Joeblade

Pokémon Curious

Nintendo are often criticised for their first-party releases being largely based around the same few franchises. Mario in particular appears to pimp himself out to all manner of genres — platform games, sporting games, puzzle games, even non-game software such as art and music packages. What critics don’t realise is that the inclusion of Mario is, more often than not, a sign that the game will be of a high quality, just as, for instance, the inclusion of Sonic the Hedgehog can be taken as a sign that the game will probably be terrible.

Mario, Zelda, Metroid — people who tend to favour Nintendo consoles do so because of these franchises; the arrival of a new installment is something to really look forward to, particularly as — certainly in the case of Mario and Zelda — that new installment can casually revolutionise a genre without even appearing to try: Super Mario World and Mario 64, for instance, or The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.

The one franchise I just can’t get behind, though, is Pokémon.

Pika!

Pokémon — second only to the Mario series in terms of profitability and success — absolutely mystifies me. I first encountered it in cartoon form back in the mid-nineties, and it struck me as being an overly-excitable mess, like watching a bunch of eight-year olds tanked up on sugar, and lacking the depth and nuance of character I had grown to expect from my Saturday morning cartoons. My feelings on the cartoon were effectively summed up by this entry from the long-defunct Incendiary Surprise:

Pokémon (Encyclo Entry): Respect to Satoshi Tojiri and to Nintendo. Every kid-slanted TV show or movie since Star Wars came out has inevitably been accompanied by a shedload of tie-in merchandise, to the extent that the original vehicle becomes merely a medium for encouraging collection of the tie-in toys. Pokémon takes this to a whole new level: the show is about collecting the toys. Chilling, malevolent brilliance. Nintendo, we should disapprove but instead can only salute your dark majesty.

Source: The Incendiary Surprise

The main line of Pokémon video games — I’m going to ignore all the different spin-offs on different platforms, as they are uniformly terrible games that sell themselves purely on the Pokémon brand — have always existed on Nintendo’s portable system du jour: starting with Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green in Japan on the original Game Boy, moving to the rest of the world as Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue, then followed by a remake for the Game Boy Color, Pokémon Yellow.

Pokémon Yellow would be followed by Gold and Silver (still on the Game Boy Color) and those would be remade again as Pokémon Crystal. The Game Boy Advance would see Ruby and Sapphire, again remade as Pokémon Emerald, as well as remakes of the original Red and Green (Fire Red and Leaf Green respectively). Currently, the Nintendo DS is playing host to Pokémon Diamond and Pokémon Pearl.

So those are the games from the main series, and you know what? It’s all the same game. That’s not an exaggeration; the game mechanics in Diamond and Pearl are the same mechanics that feature in the original Red and Blue. Refined, perhaps, but essentially the same — you wander around the game world pitting Pokémon against Pokémon and trying to collect them all.

You’ll notice as well that each game gets released as part of a pair — Red and Blue, Gold and Silver, Diamond and Pearl. Within those pairs, the differences are simply that there’s a marginally different set of Pokémon to collect, and so if you want to catch them all, you have to buy both games. The remake game that follows each pair also barely differs from its parent games, offering another handful of Pokémon to collect and little else.

Chu!

So, Nintendo you magnificent bastard, how do you do it? How do you keep successfully peddling the same game so many times, for more than a decade? At least each Mario and Zelda game offers something different from its predecessor; each Pokémon game just offers more of the little freaks to collect.

I tried a Pokémon game, of course; I tried Emerald, and, honestly, it bored the shit out of me. The battle system that fans of the franchise claim has hidden depths and complexity struck me as being irredeemably tedious and simplistic. Although there’s supposedly a Paper/Scissors/Stone mechanic in operation with Grass, Fire and Water varieties of Pokémon, I found it made little practical difference, ending up with some sort of overpowered, kick-boxing, fire-breathing cockerel thing that brought every battle to a mercifully swift end, no matter what it was facing.

As far as I can tell from reviews, the most enjoyable part of the game is trying to collect all of the different Pokémon, and the weaker, dated aspects — such as the random battles and the battle system itself — get forgiven because collecting is just so much damn fun. I suppose if you just don’t care about how many Pokémon you have, it makes for a pretty pointless gaming experience. Really, having a collection of just one Pokémon is already one too many as far as I’m concerned.

Annoyingly, I find myself considering giving Diamond or Pearl a go, such is the strength of Nintendo’s marketing, but it isn’t like trying a new food that might be good, it’s more like approaching a boxing ring, knowing that you’ll walk away with a broken nose. What makes it all the weirder is that as you approach the ring, you see a steady stream of people walking away from it, blood streaming from their nostrils as they smile inanely and join the back of the queue, hungry for more.

By Paul Haine, in