Pokemon Pokemon Pokemon…
Why did you go so astray?
Time for me to complain for needlessly long about a bunch of children’s games no one but me’s cared about since the 90’s.
This will contain spoilers for all the pokemon franchise, as well as Fallout: New Vegas, as it’s my go-to example of open world RPG done correctly.
Anyway i love Pokemon. I started playing when i was 4, and i’ve beaten every game (except G/S/C) multiple times, including both versions of several of the generations, remakes, etc.
I’ve never had much interest in the spinoff games but they’re fairly irrelevant in this discussion about the structure of the main series games.
The reason this essay started was me recently attempting to replay Pokemon Sun, and becoming so bored and frustrated that i had to put it down by Route 2. The game is so easy, so linear, the characters talk so much, i simply didn’t wish to continue wasting my time trying to beat this game again for the third time. So many times do characters tell me where to go, then i’m stopped by another character a few steps later just telling me something meaningless, or the same thing again. It’s the main reason that Hau is my least favourite rival by FAR. His presence didn’t signal a fun, challenging battle. It just signalled that my forward progress would be halted temporarily while i get talked at with a stupid grin on my face, before having to fight a mind numbingly easy battle.
Anyway let’s start with some focussed points
First off: the world design.
The worlds used to be more open and free to explore, Kanto had 3 gyms you could do in any order, and the Silph Co. building could be tackled more or less whenever you want, after you beat the other Team Rocket operations. This was great as it allowed players to explore. If you couldn’t beat one thing, just move on, find something else, train up some new pokemon. Kanto gave you the freedom to tackle things in any way you want, and the majority of the game in whatever order you want. Even finding all the legendary pokemon was an optional challenge open to anyone who wanted it. The region was built for exploration. You even have to find all the HMs on your own in Kanto, whereas in later games they’re basically just handed to you for the most part. This encouraged the player to search every corner of the world for items, pokemon, etc. Another example is how in later games, you can often find a pokemon you need to beat a gym right nearby, an example off the top of my head being the start of Black and White 2, where you can find Riolu to deal with the first gym, and Magnemite to deal with the second gym. An NPC even tells you about how they struggled with the gym and caught a magnemite to help them. Obviously Kanto wasn’t completely devoid of this, Diglett’s tunnel being outside the city with an electric gym, for example, however they were much rarer, encouraging you to explore the entire world for something good, or train yourself up to be strong enough. This design follows through into Gen 2, which also has a long open section for the last few gyms, and after that you can take on Kanto in any order you want, finding pokemon along the way that weren’t in Gen 1, or even Johto.
However, the reign of semi-nonlinear region design wasn’t to last, and starting at Gen 3, you knew exactly where to go at all times. However, you were given objectives and destinations, and a lot of times, there was multiple ways of getting around, the whole eastern sea is open the moment you get to it, including a completely optional floating town, three hidden legendaries you can get almost immediately after hitting the sea, a crashed ship in a previous water route you would have sailed right past right near the start of the game in a boat, and you never have to return to at any point in the story. The routes were also fairly complex and multi-levelled, much more complicated than in previous games due to the new hardware of the GBA, Hoenn felt much more vertical and explorative than Kanto or Johto, compounded by the more tropical setting which added a much greater terrain variation than in the relatively suburban setting of the previous generations. The games even added skill based movement and puzzle elements in the world, including the dreaded crumbling floors, which perhaps weren’t the best suited for the spongy and imprecise GBA D-Pad, but encouraged you to make choices beyond your party. Choice, and other ways the player has to think and plan ahead are sorely lacking from the modern games, and any JRPG that doesn’t require strategy, forethought, and tactics has really missed the entire point of a JRPG in the first place. The games catering towards the competitive battling community has severely impacted the difficulty of the main campaign. Things like making TMs infinite use removes a significant part of strategy from building your team. One use TMs are a subtle way on making you DECIDE which pokemon to keep to the end of the game. You can’t cheap and cheerful chop and change Party members by the time you get to the late game, because the earthquake you gave to Nidoking isn’t coming back. The same goes for the HM system, and i seem to be the only person who thinks this, as most of the pokemon community just screams about how inconvenient things are in the older games, with their HMs and too much water and limited TMs.
I like the HMs. Not only do they give you something to consider and have to plan around, but for new players, it helps them build a balanced team, the ability to traverse the world goes hand in hand with the ability to complete battles. Not all of the HM moves are even required. Everyone complains about flash but there is no point where you need to use it. You can even skip the second gym in hoenn entirely if you don’t want to use flash. This was removed in the remakes because SKIPS ARE BAD STICK TO THE PATH. In fact, they removed the requirement to explore that cave entirely, and gated it to later with the bike.
Let’s take Gen 1’s HMs.
Strength means you’re encouraged to find a strong normal type or physical attacker.
Flash generally encourages a special attacker, more specifically electric or psychic type.
Surf makes sure you definitely have a powerful water attack, something almost universally useful
Fly is both convenient, and encourages a flying type, which can also be quite useful.
Cut’s useless i accept that, but it was designed as the tutorial HM, and is the only HM in Gen 1 that’s given to you in a place you’re told to go to. All the rest are tucked away and need to be found through EXPLORATION.
Also, i’m not saying that the HM system is perfect, having four water traversal HMS was ridiculous, a lot of them were pretty bad moves, etc.
A better system would be to have a few HMs that all have multiple uses.
That way, the strategy of planning around and for the HMs still exists to make traversing the game more interesting, the HMs would be usable moves in-battle, therefore largely eliminating the ‘HM Slave’ issue.
Instead of getting more HMs, you would have to find characters able to upgrade the HMs in the world, so surf would eventually be able to encompass all the existing water HMs.
Strength could be combined into Strength, Rock Smash, and Rock Climb.
I don’t think anyone would really miss rock smash, and rock climb is similar to strength to the point of redundancy.
To be continued…