Alas, all good things must come to an end. The Year of Pokemon concludes here at TechRaptor, celebrating 25 years of the monster-collecting franchise with a look back at the games one generation at a time. Check out our retrospective from last week on Generation VII, and make sure you're all caught up with the rest of the celebration! One final time, let’s dive into the details of Generation VIII, development of the games, the new batch of Pokemon, and the future.
It's safe to say that by 2019, Pokemon Go mania had faded. While still a big deal among mobile games, it was not the millions-player game it once was. The Pokemon franchise was slipping back out of the public eye once again, until the marketing began for the first-ever live action film in the series, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu. While Detective Pikachu predictably hit middling reviews among critics, it was a huge hit among fans. The theatrical run beginning in May pulled in $433 million worldwide, a record for a video-game movie (Sonic the Hedgehog would steal this title less than a year later). While the film certainly helped the franchise, it wasn't the reason for the explosive sales that Sword and Shield would experience. If Pokemon Sun and Moon found success riding the wave of Pokemon Go, then Sword and Shield found success riding the wave of the Nintendo Switch.
Two years into the Switch's life span, Nintendo was riding high with hit after hit coming to their console and selling better than any previous game in its series. Coming off an extremely successful holiday run driven by Pokemon spin-offs Let's Go! Pikachu and Eevee, Switch fever was at a new high—and Pokemon was the only medicine fans wanted. With over 32 million Switches out in the wild by January 2019, people were getting anxious for the arrival of Nintendo's tentpole franchise on a home console for the first time ever. The announcement of Sword and Shield went extremely well, putting hype to new levels as millions around the world prepared to jump back into the franchise. And then came the truly Internet-breaking announcement that about half of all Pokemon wouldn't be available in Sword and Shield. But I'm not here to talk about Dexit, one of the Internet's most infamous manufactured controversies of the last few years.
A Brand New World
First and foremost, 81 new Pokemon were added to Sword and Shield, bringing the grand total to nearly 900. However, with the absence of the National Dex, only 400 of those Pokemon would appear in game. They couldn't be transferred or traded in, either. That Venusaur you were carrying forward since LeafGreen would now be trapped in the last generation forever. For many, this was fine; most players never used the functionality of the Pokebank anyway. For others, it was devastating and would shape the conversation around Sword and Shield for the next two years.
Sword and Shield brought us to the Galar region, based on the United Kingdom; its snowy peaks and rolling highlands were a far cry from the previous Hawaii-based region Alola. While I'm all for variety, I couldn't help but miss the vibrant colors of Alola and silently mourn them as I tread through the rocky brown expanses. Still, the transition even further into 3D continued as the camera took a largely behind-the-back position to make it feel a bit more like an adventure game. Beyond the beautiful little towns that dotted the way, namely the incomparable Ballonlea, there lay the crown jewel of Galar: The Wild Area.
The Wild Area was trying to be many things at once for many people. This large region of the map was a taste of the open-world Pokemon game that people have been clamoring for. With full control of the camera and hundreds of different kinds of Pokemon wandering the overworld, it hit a few of the things it was trying to do correctly. It certainly felt large, and many of the Pokemon really felt alive. There was some incredible attention to detail in relation to established Pokemon lore as well: Zigzagoon runs in zig-zags while Linoone runs in a straight line; Wingull float on the breeze instead of flapping their wings; an adult Mantine guides its baby Mantyke across the water for a flying lesson.
But then the tragedy of it all unfolds. This game is not finished. These environments are not done. The grass is a 3DS texture scaled up for 1080p and looks like a stretch of bad crayon coloring. Anit-aliasing on all surfaces is embarrassing. The water was more believable in Grand Theft Auto V eight years previous on the PS3. Most of the Pokemon's movements are janky, sometimes going as far as sudden 90-degree spins to the left or right when changing direction. The draw distance is about 10 feet, so if you try to admire the vast expanse of the open world, you'll be greeted with empty space. There is nothing to find in the Wild Area, no hidden places or treasures. Outside of your 10-foot radius lies only disappointment. This photo of the infamous tree is not out-of-context; the entire Wild Area looks exactly like this.
In the overworld, Pokemon are scaled appropriately to their recorded sizes. Step into a battle, however, and suddenly Wailord is shorter than its trainer. Pokemon Colosseum, a game from 2002, had properly scaled Pokemon in battles. The graphical capabilities of the Switch are not the issue. Alongside Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8, Dragon Quest 11, Mario Odyssey, and Luigi’s Mansion 3… how could this game even be on the same system as those technical masterpieces? I can think of no explanation besides that the Galar Region’s map was made for 3DS and just blown up to 1080p as an afterthought.
The Wild Area is further hurt by the online components. Nintendo has never been the best with online features in their games, especially in Pokemon, but the Y-Comm created an entirely new layer of confusion. Pressing Y would open your internet menu, in which you could see who was online and catching Pokemon, sometimes. It usually did not work. You could ask to trade or battle with friends or strangers, but this also mostly did not work. I had many more failed connections than successful ones, but the nightmare of navigating with the Y-Comm can't be overstated.
The Wild Area was also online; you could see hundreds of other trainers who were geographically close to you walking around. However, upon speaking to them, they respond with a generic greeting and simply hand you a curry ingredient for cooking later. You couldn't even team up with them for a raid or trade Pokemon this way, you had to go through the sometimes-functional Y-Comm. Most of the time I was connected to the internet in the Wild Area I'd suffer massive frame drops, both docked and handheld, sometimes down to single digits. But it was constant. I checked back in while playing the DLC in January 2021 and this issue has yet to be fixed. I elected to play offline. If you're still waiting on that Pokemon MMO, keep waiting. This ain't it.
Some Major Improvements
On the other hand, Raid Battles online were extremely fun. Four players would team up using the Y-Comm whenever it worked and take on a large, Dynamax Pokemon that was stronger than others of its kind. These Pokemon also sometimes had hidden abilities in 5-star raids, or alternate Gigantamax forms. Four people (or NPCs) would work together to take down the boss, with one of the participants getting to Dynamax their own Pokemon. Dynamax was the latest gimmick in the series, following Mega-Evolutions and Z-moves before it, but it wasn't intrusive in the least. In fact, Pokemon could only Dynamax when fighting in a raid or taking on a gym leader; it happens perhaps a dozen times at most throughout the single-player part of the game. I was lucky enough to do around 40 raid battles with a four person group of IRL friends over voice comms, and it was some of the most fun multiplayer I experienced in 2019. Competitive battling online was also improved, with EVs, IVs, leveling up, natures, and move learning streamlined to make optimizing Pokemon accessible even to casual players.
Gym Battles are perhaps the biggest improvement since the last generation. Gym battles are huge spectator events; thousands of NPCs sit in the stands to chant and cheer as you don the jersey a professional footballer and go head-to-head live on national TV. Many hundreds of young trainers are taking the Pokemon League challenge, so there's always someone for gym leaders to be battling. The atmosphere of the excellent gym battle music and the cheering crowds is electric, and everything from the banter of the gym leaders to sound cues when they reach their last Pokemon works the ambiance of the whole affair perfectly. For just a few minutes, you can feel just as Ash must have when stepping into the huge arena at the start of the Pokemon anime's theme song.
After a year of jamming it out, I feel confident saying that this game has the best music in series history. All of the tracks, from the sleepy piano of the Slumbering Weald, to Toby Fox’s (Undertale) battle theme, to the rave party gym leader theme, are good as hell. It might be too good; the Wild Area Theme evokes a sense of exploration and adventure that The Wild Area doesn’t manage to fulfill. There’s a wide variety of styles too, ranging all the way from ethereal folk songs to industrial metal. The punk aspects feel like a tribute to the U.K.’s stance as the birthplace of the genre, and it’s the small things that help to remind me a lot of people working on this game did care.
Generation VIII brought my favorite new crop of Pokemon since Generation III. I wholeheartedly believe this is because Ken Sugimori, art director at Game Freak since the original Red and Green, finally stepped down. James Turner, a young British man who had worked on art for Game Freak since Gen V, took on the role as lead art director, and the new blood in the studio shines through in innovative designs. Stonehenge comes alive in Stonjourner, a walking monument; Falinks, a marching crew of five small but determined warriors; Galarian Rapidash, the most graceful of the Galar variants strode majestically through the moonlight; Cursola, the dead Corsala killed by rising ocean temperatures due to climate change; or consider Centiskorch, the Chinese-inspired fire centipede made of papercraft. While the three starters were fine, their final evolutions were less so. Nevertheless, Turner delivered on bringing some new life to the monster-catching franchise.
With a lot of badly written stories of Pokemon games on the table, I can confidently say that Sword and Shield by far the dumbest. The new characters that were introduced were so bland I had to look up their names to write this. Right at the beginning you're introduced to your new rival, Hop. Imagine Hau from Sun and Moon but even more enthusiastic and twice as annoying. His older brother, Leon, is just the worst. He's a cocky footballer-type who acts humble for the fans but just comes off as smug. He writes you a letter of recommendation so you can enter the Pokemon League Challenge, but his positive impact on the game stops there. And a Charizard as his main Pokemon? Boring.
You'll meet Sonia, a redhead lab assistant to the professor of this region, Professor Ivy. I could not recall character traits about either, and upon refreshing my memory it looks like they indeed have none. The gym leaders were a bit more memorable, with hits such as the, uh, fan-favorite Nessa of the Water Gym and the angry, elderly Opal of the Fairy Gym. The gym leaders play a bit more of a role in the whole story, which I enjoyed, and show up again to test your mettle during the final battle to become League Champion. There's also Marnie, your cute goth friend who sets out on her Pokemon journey alongside you and Hop. Oh, and then there's Bede, who is a second (more challenging) rival that doesn't play by anyone's rules, not even his own.
Team Yell has set a new low for evil teams, and for Pokemon in general. The follow-up for the brilliant Team Skull, is … a teenage girl’s fan club. They only reason they battle you is to try and deter you from the Pokemon League challenge so Marnie has a better shot at winning. They corner you, fight you, lose, get sad, and disappear. All without Marnie being aware of it. This is a 14-year old girl with a fan base of dozens of adult men and women, with nothing better to do than to humiliate themselves by losing Pokemon battles to a 14-year old kid over and over again. It is offensively dumb. They are weird, creepy, and annoying; for lack of a better word, the villains are an unending army of simps dedicated to a teenage girl who doesn't acknowledge them or care.
The main story unfolds as the player learns about ancient events and kings and legendary Pokemon that fought for one thing or another, and ends with our heroes improbably stumbling upon clues that give them specific insight into what it all means. Then, the obvious secret villain reveals he is the villain and announces his plans for creating unlimited renewable energy, but it's evil. You stop him and become the league champion, then two guys with weird haircuts help you catch either Zacian or Zamazenta.
For additional content in Generation VIII, Game Freak for the first time chose to create DLC instead of another entire game. I personally preferred this method of distribution, although the $30 entry fee was much too high for the included content. I just recently finished the Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra DLCs, which together took a bit over 10 hours to beat. While the Isle of Armor was largely more of the same, I thoroughly enjoyed The Crown Tundra, considerably more than the base game. The simple addition of letting your partner Pokemon walk around the overworld with you does wonders for this franchise. It seems all too likely that Diamond and Pearl remakes are in development for a 2021 release in the Sword and Shield engine and will round out the eighth generation.
I don't know what the future holds for Pokemon at the moment; I suspect it is likely that after the Diamond and Pearl remakes, we'll see Generation IX roll around for Holiday 2022. Game Freak has stated that the National Dex will not return, and I'm fine with that. After over 50 hours with Pokemon Shield, I can confidently say that the National Dex would not have made this game any better or worse. It's clear to me that Pokemon Sword and Shield were rushed out to make the holiday deadline and needed at least six more months in the oven; I dearly hope Game Freak is able to plan better for the next iteration. I'd love to see another studio take a crack at a mainline game, but until then I hope that The Pokemon Company learns to love this franchise half as much as we do.