Thursday, December 8, 2016

Poképaradise: Pokémon Sun & Moon

Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon (developed by Game Freak and published by Nintendo) were released in November 2016.

For those who think that Pokémon is that dumb game you play on your phone, endangering yourself and others in pursuit of imaginary monsters like some schizophrenic wackjob, allow me to clarify something: Pokémon GO is not Pokémon. The promise of GO was an exciting one – that the charm and addictive fun of the actual, real Pokémon games could be translated into a virtual “real-world” setting – but it quickly became obvious that GO was as shallow and dispensable as any flash-in-the-pan mobile game. GO is designed like the ubiquitous Candy Crush Saga and most other mobile shovelware in that its core gameplay loops are designed for sustained repetitive mindlessness: something to keep your fingers busy on the subway or the toilet, devoid of player agency, the need for critical thought, or any form of true interactive engagement. The real Pokémon, the one that’s been almost single-handedly responsible for keeping Nintendo’s handheld consoles afloat since 1998, is a series of brilliantly designed RPGs that are aging like fine wine – and still finding ways to improve on their central mechanics nearly 20 years after their first incarnation.

As Nintendo’s portable Game Boy platform has evolved, so too has the software designed to sell that hardware. With the North American release of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue in 1998, developer Game Freak helped Nintendo revitalize the Game Boy and established a precedent for one of the most successful franchises in gaming history, spawning a tie-in cartoon, a collectible card game, and countless huggable plush representations of the game’s titular “pocket monsters.” Released every few years as colour-matched titles with minor differences (which encourage players to trade with and battle against their friends), every game in the series has embraced the core appeal of setting off on an adventure to find, capture, and train all the Pokémon in the game’s fictional world – verbalized famously in the tagline of the original game as “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” Since they've enjoyed nearly two decades of success, there’s a lot of pressure on each new title to deliver fresh, interesting material while maintaining that central fun factor that’s kept the series alive for so long – pressure which, until recently, hasn’t prompted the results many series stalwarts have hoped for. The latest pair of games is called Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon, released in November of this year, and they inject the franchise with the innovation and invigoration it’s been sorely lacking for years. They’re absolutely brilliant.

In response to the release of these newest versions, I heard a lot of people asking, What’s new? They’ve been making these games for years – why play Pokémon now? In past years, I wouldn’t have had a good answer for them; if the basic “catch, train, battle” loop wasn’t enough to draw them in, then there was nothing the past few generations of games could offer that would have enticed an outsider, except perhaps the plethora of new critters to find and collect, the total number of which has ballooned from the original 151 to a massive 802. (This was enough to dissuade some early adopter friends of mine, who claim without having experienced any of the new games that the original roster was the only one they’d ever need – and pointing to one or two silly-looking examples as proof that all the new Pokémon are poorly designed.) But with Sun and Moon, I have a laundry list of reasons why now is a better time than ever to pick up and play Pokémon. Game Freak has streamlined the process of catching and training wild Pokémon to a remarkable degree, smoothing out many time-wasting annoyances (like having to navigate through several menus every time you wanted to toss a pokéball to catch a new friend) and replacing them with intuitive, natural design choices (like being able to toss a ball at any point in battle with the touch of a button). Pokémon are distinguished by type – Electric-types shoot lightning in battle, Fire-types emit jets of flame, and so on – and knowing the comparative strengths and weaknesses of all the different types had become a Herculean task, for which all but the most dedicated gamers practically required a chart for quick reference close at hand. Not so in Sun and Moon, where the effectiveness of any move you would attempt to make is conveniently displayed for you onscreen (once you’ve faced that particular Pokémon already, of course). Powerful items called HMs (“Hidden Machines”), which have special utility outside battle, used to occupy a valuable move slot for a member of your team, but are replaced here by a “Ride Pager” that lets you summon these abilities at will while exploring the world, leaving your team free to maximize its battle potential. Even the “Gym” system, whereby a trainer earns badges of honour by defeating a league of increasingly powerful defending champions, has been reimagined as a series of “Trials” that allow for wide variety of gameplay scenarios. I could go on and on – but the best way to describe the subtle magnitude of these changes is to say that the game feels like it should always have been designed this way; that it has finally achieved its ideal form. Like the Pokémon that every trainer lovingly nurtures, it has evolved into a much sleeker and more powerful version of itself.

A "Ride Pager" in action.

Part of this evolution is a strengthening of the game’s narrative, which has nearly always been disposable at best (like the original Red and Blue, in which your – exclusively male – character was a voiceless avatar for your adventurous fantasies) and deplorable at worst (like last generation’s X and Y, stuffed with tedious, unskippable sycophantic dialogue and unconvincing dramatic “twists”). In Sun and Moon, effort has been made not only to engage the player with compelling and likeable characters and setpieces, but also to design unprecedented levels of character customization – and, most crucially, to step back and allow the player’s personal narrative to shine through as the most important element. Everyone who’s played a Pokémon game knows the special attachments you develop on your unique journey: to your team of Pokémon, whom you nickname and grow deeply fond of as they grow; to your struggle through the challenges of the adventure, when the coordination between your strategic choices and the strength of your Poké-friends sees you through impossible odds; to your personal approach to the experience offered by the broader game, which might be entirely different from mine – you might be more interested in filling your Pokédex encyclopedia, or in attaining total battle supremacy, or in simply doing what the cartoon theme song said and catching ‘em all. The narrative brilliance of Sun and Moon is that they recognize the primacy of this – that is, your – story over their own, and work to provide something interesting that will guide and compel you through the different regions of the game without interrupting or hindering your personal experience. That’s not to say there isn’t some irritating material – this is a Japanese game, after all, and a lot of that storytelling style will always grate on Western ears – but Game Freak achieved something worth celebrating in their willingness to step back and let my journey be the focus.

If you’ve made it this far through my review without ever having played a Pokémon game, first of all, bravo. Secondly, the question that I imagine is lingering in your mind must be, Why is a grown man so excited about catching and collecting imaginary monsters? To that I’d say, That’s rude, but I’ll bite: it’s really a larger question about why, after so many years, Pokémon is still a fun and compelling series for players of all ages. It comes down not only to that core appeal I mentioned before, which surfaces as an addictive urge to explore, find, catch, train, and battle with these extraordinary imaginary beasts, but also the effort that’s been put into polishing that experience into something mirror-bright. There is a huge metagame surrounding Pokémon, involving the complex stats that power the battle system, by which a small selection of players train, breed, and empower their Pokémon for startlingly engaging competitive play (both online and off) – and with Sun and Moon, Game Freak have shown their support for this passionate community by including in-game features that streamline these processes that most players won’t even know about. And that’s just one example. Those who dismiss Pokémon with the assumption that it’s as trite as its stunted mobile counterpart, GO, miss a deeply compelling gaming experience that, with these newest incarnations, is fostering an entirely new generation of Pokémaniacs.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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