Pokémons Continued Simplification Hurts the Games

Pokémon’s Continued Simplification Hurts the Games

Pokémon has been improving and streamlining its formula, but has that increased simplicity cost the franchise its appeals to longtime fans?

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Pokémons Continued Simplification Hurts the Games

Pokémon has been an incredibly successful franchise since its conception in 1996, thanks to its simple formula. Encouraging players to go out and explore, capture new friends and challenge gyms with the intent of becoming champions has always been an excellent approach. The basics have been shaken up sometimes, such as with Sun and Moon’s island challenge, but the base concept is still there.

Pokémon has also introduced various side mechanics as well. Mega-evolutions were a successful mechanic, while berry growing has been a constant for many generations. Gen IV introduced the Underground, which was brought back in Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. Pokémon-Amie, contests, races and Poké-Pelago have been just some of the many side pursuits that added hours of optional content and complexity. So why aren’t they included in the main games more often?

Pokémons Continued Simplification Hurts the Games

Granted, the main formula has worked well for 25 years now. In many cases, they’ve even fixed game mechanics that have been points of contention for fans. Very few players miss Hidden Machines, and Technical Machines no longer being a one-time use was a welcome change. The running shoes no longer require holding a button down, and there’s always a helpful hint in the menu for players who are lost. In many cases, mechanics being dummied out, simplified or replaced has enhanced the experience., but it’s proven just as damaging in some instances.

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The most recent main series releases, Sword and Shield, were critiqued for being too linear, a complaint levied against nearly every Pokémon game after the series jumped to 3D. The story takes more precedence, but when it overrides gameplay to the point of sitting through numerous cutscenes, it hurts the experience. Once the story’s over, there isn’t much else beyond capturing more Pokémon. It seems like a strange complaint, but Pokémon has always been a game about exploration at its core.

It’s easy to blow through an entire Pokémon game and only see a fraction of the content by sticking to a linear path. However, the game opens up when the player slows down and explores more thoroughly. Pokémon has always rewarded exploration, from items in trash cans to Legendary Pokémon in particularly complex dungeons. Furthermore, Pokémon games encourage constant exploration. There’s always someplace the player can’t access until later in the game by unlocking a new move. Entire cave systems are hidden off in corners of the map, while places like Hoenn and Sinnoh have entire subterranean locations with new things to discover.

Pokémons Continued Simplification Hurts the Games

And then there’s post-game content. The Battle Frontier is still a fan-favorite, and Unova has an entire second half of the region to explore post-game, while Johto takes the crown for having an entire region to traverse after the fact. Past games have conditioned players to expect something sizeable to come back to once the story is done. While Sword and Shield have post-content, a good chunk is hidden behind a paywall via the DLC.

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There are also mini-games that Pokémon games have frequently had in years past. While removing the gambling corner is understandable, other mini-games broke from the standard of battling to offer a fun distraction and extend the game’s life. Contests had their own feedback loop, with what moves to consider and how to improve Pokémon conditions with Pokéblocks and Poffins, which required berries to make, which required hunting down and farming berries. It was an entire second game, basically, and one which the player could choose to participate in or ignore. Other mini-games such as racing in Johto and movie-making in Unova offered similar distractions from the grind of training to be the very best.

While contests have made a comeback via the remakes, the feedback loops are not as strong. Berries are harvested from fixed berry trees after a set amount of time, and while Poffins now rely on the Joy-Con as opposed to the touchscreen, Pokéblocks had their mini-game removed completely. It’s much easier to ignore these side-pursuits now that they’ve been simplified, making for a sparser game. Even a beloved aspect of the franchise, the Pokémon-Amie, has been reduced to its simplest parts. It’s little things, but the little things are what keep players coming back.

There are reasons to want a sparser game. After the success of Pokémon GO, the mainstream games shifted to a more casual audience to capitalize on that success. Fat was trimmed, and the content is now focused on the feedback loop of battling. But trying to compare the mobile market with the console market is insensible because they fill two separate niches. Mobile games are designed to be played whenever a few spare minutes can be spared, something that Pokémon GO tapped into by allowing Pokémon fans’ to capture Pokémon in the real world.

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Console games, comparatively, are purchased with the intent of having an experience. The player made the active choice to spend their money on a game instead of a necessity, and they want something that they can sink into and escape the real world for a few hours at a time. When investing in a console game, players are in for the long haul, which is why people complain about games being too short. When a player buys a Pokémon game, they’re investing in the idea of being able to explore a vast and wondrous world filled with Pokémon. They want to get lost in the game and don’t see a reason to return when the next one comes along.

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