It’s been 16 years since I got my first video game: Pokémon Red, a present from my parents when I was six years old. Nearly two decades later, I’m still as wildly excited about the new set of Pokémon games every time they arrive. Sun and Moon mark the seventh generation pair, and there’s a ton of reasons for me to get excited, as I outlined in my largely positive review.
But just as I’m still in love with Pokémon to this day, there are others who are falling for the series now. It’s an experience I’m finding more common, with some thanks to Pokémon Go, but it’s also one I have trouble relating to. To help me out, I talked to a recent and serious Pokémon convert, entertainment editor Susana Polo, about her much later awakening to the series, and what it’s like to come into something that holds so much nostalgia for me and other fans right now.
What draws people into — or back to — Pokémon after years away?
Allegra: Susana, you got pretty jazzed in the lead-up to Sun and Moon, despite not having a console newer than a Wii and no handheld to play the games on. I’m curious about what drew you to Pokémon, a series that pretty much appeals to children or young adults who grew up playing it. What turned you on specifically about these games?
Susana: OK, first of all, I think I need to point out that 16 years ago I was 14. The true irony here is that I am actually of the age to have cottoned on to the first American wave of Pokémon madness — of the age to have first-hand memories of the era in which there were only 150 Pokémon — whereas Allegra is a tiny adorable baby who’s probably never even played, like, SkiFree. And yet, I did not get swept up in that original ‘90s wave, for a few possible reasons I can elaborate on later, maybe.
I’ve always had an approximate knowledge of Pokémon, whether it was watching the anime because it was on the same Saturday morning block as Batman: The Animated Series, playing the Super Smash Bros. games or just generally being a culturally aware nerd. I’ve always been into games to a certain extent, but my video game consumption has definitely reached a new peak since joining Polygon’s staff. (I’m Polygon’s entertainment editor, so my priorities for consuming media are a little different than most of the folks here.) And with Pokémon Sun and Moon, there was really no escaping the hype, the slow drip of reveals, or the contagious enthusiasm among my coworkers.
Still — I’ve never really owned a handheld gaming system before, and I was hesitant to drop $200 on a machine just to play a series that I’ve admired but had very limited direct contact with. A few years ago I came into possession of an old Nintendo DS and decided to buy Diamond to play on it, and I wound up losing enthusiasm for the thing about halfway through and never finishing.
So, I turned to you, Allegra Frank, Polygon’s Pokémon correspondent, for help. I believe the first thing you told me was that Diamond and Pearl were the worst games in the series, to which I responded “But, like, aren’t all Pokémon games basically the same?” — an assumption you were strongly opposed to.
Your encouragement to try out Sun or Moon — along with the realization that a 2DS has few downsides to me, as a small-handed 3D-hater, and $120 of upside in price difference — eventually sold me.
Allegra: Shucks, I’ve never thought of myself as especially convincing or influential, so I’m flattered! It sounds like hype was a major driving factor for you. What have you noticed about the hype around Sun and Moon in particular that made them way more interesting to you than the Pokémon games that came after Diamond and Pearl? (Which, yeah, they’re not great.)
Susana: The Alolan Pokédex is the first thing that comes to mind. An arrow owl. A pop star seal. A horse made of mud. A haunted sandcastle. Approximately two hundred different Fancy Birds. Mimikyu. And that’s without the Alolan variations on classic Pokémon. For some reason Sun and Moon is the first generation that’s given me the overall reaction of “OMG CUTE,” instead of, “Huh. Cute.”
But there’s also Alola itself — maybe it’s just because I’ve been so much more tuned in during the lead-up to Sun and Moon, but the setting actually feels like a place I want to explore and discover rather than a generic re-skin of Kanto (full disclosure: I had to look that up to make sure I had the name right). The idea of competing in an up-and-coming Pokémon League and trying to prove yourself to the Pokémon establishment seems really appealing.
Allegra: A lot of what you’re identifying is what appeals to me about these games as someone who’s spent a lot of time with the series as a whole. They’re fresher in superficial terms, like with the setting and the new character designs, but there are also some deeper changes that might not even strike you as novel, since you’re not as familiar with the formula.
It’s interesting that a lot of the same things draw us to these games. That’s probably the intention here — this game is meant for both old-school and new fans. But as someone who’s closer to the latter camp, is there anything that confuses or concerns you still about jumping in way after everyone else has?
Susana: Hm. Well, for one thing, I really appreciate that the game tells you when moves are effective or not effective now (for Pokémon you’ve already encountered) — having to constantly look up the type chart while playing Diamond was awkward. It’s possible that I would be able to remember more of that offhand if I’d been entrenched in the series at an earlier age.
I’ve seen enough related stuff (and watched enough of Griffin’s Nuzlocke run) to understand the basics of playing a Pokémon game. The stuff I worry about is everything about Pokémon battling that runs deeper than type weaknesses: Pokémon have ... personality traits that affect their battling? Breeding is a thing you can do, I guess? In Diamond, every time a member of my team learned a new move, I felt like I was practically picking whether or not to learn it at random.
Drilling down into any menu in Pokémon, I often found myself in total information overload, but I also never used status-affecting attacks because the game never gave me hard numbers on how they helped. The constant use of acronyms made me feel like I should have been playing from the age of six to understand it all — PP versus AP versus HM versus TM.
I guess my biggest problem with Pokémon is that I don’t feel like I have a grasp on what is relevant to enjoying the game, and what is something I only need to pay attention to if I’m doing hardcore competitive multiplayer.
Does anyone do hardcore competitive Pokémon multiplayer? I don’t know.
Allegra: There’s definitely a substantial hardcore scene. Something I like about Pokémon, though, is that a lot of what you’re speaking to here is optional. EV training and crafting perfect movesets are great if you want to dip into the competitive scene, but I really don’t think you, personally, do. Pokémon is pretty accommodating of both kinds of player, which strikes me as a really rare and special thing. That’s part of its accessible charm, at least to me.
As I’ve gotten older with it, I’ve learned more about the granularities that I had no understanding of when I first played. I love the Type Effectiveness Indicator for its ease of use, but I also pretty much have the type match-up chart down pat at this point. I have an intuitive sense of what makes a good team beyond just “the one that has the cutest Pokémon” — but, heck, that’s a perfectly valid way to play these games too.
The things that are relevant to any playthrough are the obvious things, like catching Pokémon and battling them. That’s really all that’s required of you, and I have a feeling you’ll nail that down super quick.
I know you’ve barely dipped into your copy of Moon yet, but do you think you’ll start checking out other Pokémon games now too? Or is your interest in generation seven a one-off thing?
Susana: Hm. I don’t know. The 2Ds I bought this morning is my first contemporary handheld system, and I think my first priority with it is going to be to experience some franchises that I’ve long been curious about, like Professor Layton or Ace Attorney. After that ... OK, after that Yoshi’s Woolly World will probably be out for the 3DS and I gotta get my hands on that, but ...
Who knows, maybe I’ll pick up X or Y. I hear there’s something called a Pokémon Bank that I might be able to use to bring some of my ‘mons from one game to another?
Allegra: Mmm, you can bring your Pokémon from X and Y to that copy of Moon you’ve got. But the games are all about going forward, not backward, so your baby Rowlet doesn’t get to check out the Kalos region of X/Y. (Those are solid games that you should definitely play, by the way.)
Susana: Hmmmmmm. I’ll take it under advisement.