Since Pikachu took the starring role in Pokémon Yellow, the expectation has been that every Pokémon duology will be followed by a third, slightly revamped edition. This strategy has actually changed somewhat over the past decade, with Black and White each getting a direct sequel, as did the previous core RPG outings with Ultra Sun and Moon. (In fact, only 3DS titles X and Y have no direct follow-up).
But Nintendo and Game Freak are tweaking this formula yet again for Sword and Shield with yesterday’s announcement of an Expansion Pass. While this isn't the first time the platform holder has dabbled in multiple DLC packs, it’s a noticeable step-change for the Pokémon series as the follow-up content will now be adding new ground, not retreading the same region.
Both The Isle of Armor and The Crown Tundra add new areas to explore, with a new storyline to take players through them, plus a ton of new monsters and additional features to extend their Sword and Shield adventures. They will be releasing in June and Autumn 2020 respectively, staggering the expansion over the course of the year, but together they essentially represent a brand new Pokémon game – something rarely seen this soon after launch.
The pricing is particularly interesting. As with previous Nintendo DLC, you can purchase the packs separately or buy the Expansion Pass for a reduced price to access both. It’s one of the most expensive passes the platform holder has released to date at $29.99, equal only to Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
By comparison, Smash Bros Ultimate’s Expansion Pass was $24.99, Fire Emblem Warriors was $19.99, the passes for both Breath of the Wild and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 were $17.99, and Mario Kart 8 (Wii U, not the Switch DX version) charged $11.99.
So it’s understandable if the price reveal during yesterday’s Pokémon Direct caused a short intake of breath for some fans, but it’s worth making a more direct comparison. Both Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon launched at $39.99 each, meaning fans had to fork out close to $80 to catch ‘em all. Previous third/alternate editions were also full-price, even though the bulk of the content (namely the region you explore) was exactly the same.
Whether the Sword and Shield Expansion Pass truly represents good value for money depends on how big these new areas are and how fleshed out the storyline is. But personally, we find the prospect of $30 worth of brand new content far more appealing than spending $40-$50 on one of two rehashed (sorry, ‘Ultra’) versions of a game we're already played.
And we're sure we're not alone in that – when Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon launched in the UK back in 2017, their week one sales were 74% lower than that of their forebears. (That said, they were 32% higher than Black 2 and White 2, the previous sequels, suggesting the appetite for Pokémon expansions has been growing over the years.)
There’s another interesting factor, here. According to Nintendo, Sword and Shield players will be able to "experience the beginning of the Expansion Pass’ story" even if they haven’t purchased any of the DLC. This indicates a greater focus on 'upselling' current players on these next releases; give them a taste and hope they buy the Pass to continue the story.
This may be an effort to make up for the potential lack of a big launch for Pokémon in 2020. Thanks to the alternate or Ultra version, plus a few spin-offs, Pokémon has stealthily been an annual franchise for the past four years: Sun and Moon (2016), Ultra Sun/Moon (2017), Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee (2019), Sword and Shield (2020). Prior to that, there were annual releases from 2012 to 2014 and from 2008 to 2010.
While it’s always possible we’ll see a Diamond/Pearl remake or perhaps Let’s Go Johto come October, it would arguably be more beneficial for the series to take a year off (at least in terms of a full release – we've still got Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX to look forward to this year). It would only be the third year in 13 that didn’t see a new mainline Pokémon RPG on shelves.
And before the #Dexit brigade begin their war cry of "Year off? Lazy developers!", the fact that past Pokémon are included in the expansions suggests that this has been part of the plan all along – and that it’s entirely possible for more missing ‘mon to be added in future expansions (although this is unlikely, since Game Freak will probably be concentrating on the next edition). Perhaps they will be patched in, like the free fighters added to Smash Bros. or new tools introduced to Super Mario Maker 2.
Sword and Shield might not have been the series-redefining moment some may have hoped for, but the introduction of expansions does show Nintendo and Game Freak will be taking a different approach to the series going forward. Depending how well these packs perform, it could dictate how Pokémon sequels and alternate editions are handled in the generations to come. The Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra could be the first steps into an even bigger Pokémon world.