When you're trying to please a fanbase that's been around for over 20 years, any major change to the status quo will always divide opinion. Pokémon is a series that’s kept under heavy scrutiny by its loyal community, with each minute detail studied under a Silph Scope with no place for mistakes to hide.
Despite this, I doubt Pokémon Sword and Shield’s producer, Junichi Masuda, quite understood how people would react after appearing on Nintendo’s Treehouse livestream and in a subsequent Famitsu interview, where he detailed some specifics of his future game. Masuda explained only the Pokémon that appeared in the new Galar region could be transferred in from older titles through Pokemon Home. His justification was a little vague, stating not only would it have been extremely difficult to recreate the 1000+ Pokémon (including their various forms) for the Switch but the number of Pokémon in the National Pokedex would be detrimental to a balanced battle system.
Without going into great detail about what was said by Masuda and subsequently game director Akira Omori, it’s clear that the Pokémon community are fairly divided on this news - after all, Pokémon’s motto is Gotta catch ‘em all! and not Gotta catch a few! On a surface level, some are understandably very upset that their favourites may not make the cut, but looking deeper there seems to be a larger problem with how the most loyal of fans are taking Masuda’s words - they don’t trust him.
When you consider just how little official word has been said about the reduced roster and Pokémon Home, it pales in comparison to what has been said online by those enraged by Masuda and Omori’s comments. Misinformation in the form of hastily composed infographics has been used as a kind of smear campaign against the makers and Game Freak as if to paint them as enemies of their own brand and fanbase. It’s a sad thing to witness and one that completely detracts from all the recent positives following on from Pokémon GO’s release.
Whether or not Masuda and Omori are honest in their reasoning behind the cull, it’s important to take a look at the situation from both sides before grabbing our pitchforks and rallying behind a hashtag.
Firstly, you can’t deny that when it comes to Masuda’s first point, balance, there’s a lot of problems with the National Pokedex. Masuda stated that Sword and Shield wasn’t the first time they considered a cull - that goes back to Sun and Moon. When you consider the sheer number of Pokémon, each with different types, base IV stats, and different move-sets, the combinations are astronomical and understandably some Pokémon get forgotten about. Masuda clearly believes the time was right when moving to an entirely new platform for a chance to refresh the Pokedex.
Whilst the majority of Pokémon are eligible in competitive battles, some are far too overpowered to be playable. Even when removing banned Pokémon from the equation it’s clear that some tournament-legal ‘mons are more gifted than others.
Just take a look at the 2018 World Championship’s top eight players. Out of the 700+ Pokémon that were available to choose from, every one of the quarter-finalists had one or two of either: Incineroar, Snorlax, or Landorus - with one of them, semi-finalist Nils Dunlop, having all three. There’s a reason games like Overwatch, Smash Bros., or even League of Legends with 144 Champions have succeeded competitively - there is a manageable level of balancing. You don’t necessarily see the same characters being played time-in-time-out at tournaments and when one character or strategy appears more powerful than another, adjustments and tweaks are made to keep each and every character relevant.
This is admittedly an entirely self-made problem. With every new generation, new Pokémon were added at the behest of the fans. It was just a matter of time, as Masuda says before the roster became unmanageable.
When it comes to the Trading Card Game, there are routine rotations as to what is and isn't playable at sanctioned events - as cards are released, the meta evolves. Not every Pokémon in the National Pokedex has a tournament-legal card, so this cull may be part of a plan to unify these two competitive scenes. If there’s less confusion as to what Pokémon are or aren’t playable, then players may be more inclined to get involved from a grassroots level, with a more level playfield featuring all available Pokémon. Remember, there will be plenty of newcomers alongside the returning players.
Whilst it may appear to some that many of the game’s assets are straight copies from older games, gameplay videos have shown new idle and battle animations with higher quality Pokémon models than previously seen. I’m not a game designer, but it would be fair to assume that these designs would have taken up a fair chunk of development time, especially as it appears that these models and animations have been made from scratch. The animations themselves have been subject to some direct criticisms by those cherry-picking specific animations (with graphical glitches aside) in an aim to disprove this. Take Wingull for example, its Pokedex entry states that: “It has trouble flapping in flight. Instead, it soars on updrafts,” so naturally you wouldn’t expect it to flap in its idle animations. For years, the same animation of Wingull swaying from side to side has been recreated but when it comes to Sword and Shield this suddenly becomes indicative of lazy development.
It would have been extremely safe for Game Freak’s team of 143 to put all their resources into remodelling each and every Pokémon into Sword and Shield, happily plodding along with the same balancing issues, a few notable additions, and a generic plotline. Given more time and manpower, I believe 1000+ Pokémon may have been possible. Yet, when you look at the series entries that have performed the best, it’s those that have embraced innovation that have continued to perform well. Sun and Moon were the first games to really break from the mould of ‘catch, train, battle, gym, repeat’ and have gone on to be some of the more critically acclaimed titles in the whole series. Already, Sword and Shield look to take things one step further with open-space Wild Areas and local and online Max Raid Battles, with no doubt more features to be announced in the near future.
Whether or not Game Freak’s justification for the upgrades being too much work is truthful or not, no matter how much time there is to set aside, this wouldn’t have changed the balancing issues mentioned earlier. In this instance, you can’t have the best of both worlds.
Those most vocal about this culling should be picking their battles better. When trying to address minor gripes with false information and wild assumptions, it takes focus from the larger more pressing issues.
One of the more glaring negatives is regarding Pokémon Home and Pokémon Bank. Pokémon Bank is a premium service that allows players to store 3000 Pokémon online for use in games spanning generations six and seven. It’s unclear whether Pokémon Home - the new overarching storage service linking up Pokémon Bank, Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, Pokémon GO, and Sword and Shield - would require an additional subscription fee. If many of the Pokémon available in Pokémon Bank are incompatible with Sword and Shield, then there will need to be a pretty decent initial incentive for players to perform such a transfer considering they won’t be able to get them back to Pokémon Bank or their original games; leaving them in Pokepurgatory with no real use. As it stands, no such incentive exists other than a vague comment by Masuda on the topic to suggest some gameplay elements for Home may be incorporated in the future.
Many players would have spent hundreds and in some cases, thousands of hours training and breeding Pokémon over the course of more than a decade, to have them seemingly become defunct. Whilst you could argue there’s a false sense of entitlement from fans for these Pokémon to continue being usable in Sword and Shield as well as future games, Pokémon Bank is a paid-for service that encourages the cross-title support for 99% of all Pokémon. For these fans to be told that Pokémon Bank would be compatible with Home but only to a certain degree, is like being told that you can only keep half of your childhood toys when your family moves home. Patrons of Pokémon Bank shouldn’t be expected to pay for a subscription-model service that only offers limited support for the next game in the series, a bit like paying for a Netflix that doesn’t add titles to its catalogue.
When communicating such a prominent predicament, it’s important to be as clear and transparent as possible but if anything Masuda’s comments muddy the water and are part of the reason why some people choose not to believe the balancing or graphical rationales. I believe that the news broken by Masuda and Omori was done so both prematurely and without any proper planning. Nintendo and The Pokémon Company are often fairly tight-lipped when it comes to articulating features of a game; limiting such announcements to formal press releases and Directs. These comments are clear evidence that, even supposing the best of intentions, miscommunication can be a PR disaster. No matter how many Pokémon are to be culled from Sword and Shield, The Pokémon Company owe it to their fans to address, at the very least, the objective issue surrounding Pokémon Bank’s subscription model and its compatibility with Pokémon Home.
Assumptions have been made from both sides of the argument. Heck, I’ve made some here. Without concrete evidence to back anything up each side will continue to speculate and draw their own conclusions as to how the saga will end. For now, here are the facts: Pokémon Sword and Shield will be released Worldwide on November 15th, both games will feature new and returning Pokémon, and eager fans will buy both games at launch.
It’s been an embarrassing few days for the community, but now it’s time to fight for the answers that really matter and embrace this series’ evolution from an entirely different perspective; one of optimism and opportunity, not anger and frustration.
Are you disappointed that the entire Pokédex won't be returning for Sword & Shield? Do you agree that it's time to embrace and explore fresh opportunities? Feel free to share your thoughts below.