Pokémon is the biggest media franchise in the world at the time of writing. It’s certainly a far cry from being either overlooked or underappreciated. So why explore it in depth here on MoeGamer?
Because despite it being the world’s biggest media franchise, there’s not a ton of in-depth analysis out there. Sure, commercial sites will fill their frontpages with clickbait “How To Catch Shiny Pokémon” and “How To Evolve Farfetch’d to Sirfetch’d” guide articles, but actual in-depth looks at the game are surprisingly thin on the ground.
So I thought I’d do my bit to correct that. Beginning with an extensive look at the history of the series: where it came from, how it became such a global phenomenon, and what has led us to Sword and Shield. Let’s begin!
In Pokémon, some things are constant. You take on the role of a young, fledgling Pokémon trainer, inevitably picking from one of three different “starters” that are unique to each generation of the series, and which present a choice between fire, grass and water-type Pokémon. From here, your task is typically to accomplish some sort of multi-part long-term goal — usually (though not always) defeating eight Gym leaders, followed by an “Elite Four”, followed by a League Champion.
In most games in the series, this main goal is complemented by a side narrative that usually involves an antagonistic team who have a nefarious goal in mind. This goal varies in severity according to which particular generation your playing, and ranges from the relatively mundane (stopping people from “enslaving” Pokémon) to the complete destruction and recreation of the universe. Dealing with these various threats usually involves coming into contact with the legendary Pokémon of the various installments in the series, who are typically the cover stars.
Mainline Pokémon games unfold as turn-based RPGs in which your party consists of the Pokémon you have successfully caught and trained; “you” do not battle at all. Sometimes Pokémon are given to you outright, as in the case of your starters, while others are caught by encountering wild Pokémon in tall grass. Catching wild Pokémon is accomplished by weakening them in battle, either by partially depleting their hit points — completely depleting them causes the Pokémon to faint, at which point they cannot be captured — or afflicting them with debilitating status effects such as paralysis or sleep. When encountering rival trainers or gym leaders, your only option is to defeat their Pokémon; it’s considered exceedingly bad manners to attempt to capture someone else’s Pokémon!
Most Pokémon games feature a main story that chronicles their protagonist’s journey to accomplish their aforementioned objectives, as well as a postgame that allows the player the opportunity to “catch ’em all” to varying degrees as well as engaging with more difficult challenges using the Pokémon they’ve trained.
Executive director Satoshi Tajiri first thought of the concept for Pokémon back in 1989. Tajiri was an enthusiastic insect collector as a child and felt that this would make an ideal concept for a video game — particularly as increasing urbanisation was leading to both a decline in insect populations and a human population less interested in outdoor activities.
He felt that children would particularly take to the “collection” aspect of his game concept, and that the ability to make their collections battle would be a good outlet for stress, fear and anger, which young people sometimes struggle to express. He was careful to ensure that the creatures in his game didn’t suffer realistic violence and injuries, however; what would become Pokémon never bleed or die in battle, since Tajiri had strong feelings about violence in games.
“There’s more violence in games in the US, in things like Mortal Kombat, where they rip out hearts and cut off heads,” said Tajiri, speaking with TIME magazine in 1999. “Japanese people wouldn’t come up with ideas of blood splattering all over. Japanese focus more on the intricacies of the actions, the motion. I’m very careful about violence in games. I’m not interested in creating violent effects.”
While the attitude Tajiri describes has relaxed somewhat since 1999, as evidenced by violent and bloody Japanese games such as Bayonetta, Mad World and Devil May Cry, there’s still a noticeable distinction; extremely violent Japanese games tend to be heavily stylised and exaggerated rather than grim and realistic. But I digress, since Pokémon has remained true to its original intention ever since its inception, and is still free of explicitly depicted blood and death.
Tajiri was particularly interested in making use of the Game Boy for his game concept, because he was especially enamoured with the link cable that allowed two systems to communicate with one another.
“In Tetris, [the Game Boy’s] first game, the cable transmitted information about moving blocks,” he explained. “That cable really got me interested. I thought of actual living organisms moving back and forth across the cable.
“I wanted to design a game that involved interactive communication,” he continued. “Remember, there was no Internet then. The concept of the communication cable is really Japanese: one-on-one. It’s like karate — two players compete, they bow to each other. It’s the Japanese concept of respect.”
What Tajiri points out here is something that was particularly relevant to the gaming medium as a whole up until Internet-connected devices and always-on wireless broadband connections became a thing, since it marked a notable divide between Western and Eastern attitudes to certain games. Titles like Pokémon and the later Monster Hunter became particularly popular in Japan because the idea of one-on-one, face-to-face, respectful communication was baked right into Japanese society.
“[It’s like] a more casual form of [the ritualistic elements] of sumo,” explained Tajiri. “Over the Internet, communication can be directed to anyone in the world and it’s anonymous. But with a communication cable, it’s one-on-one and the players pick who they play against. It doesn’t really get aggressive. It’s an intricate style of communication. Almost subtle.”
Besides the Game Boy’s use of the link cable, Tajiri also found himself impressed by 1989’s Makai Toushi Sa·Ga: the first game in the SaGa series, better known as The Final Fantasy Legend in the West after Square rebranded it for marketing reasons. While this game’s reception was somewhat mixed — particularly in the West, where it polarised opinions pretty hard — it was noteworthy for being Square’s first million-seller, and to Tajiri, it was evidence that the humble Game Boy was capable of providing deeper, more expansive experiences than simple arcade-style action games.
As the game took shape, Tajiri started to flesh out its concepts further. With his original inspiration of childhood insect collecting in mind, he named the protagonist Satoshi after himself, and the main rival character Shigeru, after his friend and role-model, Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo. Miyamoto was actually the one who came up with the concept of each Pokémon release having two discrete versions, since he believed this would emphasise and enhance the non-violent communication aspects that Tajiri was so keen to explore. After all, if it was impossible to catch all 151 Pokémon in a single version of the game, you’d have to trade with others in order to fill the holes in your Pokédex.
And so it was that the first Pocket Monsters game was released in 1996 in both Red and Green incarnations, with the Japanese version of Blue originally being a mail-order special edition featuring enhanced graphics and additional dialogue.
The original 151 Pokémon were designed by a small team led by Ken Sugimori, a longstanding friend of Tajiri. The pair had started working together on a gaming fanzine called Game Freak, which ran between 1981 and 1986; Tajiri had started the magazine himself, but after Sugimori discovered it in a doujinshi shop, he decided to get involved. The pair subsequently adapted the Game Freak brand to become a development company, and pitched a game to Namco. This would subsequently become Mendel Palace (also known as Quinty in Japan), which hit the Famicom and NES in 1989 and 1990 respectively.
Sugimori’s designs were typically inspired by animals he had observed in aquariums and zoos, but he also had a creative streak running through him. Speaking with Nintendo Power in 2007, Sugimori noted that he felt he “always wanted to show new Pokémon that people have never seen before” and that “to do that, [he] thinks of ways that [he] can surprise the players.” And few can deny that a significant part of the appeal of Pokémon comes from how many of the titular creatures resemble familiar things, but with an otherworldly twist.
The game was originally to be known as Capsule Monsters, bringing to mind the popularity of capsule toy machines in Japan, but Tajiri and his team ran into trademark difficulties. They rebranded to CapuMon and subsequently KapuMon before finally settling on ポケットモンスター: poketto monsutaa — Pocket Monsters. Oddly enough, while contracting longer phrases into shorter words is commonplace in Japan — chances are many of us are familiar with the common -ge words such as nukige, moege, galge, eroge and kusoge, each of which are short for “[adjective] game” — the series remains known as Pocket Monsters in Japan to this day. The Romanised contraction Pokémon — with accented “e” to highlight the correct pronunciation — is a largely Western thing.
The music for these first Pokémon games was composed by Junichi Masuda, who is best known today as the main producer and director of the series. Back during development of the first game in the series, however, he was composing the tunes at home on a Commodore Amiga. While the Amiga lacks a conventional synthesiser sound chip such as the proprietary GBS chip found in the Game Boy, compositions for its four-channel PCM sample-based audio capabilities can be converted for other devices using the appropriate software. Masuda coded one such program himself.
“I had a lot of instruments at home,” he told Game Informer in 2014. “And we didn’t have any at the office. I had like five keyboards (even though I couldn’t play them) and synthesisers at home, so it was much more suited to creating music than the office.”
Masuda’s approach to composition for the series has always been to keep it reasonably consistent in key places, but otherwise to be fairly free.
“With the history of the series,” he said, “everyone on the team definitely has an idea of what Pokémon should sound like in their head, and they try to stay true to that for the most part. I’m probably in the best position to shake things up, so that’s why I’ll occasionally do things like the gym battle music in Pokémon X and Y, where it doesn’t really sound like what some people might feel Pokémon traditionally should sound like. However, one thing we really do try to be careful with is not making the music too complex in places like the Pokémon Centres or the main towns in the games. We want them to have an identifiable melody.”
This would certainly explain why certain themes have carried over right from the first games up until Sword and Shield — with the Pokémon Centre and various battle victory themes being probably the most prominent examples.
“One thing that I do have to remind the team about on occasion is about the battle music,” added Masuda when contemplating the music from more recent titles in the series. “In Pokémon, it’s not a battle between Trainers — it’s a battle between Pokémon. I think that’s something that differentiates Pokémon from a lot of other RPGs, and I make sure that it’s reflected in the music. For example, in a battle with a wild Pokémon, the player may end up catching and befriending the Pokémon they are up against, so it’s important not to make the music create an atmosphere that sounds too scary or dangerous. It’s a fine balance to strike and we have to be very careful.”
With Pocket Monsters Red and Green’s six-year development cycle, the source code was rather fragile, having been built on and extended numerous times over the years. This made localisation quite challenging, since it proved to be impossible simply to replace the game’s Japanese text strings with English ones; consequently, the localisation team elected to rebuild the game entirely, using the enhanced Blue version as a basis. As a result, the Western versions of Red and Blue were both based on the Japanese Blue’s programming and artwork, but making use of the same distribution of Pokémon found across the Japanese Red and Green versions.
It might sound unthinkable now, knowing how popular Pokémon has become, but both Tajiri and Nintendo were quite fearful that the series wouldn’t be successful; Tajiri was initially afraid that Nintendo wouldn’t be interested in the game in the first place, while certain parties within Nintendo were so concerned that American children wouldn’t take to the localised version that they spent an alleged 50 million dollars on marketing and promotion. However, they stopped short of redesigning Sugimori’s appealing, cute monsters for American audiences after the notoriously stubborn president of Nintendo at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi, viewed potential resistance to the character designs as a challenge to overcome.
Two and a half years after Red and Green’s Japanese debut, the new versions of Red and Blue hit North America. And a genuine global phenomenon was well and truly born.
The success of Red and Green in Japan following its 1996 release led to the commissioning of an anime series. This first broadcast in April of 1997 on TV Tokyo, and still exists today after 22 seasons at the time of writing, making it one of the longest running anime series for which new episodes are still being produced. The show came West in 1998 alongside the games, and is credited as being one of the biggest influences on mainstream acceptance of anime as a medium around the world, particularly in North America. The popularity of the show drove sales of the games, and the strong sales of the games inspired people to check out the anime. Clearly everyone involved was on to a winner here.
Such was the popularity of the anime series that Game Freak went back and produced another enhanced version of those initial games, this time dubbed Pokémon Yellow. In this version, which was released in 1998 in Japan, 1999 in Australia and North America, and 2000 in Europe, the player character is accompanied by a Pikachu from the outset of the game. This is intended to mirror how the anime’s protagonist (Ash in the West, Satoshi in Japan, as in the original game) has always had a Pikachu by his side.
Pokémon Yellow also introduced the “friendship” mechanic that has been present in the series ever since, though in Yellow it only applied to the companion Pikachu and not to other Pokémon the player caught. The rough outline of the narrative is similar to Red and Blue, though with some adjustments made here and there to be more in line with the anime. This means the addition of characters such as Jessie, James, Meowth and Nurse Joy to the more “generic” storyline of Red, Green and Blue.
Pokémon Yellow was always just a stopgap, however. At Nintendo’s 1997 Space World expo in Japan, the official sequels, Gold and Silver, were revealed for the first time. Rather than an incremental improvement over the initial games, Gold and Silver clearly had a lot of ambition behind them. There was to be a brand new storyline, a new world to explore, new species of Pokémon to catch, the ability to breed Pokémon, the option for Pokémon to hold items to confer passive abilities and a real-time internal clock allowing for a day-night cycle that mirrored that of the real world. The new generation was also to be designed for the Game Boy Color rather than the original Game Boy, allowing for more detailed sprites and greater use of colour in the visuals.
Notably, Gold and Silver were also designed to be backwards compatible with Red, Green, Blue and Yellow, meaning that players who had spent time and effort training up teams of Pokémon would be able to transfer their favourites over to the new games as well as catching the numerous new species.
Gold and Silver started development right after Red and Green were released in Japan, with their original release date intended to coincide with the end of the anime’s first season in 1998. However, a variety of issues mostly relating to Game Freak spreading itself rather too thin — something of a recurring problem for the developer — meant that it ended up being postponed considerably, with Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata stepping in to help the team out by developing tools to compress the game’s graphics considerably. Iwata’s contributions were instrumental in allowing for the sheer amount of content on offer in Gold and Silver; without his assistance, we might not have seen the ability to revisit the Kanto region of Red, Green, Blue and Yellow that was such a wonderful surprise for fans of the original games.
The reasons Gold and Silver ended up taking another three and a half years to make it to market were twofold; firstly, there were the aforementioned localisation issues, and secondly, there was the expansion of the series to the Nintendo 64 with Pokémon Stadium. The first installment of this spin-off was confined to Japan only, and featured just 42 out of the 151 Pokémon from the original games in battle-ready format; the remainder can be viewed in the in-game Pokédex, but are not playable.
Pokémon Stadium subsequently got a much more well-known sequel with a worldwide release, which, to confuse matters, was simply known as Pokémon Stadium in the West. This newer version featured all 151 Pokémon in playable form from the outset.
The original Japanese version of Pokémon Stadium, what would become the Western version of Pokémon Stadium and 2000’s Pokémon Stadium 2 (also known as Pokémon Stadium Gold Silver in Japan) are noteworthy for being some of the few games to support the Transfer Pak for the N64, allowing players to insert a Game Boy cartridge into their controller to transfer data. In fact, Pokémon Stadium was one of the main means through which people acquired a Transfer Pak in the first place, since the game was so heavily reliant on it.
Using the Transfer Pak, players were able to not only import their favourite Pokémon from Red, Blue and Yellow, but, in the case of the second release, also to actually play the Game Boy games on the television. This was a significant selling point — particularly given that one of the biggest criticisms of Stadium when it was reviewed by Western publications was that it lacked a narrative.
As for Gold and Silver, they were exceptionally well-received on their eventual release, often being praised as a particular high point for the series even today. Their extended gameplay time — helped enormously by the aforementioned addition of the Kanto region that Iwata helped make happen — made them incredibly good value for money, plus a hundred additional Pokémon to catch made for an even more formidable challenge for completionists to pursue.
Much like the original games got enhanced versions, so too did Gold and Silver; a year after their original release, Pokémon Crystal arrived, bringing with it a number of new features. It was the first Pokémon game to allow the player to choose the sex of their character, for one thing, and also featured animated Pokémon sprites in battle for the first time. Interestingly, this aspect of presentation was removed for the next four games, but it would return in Pokémon Emerald in 2004 and remain a fixture in the series ever since.
Pokémon Crystal was the first installment in the series to allow remote connections with other players — though only in Japan, where it came bundled with a device called the Mobile Adapter GB, which allowed the game to connect to a mobile phone.
Crystal was also noteworthy for introducing the Battle Tower, a recurring postgame challenge for the series that effectively acts as a kind of “survival mode” with a variety of rulesets. Successfully working your way through a Battle Tower (or an equivalent facility in later generations) with a good victory streak typically allows you to acquire rare items, either directly or by purchasing them with points earned in these challenges.
Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire were the next mainline installments in the series, hitting Japan in 2002 and the rest of the world in 2003. From this point on, European players, who had historically had to wait half a year or more longer than North American players for Pokémon games to arrive in their region, got a release date much more in line with the rest of the English-speaking world.
Ruby and Sapphire were the first Pokémon games to leave the original 8-bit Game Boy hardware behind and make the jump to the considerably more powerful Game Boy Advance. Despite the more powerful host hardware, the gameplay didn’t change a huge amount from prior installments, leading to some criticism for a series that looked at risk of stagnating from a mechanical perspective. The popularity of the Pokémon series as a whole also appeared to be waning at the time — though with somewhere in the region of 16.22 million copies sold and the fact that they were the best-selling titles on the Game Boy Advance platform, this ultimately proved to be something of a non-issue.
One of Ruby and Sapphire’s most noteworthy additions to the Pokémon formula was the introduction of double battles, where two teams of two Pokémon each face off against one another. The expanded link cable functionality of the Game Boy Advance coupled with this new mechanic meant that up to four players could now play together instead of just two. However, the new specifications of the link cable also meant that it was not possible to trade or battle with the older Game Boy games.
Ruby and Sapphire introduced a number of mechanics and progression features that have become a fixture in the series ever since, including innate abilities and natures for individual Pokémon and weather conditions that affected battles in various ways. These features brought a lot more variety to the game as a whole, and helped ensure that even two Pokémon of the same species could be noticeably different in how effective they were in battle.
This third generation of Pokémon saw the beginning of what would become a recurring trend in the series: remakes of older installments. In this case, Ruby and Sapphire were followed by FireRed and LeafGreen — remakes of their Game Boy namesakes — in 2004. In order to obtain all 386 of the Pokémon available in Ruby or Sapphire, it was necessary to trade not only with the “opposing” version to the one you were playing, but also with FireRed and LeafGreen too.
FireRed and LeafGreen were noteworthy for further expanding the games’ connectivity features thanks to the new Game Boy Advance Wireless Adapter, which came bundled with the games. This allows players within a range of about 30-50 feet of each other to wirelessly interact with one another, and includes a lobby-style feature where up to 30 players can link together wirelessly to battle, trade and chat. In Japan, Nintendo had a retail presence called “JoySpot” specifically designed to encourage people to get out and about and make use of this feature.
The third generation of Pokémon concluded with the aforementioned Emerald, which followed the series’ convention of releasing an enhanced, expanded version of the previous mainline release. In this case, Emerald expanded on Ruby and Sapphire with a more subtantial postgame as well as a return to animated battle sprites for the Pokémon themselves. Emerald also featured an expanded subplot featuring the “villainous” teams; while in Ruby and Sapphire the player could only encounter one of Team Magma or Team Aqua depending on the version they are playing, in Emerald, they have issues with both, culminating in them having to quell the rage of two legendary Pokémon battling it out for supremacy.
Pokémon’s fourth generation arrived in 2006, two years into the lifespan of the Game Boy Advance’s successor, the Nintendo DS. In keeping with Game Freak tradition, Diamond and Pearl, as the new games were known, were originally announced at a Nintendo press conference in 2004, but slipped considerably past their originally proposed ship date in 2005 to their eventual mid-2006 release.
Diamond and Pearl were designed from the outset to take full advantage of the Nintendo DS’ capabilities, including its touchscreen, its Wi-Fi connectivity and the fact it featured a Game Boy Advance cartridge slot. Junichi Masuda, by now firmly ensconced in his position as mainline series director and producer, was determined to make the new pair of games “the ultimate version” of Pokémon. The games feature Cynthia, a particularly popular character from the series as a whole, so many players would probably agree with this assessment from certain perspectives!
With the closure of Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection online service in 2014, Diamond and Pearl’s online features are no longer available, but while active they set in place a number of features which have since become standard for the series. Probably most notable among these was the Global Trade System, allowing players to put up a trade request for any Pokémon they have seen in the game and offer a Pokémon of their own in exchange. These trade requests remained on the servers even when the player was offline, allowing trades to be carried out asynchronously.
Connectivity with the previous generation was provided through the Nintendo DS and DS Lite’s Game Boy Advance cartridge slot. Using this feature — which was absent from the later DSi models — players could transfer up to six Pokémon per day from Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald, FireRed or LeafGreen. Rather than going straight into the player’s squads, though, these Pokémon ended up in a special area called Pal Park, where they had to be battled and captured before they could be used in normal gameplay.
Pokémon Platinum followed Diamond and Pearl in 2008, offering an expanded narrative and postgame as well as a new area called the Distortion World. It also expanded on Diamond and Pearl’s online capabilities with its Wi-Fi Plaza feature, which supported up to 20 players at once in its lobbies and featured numerous multiplayer minigames.
Following the success of FireRed and LeafGreen in the previous generation, Diamond, Pearl and Platinum were followed up by remakes of Gold, Silver and Crystal for DS, this time dubbed HeartGold and SoulSilver. Director Shigeki Morimoto was keen to find a balance between respecting the feelings and memories of those who were there for Gold and Silver first time around and simultaneously making HeartGold and SoulSilver feel like brand new games for those who had come to the series more recently.
HeartGold and SoulSilver brought back the “follower Pokémon” system last seen in Pokémon Yellow, only this time around whichever Pokémon was in the player’s first party slot would be their companion. Much as with Pikachu in Yellow, players can talk to their companion Pokémon to establish how it is feeling, and sometimes it will find items for them.
The new remakes once again made use of Nintendo’s now-discontinued Wi-Fi Connection service to allow trading and battling, and featured compatibility with Diamond, Pearl and Platinum in this regard. Anyone who completed a specific downloadable mission in spinoff action RPG title Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs could also unlock the mythical Pokémon Deoxys in HeartGold and SoulSilver, though, of course, the closure of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection means modern players are no longer able to take advantage of this feature.
The fifth generation of Pokémon games remained on Nintendo DS and arrived in 2010. Dubbed Black and White, they are the first installments in the mainline series to unfold in a geographical region that is not inspired by part of Japan. Instead, Black and White’s Unova region is inspired by New York City, with the games’ central metropolis Castelia City being specifically inspired by New York’s iconic skyscrapers.
“I visited New York when Diamond and Pearl launched,” explained Masuda in conversation with the UK’s Official Nintendo Magazine in 2011. “When I walked through the streets, I saw a lot of different people having festival and community events — Italian people, French people — they’re coming from different communities and coexisting in one community.
“I also visited the United Nations,” he added. “The UN is a unique place. It’s in the US, yet there are many people coming together as one big community. Can we create a borderless country in the Pokémon world? That is an ideal world, and I wanted to create that in the game.”
Masuda was keen for Black and White to be a fresh start for the series. With this in mind, he announced that the new games would initially only contain 156 brand new Pokémon to emphasise the feeling of it being a brand new game.
“For the older players, while they know the older Pokémon, the downside to this is they know pretty much everything about them,” Masuda explained, speaking with IGN in 2011. “They know the moves, the types, the strengths… and that’s hard for new players. The new players are at a disadvantage. So the idea was to level the playing field so that when they all start playing the game, none of them will know what’s strong or who has what moves.”
Once you’ve completed Black and White’s main storyline, you can unlock the National Dex, which brings back the “missing” 493 Pokémon — though it’s not possible to catch all of these using a single copy of the game. Not only do you have to trade with other people to get version exclusives, but there are also situations in the game where different NPCs pay your game a visit according to the trades you’ve made in the past, there are Pokémon with multiple ways to evolve and numerous other considerations. In other words, filling out that National Dex is a significant achievement that will take a lot of time and effort to accomplish.
The fifth generation broke with tradition by eschewing both remakes and enhanced “third versions” in favour of a pair of direct sequels: a first for the series. Black 2 and White 2 are once again set in the Unova region, though this time around they focus on a number of new locations and provide approximately double the number of catchable Pokémon from the outset of the game.
Besides the new narrative, which unfolds two years after Black and White, Black 2 and White 2 also feature postgame challenges featuring gym leaders and champions from previous installments in the series, allowing players to encounter longstanding favourite characters such as Brock, Misty and Cynthia.
The sixth generation of Pokémon kicked off in 2013 with the release of Pokémon X and Y for Nintendo 3DS, the first games in the series — and the first Nintendo-published retail games, for that matter — to have a simultaneous worldwide release. These titles once again eschewed a Japan-inspired setting, this time in favour of the France-inspired Kalos region.
Masuda had decided that the core themes of the new games should be beauty, bonds and evolution, with particular emphasis on beauty. With this in mind, the Pokémon equivalent of France seemed like an ideal setting, what with real-life France’s association with high fashion and culture.
X and Y were the first mainline Pokémon games to transition to a completely 3D engine as opposed to the mix of sprites and polygonal backgrounds seen in the later DS titles. Along with the move to 3D characters came the opportunity to customise one’s character with purchasable clothing, hair and makeup options, allowing players to take much more ownership over their representative in the game world than ever before, as well as being another means of exploring the core theme of “beauty”.
X and Y represented some significant updates and changes to the series. They introduced the new Fairy type, for one thing — primarily intended to balance the powerful Dragon type Pokémon — and introduced Mega Evolutions; these allowed certain Pokémon to temporarily evolve beyond their usual limits during battle to unleash powerful attacks made possible by the Nintendo 3DS’ additional graphical capabilities.
Notably, X and Y made some changes to progression, too, with the ability to share experience making levelling teams much more straightforward and practical rather than the somewhat awkward method of swapping underpowered Pokémon in and out of battle from previous installments. These changes were made to make the games more accessible to newer players, though some criticised them for making things a little too straightforward for longstanding veterans of the series.
The online facilities saw some improvements, too. A new Player Search System allowed you to encounter other online players — including strangers — and have battle or trading sessions with one another. A Wonder Trade system allows you to trade a single Pokémon for a random other one put up by another player using the same system. And the Global Trade System now allowed players to request Pokémon that they had not yet encountered in the game.
X and Y also saw the introduction of several external online services to allow players to transfer and manage their Pokémon collections outside of the games in which they were originally caught. These included the Pokémon Bank paid cloud storage service, and the Poké Transporter application for 3DS, which initially allowed players to insert a physical DS cartridge for Black, White, Black 2 or White 2 and transfer Pokémon out of them for use in X and Y. The latter was subsequently expanded to allow the transfer of Pokémon from the 3DS Virtual Console releases of Red, Blue, Yellow, Gold, Silver and Crystal — but Pokémon imported in this way could not be used in X and Y, only the later seventh-generation games.
Before we reached the seventh generation, though, we saw a return to the series’ tradition of remaking older installments. This time around, it was the turn of former Game Boy Advance exclusives Ruby and Sapphire, which came to 3DS in the form of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. Interestingly, rather than adapting the expanded Emerald, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire mark a return to the narrative distinction between the versions, with the antagonist team in the former being Team Magma, the latter playing host to Team Aqua. Both versions also feature a new narrative component called the Delta Episode, where the player works together with some new characters to prevent a meteor destroying the planet.
Rather than a straight remake, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire incorporated features from X and Y, most notably Mega Evolutions. Added to the mix was a system called Primal Reversion, wherein two specific Pokémon, when equipped with an appropriate item, could adopt considerably beefed-up forms by drawing power from nature when switched into battle.
While it’s easy to take a somewhat cynical view of the numerous remakes the series has seen over the years, there is a practical reason for many of them, and this is especially evident in the case of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire.
The Game Boy Advance platform, which played host to the original Ruby and Sapphire, lacked online connectivity features, and thus up until the release of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire had remained dependent on the DS’ dual-slot functionality — functionality which was removed in later iterations of the hardware such as the DSi and which, likewise, was absent from the 3DS. The release of Omega Ruby and Sapphire made those versions’ unique Pokémon once again accessible to a new generation of players via more modern hardware — as well as providing people a new way of experiencing the older games’ narratives.
And so, finally, ahead of our in-depth exploration of Sword and Shield, we come to the seventh generation of mainline Pokémon games — and the last to unfold on dedicated handheld hardware. Pokémon Sun and Moon first released in 2016 to coincide with the series’ 20th anniversary, with enhanced and expanded “Ultra” versions following a year later.
Sun and Moon were noteworthy for placing a strong emphasis on their unfolding narratives, giving them a strong “RPG” feeling and making them particularly accessible to new players. However, this aspect of these games had a somewhat mixed reception among veterans of the series, with some believing that the focus on story led the games to hold players’ hands a little too much, particularly in the early hours.
One of Sun and Moon’s most notable additions to the overall Pokémon formula was its use of regional forms for established Pokémon. These “Alolan forms”, as they were known — after the Hawaii-inspired Alola setting for the games — featured new twists on old favourites, such as the normally Fire-type Vulpix and Ninetales being Ice and Ice/Fairy types in Alola. Many Pokémon also had the opportunity to make use of visually dynamic Z-Moves as special attacks, replacing the prior generation’s Mega Evolution mechanics.
The game’s visuals also received an upgrade from the previous generation, moving from a slightly “chibified” style to characters with more realistic proportions that more closely resembled their 2D promotional artwork. The character customisation system from X and Y made a return, and an asychronous online feature called Festival Plaza allowed players to passively interact with one another as well as take part in global, worldwide “missions” to unlock rewards for all players.
Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon were essentially a natural extension of previous generations’ “third version” format; this time around, rather than simply expanding the narrative of the original games, it offers a completely alternate storyline with a strong emphasis on the legendary Pokémon Necrozma, only seen briefly in the original Sun and Moon.
Mechanically, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon provided additional activities and minigames for the player to engage with as well as the opportunity to discover and catch legendary Pokémon from every game in the series, and a substantial postgame challenge features antagonist group leaders from throughout the entire Pokémon series as a whole.
In many ways, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon can be seen as a fond farewell to the Pokémon series exclusively handheld days, since from hereon, the game would make the jump to the Nintendo Switch: a hybrid console that can be played on both the television and in handheld format.
The first of the Switch games to appear were Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee, which are remakes of Pokémon Yellow. While the original Yellow featured a compulsory Pikachu as a companion character and a rival with an Eevee, the dual releases of Let’s Go allowed the player to take on either role from Yellow’s player-rival setup.
Although considered part of the mainline series’ seventh generation, Let’s Go provided a noticeably simplified experience intended for younger players or those new to the series as a whole. Wild Pokémon battles are completely replaced with a system inspired by the runaway success mobile spinoff game Pokémon Go, for example, with success in catching wild Pokémon determined by timing and the use of berries to pacify the target rather than weakening them in battle.
This isn’t to say Let’s Go completely eschews battling altogether, however; it’s always been a key part of the Pokémon world, after all. Instead, Let’s Go restricts its battles to those against rival trainers in the field, the gym leaders who gate each of the main story beats and online players who can be contacted directly using a “glyph” system. The simplified controls only require a single Joy-Con per player and allow for cooperative multiplayer on a single Switch, making this installment particularly ideal for families to play with young children, and the deliberate restrictions on online interactions also make this a particularly safe game for youngsters.
Let’s Go provides one noticeable addition to the core Pokémon formula which carries over to Sword and Shield: the ability to see wild Pokémon on the field screen. As late as Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, the series was still reliant on distinctly retro-style random encounters when wandering through the series’ iconic tall grass; from Let’s Go onwards, meanwhile, wild Pokémon can be seen wandering around on the map screen, allowing you to hunt specific Pokémon to add to your collection rather than having to rely on random chance and encounter rates.
This system, which has become popular in the RPG genre in general over the course of the last couple of console generations, also allows you to avoid combat altogether if you just want to get somewhere without interruptions, which is news that anyone who has played early Final Fantasy games will doubtless welcome.
And with that, we’re up to date ahead of Sword and Shield. Except, of course, we haven’t got into the myriad spinoff and side games that the Pokémon series has played host to over the years… but if we got into all that we really would be here all day. After all, Pokémon didn’t become the world’s biggest media franchise by being shy about releasing things with its name on.
Next time, then, we’ll start looking at Sword and Shield specifically — how they fit into the series as a whole, and how, after Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon bid farewell to dedicated handhelds, they represent something of a reinvention for Pokémon for its eighth generation.
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