Don’t get me wrong – I’ve tried to like Pokémon, I really have. When the craze first hit our Western shores in the late nineties, it caused a huge commotion and was an instant hit. You couldn’t avoid Pokémon, be it the games, the trading cards, the cartoon series, or the merchandise. You could hear young children in town spouting a list of near-incomprehensible words; names of the seemingly endless list of pocket monsters featured in the series.
I, of course, couldn’t escape it, being a gamer and at school. I watched the television show and was introduced to the game on a friend’s Gameboy Colour. The characters and ideas were creative and interesting, but nothing about the concept excited me – remember, when I watched the show I was a schoolboy, and this was the biggest school-yard craze of the time. However, I just couldn’t get into the cartoon series without the knowledge of the game many of my friends had, and I didn’t take to the game – possibly due to my disdain for turn-based combat (not to say I hate all turn-based games, I love the Persona series, but find the mechanic slows down action scenes and acts as a barrier to exciting gameplay).
Earlier this year, with the release of Pokémon X & Y looming, many of my friends and workmates alike were eagerly-anticipating the latest release. I was told how it was going to add all of the features that longtime fans had been waiting for, whilst not straying far from the concept they all knew and loved. I “should” play it, I was told. Apparently I had missed out by not being swept up in the initial wave of Pokémon fever. These thirty-something’s I was surrounded by all knew the names and faces of hundreds of these creatures, whilst I knew but a handful (I couldn’t escape them all, what with some of their names becoming a part of nineties pop culture).
So – even though I had tried several Pokemon games over the years since its launched – I agreed that perhaps I should try again. In my most recent attempt, I found myself a copy of Pokemon: Soul Silver (completely unaware of the relevance of the name, or indeed where it fit into the series) that I had knocking around my flat for no apparent reason. And with an upcoming holiday abroad Pokémon seemed perfect for the long hours of plane travel and waiting around at airports. This would be it, I was going to throw myself into the game as much as possible in an effort to see what I had really deprived myself of in years gone by.
Despite my initial misgivings, I stuck with it. That first day of travelling, I probably invested at least ten hours into the game, and managed a lot more throughout the trip. Starting with only Crocasaur (knowing nothing more about him than that he looked like a crocodile – and crocodiles are cool right?), and going on a trip to the nearest training centre and in the process building up a small army of low-level Pokémon. I met other adventurers both friendly and not-so-friendly, fought many battles in the long grass and learnt an entire new language of creature names (no Pikachu or Charmander here).
But you know what? I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t understand the rabid affection that players have for the games. The fighting was – as I expected – rather slow and monotonous, with very little difference between one battle and the next. Levelling up the Pokemon was a chore, not a pleasure and having to grind through fight after fight against snake-like and rabbity creatures, who each died within a couple of lazy strikes from my crocadile-like friend, was a repetitive and unappealing prospect. The fact that every fight looks more or less identical as well, meant that both the easiest fight in the game and the most important and difficult ones felt almost identical, with no idea of scale or importance.
Of course, the fighting isn’t everything in the game, a big part of Pokémon is collecting, developing and evolving your creatures, producing the leanest, meanest fighting machines possible and ticking off each one in your Pokédex - you can even name each individual monster as you tame them. This is really more akin to swapping and collecting cards or stickers – wanting to amass a full set. Unfortunately, this too failed to capture my imagination. Of course, some fun could be had with giving the creatures rude names, but the developing and evolving of species felt very limited. You can’t, for instance, breed any two Pokémon in order to produce a new type of offspring – you simply have a few preset evolutions at preset points.
The storyline itself was far from compelling, and it seems that the plot is pretty loose across most games in the series. “A young trainer wishes to become a great Pokémon Master” – that’s the set-up, now take it from there. The fact that there was very little going on in terms of motivation or exposition to push the story forward left the game feeling pretty flat for me personally. Perhaps it is because I grew up on point and click adventure games, but I appreciate a strong story and well-developed characters in a game where you go on an adventure, and unfortunately Pokémon seemed to lack both of these. There was little impetus to keep me interested in why I was in this quest, and why I should go back through the long grass, only to fight three invisible enemies who were exactly the same.
This lack of story progression or interesting characters was both reinforced and disproved by the cartoon series. Again, in the original cartoon shown in the UK, the only real over-arching plot thread that ran from week to week was the fact that the protagonist Ash wanted to become the best Pokémon trainer in the land. Hardly the most compelling plot. However, the cartoon also allowed for the main characters – and indeed the Villains, Team Rocket, to become more rounded and have developed personalities, something that never really seemed to happen in the games I tried out. This just made the lack of characterisation and lack of a strong story stand out even more when going back to the Pokémon video games.
There may well be many Pokémon fans who would disagree with my points, and argue against them. Then there may be other fans of the series who are well aware of these issues, but appreciate the game for other reasons that I have been unable to see. It seems Pokémon is something that you either get or you don’t. I hate to use the Marmite comparison, but in this case it seems more true than most. Those who embrace the games and “get it”, really fall in love with the characters and the mythos. They appreciate the game for what it is, and the mechanics involved are exciting and enjoyable in their own way.
That is certainly no bad thing, but I just happen to be a part of the group who doesn’t see the appeal in the repetitive gameplay and the glorified trading card game of collecting monsters. It doesn’t compel me in the same way that it does with its legions of fans, but that’s ok . It seems like I didn’t miss out by letting the game pass me by first time around – Pokémon just seems like it is not for me.