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.