Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to unseat Pokémon as king of the monster-catching game genre. But they always fall short. Why is that? Well, to show my theory, let me tell you about Monster Sanctuary. This 2020 game is a side-scrolling, Metroidvania take on Pokémon with a deep combat system that focuses on buffs, debuffs and status effects. It’s a great game, but it has one big issue. If I try to think of the monsters in the game, this is what I come up with:
- I think my starter was a water wolf or something
- Multiple kinds of blob
- A cat guy, I think
- Some birds and flying dragons
What I’m getting at is the little guys in Monster Sanctuary aren’t memorable. Pokémon is unmatched in creating memorable little guys to get attached to over the course of your journey. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are no different, in fact, the Pokémon designs are better than they have been in years.
To highlight my point, you just have to look at the first batch of new Pokémon you come across in the game. Often they can be pretty dull – some variation on the trio of normal-type mammals, normal/flying-type birds, and bugs (usually a caterpillar). Sure, Scarlet and Violet have these, but with enough of a twist to make them worthwhile.
Most of the early Pokémon were shown off in trailers, as they should have been. The normal-type mammal is a pig called Lechonk - no need for the nickname or no nickname argument here, you can’t think of a better nickname than that. A Pokémon like that and the smol bean olive Pokémon Smoliv can seem like a blatant ploy to create a meme, but you can’t be mad when they absolutely nail the brief. Nothing cringy about Fidough, the fairy-type dog made of brioche, or its evolution, Dachbun and its signature ability, a well-baked body, that nullifies fire moves.
In fact, the ninth generation of Pokémon overall seems to embrace its goofier side. I, personally, am a big fan of this. Take Squawkabilly, for example: it’s a normal/flying-type that doesn’t evolve but comes in multiple colours. Dull, right? Did I mention it has its name because it has a rockabilly-style pompadour hairstyle? Now it’s much better.
You’ve seen Gimmighoul, the ghost-type that is disguised as a treasure chest, but have you seen its evolution? Gimmighoul evolves into Gholdengo - a steel/ghost-type that marks the 1,000th Pokémon. To really bring this point home, you evolve Gimmighoul by collecting 999 coins from finding wandering chest-less Gimmighoul and battling the regular, catchable form. Gholdengo is entirely made up of these 1,000 coins (I guess the 1,000th is with the Gimmighoul), has a signature move called Make It Rain that throws money on the ground, and looks like an Olympic mascot. I really could keep listing more lovable goofs from Generation nine (Crocalor, the middle fire starter evolution, has a fiery sombrero), but that would make the article too long.
Even the new battling mechanic looks silly in the best possible way. Previous generations have had Mega Pokémon, which transform existing Pokémon into new forms, and the Dynamax system, which makes Pokémon gigantic. Scarlet and Violet have terastallizing - an ability to change a Pokémon’s type and power up same-type moves. The physical change to your Pokémon is that they take on a crystal look, and then to signify the type change they… put a big crystal hat on their head. Each Tera type has its own crystal topper it plops on top of terastallized Pokémon – from the kind of cool ones such as the axe for steel-type and dragon statues, to the less than graceful like the candelabra for fire-types, grass-type flower bouquets and water fountains. And then there’s the flying type one…
It’s a goofy way to do the transformation – they make Pokémon look like the kind of statuette your grandma might have a collection of in a glass cabinet. But it never got old seeing my Quaquaval, the flamenco dancer-inspired final evolution of the water starter, get a big bright hat to go with its flamboyant movements. Or my fearsome paradox Pokémon Great Tusk being made to look like a gaudy Christmas ornament. In fact those paradox Pokémon, new, more powerful versions of existing Pokémon that have either come from the past (in Scarlet) or the future (in Violet), have some genuinely cool designs, as do the two legendaries on the covers. They lean into the past/future aesthetic, rather than the more standard way of powerful/legendary Pokémon design – start drawing a Pokémon and don’t stop adding to it until someone wrestles the pen away.
So, the Pokémon are great. They’re always great. They are certainly the stars of Scarlet and Violet, despite these two entries being the open-world Pokémon games that fans have been clamouring for ever since the term open-world entered the gaming vocabulary.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen clips of Scarlet and Violet – game-breaking bugs and single-digit frame rates. I’ve been hesitant to really slam the technical aspects and graphics of Pokémon games in the past because you’ve got to remember that these are games aimed at children. Kids don’t care about frame rates, or top of line graphics, or even a bit of jankiness (have you ever seen Roblox in action?). But I feel like the severity and frequency of the bugs and poor performance – I even had the game freeze and crash on me – will be enough to annoy children. It’s clearly enough to put off adults, including reviewers who have marked the new games harshly in comparison to previous entries.
These problems continue Game Freak’s terrible track record on the Switch and while it shares a lot of technical and graphical issues with Pokémon Legends: Arceus, that game was trying a lot of new things that gave it more leeway. Considering that it’s only been ten months since Legends’ release, there would be little, if any, way to learn from the teething problems it had, and that is exactly the problem.
Game Freak probably should slow down and take longer to make each big Pokémon game if they want them to reach their full potential. But, and I guess I’m only speculating here, it is something they can’t do. Between the games, anime, movies, trading cards and other merchandise, Pokémon is Nintendo’s licence to print money. As brilliant as it would be for generation ten to have four years in the oven, that’s not going to happen, because it would hold up the entire Pokémon machine.
So what you have is a studio that has not figured out how to make the most out of the Switch because they likely don’t have the time. Though I guess it’s all swings and roundabouts. Game Freak may not have time to reflect on what they did wrong with Scarlet and Violet because they have to make the DLC, and then they probably have to remake Black and White, the Legends 2, and so on. But that means Shigeru Miyamoto’s team can make one new Mario platformer a generation and really get it right. It means they can bankroll the Bayonetta franchise.
Will Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, with its myriad of bugs, terrible performance and a world full of dull environments, throw a stick in the cogs of the Pokémon machine? Maybe, but it’s unlikely. It’s probably all going to be fine, as long as they keep pumping out those classic little guys, but it may just take a competitor with new ideas as well as charismatic monsters to knock the franchise off its perch.
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