In the more than two decades since the first release of Pokémon Red and Blue, the franchise has become the biggest video game series in the world and shows no signs of stopping following the success of Pokémon Sword & Shield. Oddly enough, with each new installment in the series, Pokémon never seems to be compared to any of the other outstanding Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPG) that are released, it is instead only compared to itself within its own series.
This feels odd for several reasons, first and foremost because there do not seem to be other games that follow this trend. World of Warcraft, Fortnite, Magic: The Gathering Arena, and others may be at the top of the game genres, but they are constantly compared to similar alternatives and what is being done in terms of innovation to gameplay, design, graphics, and more. To not make the comparison is impossible because the market is saturated with high-quality titles to choose from. On the other hand, Pokémon stands on its own.
Pokémon Now Lives In A League Of Its Own
One reason to think of why this might be comes from Reddit, thanks to u/PowerRangersLOL, who writes, “I think if Pokémon weren’t such a giant worldwide brand, and just a popular series, then it would be thought more of as a JRPG. This may not be the best analogy, but there is fast food, and then there is McDonalds. We all know McDonalds is fast food, but the name is bigger than being just that.” Like it or not, this is an apt description of the brand power of the Pokémon series, it transcends its genre in the public eye.
The only other games that receive a similar isolated type of consideration are the yearly releases of sports games relating to Madden, FIFA, the NBA, and others. These are beloved by their player base, but often highly criticized at the same time for offering virtually no innovation from year to year, instead adding minor roster updates and small tweaks that does not merit a full AAA price tag. These games are at their core mediocre, relying on novelty and nostalgia to fuel their sales, and unfortunately, therein lies a similarity that is problematic for Pokémon.
A Recipe For Mediocrity
The Pokémon games in the past few years have not been perfect. Sometimes the games are lacking in content, pacing, or gameplay, but since they are only compared among themselves and rely to much on novelty and nostalgia, these issues are not as noticeable as compared to if the game were matched against other top JRPGs dominating the market. Only comparing Pokémon to itself is a recipe for mediocrity that is masked by that ongoing novelty and nostalgia, and it may very well continue in this way for years to come, which is a shame because of the outstanding innovation we see in some of the best JRPGs on the market, including The Caligula Effect: Overdose, Death end re;Quest, Dragon Star Varnir, the list goes on and on.
This is not to say that Pokémon as a series needs to shift drastically in gameplay design and complexity, but when looking at Sword & Shield, one can see that hardly anything new has been added or innovated upon. The series is strong, and with decades of name recognition, could stand to take even a few small risks to improve upon the old formula.
Incentive Not To Change
While other JRPGs innovate and push the limits of the genre, Pokémon may in fact be too big to see any substantial change in the future. With innovation comes risk that could impact how the game is perceived, and given the massive commercial success of each installment, it is easy to understand why keeping the game simplified is a good bet. This might not be true of a series that is winding down in popularity, but Pokémon has many years ahead to which it can sell to both existing and new consumers. Mediocrity may be a deliberate design strategy to maximize sales, which would be a shame, but not unexpected business decision.
Another reason that Pokémon should be compared to the best JRPGs of today lies with Game Freak, the game’s developer. For years there has been frustration and resentment towards the developer long before news was released that the National Pokédex was being cut down in size. Many players feel that Game Freak should no longer oversee such an important series, and that it should be handed off to someone who will take care to produce a quality product when it is ready as opposed to churning out a yearly scheduled release.
The lack of voice acting is a perfect example of forgoing innovation. As Sword & Shield moved forward in its development, the question of voice acting in the game came up, and sadly, the explanation provided by game director Shigeru Ohmori as to why it would not be included is both sad and frustrating. Ultimately, it was effort that Game Freak did not want to put in. If this were a small Indie developer doing their best to get by and release a game, that answer would be reasonable. For the most successful game series in history, it is pathetic.
What’s The Future Of The Pokémon Series?
Despite the criticisms against Pokémon Sword & Shield, there is nothing to indicate that Game Freak will be replaced or that their development of future titles will differ in any meaningful way within the JRPG genre. If the series continues to perform as commercially strong as it has recently, we are not likely to see any real change, but that is what happens with a series grows to the extent that Pokémon has.
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