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Pokémon: Let’s Go! finally makes the world of Pokémon come to life

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The roaming world of Pokémon: Let’s Go realizes a dream 20 years in the making

A still from Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! Game Freak/The Pokémon Company/Nintendo

The world of Pokémon has always been one that exists in the imagination more than the screen. Through Red and Blue and Yellow to FireRed and LeafGreen, the Kanto region has been limited by technology. Aside from a few chosen sprites, Pokémon were found in bushes and loaded in on a separate screen. But Let’s Go, Eevee! and Let’s Go, Pikachu! allow the wild world of Pokémon to roam free, and turned one of my most familiar games into a newly engaging experience.

In Pokémon: Let’s Go!, every wild encounter can be previewed. If you see a Pokémon in the overworld that you want, you can grab it. Or, you can simply avoid your hundredth Geodude by walking around it. Just like you can select the Pokémon you go after in Pokémon Go, so too do you see them in Let’s Go! — although realized in a Pokémon world, rather than juxtaposed against a barely approximated backdrop of modern society. The tall grass that used to summon a random pocket monster for you to catch, or the blank floor of a cave that drew every known Zubat in Mt. Moon to your location, now acts as simple set dressing for the otherwise living world.

Walking just to the north of Pallet Town, you’ll come across the usual suspects of Rattata and Pidgey. But instead of bumping into one every few feet, you can navigate around them as they roam the grassy road. They belong there, just like you do.

Pikachu with a present in in Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! Game Freak/The Pokémon Company/Nintendo

The world of Pokémon as depicted in the show and our imaginations has always been one of cohabitation. Humans and Pokémon have a symbiotic relationship when working together, and live in harmony when separated.

For most places, this simply creates a world that show watchers are already familiar with. As you run through Viridian Forest, Spearow are flying through the bushes as Metapod stay relatively still on the forest floor. The other trainers around are in their usual robotic stances, ready to battle, but the Pokémon around them keep the world interesting.

But this effect is even more potent when adventuring through Pokémon habitats — spaces where humans rarely go. Caves like Mt. Moon or Diglett’s Cave have a distinct feel to them. It’s not as threatening as trespassing, but it’s clear that this is the domain of Pokemon, and that you’re a guest in their arena. These caves have gone from some of the most frustrating areas in the old games — with Super Repels flying left and right just to keep you on task — to Let’s Go!’s most immersive environments.

In the towns — where games have had sprites of Pokémon standing around forever — the series really benefits from the high-definition screen of the Switch. Babysitting a lady’s Slowpoke so that she can go to the museum looks and sounds like it’s happening to your character. The Pokémon animate and come alive, much more than a simple sprite on a Game Boy Color screen ever did.

Squirtle in Pokémon Let’s Go Game Freak/The Pokémon Company/Nintendo

Early in the game, Officer Jenny has a Poké Ball stolen from her by what will eventually become your Squirtle. Watching the little turtle — who we all know to be the greatest starter Pokémon and a confirmed troublemaker — run up and steal from Jenny doesn’t seem completely out of the ordinary. When you find her in Vermilion City looking over this delinquent, you can tell it’s not the first time this has happened.

All of these stories, this world-building — it’s all in my head. As corny as it sounds, imagination has always been the principal part of Pokémon. Looking at that sprite in Pokémon Red and telling yourself that the weird orange triangle is the same Charmander from the anime took some mental work. But we all did it, and we all formed an attachment to these creatures because of that imagination. Let’s Go! not only facilitates that imagination, but it’s alsot the perfect entry point for a whole new generation of Pokémon fan.

The writing in the Pokémon games have always suggested that this world is persistent. When you turned off your Game Boy for the night, you could envision a reality where the world kept going. The daycare people kept accepting new Pokémon to care for while making sure your worthless Rattata would keep growing into a slightly less useless Raticate. But the game’s visuals have always failed to match this liveliness.

Pokémon: Let’s Go! rectifies that 20-year-old problem through not only stunning visuals, but also a freshened-up sense of life. It builds the universe that we’ve always imagined in our minds, and helps make running through familiar zones feel new again.

This isn’t Pokémon Red with rose-tinted glasses, or looking just like you imagined when you were a kid. It’s the world of Pokémon realized the way it was always supposed to be.