Stagnant and anachronistic, Pokemon video games desperately need to innovate

The first Pokemon games released outside of Japan were Pokemon Blue and Pokemon Red in 1998. It’s incredibly shocking that after over 20 years, the newest games still play exactly the same. I’m not talking about any of the spin-off games, such as Pokemon GO or the Mystery Dungeon series, just the main entries.

After watching YouTube video game critic Skill Up’s review of Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield, I’ve become disillusioned with the Pokemon video games. Like Skill Up, I think that it’s completely inexcusable that one of the highest grossing media and video game franchises of all time has not meaningfully innovated in its gameplay after over two decades.

All of the new Pokemon designs in Sword and Shield have great personality, but it’s just rarely expressed in the game. Artwork courtesy of IGDB.

Pokemon battles between trainers and wild Pokemon rely on a “rock, paper, scissors” rule system. For example, a water-type move will be more effective against a fire-type Pokemon and a fire-type move will be more effective against a grass-type Pokemon. There are many more different elemental types of moves and Pokemon, but the core logic remains the same; some moves will be super effective against specific types of Pokemon.

Pokemon can learn up to four moves and the trainer can have up to six Pokemon on their team at any time. Let’s go through a typical example of a battle in a Pokemon game: the battle begins and my opponent is using a Pokemon that mine is weak against. Naturally, I want to switch to a different Pokemon so that I can get a type advantage to deal more damage. So, I switch to a Pokemon that is more effective and my turn ends. My opponent then attacks with a move that is weak against my Pokemon’s type, a fire-move against a water-type Pokemon, for example, dealing minor damage. On my next turn, I use a super-effective move and one-shot my opponent’s Pokemon. Repeat ad-nauseam until all my opponent’s Pokemon are defeated, then again with dozens of other trainers.

That’s exactly what I also did in 2004 when I was 8 years old playing Pokemon FireRed. Simply switching different Pokemon out to gain a type advantage is not engaging gameplay by any modern reasonable standard. Game Freak, who develops the Pokemon video games, have attempted to refresh the battles with new features. However, those features have been meager and ineffective, the most notable being a temporary evolution during battles called mega evolutions, which made the Pokemon more powerful. I’ll admit that this addition was welcome, but it relied heavily on amazing Pokemon designs, which Pokemon as a franchise has always been unrivaled at.

Mega evolutions were good for one reason: they looked cool, not because they added any significant depth to the battles. Unfortunately, mega evolutions and other added features were removed in Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield only to be replaced with… mega evolutions? The new feature for Sword and Shield is called Dynamaxing, which causes a Pokemon to grow to the size of a skyscraper, becoming more powerful and sometimes changing form.

Meanwhile, Nintendo’s other franchises have enjoyed many creative innovations in their gameplay. Super Mario Odyssey has given players more freedom in how they progress to the next world and introduced several new movement options. Mario now has a sentient hat to possess and control enemies to navigate the environment. He can also throw his hat and jump off it or tuck into a ball and somersault around.

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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild introduced a very open world to the series. It gave players a set of abilities to create clever solutions to its shrine puzzles. The brave adventurer player-character Link can now scale rock cliffs and use a glider to glide off those cliffs.

One of the few things Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield does well is pumping electronic dance music when battling a gym leader. Image courtesy of IGDB.

Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield introduced Wild Areas, which the player can roam around and see Pokemon in the open. However, any hopes Game Freak had for the Wild Areas was completely ruined by how shoddy the game looks. The trees, in particular, look like they could be from a 10-year-old video game.

Pokemon video games have been coasting on their Pokemon designs and nostalgia for a long time. Pokemon Sword’s user rating on Metacritic, an online music, movie, TV and game reviewing site, is 4.6 out of 10. I’m sure that Pokemon video games will continue to sell well because that’s just how these things go. I know that I certainly won’t be buying any more Pokemon video games until Game Freak does nothing short of completely revolutionizing the gameplay. I don’t know whether Game Freak is scared to innovate and like to play it safe or lack creativity, but I can’t think of any other series that has regularly released video games for over 20 years and still remained so stuck in the past.