‘Pokemon Let’s Go’: Polishing Away Personality

Pokemon Let’s GO Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee released on November 16th, 2018. They exist somewhere between a remake and a reimagining of Pokemon Yellow, which is an enhanced version of the original Pokemon Red and Blue that borrows elements from the Pokemon anime and allows a player to start the game with Pikachu. The Pokemon Let’s Go games also exist in a weird grey area between sequel and remake, as some story events – like Red and Blue becoming powerful trainers – already happened, while other plot points – like the downfall of Team Rocket – happen over the course of the Let’s Go games.

Of course, these titles also incorporate a lot of mechanics from the exceptionally popular mobile game, Pokemon GO and dial back some more complicated mechanics from the mainline games to make these titles more approachable for newcomers to the series. More notably, though, are the numerous changes to the story, world, and characters. On the surface, these changes by in large improve the Let’s Go games over the originals, and make the games feel quite a bit more thought out and refined. For instance, in the Let’s Go games the Elite Four are far more established figures before a player encounters them and the rival character adds the Lavender Town Cubone to his team as a way of helping it cope with the passing of its mother.

However, in adding layer after layer of polish to Pokemon Let’s Go the games lost what made the originals great in the first place. Authenticity, character, and ambition were far more important to the Pokemon franchise taking off than impressive graphics or a well-paced story. In this essay, I’ll argue how the Pokemon Let’s Go games fundamentally misunderstand what made the games they’re imitating some of the most successful in the history of the gaming medium.

 

Authenticity: Something Only Friends Could Make

 

Game Freak, the company that develops the Pokemon games, originally started as a self-published video game hobbyist magazine, that saw enough success for the creators of the magazine, Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori, to pursue creating their own games. While they tried to make the original Pokemon games right out of the gate, financial constraints and a lack of expertise forced them to shelve the project and pursue developing games that would generate short term revenue. After bouncing back from near bankruptcy, the team rallied together and finished the first entry in what would become one of the most successful multimedia franchises in existence.

With this kind of development process, it’s no wonder that an absurd amount of passion and dedication pours out of every aspect of the original Pokemon games. They are the product of a cohesive group of people working towards a goal they all shared and could visualize as a team. They were making a game for themselves because they believed in the idea, not because they thought it’d be a commercial success.   

That’s why there are a good number of odd elements in what are children’s games, like playing slot machines in the game corner or a drunken man blocking your path in Viridian City. Game Freak developers imaged stuff like that as a part of the world of Pokemon, so they put it in the first games. The Pokemon Let’s Go titles whittle down these elements to make something more sterile and better suited for the millions of kids and young people whose first experience with Pokemon is likely Pokemon GO or the ongoing anime. These new Pokemon games care far more about making something that’s popular and has all the rough edges removed, instead of creating something that the people behind it believe in and want to put into the world.

Character: An Identity 20 Years In the Making

The original Pokemon games gave every character and monster just enough personality for the player to infer who they were and then fill in the gaps themselves. Brock was a shirtless, flexing tough guy that played into him being the first major hurdle in the games, and Pokemon like Electrode and Golbat were given just enough personality in their designs to figure out how they might behave. Sure, the personality of each of the characters and monsters were pretty barebones, but there was just enough there to engage with and suggest that the creators had a solid idea of who these people and creatures were.

The Pokemon Let’s Go games take this happy middle and push it to both ends of the spectrum. Human characters like Brock are now hyper-defined and in line with the version of the character made popular by the anime. Likewise, all of the Pokemon in the game lack the posing and expression that made them feel like actual monsters and are now presented more simply and animalistically. All characters are now rigidly defined if they’re people, or, if they’re Pokemon, blank slates for the player to imprint whatever personality they’d like.

For instance, Lt. Surge in Pokemon Red and Blue is a tough, brash, and a way into himself army guy. There’s also just enough lore in the original games to figure out why he might be like this and how he fits into this quirky world. However, in Pokemon Heart Gold and Soul Silver, his character is built outwards rather than upwards. In these games, we learn that this rough and tough army guy’s favorite Pokemon is the adorable little Pikachu. In the Pokemon Let’s Go games, instead of expanding his character, his already existing character elements are merely reinforced, as seen when the full of himself Lt. Surge gives the player his autograph after his defeat.

Reducing the personality in the titular pocket monsters is also a detriment to these psudo-remakes. By placing more of an emphasis on how these monsters would realistically exist in a world, they lose a lot of their charm. In the original games, Golbat was a zany vampire bat with an impossibly large mouth and outstretched tongue that made it feel erratic and vaguely threatening like it couldn’t wait to bit into a person or monster. Similarly, Electrode’s wide grin and big eyes made it feel like it was full of energy and happy to be alive. The, admittedly beautiful, HD interpretations of the monsters in Pokemon Let’s Go place more emphasis on the creatures looking at home in the world, rather than giving them more personality. The end result is that in the newest Pokemon games Golbat and Electrode just end up looking like a big, weird bat and a slightly anthropomorphized ball, respectively.

The Pokemon Let’s Go games make the characters feel like they have to be a hyper-specific thing, rather than more fluid, realistic characters with a hodgepodge of personality quirks. Sure, Pokemon Let’s Go does give these characters more exploration than the original games, but it only plays up one element of their personality, rather than expanding outward to make them feel more fleshed out. This choice coupled with the focus on believability in the Pokemon designs, just makes the Pokemon Let’s Go games have much less personality than their predecessors. It doesn’t feel like there is any passion or thought put behind these characters like in the original games, instead, they are just presented as entities rigidly shaped by 20 years of marketing.

 

Ambition: Capturing The Feeling of Impossibility

 

The most impressive feature of the original Pokemon games, by far, is the scope of these original Game Boy titles. Held together with gum and shoestring, as evident by the many peculiar and game breaking bugs, the developers used every shortcut possible to make these titles almost impossibly dense. Even by today’s standards, an RPG with 151 playable characters who all have their own unique movesets and stats is practically unheard of; and the original Pokemon games made this happen on a portable console originally released in 1989.

It’s a pretty well-known story in the Pokemon fandom that the mythical Mew was only added to the game after Game Freak removed the debug tools and realized that they had just enough space left to add one more monster. This really demonstrates how the original Pokemon games pushed the Game Boy console and Game Boy cartridge to their very limits. This is an extremely impressive feat that helped make Pokemon a hit series, and when Pokemon Gold and Silver topped this impressive density by having the games be literally twice as big as the first generation, it cemented the franchise as one of the greatest in gaming. Of course, neither of these feats would have been possible if not for the tireless work of the Game Freak developers and the last minute intervention of coding genius Satoru Iwata in Gold and Silver’s development.

The Pokemon Let’s Go games don’t utilize the Nintendo Switch to its fullest potential. This is somewhat understandable considering how much earlier Let’s Go launched in the Switch’s lifespan than Red and Blue launched on the Game Boy’s, but the Let’s Go games don’t even push the console harder than the console’s launch titles. You never hear the fans in the Switch whirring up in Let’s Go to compensate for how demanding the game is on the system like you do when playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. These games don’t push the Switch’s features, they merely incorporate them into what is now the well tested Pokemon formula.     

Granted, this does make the Pokemon Let’s Go games the best looking in the franchise by far and it’s a genuine treat to have Pokemon running around in the overworld instead of hiding in grass, but these ideas aren’t pushed as far as the Switch allows. Each Pokemon could have more battle animations than the two or three they’re given, human characters could do more than just hop in place to convey action, and gym and dungeon puzzles can be more elaborate than what the original Game Boy allowed. Instead of changes that push the hardware, players instead are treated to cutscenes and story changes that wink at Pokemon’s extensive lore. While these are nice and certainly appreciated by veteran Pokemon fans, they aren’t what made the first Pokemon games successful. The original Pokemon games were incredible because their realized scope and ambition made them feel like something that shouldn’t exist, yet the passion, skill, and dedication of the developers made them a reality against all odds.

 

Conclusion: Polish That Misses The Point

 

Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu! And Let’s Go Eevee! are really good Pokemon games that seamlessly add new mechanics, are a great way for new players to experience the series, and a nostalgic feast for the franchise’s oldest fans. It’s an exceptionally polished work that can only happen after decades of refining the Pokemon game experience. However, when a game is polished to this mirror sheen – to a point where there’s no better version of this experience, merely a different one – it lets a player see into themselves and figure out what made them fall in love with Pokemon in the first place.

It’s not the stunning visuals, story, or even premise of catching monsters that made me love the first Pokemon games; it was the authenticity, character, and ambition of Pokemon Red and Blue that made me a lifelong fan of the series. The feeling that I was holding something in my hands that shouldn’t exist, something that took me on a magical journey with a bunch of cool characters and strange monsters, and that it never failed to surprise me at every turn; those elements are what made the original Pokemon games some of the best in the history of the medium.

Maybe I’m just nostalgic for that feeling of wonderment that comes with experiencing something terrific as a kid, when everything seems more magical than it really is. However, the Pokemon Let’s Go games were supposed to be a better version of Pokemon Yellow, which itself is an enhanced version of Pokemon Red and Blue. Pokemon Let’s Go misunderstood what made Red, Blue, and Yellow amazing in the first place and doubled down on the set dressing and story of the original games. If it really wanted to capture and surpass the feeling of Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow, the Pokemon Let’s Go games should have strived to be as authored, imaginative, and ambitious as the games they are trying to improve upon.            

   

 

  

 

        

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‘Pokemon Let’s Go’: Polishing Away Personality