Pokémon: In Need of Change

Pokémon TrainerLast week I picked up Pokémon White, my first purchase in the series since Sapphire on the GBA. Like anyone whose age was under about 15 circa 1998, I was obsessed with Red/Blue, and although I enjoyed both, Gold/Silver and Ruby/Sapphire represented diminishing returns to me. By the time the enhanced remakes and so on started coming out with some regularity I was happy to leave it alone, but Black and White seemed like a good chance to see what has changed in the better part of a decade.

Not an awful lot, it turns out.

Back in 1998, I can actually remember looking at Pokémon and, having salivated at how gloriously Zelda had recently transformed from top-down 2D adventure to epic 3D quest, my friends and I were giddy at how good it would be when Pokémon did the same thing. Now, several generations later, the series’ latest and greatest is… a top-down 2D adventure. Even the battles have the same largely static, pixellated characters in place of some nice high-res art. They have polygonal buildings these days, though, so that’s something.

I know, I know. The DS never was a powerhouse and couldn’t reasonably be expected to do too much more than this. But the lack of ambition in the design extends to the gameplay as well: all of these games are essentially identical. Your character comes of age and gets his first Pokémon from a choice of three, goes on a quest to defeat the Gym Leaders while fighting off attacks from terrorist groups, and becomes the greatest of all time. Then collect and train your critters until you lose the will to live. Flavour has been added over time through features like the day/night cycle and some impenetrable network connectivity, but the basics are unchanged.

Why haven’t we had a proper Pokémon RPG for one of Nintendo’s consoles? It must be a budget concern or something – lots of monsters to model and animate, most of which, in my opinion, can’t beat the original 151 for personality – because there can’t be concerns over whether or not it would sell.

I can only assume that the fact that these games are ultimately aimed at children is how gameplay that is so painfully repetitive, in an RPG without much of a story to hold the interest, can maintain such popularity. Given the huge amount of innovative, clever stuff on the DS, I just can’t see the appeal any more.

What a shame. I’ll play it into double figures to give it a fair shake and happily retract this if it turns into something brilliant in that time, but sadly, I don’t think it’s going to happen.

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