Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, Stuart thinks back on decades of trying to get into Pokémon, and his joy at finally coming in from the cold...
Back in the misty vales of 1999 and at the frankly silly age of 12, I must confess that I was into Pokémon. I have fond memories of the anime on CITV – a show which seemed so unusual and stylised to a complete anime virgin such as myself that it was, at times, no less than fascinating to behold. I bought magazines, books, toys. I even fashioned a Psyduck out of wood as part of a school project. I liked Pokémon, if you’ll forgive the invective, one hell of a lot. But I never had a Game Boy.
I played the games, sure. I’d borrow a friend’s handheld with Pokémon Red and walk to Viridian City, not really understanding the hype between what I determined to be a glacially-paced RPG with dull, repetitive combat and absolutely rigid movement. And this carried through the sequels, for me; I played (in part) Pokémon Gold, Pokémon Diamond, Pokémon White, Pokémon X and, most recently, Pokémon Sword. It cannot be said that I didn’t try (and try) to get into this flagship series.
You may be asking why dedicated time and money to a series that I demonstrably don’t like. It’s a reasonable question and one I feel I can answer; almost 400 million players can’t be wrong. That is to say, when a series succeeds to this extent, there’s obviously merit there and it frustrates me as both a player and a games writer (snoot, snoot) that I can’t see it myself.
So I tried to enjoy these games, and although I’d get on better with some of them than others (shout-out to Gold and White), I never finished them. I’d simply get bored of what felt to me like repetitive, unengaging, simplistic gameplay, and I’d stop. I’d move on.
I must remind you, though, this does not reflect a disdain for Pokémon as a franchise. Where the mainline series failed to stimulate me, I’d get a kick out of the likes of Pokémon Pinball, Pokémon Trading Card Game and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. Add this to my general affection for the early anime (everything up to the Snubbull episode) and you’ve got a series that I genuinely, earnestly want to enjoy. But that gameplay that never seemed to evolve from its Game Boy roots turned me off big time.
If Pokémon as creatures are so characterful, why don’t we see that? Even in Pokémon Sword the battles feel anaemic and static to me. Where’s the drama in just standing around waiting for your opponent to make their move? It’s something I can adapt to in the likes of RPGs; I have no beef with turn-based combat at all, but all these years now with almost no evolution? Nothing to really express or enhance characterisation? It’s not for me, folks. I’d find myself dreaming about a Pokémon game without these kinds of restrictions; an open world or near-as-damnit that casts you firmly in the role of the adventuring trainer rather than a top-down avatar limited to the cardinal directions.
the mystery and promise of Pokémon Legends: Arceus set imaginations aflame. Me, though? Didn't care. It was a new Pokémon, wasn't it? The same thing with a new coat of paint
Then came Pokémon Legends: Arceus, a title that debuted with an intriguing little trailer that seemed to suggest what seems to have been tediously labelled as Pokémon's answer to Breath of the Wild. Little was shown of the game, but the mystery and promise of it all set imaginations aflame. Me, though? Didn't care. It was a new Pokémon, wasn't it? The same thing with a new coat of paint. Fans will love it, sure, more power to them. But not me. I'd paid my dues. Pokémon Sword was the series' last chance to impress me. I was done.
Except it turns out that Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the best Pokémon game ever made by a country mile and fixes basically everything about the series that I didn't like. It reframes the player's relationships with their Pokémon by sheer virtue of having you cart them around yourself. Wild Pokémon roam the open world and will at times attack you on sight. These aren't docile bits and bytes waiting invisibly in the long grass, these are dangerous, untamed animals. You fear the Pokémon. You respect the Pokémon.
Catching Pokémon is no longer necessarily a matter of selecting a Poké Ball from a menu — you can sneak up on the monsters and throw the darn thing yourself. It's so much more immersive and satisfying to be the one in there aiming and chucking the Poké Ball after so literally decades of the act of "catching them all" being so rote. Now you're right in there with the wild Pokémon, dodging their attacks lest you end up being the one who faints.
Battles remain turn-based, which at first put me off the game but in practice is a vast improvement by virtue of allowing the player to move around and cut loose, observing the ensuing battle from any angle and becoming an active part of the proceedings. It's vital, it's tense and frankly it's absolutely brilliant. I can't stress enough how much more I find myself pulled into the proceedings because of this vastly more dynamic and exciting approach to one of its mainstay mechanics.
There's a very real sense of understanding, and in a game that's ultimately about wildlife conservation, doesn't that engender a much stronger feeling of connection between you and your Pokémon?
The new focus on researching Pokémon can require you to approach and tackle each individual creature in a number of different ways, which enhances your bond with them and makes each monster much more memorable than they've ever been before. There's a very real sense of understanding, and in a game that's ultimately about wildlife conservation (it is!), doesn't that engender a much stronger feeling of connection between you and your Pokémon? You're not pausing the proceedings to fumble through your Poké Balls, they're all right there on you ready to assist at a moment's notice. Your squad is by your side in a way that's totally fresh to the series and utterly welcoming.
None of this is intended to undermine the clear success of the Pokémon formula to date; Shining Diamond and Brilliant Pearl are testament to the fact that the more traditional flavour still resonates with gamers. But the fresh and dare I say it modern direction of Pokémon Legends: Arceus isn't just a boon for the fandom; it's introducing a whole new set of players to the series. While there have been many evolutions of the Pokémon formula, this feels a significant revolution. It also proves that it's never too late — even for the biggest, most established, most stuck-in-a-profitable-rut series — to change. The traditional-style games aren't going away, of course, but Legends: Arceus is bringing in a whole new wave of fans and rejuvenating the entire franchise. I hope the lessons learned here will be brought forward to the future of the series
Or, failing that, they could just localise Pokémon Card GB2 and stick it on the Game Boy app for Nintendo Switch Online, if and when that ever exists. Either is fine. Cheers.