I often tell people that I am not a Pokémon fan. I say this while sitting in a Pikachu-branded chair, with my handmade Snom figurine hanging out on my desk next to my my off-brand plastic Swinub figurine, having played 90% of the available Pokémon games out there (I didn't bother with Black and White 2 and I didn't like Sun and Moon enough to get the Ultra version). But it's true. In a lot of ways, I am the Pokémon player that everyone complains about — the one who buys the games, has an okay time, wishes they were different, and then buys the next one anyway.
The thing is, it's more complicated than that. I love a lot of things about Pokémon, or I wouldn't keep shelling out for the games and the merch, would I? I love a lot of the designs from each generation, I love the increasing character customisation, and I love playing with friends and having an incredibly fun time messing around in Raid Battles. I love the innovation that each game brings, I love sharing discoveries online with the whole community, and I love choosing a starter all over again. See? I love a lot of things. At least six things.
What I don't like about Pokémon is that it often feels like a parent forcing you to play with educational toys instead of what you're currently doing, which is having fun pretending that a cardboard box is a spaceship. "Come over here, you're not playing it right," Game Freak says. "Look at this! It's Pokémon battles! Don't you want to do Pokémon battles?" Actually, no, I don't. Not really. The battles are the least interesting thing about Pokémon for me — and for once, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet actually seem to agree with me.
Sure, it still has wild Pokémon, gyms, and the Pokémon League, and sure, everything is still focused on making your pets fight, but a lot of the friction that puts me off Pokémon games is miraculously gone.
No longer am I forced to walk down straight paths full of people that literally want to fight me on sight. If I don't want trainer battles, I just don't talk to them! Wild Pokémon are hardly a threat, since I can just throw out my powerful team leader and have them auto-battle. I don't need to even watch! Likewise, the shop and Pokémon Center interfaces don't take up all my time with loading screens and menus — they know exactly what I want, which is to buy things and heal things as fast as possible, and they get it done immediately. Or, well, they would, if the shops loaded their inventory a bit faster.
And the open world, non-linear gameplay is, of course, the best part. I don't even need to look at gyms for ages if I don't want to, and then I can smash through them with a level 70 Fuecoco just to get them off my list. I can spend 100 hours just exploring the world and not talking to anyone except the Pokémon Center lady every now and again. In fact, I don't even need to do that, because I can heal my team during a picnic with sandwiches and showers!
This is truly the most friction-free Pokémon game we've had yet, where the world is open to you and you can play how you want with minimal interference from the game itself. You can even turn cutscenes off! Eventually, you might have to engage with the game's storyline and mechanics if you want to actually progress, but that's not even necessary, technically — you can explore the entire map without even going to school, if you want.
The main problem with the Pokémon series is that it's been stuck in its ways for so long, and it's not hard to see why. What they do — games about fighting creatures — is popular. How they do it is popular, too. They just sold 10 million copies of arguably the most broken Pokémon game yet. Why would they change?
But I think things are generally looking up, at least in terms of how Pokémon games are designed. I'm not excusing the utter mess of bugs, glitches, and straight-up missing content from Scarlet and Violet, but I think that since Shigeru Ohmori took over from Junichi Masuda as Director of the games (starting with Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire in 2014), the series has been getting more interesting and unusual, and I hope it continues in that vein.
For once, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet actually lets me play more or less how I want to play a Pokémon game — as an exploration game with optional-ish story stuff. Titans, gyms, and the Starfall storyline feel more like Assassin's Creed-like icons on my map, which I will tackle if I'm in the area because it's satisfying, not because it's What I Have To Do.
Honestly, I hope all Pokémon games are like this in future. Way less janky, of course... but free.