Why Has Pokémon Failed to Evolve?
Evolutionary biology is part of the formula that makes Pokémon so compelling. But strangely, the gameplay itself has failed to evolve after more than a dozen installments in the series. Our staff writer Christopher Price asks why Pokémon is still stuck in the stone age.
"Press B to stop evolution"
Pokémon hit the video game scene back in 1996 and made an impact on the industry akin to a Pikachu-shaped meteorite smashing into the wallets of a billion unsuspecting parents. To give you an idea on how much money Pokémon games have made Nintendo, take into consideration that the series has sold approximately 175 million copies, going for about $35 a piece. That comes to roughly $6,125,000,000 worth of game sales, which is probably low-balling it in ways only a business pundit can recognize. That's a ton of dough, ladies and gentlemen.
The key to Pokémon's great success has been using the combination of a powerful gaming gimmick ("Gotta Catch 'em All!"), westerners' natural adoration for cool animals (ask Zoo Books, the Discovery Channel and Disney about it, they'll agree), and a simple to grasp RPG premise that anyone can understand. (rock/paper/scissor element of Pokémon types).
The formula has shown to be so successful that it has barely changed since its release. And when I mean barely, I actually mean "not at all".
Sure, the graphics have gotten an upgrade, online play has been added to the DS games, and cute little side-quests allow for a tad more variety. But aside from those qualities, it seems Nintendo has opted to voluntarily delay the evolution of their Pokémon games.
Instead, they simply add more Pokémon. The number is near 500 now, and will no doubt increase with the subsequent release of Pokémon Black and White.
This strategy is an obvious one for Nintendo. I can imagine the head of Game Freak's creative team spouting off "Why fix what's not broken? Let's just stick with the same formula, dump more obscure Pokémon for the gamers to catch, provide the game in different flavors and Bada-bing, Bada-boom, happy customers and happy investors."
This seems like it would make perfect sense...if only it actually made any sense at all.
Allow me to make some things clear - Nintendo knows what the Hell they are doing. They are not dumb. They have consistently shown that they have the best and brightest minds in game design since they first hit the scene in the eighties. It's very apparent that those skills have not wavered in recent years (the stupendous Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a testament to that).
But, when it comes to Pokémon; they have been just plain lazy.
There is absolutely no reason that I can fathom for why Pokémon has evolved so little over it's lifetime other than pure laziness. It's fairly obvious Pokémon is Nintendo's "safe" product, the one they can always go to for a consistent wave of money. What they have failed to realize is that by choosing not to expand on the gameplay elements of their beloved franchise, they have limited their ability to increase that cash flow exponentially.
By branching out and developing the franchise on a gameplay level, Nintendo can expand its demographic and garner a new legion of fans that may not have been hooked by the first iterations of the Pokémon franchise. Adding elements, changing the style of the game, opening the door to bigger and better things is never outside the interests of a company whose chief concern is keeping their numbers in the black.
Here is a quick and dirty list I came up with on how things can be spiced up:
* Make a Pokémon game for the home console.
And I'm not talking about Pokémon Snap, Stadium or Rumble. I'm talking about a true Pokémon game, with all the main elements of the portable games, but upped for home play. Imagine walking in a giant, lush world in 3rd person, battling in real-time, using the Wii-mote to throw pokeballs...it's almost too awesome to comprehend. With the popularity of online games these days, it's a shame that Nintendo's Wii doesn't have the capabilities to host an integrated MMO experience. When they inevitably do with their next big console, a Pokémon MMO would be the most obvious choice.
* Overhaul the battle system
Of all the complaints I have about Pokémon being stagnant, this is by and large the worst. The elements of the battle system have become so tired that it's almost embarrassing to think about. Why not change over to a quasi-real time system, like the way Final Fantasy did in the nineties? Why not make attributes like "speed" and "weight" matter more? Why can I not do anything during my opponents turn? These are only a few of the easily implemented changes Nintendo has refused to consider.
* Make Pokémon DARK
Let's be honest here, despite Pokémon's happy-go-lucky appearance, the game centers around glorified cock-fighting. Why not take that dimension and expand it to a darker level? Imagine if Ash was a bounty hunter, looking for the heads of the terrorist group Team Rocket? The redesigns for the Pokémon would be awesome, and could open the door for a story-line people actually care about (something very lacking in the current crop of Pokémon games).
* Change the number of moves a Pokémon can have from four to eight.
Four moves? Really? Only four? This is where the laziness is at its peak. Having eight moves at your disposal makes strategizing and building your team much deeper. The only foreseeable problem might be balancing the Pokémon, which brings us to...
These aren't intensely radical ideas here, people. They aren't even complicated. They are seemingly obvious advances in gameplay that one would assume a gaming franchise would naturally grow towards. But alas, this is not the case...
It's Super Effective!
The beauty of branching out in a new direction is that Nintendo doesn't need to abandon its original Pokémon formula. Nothing is stopping them from developing both the new and the old styles of the game simultaneously. In one direction, they can create a new IP, and in the other, continue to milk the original "winning" formula.
And don't come back at me with "It's too much of a risk" BS. Metroid Prime, Wind Waker, the DS, and even the Wii were gigantic risks taken by the company, far larger than what I've discussed here. And if it were done well, as any intelligent company would set out to do, the rewards would be phenomenal. At worst, the new franchise would be poorly developed and bomb out hard, which would give all the more reason for fans to jump back on the bandwagon when the series "returns to form". This has happened in recent years with Megaman and the upcoming Donkey Kong Country Returns.
It's a win-win.
But no. Over the last 15 years, Pokémon's main gameplay has yet to change. Even relics of gaming such as Tetris, Pac-Man and Space Invaders have found a way to push the limits of their design without destroying the essence of what makes them fun. But not Pokémon. We still catch them all, we still walk around with a top-down view, we still have TM's and HM's, start with one of three Pokémon, fight through several town gaining badges, and...
...well, you get the idea.
Perhaps the forthcoming Pokémon Black and White will turn me into a believer. Perhaps all the things one could ask of Nintendo will finally be done.
Perhaps we will finally see a series, whose main focus is about evolution, actually evolve itself.
Post Author: Christopher Price
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