Graphics by the author.
I am, admittedly, a dinosaur when I talk about Pokémon. I am, and have always been too old for the iconic franchise, the noise and vibe of which has always been intended for a much younger audience. It's fitting, then, that there might soon come a day when our children are not only initiated into Pokémon, but play the game with the very characters that millenials like myself started raising well over a decade ago.
To wit: The forthcoming Pokémon Bank service, which launches next month as a free 30-day trial, will backup your battle-tested pocket monsters to a cloud server for five bucks a year. In other words, it will allow you to store your old characters in an online database, ultimately to transfer them to whatever current generation of games is on the market.
The thought of passing down what amount to digital heirlooms is truly surreal. Even the original Pokémon games, which launched in America in 1998 for the grey-brick Gameboy in their signature dual Red & Blue versions, came out when I was about halfway through puberty. Nintendo’s Pokémon Company had already had great success with the franchise in Japan, where it had been released two years earlier. When Pokémon invaded the States, it already had a dubbed cartoon ready to hit television, two games with built-in schoolyard gameplay gossip, and a deal with Wizards of the Coast (creators of Magic the Gathering) to create a Pokémon card game. Hell, even Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King caught the fever, offering Pokémonized Beanie Babies and collectibles with their kids' meals.
Needless to say, America’s youth submitted with little resistance to Pokémon mania. And there I was, riding on the tail-end of that target demographic.
But underneath the swirling vortex that is the “franchise” there is still a game. And underneath that game exists an incredibly satisfying gameplay hook that's gone largely unchanged in its 17 years. I played the original sequel in 2000 with little interest, but ended up rediscovering—and perhaps even came to appreciate the depth and beauty of the game’s mechanics—during the Ruby & Sapphire generation, which launched while I was in high school.
There have been several key changes that have come with each new Pokémon generation, of course. But at their core, these games are about the characters you, the user, raise. Nintendo has taken strides to recognize this in the latest entry, Pokémon X & Y for the Nintendo 3DS, of which the Bank Service is a part.
Pokémon X & Y has the least number of new Pokémon in the series history, but instead of adding more "stuff" the designers focused on bringing solid new unique type combinations (like Aegislash and Hawlucha).
To understand how truly revolutionary immortal characters, freed from the bonds of a single game, could be, it's worth revisiting how Pokémon works as a game .Pokémon is about capturing wild animals, and training them to fight with superpowers, exploiting the weaknesses against other captured wild animals. Essentially, it's an exercise in training them into super-powered cock fighters.
A rock-paper-scissors hierarchy pervades these elemental “types”. Water is strong against fire, but weak against electricity, for example. Pokémon can have two types, with compounded weaknesses and resistances, and with 18 base types there are 171 possible unique combinations, of which about 140 have been covered by one or more species. Here is a breakdown of major changes to the gameplay over the last thirteen years since the original sequel, Pokemon Gold & Silver.
Major Core Gameplay Changes in the Pokémon Series
- Introduction of Steel and Dark types
- Hold Items
- Genders & Breeding
- Differentiation between Special and Physical Atk/Def
- Introduction of Natures & Abilities
- Separation of EV’s from Base Stats
- Form Changes
- Internet Trading & Battling
- Reusable TM’s (Technical Machines)
- Introduction of Fairy types
- Mega Evolutions
Fewer new moves this time around will hopefully act as a lower barrier of entry to meta-battling with the Pokémon community for newbies, with most new moves coming from the newly founded Fairy type.
You fight these battles in a world that completely revolves around the use, trade, and companionship between human trainers and their Pokémon. Education, entertainment, business, technology, scientific research, even organized crime and religion all play into some aspect of using, communing, or ownership of Pokémon creatures, and in turn, the cultural values of success, fame, and atonement come through one’s ability to train, capture, show-off, or battle with Pokémon.
It all makes for a terrifying reality that rarely gets any attention and instead is swept under the rug in typical videogame suspension-of-disbelief fashion. To date, only Pokémon Black & White have considered this in the game’s storyline and dialog, which even then is unfortuntately not very well done or compelling.
The trappings around the core loop which have weighed down this series for many years are the vestigial limbs of its mother genre, the JRPG. The plot, overworld, and other oddities that have been wearing on Pokémon for some time now are dreadfully dull. The exciting part about these games has and remains to be the relationships built between you, your Pokémon, and other players, something which the main entries of the franchise never seem to focus on until after you complete the main story, a 30-50 hour kid-friendly affair that always ends with the gee wiz takeaway about the “power of friendship.”
The most important part of the Pokémon game is the community that plays it, and not the experience of going through the grind of the single-player game. This community is the same type that fuels the best parts of Minecraft; players care about the game because of what they’ve created. While Minecraft focuses on what players have built, Pokémon has always been about what you’ve raised. Pokémon is the surviving, more interesting progeny of the long-forgotten digital sea-monkey, the Tamagotchi. Nintendo has even folded in some Nintendogs mechanics into the new version, as they have really embraced this sentiment with the new entries.
That community doesn’t have to be global, although it certainly is and could be. For me, that community is very small and local- playing these games with my friends. In the years since we’ve been playing these games, we’ve all moved to different states, gotten married, started our careers, one of us even has children, and somehow we’re still emailing and tweeting at each other about which Pokémon to raise and how to balance our teams and where to find things we need. That’s what I love about Pokémon, and no other entry in this franchise has addressed that as strongly as Pokémon X & Y.
Bank service, screengrab via Pokémon X & Y.
Which brings us back to the Bank service, to the prospect of players well into their 30's being able to pass on gaming heirlooms. It's something that J.C. Smith, the marketing director for the Pokemon Company International, touched on, however indirectly, in a recent interview with NPR.
"We do benefit from having been around as long as we have because there are dads who are playing with their kids now, [because] these dads grew up with it and love it," Smith said.
I myself have Pokémon I’ve been raising for ten years that will make the long voyage to the new versions. Pokémon I acquired during the third generation of games in Pokémon Sapphire. Ten years.
That is surreal to me, that I have had these characters longer than most of my friendships, older than most of the cells in my body, through college, through two presidencies, since before I started making and writing about videogames as a career. In some ways, these are the most enduring videogame characters of all time, not because they’re well conceived or particularly interesting, but because I’m proud of how I raised them.
That is surreal to me, that I have had these characters longer than most of my friendships, older than most of the cells in my body, through college, through two presidencies, since before I started making and writing about videogames as a career.
Like my level 95 Milotic, my go-to Water type that I evolved from a Feebas my friend Greg traded me so I could get that extra XP boost. Or my Breloom that I wouldn’t evolve for 30 levels just so I could teach her Spore. And my Baton-Passing Ninjask who passes on her Speed Boosts to my slow sweepers like Rhyperior and Octillery. Most of my Pokémon I bred for expanded move pools. I got a lot of them from my other breeders. Their pedigrees are enshrined forever in their Original Trainer (OT) and identification numbers.
Most of the changes to the core gameplay in this generation have been made to address the woes associated with the meta-game that exists between players and their Pokémon. The grind of the single-player adventure is markedly lighter, quicker, and less painful than previous versions, an exceptional shift from the arduousness of Pokémon Black & White. There are far less over-powered legendaries, your flow through the game requires less grinding, and a more centralized overworld that’s easier to traverse than the typical maze-like map. You still have to use HM moves to get around unfortunately, but it’s clear the level designers simplified this archaic part of the series instead of scrapping it.
There’s more attention put into the online portions of playing with other users early on; the new Wonder Trade feature lets you trade a random Pokémon with anyone from across the world; expanding your options for who to train in what is traditionally an exceptionally slow period in the game. Pokémon learn good moves earlier, there’s more excitement in the early battles than before.
All of these features are pretty safe changes to the series, and there’s still a lot of room for the game to be more lean and focused on that core hook. A MMORPG like World of Warcraft might not ever come, but the new Pokémon Bank is a big step in the right direction for both seasoned players and generations to come.