I Think Pokemon’s Been Great Lately … Am I Part Of The Problem?

Infendo OpEd

With Pokemon Legends Arceus less than a day away and my hype having already blown several holes through my roof, I decided to try to contain my excitement by watching the same trailers for the game over and over, analysing every little detail and making assumptions about what my in-game journey is going to be like.

However, despite all of my repeat viewings, I apparently missed a very big detail regarding this game – It looks like trash.

Or at least, that’s what the general consensus is online. But how bad does Legends look really, and more importantly… Does it really matter?

Here’s a quick exercise to get the conversation started – Search for a Pokemon Legends Arceus trailer, and scroll a few comments down until you find the inevitable one mentioning how bad the game looks. Pop open the replies and just… breathe it all in. Then, uh… You know, come back to this video. Please. Please come back.

Ok, so, you’re back, great. What did you see? Was it negative? Did it feel hyperbolic? Maybe even vitriolic? Or maybe you agreed with everything that was said – Heck, you probably did… It seems to be the majority opinion.

Normally, I wouldn’t consider something like “Is Pokemon pretty” a strong enough topic to sit down and talk about, especially when I have amazing games like Super Donkey Kong 99 to make Let’s Plays of, but the amount of negativity and disappointment coming from people towards this series has been so profuse lately, that I find myself with the overwhelming desire to shout my own thoughts on the matter from my tiny, insignificant rooftop. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

The Pokemon series has never been a series that I would have considered good looking, from the original sprite-based games, to the early 3d ones like Stadium and Colloseum, all the way up to the modern entries on Switch. Pokemon has just never been a visually appealing series for me from a graphics perspective, opting to lean more on interesting character and environment designs over impressive graphics and textures.

Now, don’t get me wrong, that isn’t an excuse for how modern Pokemon games look – Just because something wasn’t great once doesn’t mean it can’t improve and grow – But graphics have just never seemed to be a priority for the main series Pokemon games. In fact, I would argue the only Pokemon game that looks truly beautiful and lives up to the potential of what the series can look like is New Pokemon Snap, a game which basically exists entirely to be visual eye-candy.

It’s for exactly this reason that I’m so surprised the Pokemon series is getting so much flak for its bare-bones graphics – I never would have predicted there would be so many people who expected these games to look better than mediocre, given the series’ 30 year track record.

But do the modern Pokemon games actually look bad? Ehhh… sorta, I guess?

When I see these discussions online, they usually direct their criticism to a particular thing in the video – the way the trees are made from 2d images stacked and rotated on top of each other, the lack of texture on the glowing effect on Kleavor during his boss battle, or the rough textures on the landscapes in the Hisuian Voltorb trailer.

Beyond visuals, criticism for the Pokemon series seems to focus mostly on the lack of originality the series has displayed lately – Mega Evolution was a fun new twist on a classic concept when it came out, but it wore out its welcome as it was reinvented over and over again, first as Z-Moves and more recently as Gigantamaxing.

Another common complaint is with the games’ models and animations – Now that the games are in 3d, many people want to see Pokemon move around more as they battle, rather than just getting a small animation accompanied by an effect meant to represent the attack. The models have also stayed very consistent over the years, leading many to assume the pokemon we see on the switch are simply high quality versions of the models we had on 3DS for years.

The general consensus seems to be that the Pokemon devs have gotten lazy – I don’t really agree with that mentality, though.

I think it’s more a case of the inevitable scaling issue Pokemon’s been facing since the series began – When you have a 25 year-old series based around collecting every creature, and you need to introduce new creatures in every game to recreate that original experience, you will, inevitably, reach a bloated point where there’s simply too much in your game.

At that point, the problem shifts from “Can we create a game with this many Pokemon” to “Should we create a game with this many Pokemon”. And that’s where things get messy…

During the development of Sword and Shield, Gamefreak finally decided it was time to do the unthinkable – It was time to cut us off from the full library of Pokemon. Now, I get it – By this point there are 898 different Pokemon – Each of which needs to be modeled, animated and coded into the game. Each Pokemon needs to have unique stats, which can range based on its individual values. Each Pokemon needs to have abilities, shiny forms, Pokedex entries, logic for how it will fight when encountered in the wild or against another trainer…

It’s easy to see how, even for a team of over 100 people, that sort of scale can quickly become overwhelming. All of that needs to be considered, while also balancing these Pokemon for each entry so the competitive battling scene can be preserved. 

So, no, I don’t think Gamefreak is a lazy company, and I don’t think they’re trying to take advantage of a complacent fanbase. I think they just have very different priorities from what many of the fans do, and I don’t think they were expecting the series’ arrival on the Switch to change the conversation as quickly as it did. They’re a company that’s juggling the need to constantly create new experiences, while preserving all of the old ones that longtime fans expect – All the while further complicating things each time they release a new game by adding another hundred or so new creatures to the mix.

I think the reason for the sudden shift in opinion from the fanbase comes from two places: First, with the advent of the Switch, handheld game consoles have become a thing of the past, and Gamefreak now needs to design for a hybrid system that is very-much a home console as well as a handheld. This is a fairly new medium for the company, and while they certainly have the staff to match a traditional triple A team in terms of quality, I just don’t think they have the mindset to match.

After all, designing for handhelds is a very different experience – Graphics are never going to come close to what you would see on a console, so you need to adapt – Gamefreak’s solution to this problem seems to be creating interesting worlds and filling them with characters and locations that are interesting enough to make you forget that what you’re seeing isn’t as polished as what it could be if you were viewing it on the big screen.

“But couldn’t Gamefreak just hire a new group of talent that’s more experienced at working with console games then?” Sure, but there’s problems with that idea too – For one, that means letting go of current employees to make room for new ones, something a company that cares about its workers would have a hard time doing, especially if they think they don’t need to make those changes to succeed. And they clearly don’t – Despite how negatively the last few games have been received by the vocal online fanbase, they’ve still managed to sell insanely well.

Additionally, simply swapping out the design team won’t make much of a difference if the bosses at the top of the company – The ones who can’t simply be replaced – Decide that the games look fine as they are, and don’t need to be improved. And again, based on recent sales numbers, they clearly don’t feel the graphics issue is a big enough one to confront, at least not yet.

Those sales numbers are the other big reason I think the current fanbase is so upset by the way these modern games are looking – Despite their complaints, people are still buying these games in record numbers.

Pokemon Sword and Shield were the fastest selling switch games of all-time when they released, selling 6 million copies worldwide on launch week – The same number Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl sold in their first week.

Those numbers can be frustrating – When you feel so passionately that a series you love is slipping in quality and losing what it once was, it can be very upsetting.

I’ve avoided talking about this on my channel in the past because I know how unpopular this opinion is, but I went through a very similar thing with Breath of The Wild. I didn’t really like the game, and I thought it was missing a lot of the elements that make Zelda games so wonderful. Many of my friends, and the internet in general, strongly disagreed, and as a result, we got Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity and Breath of The Wild 2.

The Zelda series seems to be going in a direction I don’t really care for, one that I think is missing a lot of what made the original games so great, and feeling like my voice isn’t being heard on the topic makes it all the more frustrating.

I imagine that’s what it feels like to be a Pokemon fan who’s upset by the recent games – Like your voice isn’t being heard and people are simply buying into a series because they’re blind sheep, eating up whatever garbage this cold, unfeeling company will put in front of them because nobody knows any better – But that’s not how I see Gamefreak, and it’s not how I see the rest of the fanbase either.

I think people like me just like these games for a different reason – I think we play Pokemon for the aspects of the games that HAVEN’T gotten worse over time, for the things that have actually improved in recent years.

I had something of a Pokemon renaissance about ten years ago, when Black and White came out and I started playing the games more seriously. Until then, I had always just started a file, finished the game, and put it away, deleting my saves the next time I wanted to experience Kanto, or Hoenn, or whatever game I was playing at the time.

When I started playing Pokemon Black, I decided to try to build a team that wasn’t just ok… I wanted to be good. I wanted to be able to battle with my friends and win matches – And I wanted to keep my team going from game to game.

Since then, I’ve treated each game in the series as something like an expansion pack, getting through the main story and then importing all of my old friends, teaching them new moves and finding new Pokemon to add to my ever-growing team. I started dabbling in online battles, trying out endgame challenges like the battle tower, and breeding for shiny Pokemon.

In recent years, the Pokemon games have made building a competitive team so much easier, allowing us to even change abilities and IVs of our pre-existing Pokemon, so we don’t have to replace our old partners with new imitations. 

While there are aspects of the modern games that I have a problem with – Liek the shallow end-game content compared to what we got in generations 3 and 4, the good has always outweighed the bad for me, and I’ve put way more time into these modern games than I ever did into my favorite gameboy games.

Legends has me excited for an entirely different reason – It’s going to be something completely new. While we still don’t know everything that this game entails, it seems to be putting much more focus on the single player experience – exploring the various regions of the world, encountering pokemon, engaging them in real time encounters and then collecting data on them to grow your Pokedex by completing missions.

I’m planning on going into the game with an entirely new mindset – This will probably be the first Pokemon game in 10 years where I don’t have my Ivysaur going with me. Instead, I’m planning on catching a bidoof as soon as I can, and making him my partner through the entirety of the game (yes, seriously).

I’m really looking forward to playing the part of a Pokemon researcher-trainer hybrid, learning how different Pokemon behave and building a team of my favorites as I work on seeing everything there is to see in this game.

I think what Gamefreak’s built here has the potential to be a really unique, fun experience, and I hope I’m right, because I’ve been looking forward to this game since the first trailer dropped.

I hope the Pokemon series eventually embraces the idea that it needs to put more effort into how it looks, because clearly that’s become a serious issue for a number of fans. Personally, I’d like to see more of an effort being made towards innovative experiences, ones that don’t change the things I love about the series, but improve on them. The kind of changes that I expect we’re going to see in Legends. 

I actually didn’t buy the diamond and pearl remakes, but it had nothing to do with the art style, lighting, or any of the other things people had problems with online. The reason those games didn’t interest me was because, unlike Sword & Shield, or even the last gen remakes like Alpha Sapphire, I just didn’t feel like these games did anything interesting that I couldn’t experience by just digging up my DS and popping in my old copy of Pokemon Pearl.

There were no new Pokemon, or forms, or regional variants, no Battle Frontier to challenge my team with, no post game story like the Deoxys one in Alpha Sapphire… It just felt like a very bare bones experience- And honestly, I didn’t like Diamond and Pearl that much my first time around anyway, so the appeal just wasn’t there for me. But all that said, the visuals just didn’t factor into my decision not to buy the game at all – graphics just don’t really come up in the equation for me when I’m deciding if a Pokemon game looks good or not – And I suspect I’m in the majority on that.

The thing is, I didn’t even notice the bad graphics when I played Sword, and I still don’t really notice when I jump back in. I can honestly say that the ocarina of time trees did nothing to hinder my enjoyment of that game, and I’m sure the Playstation 2 textures in Legends will pass me and many others by as well.

I don’t think I have the end-all be-all solution to making everyone happy, but I do have some thoughts for how the series could improve in the next few years. To start, I think we all need to accept that we’re not going to get 1000 Pokemon in every new game moving forward – It’s just becoming unrealistic at this point, and frankly, I think it’s too much for a game.

I’d prefer to see the Pokemon games continue to try to innovate with games like Legends Arceus – Trying out new things and delivering smaller, more unique story-centric experiences. That way, they can devote more of their resources to building a small-scale game that can look good, do new unique things and keep people guessing.

Meanwhile, I think it’s time for a proper Pokemon Stadium 3… Or Pokemon Battle Colosseum 2, I guess… A game that can exist for the purpose of appealing to the hardcore fanbase that really just plays the games for the battles anyway. Outsource the remakes to a third-party company like they did for Diamond and Pearl, and use Pokemon Home as the hub between the main games and the competitive one.

Allow us to catch our Pokemon in the main games and the remakes, transfer and trade them in Pokemon Home, and if we want, challenge ourselves in single and multiplayer matches in a game built for the competitive fanbase, a game that can include every Pokemon the series has ever had.

Is it the perfect solution? I don’t think so. This is a messy topic. But I think if it was done right, you’d be able to fix a lot of the issues the series has been plagued with lately. I consider myself lucky, because I’ve been able to enjoy every game more or less equally. I’ve put an ungodly amount of time into the last few Pokemon games, and despite my nostalgia for the originals, I think objectively the newer games are just better overall.

For the sake of getting this fanbase back to a happy place, I hope the next game in the series truly feels like a next gen console experience – because I’m ready to see more positivity around a series I love this much.

Gamer by day, game designer by night - Lukas studied Digital Arts in school, and grew up in the age of the N64 and Gamecube. He's the youngster of the bunch, but that doesn't keep him from shouting out at every available opportunity on Infendo Radio. He often finds himself at the edge of counter-culture (hates Metroid Prime, loves Other M), but isn't afraid to dive into the next big budget AAA title with the best of 'em. Favorite game: Sonic Adventure 2 Battle/Skyward Sword/Ocarina of Time/Zero Escape 2/You get the idea