🛡️ Catch Me If You Can...
In 1996 Game Freak released two games called Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue for the Nintendo Game Boy. These were JRPGs aimed at 10-year-olds that used a simplified turn-based battle system and were built around a social gimmick. There are 150 creatures called Pokemon in the game and one of the goals is to catch every one of them, only can't do it alone. Red and Blue each had Pokemon that were exclusive to that title, so the only way to get everything was to make in-game trades with a friend who owned the other version. The games were tied into a multi-media franchise that included manga, a TV show, and a collectible trading card game. And it was a mega-hit, one of the most successful and influential intellectual properties of the 90s and it continues to this day. In 2019, Pokemon Sword & Shield were released, the eighth set of games in the mainline series and the first for a console system that wasn't handheld only.
How I Remember It...
I missed Pokemon when it first broke. I was just a little too old for it. I knew it was a thing but at 16 I was much more obsessed with Final Fantasy. My much-younger brother was the right age, but he was more of a Power Rangers kid, so it skipped over our household entirely. Of course, it was always part of the culture and it never really went away. Every few years I'd hear about a movie coming out or see a new pair of games on the shelf at Best Buy and think "Oh, hey, that's still going, good for it."
And then Pokemon Go happened. I resisted at first but basically all of my coworkers were playing and a week after it launched I was just as hooked as everyone else. The mobile game is primarily about collecting the little beasties and has only limited combat and none of the RPG elements, but it was my entry point into the world of Pokemon, and it raised my interest around the other games. I played one of the next pair to come out on the Switch: Pokemon Let's Go Eevee (paired with Let's Go Pikachu), which was essentially a re-make of Blue with modern-ish graphics and mechanics based around the catching system in Pokemon Go. And I enjoyed a lot about the game but didn't like the lack of combat. So when Sword and Shield were announced, I was genuinely excited to try one, and I decided to go with Shield, figuring that Sword would be the more popular title and having the less popular version would make it easier for me to find people to trade with.
And I'll be damned if the games aren't super charming. They're still aimed at 10-year-olds. The basic story involves a child going out into the world to become a trainer and having an adventure where they occasionally spar with their friend and rival and level up their party of monsters and collect hundreds more while beating the leaders of gyms and inadvertently getting wrapped up in an intrigue plot that involves the fate of the entire region. They're low-stress games that are often silly and just unrelenting in their optimism. The turn-based combat is indeed simplistic, but the type-matching system of doing things like using fire attacks against grass-time enemies as well as the way you have to manage your abilities does keep things interesting. There's a lot of room for depth for those who want to pursue it.
There's a token squad of bad guys for you to defeat, and a linear story that's only moderately compelling, because the real appeal here is finding, collecting, and evolving the little beasties. And that's kind of the secret sauce of the franchise. JRPGs involve a certain amount of grinding--fighting just to gain experience so you can level up. But the "gotta catch 'em all" aspect means a lot of the fighting you do in order to catch Pokemon has the secondary benefit of leveling you up. In short, Pokemon games turn the standard JRPG grind into their own mini-game, which keeps it from become a... well... grind. Instead, you're just exploring and going on an adventure and obtaining literally hundreds of pets that you can give nicknames or set up a campsite so you can play with them. Also, they're all adorable but some of them grow up to be dragons.
Small wonder the games are so popular with kids.
Sword and Shield were an inflection point for the Pokemon games. There was a shift to more powerful console hardware... well, powerful compared to handhelds, not so much compared to other consoles. This allowed the games to be bigger and more ambitious. They still stuck to the Pokemon formula pretty closely, but they had a much larger roster of animals and new "Wild" areas that would serve as a template going forward--both Legends Arceus and the paired Scarlet and Violet have more of an open-world style, because after Breath of the Wild all Nintendo franchises must be open-world now. As such, Sword and Shield hit a nice little sweet spot between the old and the new. Their ambition does struggle a little against hardware limitations. One consistent complaint is about the quality of the graphics for a triple-A franchise. Although Scarlet/Violet have gone the other way, dialing up the textures so far that the game chugs. As for Sword and Shield, they're charming, casual games that are not perfect, but they're still a lot of fun.
In MEMORY LEAKS, Kurt is going through his favorite video games. See more posts.