Pokemon is celebrating a big milestone this year, as the franchise is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of Pokemon Red and Green in Japan. It’s a big anniversary, to be sure, and it’s prompting not only fans but also Game Freak and The Pokemon Company themselves to take a look back at the history of Pokemon. While the franchise has experienced popularity that’s waxed and waned throughout the years, today Pokemon is as popular as it has ever been, if not more. It also seems to be stuck in the rut of iteration, at least as far as the games are concerned.
Pokemon fans will no doubt remember all of the controversy surrounding Pokemon Sword and Shield. To my eye, there were two different sets of complaints with Sword and Shield. The first revolved around Game Freak’s decision to the cull the Pokedex, marking the first time in franchise history that a main series release wouldn’t feature all of the Pokemon release up to that point. People were angry about that decision, and I think a lot of resentment toward Sword and Shield still persists because of it.
Some of those people who were angry about the Pokedex probably skipped Sword and Shield, but then we have the people who did buy the games and walked away feeling underwhelmed by them. Those feelings may very well have been sparked by the culled Pokedex, but even though I didn’t particularly mind the missing Pokemon, I too was one of those people who just wound up feeling underwhelmed by the whole experience.
I will say that Pokemon Sword and Shield were still fun enough for what they were, and they weren’t awful games by really any stretch. But even with new introductions like Dynamaxing and the Wild Area, it was impossible for me to shake this feeling that I’ve played this game many times before. Pokemon is not a franchise known for taking risks – especially not in recent years – and nowhere was that more apparent than in Sword and Shield.
To be clear, Sword and Shield were not the first Pokemon games that players took issue with, though because of the Pokedex controversy, the pushback we saw from fans was a lot more intense than it usually is. Even though I really enjoyed Sun and Moon and later Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, I think a lot of people would argue that the Pokemon series started treading water when they made the transition to 3D with Pokemon X and Y. Ever since those titles, it seems that Game Freak is content to introduce new battle mechanics or slightly tweak the Pokemon formula in one way or another (EXP share for the whole party, the Island challenge in Sun and Moon, etc) as their way of “changing” Pokemon from generation to generation.
Sometimes, people really like those changes. Ask a Pokemon fan what they think of Mega Evolution and they’ll probably talk your ear off about how those were way better than Z-Moves or Dynamaxing and they just don’t understand why Game Freak had to get rid of them. But even when these battle mechanics and small tweaks are well-received, it never really feels like Pokemon fans are completely satisfied with modern games in the same way they were with, say, Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver or Black 2 and White 2.
When compared to Nintendo’s other marquee franchises, namely Zelda and Mario, Pokemon definitely doesn’t stack up on a game-by-game basis. That’s particularly true now that we’re living in a post-Breath of the Wild world, where Nintendo managed to flip the Zelda franchise on its head but still deliver an excellent game that’s arguably the best title in the series. And when it comes to Mario, Nintendo has always found a way to make each game feel distinct while keeping that familiar core gameplay loop that hooked us in the first place.
I don’t think it would take that much to change the Pokemon series for the better. One thing that I think would go a long way toward satisfying veteran players while keeping the games accessible to newcomers or young players would be the introduction of difficulty levels. Pokemon fans have been making up their own challenge modes since the Pokemon games were introduced, so why not give those who want a more challenging experience the option of picking a harder difficulty?
There are countless small yet impactful changes that Game Freak could make to help Pokemon feel fresh while not changing the core gameplay loop at all. Pokemon fans have wishlists that are miles long and packed with the features they’d love to see, and while I’m not saying that I think Pokemon games should suddenly be developed by committee, players have come up with some really good ideas throughout the years. Listening to fan feedback could help vastly improve the Pokemon series, but for years now, Game Freak has never felt like it cares to listen to fans.
Then again, maybe the joke’s on me here, because despite feeling underwhelmed with Sword and Shield, those games still went on to sell more than 20 million units life-to-date, placing them among the best-selling games on the Switch. I’ll admit that with sales numbers like that, Game Freak doesn’t have much incentive to change up the Pokemon formula, but I don’t think it would take a whole lot to make the series much more appealing to returning players as well as newcomers. That’s why, for Pokemon’s 25th anniversary, it would be nice to see the series do a little growing of its own.