The Pokemon Sun and Moon Conundrum

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It usually takes me around a few weeks before I’ve moved on to my second playthrough of a Pokemon game. It took me until the start of January before I’d even finished Pokemon Sun and Moon, and this has nothing to do with the length of the game. Instead, it was constant stopping and starting: a loss of the interest that has pulled me through Pokemon games I consider much less accomplished than this one. In this review, I want to see if I can work out why Sun and Moon have caused such a roadblock for me. So, it might be better to think of this less as a standard review, and more of a personal process for my own interest. Have I just fallen out with the Pokemon formula, or is it something that Sun and Moon have done specifically?

I think it’s important then, to start at the core of Sun and Moon and see what, if anything, has changed there. As I see it, the three main aspects of every Pokemon game are battling, exploring and to a lesser extent, the Pokemon themselves. Yes, trading and social aspects are important to the experience, but I don’t see them as core per se. Let’s start with battling, because for the casual observer this has remained pretty static throughout the series. Pokemon Sun and Moon makes a lot of quality of life adjustments to the battling system that I really liked. The effectiveness system streamlines the process for those who have yet to memorise type-effectiveness charts, and the stat chart is just helpful for those not wanting to keep track of those things in their head. It’s nice to see Pokemon embrace what was standard in Pokemon Showdown for years. The biggest and most heavily advertised change to the battling system is the Z-Moves, and these sit less easily with me. In theory, they improve significantly on Generation 6’s ‘Mega Evolution’ concept, while still keeping much of the idea behind that. A held item that makes your Pokemon stronger is a good idea, because it forces the player to sacrifice the longer term benefit of a held item like a Rocky Helmet or a berry for a shorter term large advantage of a Z Move. Unfortunately, the Z Moves themselves are let down by a few crucial things. The most glaringly obvious is their complete disruption of pacing caused by long animations. These things are 32 seconds long on average, which is much too long to go without player input, and when you’ve seen the animation happen multiple times before. What makes this doubly frustrating is that X/Y already came up with a solution to this problem; when the game first starts up you see the full transformation animation, but subsequent mega evolutions skip that animation in favour of a much shorter one. Sun/Moon could have easily employed a system like this but fails to do so, and thus discourages the player from using a significant mechanic. I was also slightly annoyed that Z Moves weren’t that powerful. One hit KO moves would be silly and overpowered, but having to sit through that animation for a move that is ultimately not that powerful is more frustrating than anticipated. Of course, this is one of the more minor quibbles with the mechanic, which I regard as a step-up from Mega Evolution. I’ve seen Z-Moves get some negative press, and besides the animation problem, I don’t see them as anything but a good idea; just inventive enough to seem like a revitalisation, just not powerful enough to seem like overkill.

The battle system, then, isn’t that much of a problem. Trainer battles, however, are. It’s worrying when I can count on one hand the number of trainers I remember having a full team of 6 Pokemon during the campaign. Even in OmegaRuby/AlphaSapphire, some of the easiest games in the franchise, there was a trainer class (the breeder) which specialised in having full teams. That isn’t to say the game is too easy – some boss battles pose a challenge, especially the Totem Pokemon battles that you face at the end of every trial. Still, what this does represent is that the standard trainer battles are quicker and less involved, as well as simply easier. When travelling the region, they become less like fun challenges and more annoying roadblocks – a decrease in difficulty means that battling loses a lot of its draw. When battling trainers becomes an annoyance, there’s something that’s gone wrong. I did like the inclusion of trainer quotas on routes as a quick fix solution to this problem. The idea of this is that defeating every trainer on a route allows you to battle a stronger trainer, often with a reward at the end. This is a basic solution – and from a theoretical design perspective it works, but practically this does nothing to stop the core problem that battling becomes rote without a challenge. Yes, this game’s difficult bosses represent a step-up in difficulty from previous games in the series, and I respect that. However, in a game that fixes many of its predecessor’s problems, this is one that annoys me when not addressed in a meaningful way. Still, I got through those games so I doubt that this is my main problem with Sun and Moon. I think to address that we should move onto exploration.

There’s a lot to unpack in this one, so this might take a while. Alola itself is the new region that Sun/Moon take place in, and for all extents and purposes, it’s one of the best region designs for quite a while. The multiple islands lead nicely into a non-standard, less linear route path, and it helps that the islands themselves have routes that are twisty and curve around landmarks and cities to create fun paths that allow for different terrain and environment to naturally flow into one another one a single pathway to your destination. It also allows for route design with branching pathways and hidden secrets. It still relies perhaps too heavily on the old trick of a choice between grass or trainer battle, but the idea I talked about earlier of the ‘route boss’, means that some trainers are almost hidden out of the way. Some routes even incorporate small gimmicks, such as finding a number of hidden Snufful in the grass. It’s also worth mentioning how lovely Alola looks – the series finally returns to what feels like truly dynamic light patterns in the sky, so that the changes in time are really marked (I played Moon version, for reference). No, the route design still doesn’t match up to the lofty heights of Sinnoh, but perhaps what I was most impressed by was how natural the routes felt to traverse. In X/Y, the designers seemed to have made routes using the grid based philosophy that worked for the top down games on the DS, where routes felt boxed in by trees, but that was a necessary limitation of the system’s hardware. On 3DS, when those routes were transplanted into a 3D landscape it felt odd and boxy. Meanwhile, Sun/Moon’s routes actually manage to feel properly free from this – maybe due to the removal of the grid from the map. So not only do islands and routes feel more natural, you can explore them more naturally as well. So far, so good.

It’s a shame, then, that the game seems determined to hamper your enjoyment of its beautifully designed region with some of the most egregious progression blocks and markers I’ve seen in a Pokemon game. Literal road blocks prevent you from moving to certain areas (getting rid of any of the creative semi-excuses from previous games.) However, these road blocks have existed for a while in previous games, if less commonly. What I was more annoyed by were the flag checkpoints on the map, which have much to do with the game’s new found emphasis on telling a compelling story. Other Pokemon games have always given you markers as to where to go next; usually in the forms of the gym battles. Literal markers, then, much like literal walls, aren’t necessarily something new, as much as they are making a pre-existing feature less subtle. Nevertheless, the flag checkpoints are symptomatic of a creeping problem that I’ve been mentioning throughout the review series that I made; the sacrificial trade off Pokemon has been making by giving preference to story over exploration. This was at its most egregious in X/Y, where the story had nothing to offer, but here the story has really taken over – it’s the subject of each and every flag, and if it’s not a boring story battle against a number of Skull/Aether grunts, then it’s a boring story cutscene that aims to provide some semblance of character development to Sun/Moon’s expansive cast of characters.

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The story of Sun/Moon has received a lot of praise from critics, but I fail to see exactly why, except in terms compared too other Pokemon games. Yes, the story in Sun/Moon is miles ahead of any other Pokemon game. However, in my opinion it doesn’t reach the heights required to affect the gameplay in the way it does. Yes, Lillie’s arc is strong, but other aspects of the story don’t quite stack up. Lusamine’s story is fun, but rob her of enough agency that it robs some of the impact from her as a villain. In that respect, Guzma and Team Skull feel like the stronger villains – their slapstick routine isn’t as threatening, but it works just enough; when they were on screen I wanted to spend time in their company, whereas the Aether Foundation were nothing more than an obvious twist. The crux of the story, then, revolves around Lillie, who’s undoubtedly a likeable protagonist, but her plot also annoys me in its follow up effects. You see, we don’t play as Lillie, we play as bland smiley boy/girl who runs around chasing Lillie, and yet still somehow fights all her fights. The game, then, struggles to maintain a weird balance between gameplay and story, trying desperately to have two cakes and eat them both. Focusing fully on Lillie’s story might have meant a named playable protagonist, or at least a situation where Lillie could solve her problems without fighting. Instead you do the grunt work for Lillie while she picks up the emotional development, which feels less earned – a compromise. I think this compromise comes as a result of Pokemon being unable to leave the core of the past behind, while being content to change the edges. What I mean by this is that Pokemon will never stop being about a nameless protagonist wandering around a region, catching and fighting wild beasts, but that doesn’t stop the directors from attempting to enforce change that runs contrary to that core idea, the best example being the one of a story focus.

Those features, then, make up the core of Pokemon Sun/Moon, but the game is pleasingly stuffed full of content. Sadly, I’m not the sort of game reviewer to pore through every little feature, but I will give a cursory glance over some of the features that stuck out to me. The new Pokemon introduced seem exceptionally well designed – they all have a simple aesthetic and a priority on the animation of the 3D models to give them character, which works surprisingly well in game. Some of the Alola forms are a little questionable and I think they could have pushed the idea much further, but some work nicely as a proof of concept. The removal of gyms was touted as a ‘major shake-up’ for the series, but I’m not sure that it is. Instead, gyms are replaced by often annoying, mostly mercifully short mini-games which end in fun boss battles against super-powered Pokemon. Totem Pokemon are a welcome addition, but I’m not sure if the removal of gyms was necessary, other than to give a refreshing face-lift to the franchise. The best change is clearly the removal of HM moves, which is the sort of common sense move that should have been done ages ago, but inexplicably wasn’t. I think the only thing left to talk about is the Rotom Pokedex, which is a forgettable kind of annoying – a clear send up of the once more popular Yokai Watch.

So then, what’s the conclusion? Why couldn’t I finish Sun/Moon quickly? Let me be clear with one thing here – these are good games. In fact, I like these games. Probably a lot, when I think about it. I’ve spent about 2000 words mostly complaining, but the core Pokemon formula topped off with a multitude of clever quality of life upgrades and a few cosmetic changes that allow that core some room to breathe will always make for an enjoyable experience. No, they aren’t perfect Pokemon games (HeartGold/SoulSilver already did that) but they are good, a marked step up from X/Y.

Annoyingly, this still fails to get to the root of my problem with the game. If you’ll excuse me from getting a bit meta, I had to rewrite this review multiple times in the vague hope that I’d reach some sort of personal conclusion as to why I wasn’t the greatest fan of the game. Each individual aspect I could work out my feeling towards, but as a sum of its parts, I was left slightly clueless. It could be, and this is something I’ve seriously considered, a result of a fatigue on my behalf towards Pokemon. Whether that’s caused by a year of replaying Pokemon games for review, or a lifetime of playing Pokemon games for fun, seeing a game like this that makes mild but insubstantial steps to improving on a well-trod path isn’t maybe enough to pull me through. Which might be unfair on the game. I do sometimes think that perhaps the way I reviewed this is completely unfair; I focused a lot on the negatives, and framed this review in a negative light. Not that anyone looks to me for a critical consensus, but that I care some about how I present my views. Clearly all reviews of this nature will be subjective, that’s in the nature of a review, but that doesn’t mean a reviewer shouldn’t strive for balance when framing his argument. This review has caused me a lot of existential grief; in case you couldn’t tell. At least it came in a lot shorter than I originally had it…

Yeah, that was… a post. I guess. I think I rambled a bit towards the end there because I was so fed up with the whole process (I think I rewrote this review maybe 3 times in total?) Anyway, my review of The Good Place should be up within a few days, so look forward to that (Spoilers – it’s good)

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Pokemon 20th Reviews: The State of the Franchise

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No, I hadn’t forgotten about this series, although someone with little faith in me (like myself) might reasonably think that I might have forgotten about it until recently… Anyway, with Sun and Moon launching this month I think at least a cursory glance should be given to the trends of the Pokémon series in its most recent installments.

I think the obvious place to start is the Pokemon themselves; there are over 700 now, and after an attempt to ‘reboot’ in the main story of Black and White, the array of catchable critters had to be expanded for Black 2 and White 2. It’s a good thing they did because the Unova Pokemon have some of the worst designs in the series to date; weird ugly re-treads of familiar ideas with much of the colour stripped out of them. Unova itself is quite ugly to look at, aside from the occasional area of nice visual design that sticks in one’s mind (see Skyarrow Bridge), much of it is brown, grey and dark green; a colour palette that may replicate the country it’s aiming for but isn’t where I would want to go on an adventure. Both Black and White 2 and X and Y learned from these mistakes, but they took it in two different directions. Black 2 and White 2 revamped Unova and added in old Pokemon, which is a simpler solution, but one that works. The new areas are brighter and more distinct, such as Humilau City, and the addition of old Pokemon doesn’t add to the already bulky roster, but gives you more choice in the campaign, and means you can avoid the questionably designed Unova Pokemon. In X and Y, the roster of Pokemon is expanded, but minimally, meaning that the quality is high, but the quantity is low, a change I’m quite a fan of; especially seeing as Mega Evolutions add some new looks and functions to old Pokemon. Perhaps, though, X and Y lean too heavily on borrowed nostalgia, especially from the first generation; Professor Sycamore even gives you a Kanto starter when you meet him, meaning that you’re pushed into accepting an old Pokemon if you want to make full use of Mega Evolution. In the end, then, the new starters (save Greninja), feel a bit shafted, as do some of the newly introduced Pokemon. The region initially feels a marked improvement from Unova, but again this comes with caveats. All of the Pokemon games have felt boxed in, but the spite based aesthetic has somehow meant this felt more natural. With the 3D look of X and Y, the routes look awkward and cartoony in the way they just stop – and the fact that the game still runs on a grid based system only exacerbates the issue. Luckily, Sun and Moon already look to be improving this, although we’ll have to wait and see the full effect.

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In Black and White, one of the big innovations was the story, and in the past I’ve complained that the story in Pokemon is too weak to be interesting but present enough to disrupt the open-ended structure that was present in the first two generations. Black and White opts to improve on the first criticism, and while you’re shepherded around cities in what is probably one of the most linear regions yet both in route and map design (although shout out to the lovely Route Four),  the story is actually alright. Finally tackling the ‘isn’t Pokemon really cruel’ criticism was a bold move, and while they ducked out at the end by revealing Ghetsis didn’t care and was just your average baddie, it was nice to see them give it a shot and try something different. They also mess with the end game structure, creating an epic final showdown while also decreasing all impact Alder has as Champion. In Black 2 and White 2 the story suffers from being too complex and dull while still overbearing. I was never engaged by the plight of the two Plasmas, and everything seemed to take itself too seriously for its own good. Luckily, the ambitiously large post-game means that those wanting more freedom need only hold out until the end of the story, at which point the world opens up and reveals a multitude of post-game delights.

The story and structure of X and Y, meanwhile, are those game’s biggest weaknesses. Team Flare are pathetic villains; I’m still not 100% as to what their game plan was. Were they obsessed with beauty? Did they want to destroy the world, and if so, why? Who was Lysandre? I realise I’m exaggerating my ignorance for comic effect, but still; X and Y’s story was awful, and the addition of AZ only served to confuse it more. Kalos is twistier than Unova, all revolving around a central city and branches going off of that. However, those branches are as linear as they get –to an annoying degree. Gone are the long winding routes of Sinnoh, whose weather changed dynamically as you marched through them, replaced by bland looking single line Point A to Point B routes that add little to make you feel adventurous besides a few swoopinng camera angles. Maybe the worst offense is that when it’s over, it’s all over. In accordance with then series director Junichi Masuda’s new idea to make the series simpler for the ‘smartphone generation’, X and Y have almost no post game. For a series known for enduring gameplay, this is a disappointing change, one only partially rectified in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire.

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Finally, let’s talk about gameplay mechanics because this isn’t something I normally talk about. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the Pokemon battle system never changes because I have dabbled in competitive battling and know that each new Pokemon introduced is in itself a mechanic, and the smallest changes can have a big impact in that scene. However, the competitive scene is so intricate that it’s a job for people who know their stuff to properly talk about. Instead, I like to look at the bigger changes that even the casual players will notice. For that reason, I may have to not talk about Triple and Rotation battling, which are literally hidden in an alley by the game. If Pokemon itself doesn’t care, why should they expect me to? Pokemon would, however, love me to care about Mega Evolution, the big new change to the franchise that everyone including Game Freak seems to have very clearly realised was a mistake. Mega Evolution is a gimmicky little function that looks flashy but was clearly not thought out well. What could have made battles against Mega equipped trainers harder simply made the whole game easier while also breaking the meta-game. Not to mention most of them looked ugly as sin. More of an improvement were the Gen VI online features, made easier than ever, and much less confusing than the Dream World. The PSS was simple to use, and Wonder Trade was an inspired way to get people excited about trading Pidgeys. It’s a shame, perhaps, that the DexNav will stay exclusive to the Gen Three remakes, but not surprising given Game Freak’s track record. (Also for the record; customisation is cool. kthanksbye.)

While I tried to set this up as a comparison, it was really just mini reviews of the latest three Pokemon games, so I’m not sure if I’ve gained anything from it. I guess I’ve noticed that the Pokemon series hasn’t been going on a downward trend? Maybe the only trend I can see is the simplification of the region and route design, but that’s been happening since Gen Three. Overall, I think the only conclusion I’m happy reaching is; Pokemon is good, but some games are better than others. Insightful.

Pokemon 20th Reviews: Pokemon Platinum

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I was really excited to replay Platinum – I haven’t played it in ages, but I have some fond memories of the Gen 4 games, specifically of the Sinnoh region. Luckily, my playthrough did not disappoint; aside from a few areas I found lacking, Pokemon Platinum is exactly the game I remembered it being, and that game is really damn good.

The biggest strength of the game is also what makes it unique among Pokemon games; its atmosphere. Platinum succeeds most in the quieter explorative moments, and Sinnoh as a region is built to support that. Areas in the game exist for seemingly no reason other than to offer quite respite for the weary trainer or build up the game’s extensive (for a Pokemon game) lore. The church in Heathrome city remains the prime example of this, but the Canalave city library is another, and one that’s explicitly pointed out to you as an area for quiet research. Other games have had areas like this, museums or buildings that serve little in-game function, but Sinnoh has the most memorable. It’s not just these buildings that are the nooks and crannies of the region; the routes are also designed to service Sinnoh’s greater emphasis on exploration and atmosphere.

Like in Emerald, Platinum also has a story focusing on a team of fancifully dressed but ultimately silly and annoying bad guys trying to create some kind of new world. Also like Emerald, this plot forcefully guides around Sinnoh, moving you from one location to the next without letting you decide in what order you want to explore the region. Unlike Emerald, Platinum has learned that this removes the explorative element from a Pokemon game, and so seeks to find some other way in which to recapture that spirit. It does this with its intricately designed routes; the best in the series. Route 210 has multiple sprawling paths; different weather patterns and Pokemon encounters, as well as water and bicycle areas, to give just one example. Sinnoh is also refreshingly light on water routes, which have a tendency to be bland and samey, but it keeps surfing useful and important by still having an abundance of smaller rivers and lakes on which to surf, as well as the three great lakes. For the best example of how Sinnoh uses its route design for both explorative and atmospheric effect, however, look no further than the ascent into Snowpoint City. After emerging from Mt. Coronet you find yourself in snowy Route 216, the plinky music signaling the icy path ahead without being too forceful. Here, you’re given a choice of two paths (three with Rock Climb) to reach a small cabin, a final place to heal before tackling Route 217. On this route, both the snow has become harsher and the music more adventurous. Route 217 seems initially simple, but as a small sprite trekking across it, it feels like a snowy hell, meaning that when you finally get to Acuity Lakefront, and the snow has calmed, the sense of relief is palpable. After navigating some grass, you make it to Snowpoint City, your party exhausted. Once again, the music does much of the heavy lifting, another soothing but icy track calming any remaining nerves. If that sounds over the top for a Pokemon game, you might be right, but in my opinion, it sets itself out as one of the best examples of a game working within its limitation to create a feeling of exploration and adventure using map design, music, and visual effects.

Platinum isn’t perfect, however. For one, the Pokemon designs leave a lot to be desired; the designers often go the lazy route of just creating a bulky evolution of a popular (or sometimes just random (Lickiliky)) older Pokemon. As such, Sinnoh often feels like it lacks an identity of its own, as the variety of new Pokemon to choose from is lacking. Judging by the Pokemon that Team Galactic uses, however, you’d think that there were only three Pokemon in the entire region. The frustration of being confused by yet another Golbat becomes almost unbearable when forced to traverse dungeons such as the Galactic HQ. That isn’t the only annoying frustration Platinum has, however. The reliance on HM moves reaches peak levels here, and as such your move options are limited by having to teach your Pokemon stupid moves like Rock Climb or Defog. Yes, climbing rocks adds another level of exploration, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of a move slot. The new evolutions I mentioned earlier are too often Wifi based, something that at the time seemed like less of a problem with exciting new servers up and running, but now becomes a chore.

How does Platinum stack up seven years later? Remarkably well. Yes, it has its frustrations, but I was really impressed by Platinum, and it takes the top slot so far held by Crystal on this series so far. 3 more games to go before Sun/Moon!

Sorry this was such a long time coming! While I’m not reviewing the remakes, I would like to just say that HeartGold and SoulSilver are fantastic games; improving on everything good about both Platinum and Crystal (but more on them later). As for what’s next on this blog besides Black/White… I’m not sure. Watch this space, I guess… (but first be sure to check out my review of Zero Time Dilemma!)

Pokemon 20th Reviews: Pokemon Emerald

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As I said in my introductory post to this series, I started playing Pokemon with the third gen, and as such one would be right to expect a natural bias on my part towards the games of the third generation. However, when replaying Emerald I felt that, although my feeling towards this game were strong, it didn’t click for me in the same way as Crystal did.

The start of the game sets it up nicely for Emerald to have more of a plot than any prior Pokemon game (although that’s really not saying much). The game starts with the player in the back of a moving van, and as a way for Game Freak to show off the new graphical fidelity of the GBA, the player has to walk from a dark, cramped space to the bright and colourful Littleroot Town, which now seems boring, but marks a big step up in the visuals of the mainline Pokemon series (the trick of having to go through a small boring space before getting to a point where graphics are shown off will be repeated through out the series – see the gate to Skyarrow Bridge for another good example of this). Another significant change from the previous games is that you now have a dad; Norman, and with that comes a greater emphasis on plot. Norman himself gets a bit of character development after you beat him as a Gym Leader, and the role of parents having to let go gets a nice echo in the character of Wally. The other area where this increased focus on plot becomes apparent is in the villains; Team Magma and Aqua have more distinct goals than just ‘make money’, and these goals tie into the backstory of the legendaries. Because of this, less time is spent on your rival, but Archie and Maxie fill in the holes left by the absence of a strong rival such as Blue or Silver. These plot developments are not significant in the grand scheme of things – no Pokemon game will ever have a deep enough story to rival any other major RPG. They do, however, have an adverse affect on the linearity of the game.

Emerald allows the player very little chance of independence. Despite various sections where one must backtrack to get to a gym leader or newly unlocked path, the game guides you through the whole experience, major battle to major battle. There’s no longer any time where you might feel lost and the increased role of story gives the game a solid excuse for pushing you around the new tropical region of Hoenn. Hoenn itself is only alright as regions go. I talked in my Pokemon Crystal review about visual cohesion, but Hoenn takes this concept slightly too far. The visual similarities of routes, which comes about because of the limitations of the system and the tropical theme, does not allow enough diversity when traversing Hoenn. This is exacerbated by a new aural cohesion; the oft referred to reliance of brass instruments means that routes blend into a trumpety, grassy mess in my mind. Like it or not, there is also too much water in Hoenn. Coupled with the already non-distinct ground routes, the water routes are too numerous and their failiure to leave a lasting impression is even worse. Nevertheless, Hoenn gets a pass because of the various little spots that do leave an impression; the cable car is my personal favourite, but the hot springs in Lavaridge, Route 113 and the Mirage Tower also immediately spring to mind.

Places like those mention often show off the visuals of the game, which are still nice to look at today. Pokemon battles can get a little samey, but environments are lush and colourful, and the dull backgrounds of Pokemon battles are enlivened by the Pokemon designs, which are fantastic (my favourite Pokemon, Duskull comes from this generation), and the new attack animations that are by no means revolutionary, but do their bit. More revolutionary is the introduction of double battles and abilities. Double battles, like Mega Evolution, is a flashy new battle mechanic that instantly changes the strategy of a battle and bough a whole new side to competitive battling. Abilities are less of an instantly recognizable change, but they require players to get to know each species of Pokemon better than they might have done in prior generations. Overall, these two changes are one of the few unqualified successes of the third generation.

The other new additions; a larger story; a more cohesive region – these come with their caveats, and while I wanted to be able to praise this game as fully surpassing Crystal to become the best game I’ve reviewed so far, not even my rose-tinted view of this game could convince me of that. It’s still really good, however.

Just to let you know that I will not be reviewing the remakes- so the next game to be reviewed in this series is Pokemon Platinum. 

Pokemon 20th Reviews: Pokemon Crystal

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Pokemon Crystal is everything I imagine people remember Red and Blue being. It retains the 8-bit aesthetic and the simpler Pokemon and map designs of yore, but is such a staggeringly better game that I can’t imagine why anyone would prefer to play the earlier games in favour of this. Even if you prefer the Pokemon designs of the original trio, they’re all still in there, but I find it hard to imagine anyone not falling in love with the new starters or any of the great new Pokemon designs on offer. If you love Kanto that much more than Johto, Kanto returns in a bit of post-game that delivers more after story content than any Pokemon game before or after it (with the exception of the remakes of the game I’m reviewing). Having said that, Johto is a better region than Kanto ever was. For one thing, it had a more defined aesthetic style – the Japanese influence carries itself throughout the entire game providing a nice coherent theme to the region that Kanto only had because the limited graphics and colour palette of the original Game boy forced a uniformity to the buildings and towns. Johto also brings with it the day/night cycle, which could have just been an addition that would serve only to make the world feel more alive, but it also adds a new dynamic to filling the Pokedex, with certain Pokemon only coming out at night. Pokemon themselves look amazing in this game, the sprite artists have nailed the design of each creature, new and old, and the little animations in Crystal are such a welcome addition it’s a wonder they left them out of Ruby and Sapphire. While on the subject of presentation, the music is better than it ever has been – while some of the music may not be as laced with nostalgia as with some of the tracks from Red and Blue, it’s no denying that the music here is a highlight (a particular favourite is Dark Cave, one of the few really memorable non-battle themes in the series).

As for gameplay, Gold, Silver and Crystal don’t have the huge advances in the battle system that something like the abilities bought, but the refinements made were all positive; held items in battle added an extra layer of strategy, the fact you could see experience points in battle just made it easier to train Pokemon, the new types introduced balanced the type system well enough that no new types had to be introduced until X and Y, and the vague ‘special’ stat was split into special attack and defense, which was a change that makes things slightly more complex, but in the best way – it makes Pokemon feel more unique and specialized. Breeding, shiny Pokemon and Pokerus just served to give collectors and Pokedex fillers more to do and collect, and the thrill of running across a shiny Pokemon in the wild is unlike no other.

Really, I’m finding it very hard to find anything negative to say about the second generation of Pokemon games. I could dish out the regular criticisms of the simplistic story and similarity to the previous games, but to do that would be missing the point. Pokemon Crystal (and G/S) are the best kind of sequel – refinements and new features that allow you to experience the amazing concept thought up in Red and Blue in a easier, better way. These games are the first truly brilliant Pokemon games, and they should really be remembered as such.

Next time is Pokemon Emerald, a game I’ve played so many times I could write the review without replaying it. I said I’d have more content before this point, but things have gotten in the way that I didn’t account for. I’m in the middle of planning a long Star Fox Zero review, and I would also like to look at the Ace Attorney anime a bit before it finishes. Until then, thanks for reading.

Pokemon 20th Reviews: Pokemon Blue

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Team:

spr_1b_008Dude the Wartortle

spr_1b_020 Fourval the Raticate

spr_1b_025Ash the Pikachu

spr_1b_051 Richard the Dugtrio

spr_1b_093 Reggie the Haunter

spr_1b_017 Nelson the Pidgeotto

So here it is – the first in my series of Pokemon game reviews in the lead up to the 20th anniversary games – Pokemon Sun and Moon. When I first booted up my freshly downloaded 3DS Pokemon Blue re-release, and eagerly picked my starter (Squirtle, obviously) I realised just how laced with nostalgia the first generation of Pokemon games are. I had to pick Squirtle, and I had to name it ‘Dude’, because that’s what I named my first Squirtle. My team looks remarkably similar to what it was back when I first played this because I naturally gravitated to the Pokemon I was nostalgic for. Bear in mind also that I played this game well after it first released, so my nostalgia for this game isn’t all mine – it partly comes from the social nostalgic feelings for these games pervasive in in pop-culture, instead of just from my own early 2000s childhood memories of playing this on my brother’s old Game Boy Pocket.

You may have noticed, then, that my team at the top of the page has something strange about it – not all my Pokemon are fully evolved. The reason for this is because I didn’t finish this game. I’ve finished this before, mind, but this time I couldn’t do it – by the time I was faced with the eleven floor Sliph Co, the rose-tinted spectacles had been forced away from me by a slow, annoying, ugly game that has been even more retroactively spoilt by the conveniences of more recent games in the series. This recent play-through reminded me of everything I’d purposely forgotten in the nearly 6 years since my last complete run of the original trio – no running-shoes, limited space in the bag, glitches, awful sprites and weird difficulty curves. I just wasn’t having much fun.

That’s not to say there wasn’t anything I enjoyed about Pokemon Blue – the core Pokemon game play is still there, and battling and catching Pokemon is still intrinsically fun, although somehow both simpler and more frustrating in these games. I also enjoyed how easy it was to get lost. Game Boy Kanto’s basic textured routes and sprawling, non-linear paths make it easy to find it difficult to get to where you want to be, and that appeals to my love of exploring the Pokemon regions. Besides, getting lost in real life or when playing a game, is always fun (unless you need to be somewhere, in which case, it’s just horrible).

Despite flashes of brilliance, and the initial pang of nostalgia that many a Nintendo/Game Freak game capitalizes heavily on, replaying Pokemon Blue started off my replay series on a slightly dour note. It’s impossible to look at this game objectively, either you’re blinded by nostalgia or, like me, you see it through the lens of more recent games that have improved on this in such a huge way that it dispels the oft-heard criticism that ‘Pokemon never changes’. Or maybe I’m just too lazy for old games…

Next time we’ll be looking at Pokemon Crystal, which I’ve already started playing (and (spoilers) am enjoying much more. I should have a few more posts before that, however. 

 

Pokemon 20th Anniversary

cablecar

In honour of Pokemon’s 20th Anniversary today, I thought I’d write a little about my experiences with the series in a little off-the-cuff short post. My first Pokemon games were not the originals from 1996, but instead the third generation; Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire (Sapphire being the obvious choice). These games wowed me so much, I became an instant devotee of the series, and have remained one to this day.

Pokemon as a series, at least from what I understand, has survived so long for its long reach and appeal; even those who don’t play the main series video games have other options in the card game and other spin off games. And for those who do play the games, you can play them in so many different ways; I’m a collector, and I love exploring every nook and cranny of the perfectly sized regions for more Pokemon to collect, but you can just as easily prefer battling, either competitively, or just for fun. What I’m trying to say is that Pokemon caters for so many different people and play styles, it would be difficult to believe if it hadn’t lasted this long.

My personal favourite moment in any Pokemon game is the one seen above; the cable car in Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald. As a child, this short cut-scene where you saw your character slowly go up the mountain was mesmerizing to me, and I would spend ages going up and down the mountain. Like soaring in the sky in the remakes, it emphasized to me how big and real the world felt, but in a slightly less forced way than in ORAS. My favourite Pokemon generation, however, is the fourth. While Diamond and Pearl felt slightly slow and problem ridden, Platinum and HGSS are masterclasses in how to make a Pokemon game – Sinnoh as a region is amazingly both homely and strange, in a way that makes for a great setting for a Pokemon adventure. Meanwhile, the Pokemon following feature in the Johto regions makes those games – it’s amazing how much a little feature like that can bond you to your team, and it’s no wonder people want it to make a return. All the Pokemon games, however, have given me hours of fun and I could rave about each one for at least a whole blog post. So that’s what I’m going to do. In the run up to the release of Pokemon Sun and Moon later this year, I will be reviewing one Pokemon game a month (hoping I can keep to schedule). It might get a bit rushed towards the end (I don’t know when SUMO are releasing as of yet, but it should work out.

Happy Birthday Pokemon – Here’s to 20 more wonderful years!