If the last two years has taught us anything, it’s that nostalgia is king. And, if we’ve learned anything from the last few weeks, it’s that the Pokémon fandom is still burning bright. DETECTIVE PIKACHU’s trailer drop went viral almost instantly, and the latest Pokémon game, LET’S GO, became the fastest-selling Nintendo Switch title ever released in its first week. Few franchises can boast such active participation and engagement, especially after 20 years.
And it isn’t just kids that allow Pokémon to persist. It’s adults, too. We fondly revisit the early Pokémon games on emulators and through our scrappy, surviving Game Boys, because, like amber, they trap and preserve the best parts of our childhood. Nothing is ever forgotten in our world—just reimagined.
This is what 20 years of progress looks like, folks
But much like a fossil encased in amber, the Pokémon series has done little to evolve. In 20 years the graphics have improved, the sound files are more crisp, and the little blurbs in each Pokedex entry have been tweaked. Yet the formula has stayed the same. Capture, kill, and conquer a capsule-sized map of gyms, caves, and tiny towns.
For many, those cute, giddy little Poké-sprites aren’t enough anymore. Not for the kids who have been spoiled by battle royales that can be played on smartphones, and not for the adults who have been playing the same game for decades. Players expect more. They want something that’s going to break the monotony, and challenge the franchise in innovative ways.
What’s going to keep consumers coming back, when the nostalgia well runs dry?
Which brings me to POKÉMON: LET’S GO, the first main series Pokémon game to be released on console. Handheld, portable, and co-op friendly, the Nintendo Switch seemed like the perfect vessel for the franchise’s transition. Similar enough to predecessor Gameboy and DS models, but powerful enough to push boundaries and try new things. Powerful enough to render large, open worlds with complex battle systems and intricately rendered CG environments—worlds like SKYRIM and BREATH OF THE WILD.
Sometimes both at once!
The Pokémon Company now has access that top-of-the-line technology and software, and LET’S GO was their first chance to show what they could do with it. And their answer was… astoundingly little.
Until recently, remakes have been something Pokémon has done rather well. SOUL SILVER remains my favorite franchise game, a brilliant combination of old and new. Johto and Kanto united, building upon the first game’s legacy while also introducing new monsters, gyms, and balance to the elemental types.
While it doesn’t quite meet expectations, POKÉMON: LET’S GO is an admirable attempt at a reimagining of Pokémon YELLOW. Kanto is beautifully fleshed-out in 3D, with vivid colors and textures. The graphics are sharp, more refined than what was introduced in SUN/MOON. It runs rather smoothly, although stuttering occasionally occurs when encountering wild Pokémon.
Cue JAWS theme
But visuals can only carry a game so far. A gamer’s experience boils down to the mechanics, and POKÉMON: LET’S GO changes quite a few of them. I just wish they’d been improvements.
A spiritual successor and remake of 1998’s Pokémon YELLOW, players are automatically given a special starter Pokémon: either Eevee or Pikachu, depending on which version you’ve chosen.
In the original game, your starter Pikachu was modelled to be like Ash’s Pikachu in the increasingly popular anime series. It did not live in a Pokéball, instead following dutifully behind its trainer. And, of course, it never evolved.
20 years later, Pikachu still hasn’t evolved and Ash still hasn’t experienced puberty
I chose LET’S GO EEVEE over PIKACHU because I wanted a Vaporeon on my team. A Normal-type Pokémon, Eevee’s whole schtick is it’s sheer number of evolutions: a blank slate with a cute face. Given the right conditions or the right stone, it can be anything you want it to be. Need an electric type? You can make it a Jolteon. Fire? Flareon.
Every gamer has their favorite Eeveelution. It’s just not usually the stock model.
Never in a million years would I have assumed that YELLOW’s companion Pokémon rules extend to LET’S GO, or at the very least for EEVEE. But, as my avatar stood in Celadon City, futilely mashing a Water Stone against my companion Eevee’s face, I began to realize that it wouldn’t… couldn’t… transform. All that work, all that time spent struggling through the first gyms… it was all for naught.
*Nerd rage intensifies*
Picking the Pikachu version would have been easier. Electric Pokémon at least have a type advantage.
That’s not to say the companion Eevee isn’t without some benefit.
So what are these companion Pokémon good for? Playing? While rubbing their pudgy cheeks with your Switch remote can be adorable, it’s a useless feature that doesn’t do anything for the Pokémon.
How about breeding then? Psych, breeding isn’t included in LET’S GO! You can leave a single Pokémon with the Daycare Couple, but even that doesn’t seem worth it. I left a Pikachu with them for half the game, and it only grew five levels. Several hundred thousand yen well spent.
If only Cute-type was a thing
Of the new features LET’S GO has introduced into the canon, co-op play is the perhaps the biggest. Introduced to make the games more inclusive, co-op has been baked into the experience; however, it’s not immediately obvious how to access it, unlocking only when both Switch remotes have been activated.
The second player cannot interact with anything in the environment—be it townsfolk, collectable items, or even wild Pokémon—but can join the first player in battles. Outside of combat, there’s really nothing for them to do, aside from blindly following the first player’s avatar.
The experience feels both half-hearted and half-baked. You cannot personalize the second player’s avatar—it spawns with the same clothes, skin, and hair color as the first player’s, and is always the opposite gender. Additionally, even if the second player has their own copy of LET’S GO, their Pokémon cannot be loaded into the first player’s game, devolving every battle into tag-team matches. Stranger yet, the game’s difficulty does not adjust to accommodate the second player’s presence, so trainer and gym battles become appallingly easy when you bring backup.
Trainer bro doesn’t stand a chance against the Bobbsey twins
Although the co-op mode is disappointing, The Pokémon Company gifted us with a feature that has long sat on our wishlists: wild Pokémon now appear in the game’s overworld. Gone are the days of grass avoidance, anxious walks through caves, and stockpiles of repels. In LET’S GO, you know exactly where to go. Want an Eevee? It’s right there, in the upper corner of the screen. Tired of running into Pidgeys? Just walk around the ones you see.
Thanks to this, filling your Pokedex has never been easier, and you can choose which Pokémon to focus on and “streak”, since you get XP bonuses for catching multiples of the same monster. And believe me, you have to catch a lot. Catch ‘em all. Otherwise your precious Pokémon won’t get that much needed experience.
Which leads me to the next big balance change. In what I perceive to be a politically correct move, you no longer farm experience from battling and defeating wild Pokémon: you catch them. And you’re encouraged to catch every single Pokémon you encounter, to get the maximum amount of XP for your team.
Although finally making “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” a viable strategy is a fresh change of pace, it does cram your box with hoards of Pidgeys and Rattatas. When your box gets full, transfer the extraneous monsters to Professor Oak in exchange for stat-increasing candy. Want to buff your Pikachu’s Special Attack? Throw the old man 20 Zubats.
Rather surprisingly, the catching system has also been revamped to mirror Pokémon GO. Throw your ball at the perfect second, and your chances of capture are much higher. Mistime the throw, and you’ll probably have to throw a couple more. The only issue is that if you’re using the Switch remotes, it’s very easy to botch your throws. I had to stop playing the game with the remotes because they were far too unreliable. Throws would go in the wrong direction, wasting pokeballs, and sometimes the joystick would invert, screwing with the avatar’s movement. Playing handheld solved these issues, but it was frustrating not to be able to enjoy a core feature of LET’S GO on a large screen. Wrangling a legendary bird should be a cinematic experience, after all.
At least this game doesn’t burn through your data limits
Speaking of legendaries, it sucks that you cannot capture Mew in game. The pink, docile psychic cat was one of my favorites, and I was eager to add one to my team. Alas, much to my dismay, I learned that you can only obtain one through the Pokeball Plus accessory, essentially a $50 toy that can moonlight as a controller. In this pay-to-play world, I’m not entirely surprised that Mew was packaged with an exclusive toy, but it feels like a betrayal. An easter egg pulled from the code and held hostage. It’s a disturbing direction for this series to take, and I might just abandon the franchise if I’m ever asked to pay to unlock my beloved Entei.
While Pokémon LET’S GO has been a fun, if shallow, jaunt through familiar territory, it’s ultimately lackluster. A gaping hole is punched through an otherwise promising game, as players search for a non-existent story while wading through underdeveloped, beta new features. It’s disappointing and flat, but at least the colors and 3D monsters are pretty.
It seems as though The Pokémon Company is holding their best cards close to their chest, saving their trumps for the untitled, open-world RPG expected to drop next year. I can only hope that this next installment brings a breath of fresh air and inventiveness back to the series, since LET’S GO spectacularly fails to impress.