Pokemon Pearl was the first game I ever really “bought” myself. It was the first time I ever took my 7 year old ass to the shop, and purchased a game.
Ever since that day in in 2007, I’ve been hooked on the Pokemon franchise. I’d watch the cartoon almost every day after school, and religiously purchase each new generation release. Obviously I wasn’t the only one; Pokemon is the second best-selling franchise of all time (second only to Mario) with a highly successful anime series, video game series and a popular trading card game.
Unfortunately, with the release of Pokemon Sun and Moon as part of the Generation 7 roster, I felt that the franchise was starting to lose its way. The decision to remove the “gym badge” system from the game was a very questionable one to me; coupled with a heavier and heavier focus on online play, I started to worry that Nintendo we’re starting to take Pokemon down a path that took them too far away from what originally attracted fans to the franchise. Needless to say, my hopes were not high for Generation 8.
Enter Pokemon Sword for the Nintendo Switch, which I bought in the hope that my predictions for the franchise were wrong. Picking up the game, what I expected was another mediocre Pokemon title, just more of the same – what I got was something all-together different. Pokemon was given a fresh coat of paint and the next-gen treatment to kick off the new Generation 8 roster. And what an opener it was!
There’s No Grinding
The Pokemon games are famously grindy. I’m sure that someone somewhere finds spending countless hours mowing through waves of wild Pokemon to level your team up for the next gym battle to be “fun” – I’ve certainly never met one though. I always resented the amount of pointless boring grind in the Pokemon games, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to find that the need to grind has been completely removed from Pokemon Sword.
There’s no sudden increase in the power of Pokemon between gym leaders – the level scaling is sufficiently smooth that, as long as you battle the trainers you meet on your way between cities, and you don’t switch your team around too frequently, you’ll always be just the right level to challenge the gyms without having to go out of your way to grind experience.
I was also delighted to see that, no matter which Pokemon you use, every member of your team is awarded experience after winning a battle. I heard that some old school fans feel that this takes a lot of the “challenge” out of the game, but personally I think those people might have confused “challenge” with “tedium.”
The Gym Battles
Historically, I’ve always been much more interested in catching, collecting and levelling my Pokemon than in winning Gym badges. Battling the gym leaders always felt like just another hurdle I had to get over to access the next area.
Pokemon Sword has completely revamped the Gym battle experience. Gym battles take place in a proper stadium, with a huge crowd who actively cheer when a Pokemon faints, or when a Pokemon uses a super effective move. They even sing chants when the Gym leader is down to their final Pokemon! Plus, it’s got an absolutely amazing hyped-up soundtrack. It feels much more like a big-budget sporting event that it’s made out to be in-game – I was actually excited to challenge the Gym leaders in Pokemon Sword, which is something I can’t say about any other entry in the franchise.
The Dynamax System
Ever since Generation 6, slightly gimmicky extra mechanics have been slipped into Pokemon games, presumably to add some variety into the battle system, or perhaps an extra layer of challenge. In Pokemon X and Y, they introduced the Mega Evolution System, where certain Pokemon power up to even stronger versions of themselves; in Pokemon Sun and Moon, over-powered Z-moves were introduced that could be used only once per battle; and in Pokemon Sword and Shield, it’s Gigantimax, where your Pokemon grows fifty times in size and starts unleashing devastating Godzilla-esque carnage onto the battlefield.
Alright, Pokemon becoming Kaiju-mon is gimmicky as hell, but as hard as I try, I can’t help but admit that seeing my Pokemon mega-beasts rain fire and death upon my opponents so I can see them cinematically explode when they faint DOES make my Pokemon experience better.
I love pixelated graphics in video games, but I definitely think that the Pokemon franchise has benefitted hugely from making the jump to 3D since Generation 6. The cell-shaded graphical style of Pokemon Sword is cute, colourful and amazingly detailed compared to it’s predecessors. The lighting is more atmospheric, the environments are more elaborate, the animation quality is fantastic – Pokemon Sword is definitely the most polished and attractive-looking game in the series to date.
The Pokemon series, even in the good ‘ol days, was never a difficult or complex game. Whilst it’s no Dark Souls, I have to admit, in the last 7 years, the difficulty has absolutely tanked, and continues to tank as the years go on. Each new release seeks to make the gameplay more streamlined, less grindy or more convenient for the player – everything from sharing XP between Pokemon, to remind the player what the type match ups are during a battle, to lowering the level of the Pokemon being used in the final battle from 75 to 50. Old School players have been complaining since Generation 6 that the game has been totally dumbed-down and castrated in an attempt to make the games more “accessible” (which, in this case, is synonymous with easier).
However, one person’s “dumbing-down” is another person’s “streamlining.” Are the older games really more challenging, or are they just grindy? It depends who you ask. Personally, I find making video games grindy to be a cheap tactic to get people to sink more hours into the game – it doesn’t give players “good” content, just “more” content. I’m happy to see that feature of the franchise be left behind for good.
Videogames Make Me Happy concludes…
Pokemon Sword is a shining example of how improved hardware and a fresh new style can make a decades-old game franchise continue to stand out in the modern day. Artistically, Pokemon Sword looks and sounds gorgeous – we’ve come a long, long way from the pixelated graphics and 8-bit synthesizer soundtracks of the 2000s.
However, it’s the simplicity of Pokemon Sword that earned it the most praise from the critics, but also the most criticism from it’s fanbase. It raises the question, does making a game easier mean it’s any less “good”? Are difficult games inherently better quality than easier games? Is the point of playing a game to be challenged? Who’s to say? What I can say is that, whilst Pokemon Sword has definitely been the easiest Pokemon game I have played to date, it has also been the most enjoyable by some margin. I don’t believe that the great soundtrack and entertaining gameplay should suddenly become irrelevant just because the game is easy. If we are going to use anything to measure the worth of a videogame, surely it should be the enjoyment of the player, not the difficulty of the game.
When all is said and done, Pokemon Sword has succeeded in reigniting my passion for the Pokemon franchise, and reaffirming Pokemon’s place as one of the jewels in Nintendo’s crown. I’m happy to report my predictions for Generation 8 were dead wrong. Hallelujah.