Pokémon is, without a doubt, one of the largest gaming franchises in history. Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield are the latest entries in the series and are perhaps the most anticipated, as well as controversial, titles in its history. Several announcements in the months leading up to the release caused quite a stir within the Pokémon community, such as the elimination of over half of all existing Pokémon from previous titles, lack of content, and the accusation of reused assets in Sword and Shield. Now that the games are out, the Pokémon franchise needs to take a break for a few years.
After finishing the main story of Pokémon Shield in about 22 hours, I can not help but think the game came out half-baked. I soaked myself in all of the pre-released leaks and picked who I wanted for my team even before the game came out. However, most players likely got much more mileage out of the game by catching all of the Pokémon and experimenting with them, which can result in an enormous amount in hours of additional playtime.
But in my opinion, the game had very little downtime between Pokémon Gyms, with most towns feeling like a checklist more than a grand adventure. Routes between towns were substantially shorter, with virtually no elaborate caves or bodies of water. While I am not expecting Pokémon Black and Pokémon White narrative quality (although that would be nice), I did not feel invested in the Galar region as much as did in the franchise’s previous entries.
Game Freak’s transition from Pokémon’s sprite-based roots to X and Y’s full 3D models on the Nintendo 3DS proved to be a challenge, resulting in immense lag and slowdowns during battle. Pokémon X and Pokémon Y felt like a testbed for Game Freak to familiarize themselves with the new 3DS hardware at the time. Using similar assets from Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, Game Freak can speed up development time for Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, and release both sets of games within one year of each other. The same can be said for Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon with Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon.
The modern Pokémon games, from Generation 6 until now, Generation 8, added substantially fewer new creatures than previous generations. Perhaps the time it took to make 3D models instead of sprites meant sacrificing the amount of new Pokémon created. Developers would also have to design 3D models for every single Pokémon that existed before, which is a very daunting task. However, Game Freak already had 3D models of the first 151 Pokémon from Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, another set of games on Switch, so why not bring those over?
Furthermore, Digital Foundry made an excellent video analyzing the models of Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield. The video noted:
“The texturing and the way the materials interact with the newer engine lighting will have needed work across the board from Game Freak. That doesn’t fully explain the cut in the Pokédex, though.”
“For starters, model quality was already improved for Let’s Go, with the same more realistic style applied on those original 151 creations. Sword and Shield has some overlap with these, but quite a few are missing in the Galar region. That’s despite the fact, fundamentally, they’re already made. So why not add them to bolster the ranks?”
If Game Freak developed a way of importing all existing models from Pokémon Let’s Go, as well as Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, and upscale them for Sword and Shield, that would quell any discussion of removing Pokémon and the National Dex. Of course, this would take more time to accomplish. With the titles available to the public, modders are even taking the situation into their own hands, hacking in Pokémon that were removed from the Pokédex and technically do not exist in Sword and Shield.
If more time in the oven is what a new Pokémon game needs, then why did they not delay them to next year? That would give developers plenty of time to address the issues that some of Pokémon fans were concerned about. The answer is simple: capitalism. Game Freak, like any other video game company, probably had strict deadlines to meet. That meant cutting corners with the amount of Pokémon and the game’s content, especially since Game Freak most likely had other projects going on during the development of Sword and Shield, such as its new project, Little Town Hero, as well as last year’s Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee. Additionally, Pokémon extends past the games and has a complimentary anime series and card game, so simply just pushing back the release date of the games is not that easy to do.
Developer crunch has been a huge topic within the video game industry, particularly in the last year or so. Countless stories have come out about employees at places, such as Rockstar Games, Epic Games, and BioWare, having to work grueling hours without overtime pay in horrifying conditions. The stories about developer crunch caused ripples within the industry, and many studios are now addressing the issue, including developer Bungie announcing that it would delay a patch for Destiny 2 in order to avoid overworking its employees. Games such as The Last of Us Part II were delayed for the same reason. Even Nintendo stated that the much-anticipated Animal Crossing: New Horizons was delayed until 2020 so that crunch would not occur. The announcement came after Nintendo assured its investors that the game would still come out in 2019.
The initial announcement of a delay will disappoint fans. However, fans understand and will eventually come around, especially if it means having a more complete product in the end. Investors, on the other hand, most likely are not too happy about a delay since it means less time for a product to sell before the end of the fiscal year, translating to less money in their pockets. For example, Ubisoft’s announced that it would delay its upcoming titles, including Watch Dogs Legion, until the next fiscal year in order to polish them up for release. This decision was made to avoid another critical and commercial disappointment like Ghost Recon: Breakpoint. As a result of Ubisoft’s decision to delay the release of its products, Ubisoft’s stock tanked, as investors realized that they would not get nearly as big of a return during this fiscal year.
A system that values putting money into shareholders’ pockets by rushing to release an unfinished or unpolished product stifles the creativity of many forms of entertainment. By delaying the next Animal Crossing, Nintendo possibly could not afford to push back the release date of Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield. Nintendo’s 2019 has been remarkable in terms of exclusive games, with titles such as Fire Emblem Three Houses, Super Mario Maker 2, Luigi’s Mansion 3, Astral Chain, Daemon X Machina, and Link’s Awakening gracing the Switch. Undoubtedly, the new Animal Crossing game on Switch will sell well, especially after the popularity of its New Leaf iteration on 3DS.
However, all of these aforementioned games pale in comparison to the sheer market power that the Pokémon franchise possesses. Delaying Sword and Shield would have severely impacted on Nintendo’s stock in a negative way. Pokémon is a franchise that will sell no matter what. Despite the negativity surrounding the pre-release leaks, I was set on experiencing the game myself because, well, it is Pokémon. I knew that even if I was disappointed, it was still going to be a fun, albeit safe, entry into this classic franchise.
In regard to the National Dex controversy and the removal of many Pokémon, I want to address Pokémon Home, Game Freak’s currently unreleased cloud-based Pokémon storage application. Home similar to Pokémon Bank, which can store any Pokémon from the 3DS games, however, Home can only store Pokémon from Switch’s Let’s Go titles. It has been confirmed that Pokémon from Pokémon Bank can be transferred to Pokémon Home, but it appears to be a one-way transfer. Obviously, this is the new method of transferring Pokémon from 3DS to Switch, despite being two separate platforms. However, only Pokémon that are in the regional Galar Dex can be transferred into Sword and Shield.
The caveat is that Pokémon Home is a subscription service that costs USD$5 per month. Game Freak producer Junichi Masuda stated, “We encourage people to use Pokémon Home to collect their Pokémon from old games. From there they might be able to take them to other games in the future. So take good care of your old Pokémon, because perhaps you can travel with them again in the future.” Masuda also confirmed that more Pokémon games in the future will have a reduced Pokédex.
Masuda’s statement implies that players will have to subscribe to Pokémon Home indefinitely and hope that their favorite Pokémon will be part of the next game’s regional Pokédex, allowing them to import them over. While I do not think Nintendo or Game Freak are intentionally deceiving anyone, this might not sit well with fans.
Perhaps the negativity stems from Nintendo’s inability to create cohesive online infrastructures. Nintendo Switch Online is a paid service that is barebones compared to Xbox Live or PlayStation Network; it is one-third of the price of its competitors but leaves much to be desired besides access to some NES and SNES games. It even gates cloud saves, a basic feature, behind the paywall. To make matters worse, not every game is compatible with cloud saves on Nintendo Switch Online.
Additionally, Nintendo still uses Friend Codes, rather than just having the ability to look up the name of your friend online. The lack of an achievement system can also be frustrating for some, as Xbox introduced the feature over a decade ago. Knowing how Nintendo handles online services, Masuda’s statements do not instill much confidence in me to pay an extra USD$5 per month just for Pokémon.
Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield are the first mainline games in the franchise to arrive on a home console. Naturally, fans had very high expectations for Generation 8, including better graphics, more Pokémon, and more gameplay depth. We all know what the Switch is capable of; we have seen the beautiful cel-shaded graphics and lighting of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, as well as the incredibly lush and detailed environments with monsters roaming around in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Future mainline entries in the Pokémon series would greatly benefit from pushing the graphical and artistic limits on the Switch.
Since 2012, a new Pokémon game has released every year except for 2015. Between Breath of the Wild and the previous The Legend of Zelda title was four years. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 released two years after Xenoblade Chronicles X and from that five years before the first Xenoblade Chronicles. Imagine how much Game Freak could accomplish if the studio had a similar development time to work on the next mainline Pokémon game? The annualization of the Pokémon franchise is not feasible while also seeking to meet fan expectations.
Sword and Shield do not even feature voice acting. A number of cutscenes involving grand speeches or concerts. These cutscenes zoom in on important characters’ faces and players can see their mouths move, but no voices accompany the dialogue text. It feels so odd and archaic. After more than 20 years, you would think a series as popular and successful as Pokémon would incorporate modern elements like voice acting. As a result, Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield feels rushed and is not the revolution that many longtime fans were hoping for with the series’s debut on a home console.
One quote from Masuda really stuck out to me: When discussing the reason for cutting so many existing Pokémon, Game Freak did so “while also taking into account the battle balance of having so many different Pokémon available, all within a limited development time so we don’t make fans wait too long for every new entry in the series.” Therein lies the key phrases: “limited development time” and “make fans wait too long”. I do not mind waiting a few years until the next set of mainline Pokémon games are released. Having more time between each entry makes the next one even more special.
So, to Masuda and the rest of Game Freak: Be like a Pokémon and use ‘Rest’. Let the franchise sleep for several years, and when the next mainline entries release, they will feel refreshed. Take as much development time as you need to make Generation 9 the best it can be. We can wait.