Pokemon Sword and Shield @ Nintendo Switch
Emoji summary: 👶🏻🐉🥇
Do you think Pokemon is a kid’s game?
When I think of my childhood, i have this specific memory that represents the rest of my days: it’s me playing Pokemon on a game boy while I’m walking through Tesco. I’m looking down at the screen, and I can see the beige floor of the supermarket around it - it is matt and glossy all at once and speckled with faint silver shapes. I can also make out the back of my mum’s arm at the very edge of my periphery; she’s just about there and I am just about managing to follow her through the aisles, way too involved to be paying attention to the outside world (but also not really needing to, I’m tethered with invisible, familial don’t-get-lost-in-the-supermarket rope). what happened below the age of 10 is a blur but i can see that memory so clearly. One of my older cousins had given me my first ever handheld because he got a game boy colour for his birthday, n after he’d let me have a go of Pokemon Yellow one weekend, he could tell I had no interest in doing anything else ever again. Fuck going outside, fuck water fights, fuck making up dances, and fuck blinking. the second youngest in a family of gamers, he was happy to be the one to induct me. And I loooooved this thing, I loved it, even though the cover over the battery pack was missing so sometimes my fingers would knock one loose mid-game and the whole thing would shut down. i remember getting a small light free with a magazine, and once in bed i would whip it out from under my pillow so i could see the lightless game boy screen again. i’d spend the rest of the night searching the rooms of the S.S. Anne incase i found a free item in one of the bins. & If you know, you know: lavender town ghosts; safari zone countdown; poké flute, snorlax; and standing at the edge of the boardwalk to fish. i remember realising i could use different stones on Eevee and not knowing what would happen or what I should do. all these memories feel so warm; the words good to write. i loved my Alakazam, I hated Gary, and I didn’t mind being a bit tired for school because there was so much to be getting on with if i wanted to be the very best, like no one ever wasssss dun dun dun-dun.
The question of whether or not Pokemon is a kid’s game has no straightforward answer. It is, it isn’t, it doesn’t have to be, it can be many things at once. When I was little-little, I played it small; I stayed in my own magic insularity convinced I must be the only person in the world to have discovered certain parts of the map. i liked studying the breadth n width of Kanto to catch as much as i could, n that was that; happy to be there and fine. By ages 12/13, I was shown the other dimensions of the game and my relationship with it began to change. My hair was starting to get greasy and still i insisted on a good emo fringe, and it was at this point my mum was happy letting me go off on my own adventures at the weekend. I fell into a funny community of people who visited the Chip Shop 2000, a small independent game shop in the middle of liverpool that i wish still existed, wow. The walls of the shop were covered with game titles, and there were consoles for sale I didn’t recognise; people loved the place because they’d import all sorts in, sometimes months before official uk release dates. it felt futuristic because of that quickness, but also because of the aluminium flooring fronting the desk like a jarg sci-fi set. I would go there on the weekends just to hang out, part of their sitcom. it was somewhere fun to wait out the rain.
The shop smelt like boys and so all my friends became smelly boys who would beat the living daylight out of my team when we had sunday morning tournaments. we’d speak to the woman on the bottom floor of the pokemon centre to play Diamond with each other over WiFi, and I could never NOT lose. it was harsh. but they were the ones who showed me why. Beyond this cutesy video game, pokemon is about numbers. The lads lifted the lid on a whole load of variables i could be taking into consideration if i wanted to play better. We’re talking the individual values a pokemon is BORN with; the nature it holds; the effort values it gains from battling other pokemon in the wild in order to boost stats like Speed or Special Attack; its ability or hidden ability; and finally the items you give them all to hold. that last sentence is gonna lose a lot of readers but what you need to know is there is a way to play like a Normal Person, and then there is a way to play it like these nerds showed me: a way that demands a lot more time but raises the stakes of the whole game / if you so want them to be raised /. They gave me a nudge to let me know i’d been swimming in the shallow end, and suggested it might be more exciting to no longer feel the floor beneath my feet. they were right. I hadn’t known about any of this and I didn’t understand how they had discovered it all; I thought they must be geniuses.
But it’s funny really thinking about it now years later and having played a load more games since. you know how there can be multiple difficulty modes? EASY, BASIC, MANIAC for dance dance revolution; there’s a SUPERSTAR mode for Super Mario Odyssey; and you can buy an expansion pass for the more recent Breath of the Wild that unlocks Master Mode. Pokemon doesn’t offer anything of the sort and so players have to decide to impose difficulty upon themselves. Some really commit to this olympic-strict lifestyle of breeding and training pokemon with perfect stats in order to be the strongest, like a designer baby born to be on the offensive. Some attempt a Nuzlocke to bring even more madness into the mix - the rules for a Nuzlocke on Bulbapedia being > 1. ‘Any Pokémon that faints is considered dead, and must be released or put in the Pokémon Storage System permanently,’ 2. ‘The player may only catch the first Pokémon encountered in each area, and none else,’ 3. ‘a black out/white out is considered to be "game over", even if there are Pokémon left in the PC,’ 4. ‘a prohibition against voluntarily resetting and reloading the game when things go wrong’ and 5. the nicest of em all, ‘players must also nickname all of their Pokémon, for the sake of forming stronger emotional bonds.’ Pokemon is like walking into a gym for the first time and realising no one’s going to make you do anything, that this can be as easy or hard as you wanna make it for yourself / some people are happy to walk on the treadmill for an hour but then u see the leg day boys taking pre-workout and wearing altitude masks while they lift. each to their own. i’m extra when i do most things: self employed but doing what sometimes amounts to two full time jobs, kung fu twice a week but also going the gym at the weekend to practice. you should see me buying christmas presents or planning a holiday itinerary. After the boys taught me how to play it like they do, Pokemon became an outlet to indulge my endless capacity to work, somethin to do to fill the hours between homework and bed. i would even put more hours in on the couch in my Nan’s while the adults played cards in the kitchen. I guess i’ve just never been one for rest.
the last game I played was Platinum yrs n yrs ago (crazy) but I got a Switch early 2019 and with the release of Sword and Shield I decided to fuck up my job, my social life and my relationship in order to return to my oldest occupation as a pokemon trainer. honestly tho, it was inevitable: the vocabulary of the games and their landscapes give me big nostalgia twinges, all physical and dreamy. jirachi, hall of fame, rare candies and ribbon contests; leaving footsteps in the ash, or walking the heights of a treehouse city. There was a whoooole scientific study about people who played the original Red/Blue/Yellow games as kids having a spot in the visual cortex that lights up on scans when shown the first 150 pokemon; something to do with their shape, size, adjacency to animals, and there being so many to remember. our brains develop in order to retain the pokedex as a legitimate taxonomy of things we need to know in life; n I played through many more generations than the first so what state has it left me in? Attached. it’s no wonder Pokemon is the best selling media franchise of all time above hello kitty, harry potter, star wars and everything else when its < literally inside us >.
but these new Sword and Shield games made me feel iffy in a very specific way. the surface level game is normally interesting enough, imbued with that classic tale of youngster versus the bad guys, making friends along the way with pokemon and people alike. The landscapes are wild, and there are some extensive dungeons, caves or big buildings like mazes that you really have to conquer to move on. I get the main story done n dusted so I can play it the numbers-way. but the initial playthrough on Sword and Shield was so boring i almost didn’t make it and THAT’s my grief today. I understand and respect that part of Pokemon’s value comes in being accessible to all ages but this game’s odds are so heavily stacked in the player’s favour that it’s gotta be tedious even for a first-timer. Let me list the reasons because they insult me in different ways. From the get-go, after you’ve chosen your starter, your usual rival picks the one you’re gonna beat most easily, ie. I picked water and he picked fire. this is blasphemous, and creates a dull relationship with the other character, plus it made me dread all our easy battling to come. To make matters worse, when you fight it states ON SCREEN which moves are super effective against your opponent, which are effective, not very effective, and which have no effect at all. The battling vibe check is: dead. There is automatic Exp. Share now in which < every single > pokemon in the party gains experience not only the one battling. no risk whatsoever, no bite. You’ve got Escape Rope as a key item, a cop out!!! BUT YOU NEVER EVEN NEED IT because the routes between cities are so short. You are able to see sprites in the overworld so you can walk around pokemon instead of battling them, which is accommodated by paths around nearly all patches of grass. HMs no longer exist - you can fly anywhere via bird-taxi and swim places USING YOUR BIKE - a reach if I ever saw one. That also takes away the excitement of attaining new routes you don’t have access to yet because of trees or little rocks blocking your way. in the past, you could see beyond n it would look so much more exciting than where you were standing now, which would push u to get CUT or ROCK SMASH etc. so you could progress. There’s no incentive now & no rush; that whole tease of a new fantastical landscape has been robbed from us, they aren’t even trying. And the only good thing about Dynamaxing is the gym battle music - the rest is a slow and clunky process that gets boring quickly. I could briefly say how nice it is to walk through 3D landscapes compared to the up down left right of the past, but the above weighs heavy on me, and the story doesn’t make up for so much lost potential. what could have been a strong fable on environmental sustainability with dramatic clashes, ecoterrorism, and a world on the edge of collapse was so low volume it was like trying to follow along with a tv programme in the room next door, but the room next door is actually in your neighbours’ house and they don’t want to disturb you. suspiciously tame. I’d give an honourable mention to Ballonlea, the prettiest city, but there was nothing to do and you left 5 minutes after making it there.
Ultimately, Sword and Shield are games that play themselves. they are square. No heart-racing or hair-raising moments, nothing. All you have to do is press A again and again until they’re over. even tho I’m enjoying the freedom of the postgame now, it’s like I’ve skipped a meal. i’m left unsatisfied and un-hopeful about the future of these games. Idk if that’s dramatic to say but i wonder if it’s going the way of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, where the producers know they’ll make money no matter what they put out (even if not through the films themselves but from keeping the value of the franchise alive in merchandise, disney rides and restaurants - and really, pokemon still has so much money left to make). an easy vapid game might mean more sales, and the kid’s Switch came out just ahead of the these latest Pokemon games so maybe they wanted it to go down easily with that market. i cba speculating any more than that. i am disappointed.
so ill end by saying this. pokemon is a good game, still my favourite if u can believe, but I’m waiting for something more - something that brings back the spirit n fiction that made me fall in love with the idea in the first place. What I really want is a game called, say, Pokemon World that unites all regions and allows a national pokedex. I was speaking to my cousin after the release of the DLC trailer because it’s something he thinks they should do, n he sketched up what it might mean to have an online RPG that functions in the same way warcraft does. he wrote, ’they release expansions every year or so to extend the world, so you start with kanto and then next year Johto, but it’s the same game so you keep all your pokes and get new ones but they have level caps. And then the new expansion comes and it's still tough because they make everything a higher level then you have to level up to the new max level.’ it got me thinking and then it got me sad. If Bungee can commit to constant new updates, missions, organised events and special items so Destiny players never run out of content, why can’t Gamefreak do the same for us? I want to go to Hoenn again, and I want to make it to the regions I missed when I was out and about living my life. I want mirage islands between landmasses; I wanna ride a Lapras out to sea and discover a seasonal paradise. I want to build a perfect team of international psychic-mixes. and in all my years of playing i have never caught a shiny, i want that to finally happen pleaseeeee. Wouldn’t it do us all good, developers and players alike, to take a step back and enjoy the whole picture they’ve been building for us since 1996? u kno, instead of snippets, frames. whack it all together like a picasso face. put us back in Pallet town, let me pick a squirtle, and send me off an adventure that would last the rest of my lifetime while I snakes n ladders my way through the whole world you’ve been designing. pokemon go exists ffs, Pokemon World would be the logical next step. Once you’re done with the land, do an Odyssey and take us to the moon. Let us check in on things using our phones, bored on the bus and willing. Postmodernism, but make it games; pokemon trainers can have a little continuity as a treat. i want this game, i want it official and wide and full of pokemon lore. i don’t think i’ll be happy with these games til it’s here.