A couple of weekends ago we took our customary Saturday afternoon stroll through the local park. It was a bright sunlit day, with detritus from blooming trees floating in the gentle spring breeze while groups of people, young and old, wandered the park together, heads down, their eyes glued to smartphones. ‘Ah, must be a Community Day,' we surmised. Sure enough, we fired up our own fruit-based mobile device and found an abundance of Bagons clustered around the park waiting to be caught.
The sheer power of Pokémon Go as a motivator to leave the house still impresses us
The sheer power of Pokémon Go as a motivator to leave the house still impresses us. Pokémon has been huge since the very beginning, of course, but the way Niantic’s smartphone interpretation caught on not only with seasoned Pokétrainers, but also lapsed gamers and people who’d never even played the RPG series – or any sort of video game – was extraordinary. And while it might feel that it’s been ages since we first witnessed roaming mobs hunting AR monsters, the game launched less than three years ago. Blimey.
Niantic has steadily added mechanics to the base game since launch, and the vast number of monsters beyond the initial 151 provided an inbuilt developmental roadmap and a unique pull for players. With around half of all the currently known monsters available in the game, it obviously can’t last forever and arguably one of Go's most interesting developments has been how The Pokémon Company is cannily cross-promoting other ventures while Niantic's Google-powered game is still at the height of its powers.
The exclusive Pokémon Meltan that appeared in conjunction with Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu & Eevee cunningly funnelled players between both games and a tie-in event with the new Detective Pikachu movie offers casual Go players a fresh opportunity to interact with the IP. Gamers are used to seeing the franchise crop up all over the place - whether in the anime, the trading card game, novelties such as Twitch Plays Pokemon or other games like Pokémon Quest or the various crossover elements in Smash Bros. (we're still awaiting the inevitable 'Pokémon Royale' game) - but the Let's Go games and the movie join Pokémon Go to form three prongs of a meticulously orchestrated offensive designed to reinvigorate the brand and bring in an entirely new audience - the next wave of franchise-feeding fans.
The mobile game provides the ‘in’ with the lowest friction, and from there they can be directed to other branches
It’s easy to imagine that such an all-consuming, powerful brand is somehow self-sustaining – that its ubiquity ensures it remains relevant always - but that's obviously not the case. With the release of the film (notably titled 'POKÉMON Detective Pikachu' to drive home that branding), the hope is presumably that people see the film and want to know more about the world of Pokémon. The mobile game provides the ‘in’ with the lowest friction, and from there they can be directed to other branches, and hopefully to the complex, engrossing main RPG series which will really get its hooks into you.
While the franchise was evolved with the times, in some ways it's been arguably conservative when it comes to mainline entries. For all its quality of life improvements and enhancements, the base game is still faithful to the original Red and Blue/Green template, as evidenced in Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee. By incorporating elements of Pokémon Go into that template, last year's Pokémon offering on Switch rather successfully walked a very fine line between introducing Go players and younger gamers to a ‘proper’ Pokémon game and giving fans a nostalgia trip by reimagining the classic Kanto region in 3D. They're not perfect, but they're an admirable stab at pulling off the impossible and ‘pleasing everybody’ - onboarding new players and making old fans grin.
With all this cross-media synergy going on, you might be wondering where the Switch port of the original 3DS Detective Pikachu game is? How come stores aren’t packed with those giant Detective Pikachu amiibo from that game’s release? Fair questions, but it’s important to remember that you can have too much of a good thing.
It's a balancing act; too little 'product' and you’re losing potential sales, but the opposite can be almost worse
Even the biggest, most successful companies get it wrong, and getting that release cadence right is tricky, especially with something as unpredictable as game development. Nintendo knows better than most the consequences of a content drought. Since pooling its home console and handheld development resources, it has managed a much steadier stream of first-party content, especially in Switch’s first year on the market, with the console’s success leading to an explosion of third-party releases in the following year. It's a balancing act; too little 'product' and you’re losing potential sales, but the opposite can be almost worse.
Disney is a good example. Since acquiring the property along with the rest of Lucasfilm, the House of Mouse has produced four Star Wars feature films in as many years, with a fifth coming in December. While the ‘saga’ entries have done well, Solo: A Star Wars Story underperformed compared to the studio’s expectations. Now, is it notably ‘worse’ that Rogue One, the first spin-off from the main films? That’s a matter of opinion, of course – the critical consensus currently gives them a Metacritic score within three points of each other – but the fact that it released only five months after The Last Jedi surely didn’t help. With the public facing a media barrage in the run-up to Episode VIII, then the fanboy controversy it stirred up, then a fresh build-up to a spin-off film (with a Blu-Ray release squeezed in there, too), the lukewarm reaction to Solo was understandable; predictable, even. We were getting Star Wars shoved down our ears, nose and throats - give us time to breathe!
Consequently, the rumoured Boba Fett and Obi-Wan movies (allegedly) got put on the back-burner. Hopefully, they’re still planned for a later date – who wouldn’t want to see those characters on the big screen again? – but it’s something of a cautionary tale. Getting the golden goose to pump out egg after egg is fine, but too much of anything becomes a bore. Disney got ahead of themselves with Star Wars and forgot the golden showbiz rule: always leave them wanting more.
Although Pokémon has existed in a variety of forms, it’s still a video game aimed at kids, first and foremost
Conversely, another colossal franchise now under the Disney umbrella seems to defy that rule entirely. The Marvel Cinematic Universe just released its twenty-second film in eleven years with Avengers: Endgame. How come audiences aren’t suffering from franchise fatigue after an average of two films a year for over a decade, in addition to all the TV shows and other tie-ins? Perhaps part of the reason is that MCU films follow only a very broad superhero template. Each individual branch offers something slightly different, and even within a series there’s variety to be had. Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels like a political thriller in Steve Rogers’ suit, a far cry from Robert Downey Jr.’s wisecracking Iron Man, which is different again from the grandiose, overblown antics of Thor. Even that character’s mythic, Shakespearian qualities were skewered in Thor: Ragnarok, which delivered more comedy than any previous film in the MCU.
The fact is, variety fuels the success of the Marvel movies and it’s been an established element since the beginning, whereas Star Wars spent the best part of forty years being one very specific type of thing. Although Pokémon has existed in a variety of forms, from the games to the trading cards to the anime to the spin-off puzzle games and gatcha toys and merchandise, it’s still a video game aimed at kids, first and foremost.
The Pokémon Company is carefully seeding new projects and expanding the definition of the brand – Detective Pikachu is a perfect example. We liked the movie a lot, but it remains to be seen how it'll go down with a wider audience outside the fanbase, with early opinion being mixed. Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee certainly helped bring in the younger audience, cleverly targeted and timed to also appeal to parents who probably played the original Red & Blue games twenty years ago. And Pokémon Go appeals to the rest; lapsed gamers, fans of the anime or anybody with a smartphone who wants a fun time-waster and perhaps recognises that yellow electric mouse.
A new generation offers an opportunity to start afresh, and more significantly, start together
The hope going forward must be that people are channelled towards Generation 8 with the full-fat Switch release Pokémon Sword & Shield when it launches at the end of the year. The runaway success of the Switch makes this a more realistic proposition than it might otherwise be – a fully featured modern Pokémon game with all the complexities that entails is a significant jump from Go or even Let’s Go – but a new generation offers an opportunity to start afresh, and more significantly, start together. Kids and parents, young and old will be on the same page, with that brand recognition disseminated through the family. Let’s Go enabled parents to help their kids in a meaningful way by catching monsters in Go and transferring them to the Switch – we’d imagine this will continue to be a part of Gen 8. Mums and Dads everywhere won't need educating as to the relative merits of Sobble versus Grookey - they'll already be clued in and perhaps even helping to catch 'em all.
We’ve seen the series itself have lulls, with some of the monsters of in the middle generations feeling arguably uninspired, but all these converging elements show a franchise in the midst of a revitalisation. Having digested all this multi-media Pokémon content, we are absolutely primed and ready for the arrival of Gen 8 at the end of the year and hope to be catching Pocket Monsters for many years to come.
Be sure to check out our review of Detective Pikachu for an in-depth verdict, although if you're reading this you've probably already made up your mind if you're going to see it, no?