A lot of gamers are excited over the latest spurt of news for Pokémon Sun and Moon news, which just came out earlier today with the legendary mascot typings and special moves, alongside a bevy of new information including Pokédex Rotom, endless splurges of Professor Kukui shirtless fan art (NSFW WARNING), and new snippets of the Alola region. Not too long ago, Mikko chewed out the franchise in an article and said it lacked innovation for a series centered around evolution. The starters themselves had already blown up into their usual cliques of the good starter, the middle tier, and the ugly duckling. All in all, it’s looking like a regular Pokémon game with more of the same old thing.
The main question to ask, though, is whether that formula sticking is good. I won’t even deny it; Pokémon Sun and Moon is a day zero purchase for me. It’s not even up for debate at this point. There’s a part of my brain that lights up just seeing new games and travels out, even if it ends up as baby’s first RPG. By improving the formula, the games could add much-needed new flair and bring greater replayability.
In November 2014, when Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire came out, I remember going through it with fond nostalgia, but found it laying low after a week’s worth of play. The game was too easy! The elements that made the original so beloved became heavily streamlined, and geared towards the above-mentioned mindset of “baby’s first RPG.” I do understand that it’s supposed to be simplistic as it’s a children’s title, but Game Freak has to realize that Pokémon is 20 years old at this point; many of the original Pokémon Red, Blue and Green players are now starting families of their own and that this isn’t their first rodeo anymore. They can make it a lot more intriguing without regressing.
Pokémon showed signs of interest in moving the story forward in a mature direction with Pokémon Black and White by introducing antagonists (were they?) who valued Pokémon freedom in nature. Team Plasma wanted to liberate Pokémon, but ironically became antagonistic due to their forceful deliverance of their goals. Come Pokémon X and Y, the games became even more linear in story telling and approach with Team Flare. Even the regions became terribly linear with little backtracking or exploration. With Pokémon Sun and Moon, it’d be great to see a story that has elements of “Disneyfication” to it: give us a story that can be appreciated by younger viewers, while giving some leeway to the older crowd who can understand the insinuations. No, that doesn’t mean giving us more suave professors. Think of the film Zootopia: a lot of the elements make it a great family friendly movie, but there are plenty of callbacks to the problems in society (sloths running the DMV) and Easter egg references.
The core game play for the series has not changed far from its track in twenty years. Mikko said the same and cited a lack of evolution for the franchise in its 20 year history. Games follow the same track of boy meets professor, gets Pokémon, obtains eight badges after defeating a sinister organization, and becoming the region’s “best trainer.” Not a lot is said after that; the world just “stops,” figuratively speaking, after the final encounter at the Pokémon League. The core elements need not change, but the side branching features do to properly facilitate the growth that fans have been desiring. This isn’t our first ever video game anymore; Game Freak should add the outset of difficulty enhancements from the beginning. It was a huge step forward in Black and White when Game Freak introduced it, but a huge step backwards when you realize that you can only obtain it after the game has been beat and requires trading with friends.
Another idea I had been pondering is the idea of scripted loss. In the anime, some of the series’ finest moments involved protagonist Ash Ketchum fighting for the title of league champion towards the end of the story arc for that region. The anime teaches the viewer that loss is acceptable; Ash pulls off some great strategy, especially in the Diamond and Pearl arcs, only to be upended by a legendary creature or completely foreign Pokémon (Blaziken from Harrison, Johto Silver Conference) or Darkrai (Tobias, Lily of the Valley Conference). Why could the concept not be applied towards the games?
In the games, a clearly powerful character should be introduced that forces the player to do battle throughout the story. This is, of course, questionable, but done right can lead to finer elements of replayability. Adding it to the story could be hugely beneficial to the fan base as a means of testing; dialogue could be added depending on the number of Pokémon the trainer manages to beat with his or her current team. Games like Disgaea did just that. Some engagements featured Overlord characters who clearly were leagues above the player’s team at hundreds of levels above the player. In one of the game’s funner moments that added immense replayability, the player can go back and hit a level in the thousands on a second run, essentially stomping said Overlord and recruiting them to the team. Something that simple can make the game much more desirable in the form of a New Game+ or expanded difficulty setting, one that doesn’t need to baseline and stay at a young child’s RPG level.
For scripted loss, it needs to be readily apparent that the loss is indeed scripted. A good memorable example is Yu-Gi-Oh!: Forbidden Memories on the PlayStation One, where Yami faces off against the High Priest Heishin in a scripted battle that results in his loss. It’s evident when he begins summoning utterly ridiculous monsters despite Yami having participated in less than a handful of actual battles prior. Some lesser examples could include some of the Final Fantasy boss encounters; getting the boss to a certain point triggers a move that wipes the entire team, leading to the player seeking ways to prevent the instance from happening again, leading to hours wasted grinding. With Pokémon, forced loss should be brought into the fold to prevent the game from becoming overtly stale. Teach trainers the meaning of the word humility, and wipe the arrogant smirk off my face, Game Freak!
Sun and Moon need to bring back the idea of tough and antagonistic rival characters. Admittedly, Hau leaves very little of that impression, and Japanese trailers point Lillie to be apologetic in her demeanor, despite having a “fierce” in-game art. The series needs characters like Blue/Gary or Silver to raise the stakes, setting the grounds for a rival. In a way, Blue/Gary in the original games beats the player out in becoming the first Champion, therefore making him the “original” and true rival, in a sense. These guys had ambitions and weren’t the pushovers that today’s rivals are. Today’s rivals gift players by healing them many times over in their travels, choose the weaker starter, and have little tangible goals for themselves, fighting the player everywhere and getting stomped each time. Serena in X and Y admittedly came close near the ending, but fell short of being a truly threatening rival. Hell, develop a character who was on the level of Red from the legendary fight on Mt. Silver. For my game play runs, I shouldn’t be able to spam the A button on my entire play through, on my single starter, to crush the game.
Another point could be to add disadvantageous scenarios to the game play, forcing players to think outside of the box. Add elements that get players’ minds racing. Have the rival outpace the player significantly, like the level difference between player and gym leader. Have it be an uphill climb, and force the player to grind a little bit to reach that goal. The series has been far too hand holding, and Game Freak should consider stepping it up a notch.
Pokémon suffers right now from a lack of organic feeling in its characters. While the environments are lively, the characters feel incredibly stale and some of them had little place in the narrative (like the Champion from X and Y). Pokémon Sun and Moon look fantastic in their trailers with some terrific scenery and improvements to the character models of the overworld, but will it be enough to make the games the most memorable since Pokémon Gold and Silver? The games themselves really need to be memorable, and with the 20th anniversary, hopefully features are changed up!