31
Mar 17

Going Back To My Routes: Sinnoh

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pokemon pearl This is part of a series of critical essays on the Pokémon games. This one is about Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, the fourth “main series” games, and inevitably contains LOTS of spoilers for anyone who hasn’t played them.

WHAT A WELL-MADE WORLD

Every generation of Pokémon games reacts, inevitably, to the one before. In Gen III’s Hoenn region, nature had the upper hand – man had to compromise and adapt to it, literally carving out his niche. In Sinnoh, home region of Pokémon’s fourth generation and the Diamond and Pearl games, nature has been thoroughly tamed – delved, cultivated, and exploited. The first areas of interest you visit are a working mine, a flowery meadow and a wind farm. None of the towns have the wild, precarious character of the Hoenn settlements – instead, they are solid and well-established, to the extent that they seem to blur together. Oreburgh, Veilstone, Hearthome… it’s one well-rendered stony town after another.

dp1 Sinnoh is based, like all three prior regions, on an area of Japan, but for this Westerner the geography it most reminds me of is Switzerland – a combination of mountainous, cold, sometimes damp terrain and a refined, genteel outlook. Features like Floaroma Town and the Pokémon Mansion are tasteful, even fancy. There’s a hotel and leisure complex to explore, and even an exclusive park you can walk your Pokémon in – if they’re cute enough. Sinnoh is the most developed, and in some ways most placid of the regions. You get the feeling the burghers of Sinnoh are a stout and prosperous lot.

This isn’t to say Sinnoh is free of geographical incident – far from it. In Ruby and Sapphire, the addition of weather – and the greater graphics capacity of the GBA – let the designers run wild with a region that was a magnificent but senseless patchwork of terrain, like Flash Gordon’s Mongo. Sinnoh feels better planned and more credible. It’s a mountainous region, which means snow, lakes, and plains. Everything springs from a single feature – the mighty peak of Mount Coronet, which splits the region in two, and whose ascent marks the climax of the game’s main plot. Sinnoh is the most coherent Pokémon region – it makes sense like Kanto and Johto did, but also manages to fit in some dramatically different, highly atmospheric areas.

fog It’s also the most physically demanding region, in terms of the in-game requirements. On top of the standard progress blockers – trees, rocks and water – there are steep slopes and foggy areas, which need new moves to negotiate. And there are two sections – the swampy areas in and around the Great Marsh, and the snowbound routes in the north of Sinnoh – where the game specifically impedes the player’s ordinary movement, making them stick in the mud or slowing them down.

Like an awful lot else in Diamond and Pearl, this is a clever idea that quite quickly becomes irritating through repetition. The first time you get stuck in the mud, it’s atmospheric. By the second or third, it’s more skill-free button mashing in a series with no shortage of it. These games play slow anyhow – everything from saving the game to the shrinking of your HP bar seems to take longer. Some of this is the programmers getting to grips with the DS (the save glitch was ironed out in third game Pokémon Platinum), but some of it is the consequence of a series which is becoming bogged down in detail. The curse of combat in Ruby and Sapphire – extra animations every round due to weather, then more extra animations thanks to Pokemon Abilities – returns, except it all feels even longer.

BY CALCULATION I’M WAY TOO MUCH

Diamond and Pearl carry this rococo design philosophy over into the rest of the game, too. The Gen IV games are defined by excess – in new features, new mechanics, and a glut of extra evolutions and legendaries – but this excess is squeezed into an increasingly tight game formula. For instance, this generation is the apex of the HM (Hidden Machine) era: Rock Climb and Defog join Surf, Fly et al as field moves, giving you fewer team options as you have to cart around creatures who know all these. And while the game contains a bunch of new evolutions for old monsters, they evolve in particularly fiddly and unintuitive ways. Woolly mammoth monster Mamoswine is, as it happens, my favourite beast in the series. To get him you need to find a 2nd Gen Pokémon and level it up after it’s learned a certain move which it has to be taught by an NPC tutor. None of this is intuitive, or explained in-game: Pokémon at this point is assuming a meta-game of information trading and online searching.

Plenty of stuff is explained in-game, though – at length. Contests return with more complex rules, berry patches reappear, Pokeblocks get a makeover as Poffins, and there’s an entire ‘Underground’ section which feels like an old-school Wumpus Hunt type of game and replaces and expands on the Secret Bases from Gen III. As with the original Contests in Ruby and Sapphire, you can opt out of much of this – but it all makes the game seem that much fussier, and whether you join in or not you’ll still have to sit through long stretches of NPCs describing it.

encounter That’s in addition to plenty of time spent listening to people explaining the plot. Which, as in Ruby and Sapphire, revolves around ultra-rare legendary Pokémon and a villainous team’s attempts to exploit them. Yet again, it’s a scaling up of the role of legendaries. In Blue, legendaries were simply local colour, exotic super-pokémon whose capture showed how far you’d come as a trainer. In Gold, they had a proper backstory but were still tangential to the plot. In Ruby, they moved to the centre, and in Pearl, the entire third act involves chasing around multiple locations trying to stop the evil Team Galactic abusing three different legendary Pokémon to gain control of even more powerful ones.

Given how railroaded any Pokémon game is, it’s impressive how well these sequences work – from the moment the region is rocked by an explosion while you’re in the Canalave Library, to the denouement of the Team Galactic plotline, there’s a real momentum to the story. It’s a race against time that is, in any gameplay sense, entirely fake – you can spend weeks in between destinations training up your Pokémon and still arrive at Lake Snowpoint seconds too late – but it jacks up the excitement considerably after what’s been a rather tortuous game.

The race to stop Team Galactic is the most successful example of something the games have been trying to do all along. Diamond and Pearl, like their predecessors, want you to explore their geographies and moods, but they also want the games to feel a little less linear. They have occasional branching paths, but mostly they try and achieve this by filling your adventure with loops and there-and-back-again quests where you’re continually checking out new locations only to be sent back to the older ones.

While other Pokémon games resemble a circuit, the Sinnoh games are like tracing the petals of a flower, constant journeys out from and back to a set of central locations – Mount Coronet, Hearthome City and the Valor Lakefront. This helps Sinnoh seem like a working, well-planned region, but hurts the satisfying sense of progress central to most Pokémon games. Once again, Diamond and Pearl feel fiddly and overloaded with detail. But once you’re rushing – or dawdling, just as you like – to stop a terrorist threat, the back-and-forth nature of Sinnoh’s mapping feels more legitimate.

galasctic The terrorists in question are another place Diamond and Pearl try something new. Like the Legendary Pokémon, and alongside them, the villain team have changed their role. As the storylines have shifted gear from a narrative of personal mastery – being the very best, winning the league – to something more along the lines of epic fantasy quests, they’ve run up against the problem of poor antagonists. The charm of Team Rocket was that they were small-stakes racketeers and crooks, but that’s not enough when you want your villains to threaten the world (whether you should want this is another question). Team Aqua and Team Magma’s farcical opposition made thematic sense but reduced both teams to packs of equal and opposite idiots, with the plot set in motion by their naivety more than their villainy.

With Team Galactic, though, we get a new kind of villain team. They feel like they’ve stepped out of Marvel Comics or James Bond films – a super-science society whose plans, it’s clear from the beginning, go far beyond petty larceny. There are hints – particularly in Pokémon Platinum – of rivalries and factions within the group, and there is a hierarchy of grunts and Commanders that makes some kind of sense. They have an overall air of fascistic competence and malice quite lacking in Ruby and Sapphire’s teams. It helps that Cyrus, their leader, actually gives you a tough fight or two.

barry The elevation of the team boss into the story’s primary antagonist is linked to another change: a permanent shift in the role of the Rival. Barry, your occasional foil in Diamond and Pearl, is not remotely your enemy – in fact, he’s a great chum of yours and helps you out (if ineffectually) in the plot. We had two agreeable rivals in Ruby and Sapphire, but they were still people you met on your journey and whose main importance to the plot was battling you. With Barry the new rival role is set: a friend who will test your strength occasionally but help out too.

Why does this shift happen, particularly when in the first two generations the Rival is the most memorable NPC around? Some of it is just that Game Freak likes to emphasise that the Pokémon world is a benign one, where co-operation is the rule and antagonism the exception. Friendly rivals are a way a game about battle can avoid being a game about domination.

FOR WHAT GOOD WILL LOVE DO ME?

But there’s another, thematic reason. All through the series the Pokémon games like to give the player character analogues – people who stand as examples of what not to do as a trainer, or represent paths not taken by the player. In the early generations these are the rivals: Gary Oak/Blue is the overconfident, arrogant trainer; Wally is the underconfident trainer who doesn’t realise his own ability; Silver is an angry trainer who uses his Pokemon as tools of his vengeance. The differences with the player here aren’t differences in battling styles (which the game’s AI can barely gesture at anyway), they’re in-game differences in philosophy.

For the first three Generations, the rival’s role is to demonstrate that the game’s conception of a harmonious, kind relationship between – well, take your pick: man and nature, bosses and employers, children and pets, teammates, different elements of society – is the correct path. But as soon as the team boss becomes the antagonist, they inherit that job. (X and Y is a partial exception – there certainly is a huge philosophical gulf between Lysandre and the rest of the game, but for once this distance isn’t really expressed via the metaphor of Pokémon training.)

So the important thing about Cyrus isn’t so much his actual plans – which fit his Marvel science-villain archetype – but how he comes to them. For the first time, we encounter a relative of the boss, Cyrus’ grandfather, who tells us that Cyrus was a talented boy and great student, but he was asocial and over-pressured by his parents. His subsequent rebellion took the – somewhat extreme – form of a decision to destroy the universe and replace it with one with perfect order and no emotion.

cyrus plans

In other words, he’s another failed player analogue – this time operating at a more meta level: the player who wants complete control with none of the communication and sharing that Pokémon likes to promote. Cyrus wants the cheat codes to the Universe. There’s obviously a lot to unpack with him, impressively so since his actual dialogue is dull and melodramatic. There’s a contemporary Japanese worry about pressuring kids, and how brilliance can tip into nihilism. There’s a rather less attractive thread about how Cyrus doesn’t get emotion and prefers machines to people, a stereotype of neuro-atypicality. And there’s the fact that this solipsistic control freak is the villain in the Pokémon game where Game Freak are taking their first tentative steps towards online gameplay, finding ways to open up their own neatly structured, perfect worlds.

Cyrus’ villainy is about control, but also about cheating and hacking – rewriting Pokémon’s code on an in-game level. Within the neat, ordered, setting of Sinnoh this is expressed as a plot which contrasts legitimate energy – the windworks, the ironworks, even the mine – with the illegitimate energy Cyrus wants to exploit by abusing Pokémon.

Cyrus’ experiments are presented as fundamentally wrong on a wider, more cosmic level, too. There’s a mystical side to what he’s doing, harnessing Pokémon who represent higher human qualities (will, spirit and knowledge) to open a portal on top of Sinnoh’s highest, most mystical place. But the place was there waiting to be used: all through the game the player has found fragmentary details of Sinnoh’s (and the Pokémon world’s) creation myths which imply that primal forces lurk beneath the region’s well-ordered exterior. Cyrus’ plot is not just science gone wrong, it’s science gone wrong in a particular way, disturbing the remnants of an older cosmic order which Cyrus has accurately realised is waiting to be unleashed. And the Pokémon he wants to harness go further than any we’ve seen before, controlling Time and Space itself.

distortion The archetypes the series is toying with here are miles away from Pokémon’s previous reference points. Cyrus’ plot thread is a Lovecraftian one about cosmic horror – if you go Too Far in your search for knowledge and power you unlock things man was not meant to know. In PokémonPokemon Platinum this becomes explicit: Cyrus succeeds in opening his gate to the “Distortion World”, a reality where the laws of physics (expressed by game controls and directions) break down and which is haunted by Giratina, a kind of cosmic worm who is the most Cthulhoid creature the series has ever created and was apparently banished from our dimension for some Hadaean crime. In opening the Distortion World, Cyrus’ search for control has corrupted reality itself, and the player has to put it back.

The strand of cosmic weirdness of Diamond, Pearl and Platinum overflows the rest of the plot. It’s the endpoint of its commitment to excess – a surfeit of themes, ideas, side quests, mechanics, evolution methods and artificial obstacles. The weird aspects both work and don’t – they mesh badly with the setting and the rest of the story, but that also makes them more memorable and uncanny.

But the big question about Diamond and Pearl is what all this excess is in aid of: why did Game Freak make these games so fiddly and baroque? I have the sense that Diamond and Pearl has a case of overcompensation – that it’s a game slightly ashamed of its formulaic aspects: the battle system, the trading, the 8 badge quest. It doesn’t yet feel able to break out from these so instead it gives people too many other, weaker, things to do, hoping that the different gameplay styles will widen its appeal without the need for a major rethink becoming apparent.

uxie Of course, the games are also a response to the new technical challenges of the DS – Pokémon was built for a single-screen game and dealing with the DS’ second screen (and especially its wifi connection) offers a much bigger challenge than adapting to colour did. This isn’t truly a challenge Game Freak passes – particularly in terms of integrating the second screen – and it will trouble them for several generations to come.

As of writing, Diamond and Pearl feel like awkward, misfit games. If you buy a new 3DS, they are the earliest Pokémon cartridges you can actually play on it, and compared to the step changes in storyline, graphics, and user experience the next three generations bring, they feel horribly unwieldy. There’s much talk of a remake of the games in Gen VII, which makes commercial sense in some ways – Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were major hits – but would also be a kind of rebuke. Diamond and Pearl remakes would be the first time Game Freak have redone games which you could, in theory, still just find and play on the same machine.

And fitting Diamond and Pearl into the Sun and Moon template would require more than just graphics and stat tweaks. The two generations have completely opposite ideas about gameplay – Diamond and Pearl is all about making it artificially harder to do things; Sun and Moon goes out of its way to be fair to the player and offer a smooth playing experience which lets the game’s genuine difficulties surface naturally in the course of the story. A remake would be more of a rescue job than any of the other revisitations the series has enjoyed.

Yet there are continuities between the two generations. Sinnoh had the potential to be what Alola eventually was – a region that feels genuinely organic and well-planned, a living setting. Gameplay choices – and to some extent the plot – meant it never achieved that potential. But it deserved better, and perhaps might receive it. For now, Diamond and Pearl are the worst main series Pokémon games (though the overall quality is high enough that this is faint damnation).

But the issues the Sinnoh games were trying to address were real ones that the series had to deal with. What makes a good villain in a kids’ monster-collecting game? How do you attract a wide variety of audiences with the same core gameplay? How do you make a region feel real? How do you incorporate online play? And most of all, what the hell do we do with over 400 Pokemon? Diamond and Pearl were asking the right questions, even if most of its answers were lacking. With the DS proving popular enough to support two generations of Pokémon games, the next instalment would allow for some far more radical responses.

A SINNOH GAZETEER

intro

OPENING SEQUENCE: Diamond and Pearl have one of the best opening sequences in the series – you’re dragged off by your friend on a hunt for legendary Pokémon, a minor transgression which leads to the beginning of your adventure. It’s a nice variant on the rather staid coming-of-age Pokémon quest, which promises a game that pays a bit more attention to narrative and motivation. (A promise only half-kept.)

floarama

FLOARAMA TOWN AND VALLEY WINDWORKS: Sinnoh is a well-planned and thought-out region overall but individual setpieces are a bit lacking compared to previous games. After the geographical crazy quilt of Hoenn, the designers seem short on inspiration. But some locations do stick in the memory: the vast fields of flowers in Floarama Town and the neighbouring Valley Windworks cement the impression that Sinnoh is a gentle (and genteel) place to spend time.

Poketch

POKETCH: The “Poketch” is Game Freak’s first answer to how to use the lower screen on a DS, a problem they repeatedly have trouble with. The solution this time is to use it for a bunch of bonus minor tools that the standard interface doesn’t have room for: step counters, Pokémon compatability checkers, reminders of the last beasts you caught, and so on. These are presented as apps on a watch, which is a rather neat bit of futurism for 2006. And most have some genuine use – the one that shows you where ripe berries are, for instance. The only problem is that switching between the apps involves cycling through all of them, and as you get well over a dozen it becomes yet another feature that’s too fiddly for its own good. Almost brilliant, like so much in the game.

underground


SINNOH UNDERGROUND:
The second use of the double-screen system is more ambitious: using it in combination with the DS’ nascent internet capabilities to provide a whole secondary gameworld for multiplayer online play. In the Sinnoh Underground you could mine for treasure, discover and set traps for other players, and take part in capture-the-flag games, assuming you could find anyone else online. For players in the first month or so of play in Pokémon-heavy areas – Tokyo, for instance – you can imagine the Underground working well as Pokémon’s first true multiplayer environment. But – and this will come to be a familiar complaint – for most, it was a lonesome experience, wandering around featureless tunnels only to occasionally bump into a trap it turned out you’d laid yourself on some previous visit. There’s an eerie feel to the Underground tunnels – supposedly dug by one man (“the Underground Man”), they feel post-apocalyptic (or maybe pre-apocalyptic), a whole Morlock labyrinth under the game’s elegant surface, with their own rules and currency. But nothing you do in this netherworld affects Sinnoh proper – with one exception…

hallowed tower

HALLOWED TOWER: If you talk to other players in the Sinnoh Underground, it has a gradual impact on one particular overworld location – a small, crumbling pile of stones off to the side of one grassy route. As you talk to more people, the description of the location alters, and it slowly becomes clear the place is haunted. Speak to 32 people, and investigate the tower, and an item in your possession – the Odd Keystone – releases the ghostly Spiritomb (“A Pokémon that was formed by 108 spirits”). Spiritomb is one of the signature Pokémon of Diamond and Pearl – it takes real effort to get, and it’s used by the Champion in your final battle. But why does talking to strangers underground disturb the spirits above? The link is – like a lot in these games – an entirely arbitrary detail, one you’d be unlikely to hit on without online research. But unlike most of the detail, it has something uncanny about it: it feels like there should be an occult connection between the deserted underworld and the bound spirits of the damned. It chimes with one of the games’ hidden themes – the idea of the corners of this neatly-planned region holding ancient secrets, things that don’t quite fit.

cheryl

BUDDY DUNGEONS: At points in Diamond and Pearl you find yourself involuntarily teamed up with an NPC to trek through an area – like a forest, mine or island. These people fight by your side and heal you up after every battle. With such abilities on tap, you might think they don’t really need you at all, but it’s a painless way to get through maze-like locarions and grind a few levels. It’s also, like the shifting role of the rival, a demonstration of one of the series’ emergent themes: Pokémon is meant to be a game of co-operation and friendship, not just solo success. This worthy aim has been hard for Game Freak to realise, since the entire point of the gameplay is sending beasts into endless fights. The buddy areas are no exception: as Cheryl and her indefatigable Chansey blow away yet another creature with Egg Bomb, you mostly feel that the game is needlessly holding your hand.

super contests


SUPER CONTESTS
: Pokémon has never been explicitly marketed as a boys’ game. Its implicit targeting is another matter – the lazy chauvinism of videogame design originally giving us yet another male default protagonist, and the adherence to formula meaning that the games take a long time to shake off the central motif of a young boy breaking away from his mother. It’s true that if the videogames had been developed in America, their mix of cutesy, cool and strange Pokémon might have tilted more to the violent and monstrous in quest for disposable boy income, and the games were such a success partly because they didn’t take this route. It’s also true that after 21 years the face of the franchise is still Mr. Ash Ketchum.

Anyhow, Pokémon has a player base that is (or was as of Black and White) around one-third female, and as the 00s progressed, the designers (all male) made occasional attempts to appeal to them. This seems like the best explanation for Super Contests in Diamond and Pearl, an expansion of the contest concept which feels exactly like what a stereotypical ‘girls’ game’ version of Pokémon would look like. There’s a dress-up round, a singing and dancing round, and a talent show round. There’s even a cooking minigame, which you go through every time you want to feed and groom your beasts. The anime reinforces the gendering of contests by having the main female characters (Ash’s friend Dawn and Team Rocket’s Jessie) become obsessed with them. Meanwhile in the games, they are the first thing to get your Mom out of the house.

There are two problems with this. One is that, broadly, girls who play Pokemon like it for the same reasons boys do – catching and evolving the animals, winning badges, becoming the very best, and so on. If you don’t enjoy that stuff, there’s very little reason to play the games at all. If someone of any gender is put off the games by the emphasis on battling, you won’t win them back with a third-rate rhythm action minigame. The second problem is that the Contests are even less integrated with the main game this time – they’re simply another bunch of features in a title already stuffed with them. And it’s not like the minigames are good – yes, it’s great fun dressing your Pokémon up with ridiculous accessories, but the dancing and cooking sections are a chore.

veilstone game

VEILSTONE GAME CORNER: Speaking of minigames, Diamond and Pearl also see the final (so far) appearance of a Pokémon staple, the game corner, where you can gamble endlessly on slot machines in the hope of racking up enough coins to grab rare Pokémon or moves as prizes. The Game Corners made no pretence of being anything beyond an in-game gambling simulator, and are a reliably joyless experience. For all that it’s hard to imagine anyone becoming addicted to one, they fell foul of gambling regulations in South Korea and Europe. They returned one last time, as a game of skill in the Gold and Silver remakes, and were far more entertaining. But by then Game Corners were more trouble than they were worth. With the villain teams moving onto greater things than racketeering, any in-game purpose for them faded.

Solaceon town

SOLACEON TOWN: Sinnoh’s surface placidity finds its best expression in the gloriously sleepy vibe of Solaceon Town, a kind of Little House On The Prairie themed town where the grass grows high and assorted ranchhands and farmgirls welcome you. Pokémon had tried farmland areas before – there’s a ranch in Johto – but the old-timey feel of Solaceon Town is its most successful attempt. So successful that at least two areas in future games feel like straight lifts of it.

grand lake

HOTEL GRAND LAKE: At the other end of the scale from Solaceon’s rural folksiness, the hotel complex at the Valor Lakefront is the first successful realisation of anotherPokémon Pokemon trope – the swanky leisure resort area where assorted NPCs relax, generally oblivious to the world-shaking events taking place in the main plotline. Like Floarama Town, the sprawling Hotel Grand Lake feels idiosyncratically Sinnoh-ish in its fussy gentility, and for once even the game’s finicky hidden paths and hard-to-reach areas feel earned. After all, you’re in the playground of the ultra-rich, who value their privacy and don’t want to open themselves up to a gym challenger on a rampage. The Hotel also includes something that will become an ever-more-regular feature – the NPC who talks happily of the regions from earlier games, lending the “Pokémon World” a gauze of surface cohesion, even if inter-regional travel is strictly verboten to the player.

great marsh

THE GREAT MARSH: In place of a Safari Zone stocked with hard-to-reach Pokémon, Sinnoh has the Great Marsh, which makes a lot more sense as a nature reserve, but whose very realism also makes it rather less fun. In the Safari Zone, the joy is never quite knowing whether you’ve met everything and what bizarre and rare beast might spring out next. The Great Marsh, on the other hand, is just another environment, its Pokemon a parade of sensibly swampy creatures. Still, it’s beautifully visualised, and the viewing platform and miniature trains through the mire make it feel vast.

lake valor bomb

THE BLOWN-UP LAKE: Sinnoh’s geography is centred on its lakes and mountains, and the game’s central plot involves ping-ponging between lakes, trying to stop Team Galactic. But there’s a twist: this time, you fail, and in spectacular fashion. Team Galactic manage to detonate a bomb at Lake Valor, and the resulting scene of devastation gets the game’s final act underway. Lake Valor after the bomb is one of the most striking locations in any Pokemon game – the pools of water and gasping, flapping Magikarp feel as shocking as a game aimed at pre-teens can reasonably be. By this point, Magikarp is a much-loved franchise mascot, so this is a terror attack on something at the heart of the series. Nothing else in Diamond and Pearl – not even the climactic fights – really matches this sense of dislocation and wrongness.

crasher wake

CRASHER WAKE: Every Pokémon region has a few memorable gym leaders, as well as some who got that way only via anime treatment (there’s no way Misty would be a series icon based on her walk-on role in Red and Blue itself). But a lot of them you only care about when you’re battling them and a gym leader you actually want to see more of is seriously rare. Step forward Crasher Wake, the boss of the Pastoria City Gym, a delightfully bumptious fellow who combines running a gym with a career as a masked wrestler. Wake is a treat – loud, hearty, and self-mocking, Brian Blessed as a Pokémon trainer, and it’s obvious the scripters have had a hell of a time writing him. He’s such an asset it’s a shame he doesn’t play a bigger role in the plot.

snow routes

SNOW ROUTES: Diamond and Pearl are so obsessed with hindering you – via fog, marsh, and obstacles – that it’s remarkable their most extreme move in this direction works as well as it does. But the snow routes – designed to show off the game’s new weather condition, Hail – are truly effective. As a player you’re almost blind, pushing through the map with visibility reduced to a handful of squares and constantly threatened by monsters and trainers (who have skis, the swine). The sight of a well-lit cabin halfway up this trackless path is a genuine, joyful relief. The games have always had dark areas which are similarly hard to navigate, but you had an in-game mechanism for dispelling those. The snow routes are better because they’re merciless, because they summon memories of scenes we know from TV and films, and because the gradual worsening of conditions is so effective in creating atmosphere. No Pokémon location since has been so brutal.

coronet

MOUNT CORONET
: Yet another example of a Sinnoh idea that should be great but falls flat in execution. Mount Coronet is a powerful, resonant concept – the tallest mountain in the Pokémon universe, with mysterious ruins at the summit which can even touch other worlds. Its final ascent is – quite rightly – the climax of the main plot. But the actual playing experience has very little of this mythic dimension. From the player’s perspective, Mount Coronet is just a really vast grind of a cave, with the particularly annoying monsters that tend to crowd such places. Some of this is a case of decor – the game doesn’t have the capabilities to dress the location in ways that could make it feel as monumental as it wants to be. Since every Pokémon game already ends with a gruelling slog through a cave – Victory Road – all Mount Coronet does is double the amount of final-act spelunking you have to endure.

champion_cynthia

CYNTHIA: Diamond and Pearl have plenty of flaws, but they do boast the series’ best Champion. Cynthia isn’t just a truly tough end-of-game opponent, she’s a Champion that does her region proud, a presence through the game which brings its themes to life and restores some of its mystique. Cynthia is Cyrus’ conceptual opposite – someone who is equally obsessed with the mysteries and origins lurking beyond Sinnoh’s elegant exterior, but out of a love of knowledge rather than power. (In meta-game terms, she’s the dedicated player, not the cheat). She continues the mentoring role that Steven, the Hoenn Champion, adopted, but it suits her better. She’s a more enigmatic figure, magical even, rather than just some dude outsourcing their actual job to a small child. Cynthia has shown up in almost every game since – she’s only absent for X and Y – generally as a super-tough post-game opponent, and she has a good claim to be Diamond and Pearl’s most enduring character.

hall of origin

HALL OF ORIGINS: The Hall Of Origins is the final excess in Diamond And Pearl, one last word from the uncanny. It’s a location which it’s impossible to legally reach, an extra-dimensional space in which you can catch God. Or rather, Arceus, the “Alpha Pokémon”, who created the Pokémon Universe from an egg. Arceus is itself an insane escalation – a Pokémon who can be any type, with the game’s highest stats. (God looks a bit like a cosmic goat, if you were wondering). It was ultimately given away directly to players who went and saw one of the Pokemon movies, and its original distribution to players was botched for prosaic reasons involving glitches and patches. But in one sense, this botched distribution completes the game better than it could have if things had gone to Game Freak’s plan.

Originally, you would access Arceus by playing a mysterious item, the Azure Flute – it “emits a sound not of this world” and summons an actual stairway to heaven, at the top of which is the Hall Of Origin, and Arceus. Summoning the Universe’s Creator by the nameless pipings of a flute is Lovecraftian enough, but made more so by the fact the Azure Flute is a genuinely forbidden item. It was never given away to players. You have to hack the game’s code to obtain it and trigger the event. Cyrus, in other words, was absolutely right: cheating really will help you break down the dimensions and gain enormous power. The inaccessibility becomes the point: the Azure Flute and the Hall of Origins form the ultimate occult space within a game which is all about the mysterious, the excessive, the extra. Just like Arceus himself, the Hall Of Origin stands on the far shore of the Pokémon series’ internal mythology.

Comments

  1. 1
    flahr on 31 Mar 2017 #

    Gen IV is probably the one I spent the least time on – I don’t think I even touched them on original release, which marked my period of least engagement with the Pokemon series (I’ll come back into it next time around while at university). Much later, I blasted through it, nominally as a favour to my then-girlfriend (who was completing her Pokedex in one of the higher gens but had transferred the Regi*s up too quickly to have stopped off for Regigigas) but mainly to fill in the gaps for myself. Coming after a playthrough of Gen III (this was pre-remakes), IV was a largely unmemorable slog, and I was surprised by how little of this article triggered any memories of the game – especially since after the fact, of course, all the shiny social networking bits of the game were completely dead and pointless.

    I respond very well to the glory of the overstuffed in music, but in video games much less so. I think it’s a sense of completionism – a song is easy to listen to again and again to get everything out of it (and in some sense you are given everything about it straight away) whereas in a video game getting everything it has to offer is a much lengthier (and, especially in something like Pokemon, sloggier) process (I wonder if I might be at risk of thinking this re Breath of the Wild…)

  2. 2
    Terry Cortez on 8 May 2017 #

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