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Optimus

Pokémon: Where you matter

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With the announcement of the new Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon games, I started to think about how come the games I'd played in my childhood had seemingly changed so much in what feels such a short amount of time. We've gone from catching electric mice, horned monsters straight out of Japanese kids TV shows and other charismatic creatures inspired by animals, plants, living objects or the ever present nowdays issue of pollution to fighting against alien beings from another dimension, and oddly enough, also catching them.

There is so much that has been said about Pokémon that it's honestly hard to add anything new that people do not already have a perspective on, which is odd in itself because let's face it, Pokémon was never that good of a game, by any stretch of the imagination. Its very first iteration was bug riddled and unpolished, and it can only be argued that the second Generation of games came close to ever excelling, much of that success is owed to the now deceased Satoru Iwata who did Game Freak's dirty work for pretty much nothing, which is a testament of his amazing skills as a programmer and of how mediocre Game Freak was and still is.

Then, what is it that made Pokémon so successful, so revolutionary that despite of its flaws, or as some argue, its flaws made it succeed in the first place? It's argued it's the amount of critters, but somehow, I find that unlikely, as otherwise, it might as well have been Digimon or the new Yokai Watch to take over the market, and that isn't happening anytime soon.

As a videogame player, I believe it brought two very revolutionary concepts to the table, and it is no coincidence. Thanks to Game Freak's background as nearly full-time gamers, they managed to put their finger on two very hard to implement mechanics, even to this day, that made it so satisfying to play.

The first of them was designing a multiplayer RPG. As the legend goes, this was inspired by how in Dragon Quest, one of them obtained two of a very rare item and one had none, and one programmer wanted to give the other a spare but they couldn't. Games back then were also very different, and so was the gaming community around them. The Internet was we understand it and it's massive array of networks joining players who share their knowledge, even those that prefer single player games did not exist; that was in fact why Game Freak was born as a magazine written by Satoshi Tajiri, sharing his tips about the games he dedicated so much of his time to and was later on joined by his friends.

This is important because, even in games where you played together such as arcade or fighting games, the ways you could interact with each other were limited. You could help each other beat up a tough boss or beat each other up, but that was it. However, Pokémon brought a new way players could be relevant to each other that did not exist before, thanks to the Game Link cable technology. If you obtained two of a very rare Pokémon and your friend wanted one, you could trade it with him in exchange for something he had of value that you didn't. Furthermore, that Pokémon would forever keep in its data and show the original owner's name, which is also important. This meant that now, a piece of your friend's game would forever be in yours, and viceversa. It was more than temporarily cooperating, you could alter their game forever. Also, if you obtained a very rare Pokémon, you would be able to not just show it off, but also use it in a match against your friends to see who had raised the best Pokémon.

In other words: you and your friends mattered to each other, creating a more tightly knit community than those that appeared in the past. It wasn't as much about winning and losing than about having fun together and years later, looking at the OTs of some of your old Pokémon and reminiscing the old times. Years later, the community is still strong and is even stronger in events such as tournaments, where I have forged several friendships and even got a relationship out of it.

The other, and most relevant in my opinion, is the sheer freedom given to the player. Up to that point, most if not all games always had an "optimal" way to be played. It's difficult to play in a highly individual way a racing game, a platformer or a beat 'em up. The only games before these where I would arguably say that a player's individual traits can be spotted easily were fighting games such as Street Fighter II Turbo, where each player's idiosyncrasies combined with the ample roster made it possible for varied playstyles to flourish competitively. However, Pokémon would predate by several years games that have triumphed in the critics' eyes such as Zelda: Breath of the Wild by giving players an amount of choices to make on their own that would take years to surpass.

In the original games, there was a roster of 150 critters availaible through normal gameplay, as well as a secret one that was also key to its success later on called Mew. Not counting not fully evolved monsters (although if you also wanted to have a level 100 Caterpie, there's nobody to stop you) the amount of availaible Pokémon is still downright massive: 70 to combine in teams of 6, as you'd like. This is not all, as each Pokémon may learn only up to 4 moves, which can have an array of effects we all know and love from other JRPGs in the past: from attacks that simply deal damage, to moves that confuse the opponents, put them to sleep or poison them to moves that drain their life for your Pokémon to restore its own.

You can simply pick the ones that in your opinion are the coolest. You can choose the ones that hit the hardest and fastest. You can choose Pokémon with access to powerful status moves that disrupt your opponent's strategy, or use Pokémon with massive hit point amounts and recovery moves to slowly but surely win the fight. And the best part of all, is that it's up to each player to figure out on their own what works for them and doesn't. The moves and the Pokémon are out there, and there is no set strategy nor a Pokémon that can win all matches; even the legendary, almighty before Dark type was introduced Mewtwo is still a Pokémon and can be taken down by a stray Hyper Beam or frozen by a Blizzard, or embarassed by a Thunder Wave Chansey.

Even throughout your adventure, you consistently make choices about who to take or not take in your adventure. As you find new creatures, some are very rare yet utter garbage, like Farfetch'd or Porygon. Others are very strong early on but later on they are not up to par such as Raticate, Fearow, Buttefree or Pidgeot. Most remain consistently strong throughout the adventure and even somewhat in matches, such as Nidoking, the starters, Sandslash, Dodrio, Hypno, Persian. A very few are extremely difficult to obtain, yet their rarity and the hardships and in-game money spent to raise them is rewarded in spades with very powerful monsters such as Scyther, Gyarados, Tauros, Chansey, Jynx, Exeggutor, Alakazam, Slowbro, Rhydon, Gengar, Lapras, the legendary birds Zapdos, Moltres and Articuno. All in all, it's a well composed and very well balanced roster of creatures that grant the players the opportunity to be him or herself to their fullest, and enjoy the game in a way only they can.

I believe these two facts combined is what made it gain such a following. Not only you get to do as you please with your squadron of Pokémon, but you get to talk to your friends who also own the game about it, and either add to it through trading or compare through battling to see what works and what doesn't. This has happened later on, once the Internet blossomed and its communities thrived with all kinds of games. Fire Emblem, League of Legends, Street Fighter, Call of Duty, whatever it is there is at least a forum or a discord chat dedicated to it's intrincacies and sharing experiences.

Pokémon nowdays is just a game among many that you can share with a community and stand out as yourself, but back when it was released, the Pokémon experience was the one thing you could revel into and be your own personality within the game and the players, and it still is to a far larger scale in tournaments. In a world that tries to make you insecure to get you to buy things and tries to turn you into a carbon copy of your classmate or co-worker, this little game allows you to stand from the crowd. Something similar happened with Pokémon Go briefly, as people went outside and shared their experiences with the small yet buggy game, giving it an ephemeral yet memorable success.

The lesson that can be learned here in game design is, if you ever get around it, try to design a game or puzzle that allows for as many solutions as possible. Encourage your players to mess, experiment, rather than have a set solution because then they will share their experiences and this will in turn attract more attention towards it, and make it fun and a success for everyone involved.

I'd been wanting to write this for a while, to be exact around four years ago, but I could not find the vocabulary nor the skills to do so the way I wanted to. Hopefully you enjoyed it, and if you have any criticism or information to add, by all means feel free to!
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Comments

  1. Skull's Avatar
    You may have a point there. Perhaps that was the reason why I, someone who was never traded nor battled another human player has never quite got the hype behind the franchise.