Pokémon’s Formula is Holding the Series Back

In a recent interview for WWG (a division of comicbook), Pokémon series producer Junichi Musada asserted that he thinks an open world setting like the one in Breath of the Wild would not work for Pokémon. Musada-san reasoned that Pokémon Go might already offer players the kind of open world experience that they desire, and said that an open world setting is more suited to “having a sword and going out and fighting enemies.” The only way he thinks an open world could work for Pokémon is if they had “a good, interesting reason for players to be in that kind of environment going around and catching Pokémon.” (You can read the entire interview here.)

What’s disappointing about Musada-san’s thinking isn’t his indifference to the idea of an open world Pokémon, but his underlying dedication to Pokémon‘s aging formula. One of the reasons I, myself, have strayed away from the Pokémon series is because every game that’s come out in the last ten years has arguably been the same basic game with a new coat of paint, a new set of gimmicks, and an even bigger list of Pokémon (what’s it at now? 800?). For many Pokémon fans this is enough because it continues to build on the nostalgia that has carried the series onward since the fateful release of Pokémon Red, Blue, Green, and Yellow (depending on your region) more than twenty years ago. For many others, like myself, Pokémon‘s felt like it ran out of ideas since Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum. These games came out ten years ago, in 2007, and I distinctly remember them as the first Pokémon games to bore me. It wasn’t because of the new Pokémon, or the beautiful new Sinnoh region, but because the gameplay, the very foundation of the series, felt incredibly stale.

Turn-based gaming has been on the decline for quite a while now. The best example of this is Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series, which faced quite a bit of controversy when it announced its decision to start moving away from its iconic turn-based battles after more than twenty years in 2005’s Final Fantasy XII, a change which only just became fully realized in 2016’s Final Fantasy XV. In an interview for Gamespot, Final Fantasy XII producer Akitoshi Kawazu was asked why they decided to move away from the iconic turn-based systems. “The real driving design philosophy behind the game is to have players exploring a world,” Kawazu-san said, “and so in the same way that walking around a town you see people standing around, we wanted there to be the same experience if you’re going through a desert and you see monsters roaming the desert, you know, and walking about as they naturally would, and so since that was the type of gameplay that they wanted to provide to the players, a real-time battle system that got rid of random encounters seemed to be the way to go.”

Discovery, then, and more natural experiences informed the change from turn-based to real-time, and modern games like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Minecraft, and fellow “formula-breaker” The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild seem to support this. We have departed from a time where games were defined by hardware limitations and now find ourselves in the era of world building and unlimited exploration. Turn-based battles in the face of today’s penchant for open worlds and sandboxes, then, doesn’t jive, but that doesn’t mean that it’s by any means dead or no longer relevant. Games like Bravely Default, the Fire Emblem series, and even the Pokémon series itself continue to successfully carry on this hallowed trend, offering turn-based lovers options while still managing to improve upon its foundations. But these games have, for the most part, enjoyed their success on the fading mobile platform of the Nintendo 3DS, which is why the question of Pokémon‘s future is so important.

If Pokémon continues on its current path, with declining sales year after year (see this chart if you don’t believe me), it will inevitably fade from relevancy, if it hasn’t already. The producers of the Pokémon series are well aware of this, and while they aren’t necessarily scrambling to change the core formula of the games in quite the same way as the Legend of Zelda, the necessity and pressure for them to innovate and explore new options is increasingly palpable. Take Pokémon Sun and Moon, for example; these games were the first of seven generations to do away with gyms, gym leaders, and HMs, and offer open segments of the game world via the Alola Region’s various islands. In this way, Pokémon has already flirted with the idea of an open world, and it works. But if the series producers are still unconvinced of the advantages, then I worry that the next game will be yet another bland and disappointing rehash of the aged and archaic Pokémon formula. This sounds harsh, I know, and I’d like to clarify that I’m not insinuating that the Pokémon games are bad, or even boring, but if the creators of these games truly think that Pokémon wouldn’t work in an open world setting, then they lack the foresight to see where their own games are headed, the kind of foresight needed to stay relevant to today’s modern gamers.

Pokémon, after all, evolves slowly. Due in part to a release schedule that seemingly calls for a new generation of games every two years, each generation of Pokémon seems to visually and systematically build one on top of the another. With such a tight release schedule, the Pokémon series often blurs together, and seemingly has the ability to predict what the next generation will look like, and what kinds of mechanics it will feature. For example, Pokémon X and Y‘s beautiful 3D art style can be seen in its most basic of concepts all the way back in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, not to mention every game after, which incrementally implemented more and more 3D elements. The same, therefore, can be said that the semi-open aspect of Pokémon Sun and Moon will eventually translate into a gradual, yet eventual open world in its future games.

It’s not difficult to imagine what an open world Pokémon might look like, and I believe an open world would actually benefit the core “gotta catch ’em all” idea that’s informed the games all the way back to its beginning. The inner child in me gets giddy at the idea of having an open Pokémon game world that doesn’t hold my hand throughout its entire story, and that doesn’t restrict where I can go and what I can do. Right now, finding all of the Pokémon available in a certain game involves running through the same patch of grasses hundreds upon thousands of times in the hopes of running into that rare Pokémon that only shows up 0.0002% of the time. But what if, instead, finding these rare Pokémon involved completing difficult quests and making long journeys? Wouldn’t that make for a fresh, compelling case to actually explore the vast world and all of its crevices to find as many variations of Pokémon as possible? Not to mention, I would love for the Pokémon Company to stop just handing out legendary Pokémon simply because you opened up the game during a specific month. Instead, I think it would be far more interesting and special if they replaced these events with something like a new in-game quest that requires you to explore a hidden cave to find, battle, and catch said legendary Pokémon. After all, hasn’t every single generation of Pokémon encouraged you to enjoy this level of exploration? Haven’t most of the games started with a Pokémon professor of one sort or another encouraging you to explore, to be curious, only to dump you into a world that’s highly constrained, allowing only the most basic of exploration only when it wants you to explore?

I can see the fetch quests now; a girl at an inn asking me to travel to a far-off forest in search of a particular Pokémon that’s said to lurk there that she’s always wanted to see. I can imagine the freedom to be the Pokémon trainer I’ve always wanted to be, instead of being welcomed to create a character whose path is predetermined, whose identity is going to be dictated for me. In many ways an open world like Skyrim and Breath of the Wild is exactly where the Pokémon series seems to be headed, just like the Legend of Zelda, but perhaps that’s only because that seems to be exactly where it needs to go if it hopes to expand its fan base beyond its most loyal, especially now that it’s making its way to the Nintendo Switch.

That Pokémon‘s producers don’t see how an open world setting could work, that they’re dismissing it simply because they don’t believe the formula they’ve clung to for the last twenty years isn’t flexible enough to be reworked for that kind of world, is disheartening. At the same time, though, we’re ostensibly so far away from an announcement of the new Pokémon for Nintendo Switch that it’s hard to really see what any other alternative might look like. All we’ve heard about the new game is what it won’t be, and even then it hasn’t been a definitive, since Musada-san’s opinions may simply be his and his alone. We know so little, but if the series’ past tells us anything, it’s that we have little other reason to believe that the new Pokémon‘s direction is any different, especially since, as a producer, Musada-san acknowledges that an open world Pokémon is something the fans want, but is something they have little interest in realizing.

My only hope, then, is that Pokémon continues to build towards this inevitable future, or that, somehow, they can figure out an open-world/closed-world blend that can surprise even me. At the very least, I want them to give up on the fixed camera system and introduce an interactive one, but I won’t hold my breath. Pokémon has always been slow at innovation, it’s always seemingly held itself back in its resistance to change, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon.

What are your thoughts about the future of Pokémon? What do you hope to see in the first official console Pokémon? Let us know in the comments!

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