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Pokémon didn’t reinvent itself in 2022, and maybe it shouldn’t have to

Reflecting on Pokémon’s open-world year

A cute, whimsical illustration of a Pokemon trainer going along a winding path. Along the way Snorlax sleeps, Lechonk is tipped on its side, and Fuecoco is on the bottom. Image: Sonny Ross

On the surface, 2022 was a monumental year for Pokémon. The most recent entries, Pokémon Legends: Arceus and Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, embraced an open-world design for the first time in franchise’s history. In these games, trainers can more or less venture throughout the world as they please. Gone are the days of being funneled through linear routes one after the other — the trainers and their Pokémon were truly let loose into Game Freak’s worlds.

Despite this leap in game design, upon reflecting on this year in Pokémon, what struck me was how much the series felt largely the same. For a longtime fan, 2022 was the year Game Freak cemented its dedication to a 25-year-old way of playing the games. This stubborn adherence to form both tested my enjoyment of the series and illuminated the true reasons I continue to play it. These games taught me that even large updates to the game’s design don’t change the fundamental formula — and so I needed to appreciate it for what it is. Luckily, there is still much to love.

My earliest memories of playing are memories of getting stuck. The first Pokémon game I ever played was Pokémon Silver. At the time, I didn’t know how to read, so I would spend ages running around aimlessly. I vividly remember two trainers battling and blocking a path going north early on in the adventure. To get them to move, I just needed to talk to my mom, but I didn’t know that. Instead, I bumbled along in my limited space and talked to everyone until eventually the path opened up.

An image of Pokémon Silver. It shows a top down view of a town with a pixelated art style. Image: Game Freak/The Pokémon Company, Nintendo

From there on out, my journeys continued to be peppered with roadblocks like a weird tree in a forest or a Gym Leader whose Miltank could heal itself. For each challenge or obstacle, I threw myself into resolving that singular issue and proceeded until I overcame it and ran into another one. I love Pokémon, but as I played it growing up, Pokémon was never a fully enjoyable game. Even from those early days, the games felt less thrilling and more like a constant honing of my focus.

New trainers starting with games like Pokémon Scarlet and Violet will never have to deal with these sorts of roadblocks, at least in the way I had to. The idea of a single Sudowoodo entirely blocking story progression seems laughable. In Scarlet and Violet, linear routes have been replaced with vast, sprawling plains, deserts, and rolling hills. Koraidon, a red dragon with giant flared feathers, allows me to pilot him as he gallops along. At the beginning of the game, we’re told to head to school, but there’s no reason you can’t take a little tour around the region.

In 2022, Pokémon has improved a great deal. The games have introduced key quality-of-life changes, like shared experienced points for your entire team (a controversial feature at first) and abandoning Hidden Moves — so you don’t need to dedicate an entire Pokémon on your team and its move slots just to traversal. And now with the open world you can even easily avoid unwanted wild Pokémon, which could add a ton of time to activities like walking through a cave. Scarlet and Violet have one of the best stories in any Pokémon game I’ve played, and they even allow you to choose between three different challenges. So if that one boss is giving you trouble, you could try beating something else. I would say, with confidence, that there has never been a better time to get into Pokémon — that is, if you can ignore glitches.

An image of a Pokémon trainer gliding on a Koraidon in Pokémon Scarlet. Image: Game Freak/The Pokémon Company, Nintendo

And yet, despite these key changes, I can’t help but bump into the same old guardrails that guided me when I was 5. Sure, a single tree won’t block a path and all game progression, but you still need to upgrade your mount to be able to do things like swim, glide, jump extra high, or scale the sides of mountains. You might venture too far north and get obliterated by a smiling Chansey promenading along a flower patch. It’s possible to start the game only to realize that you can’t actually go and fight the Ice-type gym leader that you became obsessed with, because the levels of each gym don’t scale and it’s way too difficult to challenge early on.

The simple truth is that making Pokémon open-world didn’t really change Pokémon all that much. Game Freak remains committed to a 25-year-old gameplay system that’s the same as what ran on a Game Boy at its core. Sure, we can picnic with Pokémon now and hang out with our friends, but a lot of playing Pokémon still boils down to grinding and catching Pokémon and checking boxes on lists for caught Pokémon and calculating how effective a move is.

Because of the formulaic nature of the mainline games, this was the first year where I fully questioned if I still actually enjoyed Pokémon, or if I played them because of professional and social obligations. I owe a lot of my career as a journalist and so much of my family life to Pokémon; it’s been the main game my family has played since I was 5. This year I began exploring other options. I relished in the sweeping lands of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 and really grappled with the idea that I just didn’t love Pokémon anymore.

I can’t help but think of Pokémon having a Final Fantasy 7 Remake moment. The game reimagined the classic 1997 turn-based RPG, and helped shed new light on a decades-old story by focusing on a single section of the original. It considered its moral and ethical questions, modernized its attitude toward gender, and even did away with the turn-based combat system. But Final Fantasy is also aimed at a more adult audiences, for whom radical reinvention may be more palatable. I am fully uninterested in saying that we need “adult Pokémon” because I’d rather just grapple with what the series actually is, rather than speculate on what I wish it could be. And that is why, maybe like Ash, I considered whether it was time for me to retire and move on to something else.

A screenshot of a landscape in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. There are steep hills, trees, a river, and a path that seems to lead towards a castle town in the distance. Image: Game Freak/The Pokémon Company, Nintendo via Polygon

Game Freak’s hesitation to iterate on the mainline series in a more meaningful way could come down to any number of reasons. Perhaps it’s because of constrained development timelines — the company released two different console Pokémon games in one year. Perhaps it’s because no matter how buggy a game is, and how much criticism there is, the series continues to sell well. Scarlet and Violet, for example, sold 10 million copies globally in just 72 hours. Or maybe the well-trodden fan argument is right, and some of us need to accept that the series is aimed at kids and not just adults.

And while making the mainline series into open-world games didn’t revolutionize the gameplay, Game Freak delivered a lifeline to players like me this year in the form of the spinoff Pokémon Legends: Arceus. Arceus also featured a more open-world format (you technically unlock the world an area at a time). But it also changed up the overall approach to monster catching in perhaps the most meaningful way in the history of the franchise. Rather than rehash the details, I’ll quote the end-of-year blurb I wrote about Legends: Arceus and why it was one of our top games:

At the beginning of any Pokémon game, or even in the movies, we always get to learn about the world of Pokémon. We’re told that these powerful creatures live alongside humans as partners, and compete against each other in battles that further hone the relationships between Pokémon and trainers. Legends: Arceus completely departs from this concept by taking place in an in-universe historical period where Pokémon have not yet integrated with the general population, and where the average person is scared of Pokémon. We, the player, have time traveled from the future, and it’s up to us to be one of the first bridges between the apprehensive townspeople and the monsters that lurk beyond their fences.

Legends: Arceus didn’t stop at presenting a philosophically interesting world that unsettled our previous ideas of how we thought about Pokémon. It was also more enjoyable to play. It blended light stealth mechanics with the feel of a third-person shooter, where trainers tossed Poké Balls at unsuspecting Pokémon in order to catch them. The game felt like Game Freak’s first real attempt at modernizing its monster catching mechanics. The mechanics behind seeing, catching, and battling Pokémon blended together, and smoothed out the edges between battle gameplay and everything else.

The trainer became the heart of combat in a completely new way, as we fought Pokémon by chucking random items at them. Imagine the glee when I realized that I, the trainer, would be going in against a raging bear in battle as I jumped around and dodged in what could be described as extremely light Soulslike combat. This way of playing felt like a step forward for an older audience who had grown up with Pokémon but was ready to try something new.

But it’s not really the systems of Pokémon that feel like the heart of the series, to me at least. The Pokémon themselves are the reason I started playing and why I still find joy in it.

a pokemon trainer in pokemon legends: arceus crouching down between all of their pokemon as they have a conversation Image: Game Freak/The Pokémon Company, Nintendo via Polygon

Criticisms aside, Scarlet and Violet have not forgotten that the monsters still drive the games. Whether it’s kneeling down to look at your partner eye to eye or admiring the bond we form with our starter Pokémon in Scarlet and Violet, each of these games maintains joy and charm through the creatures themselves.

I want to laugh and laugh again about ridiculous details of the new generation. I love that Dunsparce finally got an evolution and it’s just called Dudunsparce! I am extremely invested in an ongoing beef between Tinkaton and Corviknight. I like setting up a picnic only to see that my partners have two modes: absolutely zooming or just dead asleep. I think it’s funny that they also can’t seem to keep still and take a dang selfie with me.

I still have issues with the entire premise of “collecting” creatures when we’re supposed to develop bonds with them, but to me, details surrounding the Pokémon themselves prop this entire franchise up, even as I’ve chafed against years of slog and slow-moving turn-based battles. In 2022, everything and yet nothing changed in Pokémon. I still adore these creatures, and that is what keeps me coming back — even if the franchise can feel stuck in the past, despite its best efforts.

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