Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Ridiculousness of Pokémon, Part III

My biggest pet peeve with the series is what I railed against last year. Well now I have a few more layers to add to that stance . For those who aren’t in the mood to dig back through to see those posts, I basically voiced my disdain for the series’ treatment of its battling.  

This includes things such as the prioritization of the entire game’s fighting system to the extent that everything else suffers because of it (i.e. if you take battling out of Pokémon, you’re left with pretty much jack shit).  Of course one could argue that this is the main premise of the game, but I’d take issue with that in itself. It’s always been my assumption that the designers simply relented at outright laziness to keep pumping out (at best) not only a math grinder (and not even a remotely deep one), but to exploit fans to the point where they don’t even want anything more from it either.

Let’s take that example I just used and run with it for a second. If you were to take battling out of Pokémon, what exactly are you left with? Pretty much a shell of nothing but another generic Japanese RPG. There are vistas to explore, some people to talk to but they are all contingent on not only just the concept of Pokémon, but battling with them. This can easily be tested by trying to find one NPC in any of the games that talks to you about something other than Pokémon or just something moderately distanced from them (you really have to fucking try to do it). You’re only ever acknowledged as a trainer within the world and nothing else. Even the other media outlets of the franchise offer options to the characters such as coordinating and breeding. In the games however, such things only exist as side-novelties; they’re superficial, they’re quick, they’re worthless (e.g. beauty contests). Yes, you can breed, but you’ll only be doing it for battling and not as an end game in itself (and you certainly won't be rewarded for it). You’re supposed to be cockfighting your Pokémon and anytime you try to ignore or deviate from that fact, the game simply becomes inane.  Some of the features that actually do have promise get abandoned long before a new gen is even initiated (one of the first examples of this that pops into my head is the types of Poké Balls that players are allowed to use), and the others are just contingent on showing off the current hardware’s gimmick (color screens, touch screens, etc). Things like the Pokétch function in Generation IV showed such promise (especially for the DS) for those who wanted to do more than just constantly battle, but it got left behind as soon as HeartGold and SoulSilver rolled around (whose Pokégear was further left behind for the sake of the C-Gear which I ranted about in the previous post).

One of the few pleasures that I’ve personally eked out of the games aside from battling is hunting legendary Pokémon. I’ll state upfront that this is decorated by my bias for what I want to see rather than what’s actually in the game (i.e. I’ll play it up wherever I can to make things more enjoyable), but it’s definitely one of the few things I’m able to really enjoy when I’m not grinding through some cave in hopes of getting to the next gym. The issue with this is that the games don’t efficiently acknowledge legendary Pokemon outside of a few vague NPC remarks (if you’re even that lucky), leaving the player to IMMEDIATELY run to the Internet, guides, or friends to get the information that the game doesn’t make them naturally curious to explore enjoyably for themselves. The mythology of Sinnoh for instance is a fantastic example, as the majority of legendary Pokemon in that particular region have almost deity-like statuses. Dialga controls the flow of time, Palkia---space, Giratina---antimatter. The game doesn’t say much more beyond that though and that’s the point I’m trying to make.

It would be easy enough to make up some bullshit mythologies to add to the canon so that fans would have more to obsessively fawn over, but the designers don’t do this.  Why? That’s easy enough for anybody to speculate on, but let’s just assume my aforementioned reason is the culprit (laziness). Even the Pokédex itself suffers from such things, as it doesn’t help illuminate on a legendary or unseen Pokémon for the player apart from one or two sentences (which range from generic information to outright fucking creepy). The mythology and general information is not played with and such information isn’t just sparse, it’s almost non-existent for anyone who would like to explore the regions further through the creatures themselves. They don’t play up these fantastical creatures that we’re all meant to be in awe over. It’s not just a suspension of disbelief thats required to confront this, it’s an outright limitation in the core design of the game. The titles merely allude to the fact that they might have the possibility to do it---someday. I’m calling bullshit now and fans should have as early as the late stages of Generation III. Imagine if the Pokédex entry on Pikachu could be built up to rival its Bulbapedia page (which in itself is the collection/collation of information from various media sources) in the game as well. It would certainly be a start.

And just to put some more of that in perspective, consider the possibility of what it would mean to add more depth to a legendary Pokémon in such a fashion. The mechanics themselves would have to be changed to complement it. Things like the catch rate would not only have to be altered, they’d need to be expanded. To process the information like the kind I’m proposing here and not have it come off as mere superficial design---you’d have to redesign the entire game in the background too. This would go miles towards giving the players such options that I vocally yearned for last year and in this post, and this is just one example.

I don’t really respect games where fans do most of the work for its overall allure, and the Pokémon franchise is pretty much the mascot for that entire concept.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Ridiculousness of Pokemon, Part II

I'll get to the cross-media discrepancies soon enough...
Continuing on the note of connectivity, how hard would it have really been to allow Entralink access through WiFi (a feature of Black and White)? As it stands, it’s only a local wireless feature and one that determines pretty damn stringently how well developed the player’s exclusive city (Black City/White Forest) are. If the player isn’t diligent enough to participate in battles and chat up redundant NPC every single day, not only will those NPCs vanish, but the population will as well (this includes buildings selling rare items and wild rare Pokemon in the area). This in-game quota wouldn’t be as bad in the U.S. if the feature was able to be used through Nintendo’s WiFi connection.

Pretty much what you have to relent
on when playing these...
And yes, I get the nationality argument that runs along the lines of the game being native to Japan and pointedly-marketed to the small and tightly-networked nation  but I also know that the Western World makes a significant chunk of the franchise’s money too. So, wouldn’t it be logical (or I should say---SENSIBLE) to say that other Western nations would be prioritized in some fashion as well? I’ve had Black and White for almost three months now and I’ve yet to come across another person who has the game as well. Of course I live in a rural Southern U.S. state (meaning I’m on an extreme end of the spectrum), but the point is that most of the country isn’t New York City (which judging from Black and White superficial setting, this is pretty much what any other country overseas thinks we are, that or Texas…). Most people that I DO know with the game do not live in densely populated areas so a major feature of the game is pretty much wasted on them. Given that the entire bottom touch screen is dedicated to the C-Gear (the in-game device that allows use of the all the game’s networking capabilities), I may as well be playing a fucking Game Boy Advance title (i.e. the bottom screen is essentially fucking worthless in a 2011 game).

Exploring the game’s ‘online’ features even further will lead the player across the Pokemon Global Link, where they can seemingly upload their save file to the internet and eke out the game experience even further. However, all that awaits them is about three or four extremely lame flash games and about 15-30 minutes sucked out of their day ‘clicksploring’ a sparse and bland interface. This is all to get Pokemon with differing abilities which range from ‘okay to admirable game-changers (a popular one is the Vulpix with the ability ‘Drought’). Now if there was say---a plethora of shitty flash games to play and a server that didn’t spasm every time someone blew on it, I’d be much less critical of it. I’ve also heard the defense that this shouldn’t be held against Nintendo with the recent Tsunami that took place in Japan, but I’m also aware of a few sensible points that were made to me making that particular natural disaster almost entirely irrelevant to the Global Link’s operating quality. Regardless, the Dream World feature is a completely worthless addon that didn’t need to make the player go to a computer to access the games features further (the DS itself could have done that damn crap much better).

I was also under the impression (which I admit was rather foolish) that the game somehow allow the uploading of their save file serve as a more tangible version of their backup. This is not the case as far as I know, as the game just barely logs the stats for the file itself, so not even a record of your game-log/achievements/location is available (and I’m only referring to game time outside of competitive battling). For someone like me who has poured almost 700 hours into the series in just the past year alone, it would be a nice gesture to offer me some security for my wasted time. All I’m left with is the ‘hidden’ backup save that the game secures automatically and I’m supposedly just meant to rely on that (which I have no immediate control over on just a DS).

This entry's detour into Black and White specific faults is emphasized by the fact it's not even three months old and it's still riddled with problems that would only be plausibly forgivable in the early-mid 2000's era title.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Ridiculousness of Pokemon, Part I

I’ve been burdened by a very bad case of Pokéfever over the past few months, but since it’s all I’ve really been playing these days I knew I would have to get around to writing this eventually (which is why my presence here has been so sparse these days). This is also me continuing my rants last year on the franchise, as I was fine to stay silent on the issues so long as I hadn’t played Black and White yet. Well now I have---extensively…

…and I’m more irritated with it now than ever.

Anybody that’s even remotely familiar with the series will find no surprise in the criticism of it being a incremental franchise, that is---it only makes changes and alterations in its formula very slowly across the myriad of games that have been released to this date. Also, to keep it simple and on track, I am only referring to the main five generations of games that serve as the bulk of its fanbase.

Welp, first of all---it will help to illustrate where I’ve been exactly for the past few months in terms of the games I’ve played in the series. First would be the recently released Black & White duo which encompassed most of March. As April rolled around, I decided I wasn’t in a rush to play anything else so I arbitrarily decided to catch every single one of the little bastards. I had most of the legendaries so the rest was just a grind to accrue all 646 of the attainable ones. This was aided by a few friends who provided some necessary past games/gear for me:
  • An extra DS (phat model)
  • Pokemon Sapphire
  • Pokemon Diamond
With those in hand, I played through Pokemon Sapphire (and Generation III) for the first time, bolstering my Hoenn collection which would have been a pain to simply trade for otherwise. After that, I moved on to replaying Diamond, as Sinnoh was (and still is) my favorite region across all the games so far. Well after about two weeks of obsessively mining away at the Pokedex, I managed to join that 100-club of having them all. Since then, I’ve been mostly just been helping other people catch what they want, holding random giveaways on reddit, and leisurely exploring the games proper. I’ve since bought FireRed as well, which means I now have access to all the generations and regions in some form or another (which is a first for me):

  • Gen I (also III)– Kanto [Pokémon FireRed] Like I previously stated, I had never played Generation III before I laid hands on Sapphire so this game is a whole new experience to me despite the fact that I own and have played through the original Blue & Red in the late 90's (which this game is a remake of). This also grazes an issue which I’ll get to later on, but let’s keep off that bridge for the moment.
  • Generation II (also IV) – Johto [Pokémon SoulSilver] The first Pokemon game I had played since Diamond & Pearl’s initial release. Also a remake, I probably prefer picking this up to play to anything else in the main franchise due to the sheer amount of content in it (the only thing that comes close is Diamond and that’s just simply because I like Sinnoh as a general setting best). The ability to get 16 badges and access two regions in a single game lets this game actually get away with the quantity over quality argument in my eyes.
  • Generation III – Hoenn [Pokémon Sapphire] The main thing I missed out on regarding gen three was the major structural change that affected all subsequent Pokemon games since. After playing the original Silver and Gold on the Gameboy color , I pretty much stayed away from the series entirely until Pokemon Diamond (about a seven year gap if I recall correctly). Though there was a significant change in the way the games played from Gen III onwards, it was still a relatively simplistic (and mostly technical) shift that hasn’t been altered in any mentionable fashion since (sans highly-irrelevant stat arguments which I’ll also address later). Now that it’s 2011, that’s almost a decade of Pokemon games with minor tweaks here and there. The formula isn’t so much ideal as it is ‘safe’, so the if-it-ain’t-broken stance is on thin ice when talking about this particular series. Given how pervasive the franchise has become in that time frame, not taking advantage of its massive audience is pretty much a crime from my perspective, and it’s one Nintendo and Game Freak are frequent offenders of.
  • Generation IV – Sinnoh [Pokémon Diamond] This is where I actually jumped back into the series in 2007. I was surprised at how much hadn’t changed since I last played the games and this is also where I became one in the millions echoing in pain due to the incremental nature of the series.
  • Generation V – Unova [Pokémon Black] At this point I had become somewhat apathetic with the series. I’m still able to enjoy them as I always have, but the fact has finally sunk in that these games will continually make the same mistakes and perpetually piss me off in the same exact way(s) they always have. The best I can do at this point is what I seem to be exemplary with, pointing and laughing.
Most people still live for the dream of a hypothetical game where all regions are accessible and/or an MMO-like space (I include myself there)? Of course---we've got larger problems.

The first thing I came across when drilling my way back into the series was the concept of connectivity. It’s borderline offensive first of all, being that the games have an inherent message on trading and interacting with other players of the world. The first major annoyance for me was one I was extremely vocal about, being that there’s no alternative to requiring another DS to move Pokemon that the player has earned and captured on their own to another gen (which is also a one-way transfer by the way).  The transfer itself is riddled with numerous irritants such as HM moves needing to be removed, items being unable to transfer (e.g. the Griseous Orb), and just the general way in which the present games acknowledge the prior entries through a Pokemon’s summary page.

Adding to this is the issue of being an OT (Original Trainer) in any Pokemon title. Being assigned multiple signatures (Name, Trainer ID, Secret ID, etc.) with each new game to identify oneself is a sure-fire way to avoid establishing an ‘identity’ (which would prevent any hypothetical ‘assault’ from glitches, hacks and the like), but it’s also a fantastic way to sever any creative or interesting branches for the player to assert themselves in the Pokémon world altogether. It’s simple to write off a bulk of the complaints I’m raising with ‘They had to prioritize the connectivity with the previous games’, but it’s also only sensible to question the very foundations these types of mechanics have been built upon over the years. Let’s take the initial one I just mentioned as an example here:

I’m an OT in FireRed (a gen III title)

To get a Pokemon to Pokemon Black, said Poke would need to be traded up through Generation IV’s Pal Park and then put through Gen V’s Pokeshifter.

Getting the Pokemon from Gen III to gen IV wasn’t that bad as it could be done with a ‘single system’ (which was only possible because the pre-DSi model DSes had Gameboy Advance compatibility).

However, the switch to Gen V meant that the Pokeshifting process required an extra DS to make use of the wireless capabilities. Between all of this, the aforementioned annoyances all begin to eat away (e.g. item stripping). It does add a certain degree of finality to decisions and whatnot, but even that's just a perk that must be stretched to be appreciated.

If a Pokemon that you were an OT of in Pokemon FireRed is traded to your file in Pokemon Black, it also becomes an outsider Pokemon, stripping you of certain privileges you had on the original file. So, things such as a permanent name given to the Pokemon by the original trainer does have some merit if genuinely traded away to an alternate person, leaving an impression of the person who raised it, but what about the person who’s still trying to raise it? That group of people probably isn’t as much of a minority as I myself would have initially assumed. I am curious behind the methodology for why traded Pokemon gain extra EXP, but apart from that, it's a forced incentive to trade, which is far different from a sort of nurtured option to.

Having some type of unifying code that can be transferred across games does present a danger (e.g. hacks that affect a singular code could tear up the entire game far more effectively), but the payoff would be having one established presence across all the games. It would certainly leave a far more lasting impression than the jerry-rigged system built into the games now. This would require Nintendo hone their networking and infastructure skills though, which I won't lambast further being that it's far too easy. With a game franchise such as this, where such a system would complement the social architecture of players worldwide, the flaws are simply glaring and obnoxious. They always have been.