playthrough of one game – Silver in this case, Blue in the former one. So rather than endlessly type “Red/Blue” or “Red and Blue” I made the stylistic choice to only talk about the game I had played when writing the post. BUT this is starting to annoy even me so it might be that I fall in line with everyone else writing about the games and go for “Ruby and Sapphire” next time.

    (I also wanted to make it clear I was discussing the original games, not the third games or remakes – though that stuff might get its own posts later on…)

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