Pokémon Red and Blue were released in North America on September 28, 1998, marking the beginning of a pop culture phenomenon in the west. Twenty and a half years later, the eighth generation of Pokémon games, entitled Pokémon Sword and Shield, were revealed via a Pokémon Direct on February 27, 2019. During that time, there have been seven generations of mainline titles, countless spin-off titles in genres ranging from pinball to photography (yes, really), and over twenty years of players voicing their opinions on ways the Pokémon series could evolve (pun intended) with its fanbase.
Alas, an overwhelming amount of longtime fans feel the series has remained mostly stagnant in favor of appealing to newer, younger fans throughout its history. The release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild showed what Nintendo could do to a relatively stagnant franchise, and many fans hoped for a similar renaissance with Pokémon’s impending release on the Switch. After negative feedback seemed to reach a fever pitch with the series, Nintendo and the Pokémon Company seemingly didn’t budge; and because of that, all hope now seems lost for a massive overhaul to the mainline titles.
With that said, let’s go through some reasons Nintendo and the Pokémon Company are justified in their vision for the Pokémon franchise, including sales numbers and improvements that longtime fans may be overlooking. Supposing Nintendo and the Pokémon Company are willing to deviate from the perceived norm in the future, however, let’s look at potential ways the franchise could rebuild itself for a modern gaming world.
This may be obvious, but Pokémon games sell. A lot. Looking at the base games of each generation (Red and Blue, Gold and Silver, Ruby and Sapphire, Diamond and Pearl, Black and White, X and Y, and Sun and Moon), it may be surprising which generations have sold more than others.
Of course, Red and Blue sold a whopping 31.38 million units worldwide and no generation has come close since – but the rest of the generations have not been on an expected consistent decline in sales. In descending order, this is the ranking of Pokémon generations in terms of sales: 1, 2, 4, 6, 3, 7, and 5, with the fifth generation selling 15.64 million units. The most recent generation, Pokémon Sun and Moon, sold 16.13 million units. The Nintendo Switch has sold above 32.27 million units to date, and the arrival of Sword and Shield is expected to drive a significant amount of console sales by the end of the year. If that expectation comes to fruition, Nintendo and the Pokémon Company will have no reason to budge on their core vision for mainline Pokémon titles beyond Sword and Shield.
So, why have Pokémon games continued to sell incredibly well over the years? For fans who clamor for a mainline Pokémon game that appeals to longtime fans and/or older gamers, every subsequent Pokémon release seems like more of the same on the surface. And for the most part, they’re right – every generation has followed the formula of eight gym leaders (eight island trials in Sun and Moon), an evil team akin to Team Rocket, the Elite Four, and an endgame with legendary Pokémon to catch and difficult battles to fight. Upon closer examination, however, the mainline games have implemented a slew of quality-of-life improvements that have made playing more recent entries more enjoyable. Not necessarily easier, just more enjoyable by removing some annoying aspects of previous titles.
Are you starting a new generation and don’t have the types of every new Pokémon memorized? Once you’ve faced a Pokémon, newer generations will tell you which of your moves will be super effective or not very effective against that Pokémon the next time you encounter them.
Remember the days of having to use one of your six party slots for an “HM slave” to traverse the world? Newer generations have done away with the HM mechanic in various ways, leaving your party free of unnecessary moves and species.
In the old games, which Pokémon did you give your EXP Share to if you had more than one Pokémon to train at a time? Starting in X and Y, the EXP Share is now a key item that is applied to every Pokémon in your party – no more having two or three Pokémon that are adequately leveled and the rest being useless.
For the hardcore trainers, EVs (Effort Values, or secret statistics that influence your Pokemon’s strength) are now actually visible to the player. Nature can now be determined before an egg even hatches. Previously, you’d have to go through the time and trouble of hatching countless eggs in hopes of your Pokémon having your preferred nature. Additionally, more varied Pokémon have become available earlier in recent generations, opening up greater team possibilities right from the get-go. That’s all before possibly revolutionary changes to the series were introduced in Pokémon Let’s Go, including in-world Pokémon as opposed to random encounters and an always accessible Pokémon PC. Pokémon is definitely changing for the better, but it just might not be at a pace the series deserves and needs.
Despite Pokémon games continuing to be among the best-sellers for each platform they appear on and smaller changes being introduced throughout the years, fans have many valid concerns with how easy and stagnant the series has become. How many times do we need to see a tutorial on how to catch a Pokémon? Why is there pretty much no need to grind or optimize your party to overcome a challenge in the main story? Is a purely linear game the most the series is capable of, or does it not deserve more open world characteristics? Definitely not last and certainly not least, why can we STILL not control the camera?
These are chief among changes that would appease the swelling group of longtime fans hoping for improvements to the series. Implementing some sort of open world structure similar to Breath of the Wild would be incredible, especially if it produces meaningful NPCs and varied opportunities to level up your Pokémon in a game that skews a bit more difficult. Imagine seeing Lugia flying in the distance over the Whirl Islands from a mountaintop. Imagine exploring dungeons with thoughtful puzzles and battling opponents for strong Pokémon and meaningful items. Imagine being able to control your view of a vast open world by rotating the camera (I know, it sounds so simple but my goodness would this be revolutionary). Imagine being able to explore the world with a friend online and teaming up to take down legendary foes.
These are the types of changes longtime fans demand from the Pokémon series, and after laying them out here I can say I would love to play this Pokémon game. The companies behind Pokémon should start examining the potential of these changes before veteran fans fully give up on the series.
Pokémon Sword and Shield seems to be a minor step forward in the mainline Pokémon series. It’s projected to sell well due to the Switch’s already high install base and the potential for more sales to come from those waiting for a Pokémon title. Unfortunately, fans who have a slight interest in the series stemming from nostalgic memories of the first few generations will probably skip this generation yet again. There just simply aren’t enough improvements or major changes to the Pokemon formula to warrant purchasing another generation. Dedicated fans who play every generation and appreciate the incremental changes have no reason to stop now, as the game will be at least as good as the ones that came before. Fans who fall somewhere in the middle are the ones that seem to have the most power in the discussion revolving around the current state of Pokémon, and that could bode well for evolution in future installments.
Unfortunately, at the end of the day Nintendo and the Pokémon Company are businesses, and sales are what drive the vision for their products. Until Pokémon sees a vast drop in sales, there’s no reason for them to overhaul their development process or marketing angles. For the time being, let’s enjoy Pokémon Sword and Shield for what it seems to be – a small step forward for a franchise that’s withstood the test of time.