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Pikachu in Pokémon: Let’s Go! Game Freak/The Pokémon Company

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Pokémon: Let’s Go! is a charming, imperfect transition to the big screen

The first console Pokémon RPGs reimagine the series in ways familiar and frustrating

Pokémon has evolved time and again throughout the years, but one thing has remained core to the series: The quintessential Pocket Monster adventure is a portable one. As its universe has grown seven times over to encompass more distance, more regions and more Pokémon, however, the franchise has started to feel cramped on these tinier systems. A foray onto consoles has felt more necessary with every expansion.

Now, at 22 years old, Pokémon has finally found a console home with Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee!. Drawing on the very first Game Boy games and Pokémon Go, the mobile phenomenon, Pokémon: Let’s Go! manages to be something that’s nostalgic and new at the same time. But that doesn’t mean it has totally escaped its more formulaic handheld trappings — in large part, developer Game Freak has just prettied up what’s familiar, for good and bad.

The trainers in Pokémon: Let’s Go! Game Freak/The Pokémon Company

Pokémon: Let’s Go! is at once a look into the past, present and future of the series. It’s not quite a remake, but anyone who played the original Game Boy trio (Red, Blue and Yellow) will be able to jump right in with ease. Professor Oak of the Kanto region sends off a 10-year-old trainer on their first Pokémon journey, encouraging them to collect as many monsters and badges as possible while they fight their way to the Pokémon League. Accompanying the newbie trainer is their hometown friend, who becomes their rival, and both this frenemy and the region’s eight gym leaders serve as the benchmarks of the trainer’s progress.

Almost beat for beat, Let’s Go! tells a familiar story. Exploring Pallet Town, Lavender Town, Celadon City — it’s all muscle memory for someone like me, a longtime Pokémon player who has revisited Kanto four previous times. What this adventure has going for it, though, is its sense of nostalgic whimsy. The Pokémon RPGs have almost always followed a strict pattern of catching, battling, collecting badges, capturing a tough legendary Pokémon, and fighting the strongest trainers of the region to become Champion. Subtle changes along the way have kept this from becoming completely stale, but the formula has made Pokémon feel predictable in the years since the Game Boy games. What helps Let’s Go! here is that these titles harken back to that time when the motions of Pokémon didn’t feel so rote. They feel charming here, because replaying a tiny adventure on a much bigger screen recreates that original feeling of wonder.

It also helps that the formula has several twists this time around. Not only is Pokémon: Let’s Go! optimized for a TV screen — bringing a sense of scale to the Pokémon and people in the world, as well as finer details to help build out Kanto — but it’s also, in some ways, an amalgamation of some of the series’ best parts. Trainer battles are business as usual, as are those in the eight gyms around the region. The benefit of the Switch’s increased power makes these old-school experiences fresh. Gyms are lovingly designed and worth poring over to see the specific, type-appropriate elements; trainer battles feel lively, as each Pokémon on screen has dramatic animations to accompany their moves. (Seismic Toss sends a Pokémon literally flying out of this world, for example.) And Team Rocket, the enemy squad, has a lot of personality, thanks to the appearance of the anime’s hapless Jessie, James and Meowth; that helps make this story feel important and fun to follow along with.

Jessie and James in Pokémon: Let’s Go!
Jessie and James are nice to see, even if they’re a lot more ... cartoony than we’re used to.
Game Freak/The Pokémon Company

The spirit of adventure is strong here, and so is the spirit of friendship. Bonding with Pokémon is an important element of the series, which is easy to forget with how many monsters are in the newer games. Constraining Let’s Go! to the 151 Pokémon of the Kanto region makes every Pokémon memorable, allowing for meaningful team configurations.

The biggest bond is the one between the trainer and their starting Pokémon partner, which corresponds to whichever version you’re playing. I went with the Eevee edition, so I began the game with a friendly Eevee ready to attach itself to my shoulder. This Eevee will stay with me for the entirety of my adventure; it won’t evolve, and it won’t ever leave my side for a Poké Ball or Pokémon box. Another Pokémon can follow both Eevee and me around in the overworld, turning my solitary adventure into one starring a very cute trio. Talking to Eevee and my additional partner Pokémon of choice is so effortlessly charming, and it comes with battle bonuses too. Eevee will sometimes cure itself of a status effect, powered by its love for its trainer. And there are moments where a Pokémon will turn around, looking for encouragement to keep on going.

Neither this nor an accompanying feature, playing with Eevee — I can dress it up, pet it and feed it berries to further grow our friendship — are totally new. But they’re best implemented here on Nintendo Switch, which allows for the richest details of any Pokémon game in the series. Eevee, Pikachu and every other Pokémon have unique animations and wide-ranging expressions unforeseen in earlier games, even the ones that let me pet my Pokémon or have them follow me around. They feel much more alive in Let’s Go!, in a way that changes the tenor of the game from a serious test of strength to a cheerful family road trip.

Eevee in Pokémon: Let’s Go!
Not only can you play with your Eevee, but you can also give it a new haircut.
Game Freak/The Pokémon Company

That more cheerful, family-friendly attitude is sometimes overwhelming for the solo player, however. The idea of bringing the family along extends beyond cuddling up to Pokémon; it borrows heavily from Pokémon Go and its impact on kids and parents worldwide. Cooperative play, a first for the series, allows for a second player to drop in and out of the main quest at will. Having two people battle against one trainer creates an automatic advantage, so even the most challenging battles can become instantly simple.

That simplicity is most visible in how Let’s Go! reinvents wild Pokémon battles — crucial for every trainer if they want to fill out their Pokédex. But catching a wild Pokémon has now been reduced to a button-pressing minigame, not a one-on-one battle between two monsters. Pokémon Go’s influence is most felt here, because it’s the exact same layout: A trainer runs into a Pokémon, which you can now see walking around the overworld; that makes it easy to decide which Pokémon to go after. Then, they can either swing the Joy-Con forward in an attempt to capture it, or they can press the A button. Both methods rely on watching as a ring around the Pokémon shrinks, much like in Pokémon Go.

And just like in Pokémon Go, this capture system incentivizes obtaining Pokémon not to craft a team, but to boost the ones you already have. I like to name my Pokémon, and I like to train each one specifically to get a better feel for their movesets and stats. It’s almost impossible to do that in Pokémon: Let’s Go!, because I’m instead spending my time facing down wild Pokémon myself — just me, a Rattata and my button-pressing finger. Repetitive as this is, it’s necessary; the easiest way to gain experience is through collecting Pokémon in the wild, even if my Pokémon party isn’t doing anything to help out.

Combined with a limited number of trainer battles (unlike in the previous remake of the Kanto games, FireRed and LeafGreen, there’s no mechanism to fight against trainers again and again to grind for experience), leveling up Pokémon is a slog, a battle unto itself. When so much of Let’s Go! comes across as a celebration of Pokémon’s humble beginnings, reimagined with this new start, streamlining one of the most essential parts of the game stands out as a particular frustration. Yes, it’s an accommodation for newcomers from Pokémon Go, but if the next mainline Pokémon RPG reverts to business as usual, they’ll have a steep learning curve to face.

It’s important to take into account that my perspective is one of someone who grew up with the original Pokémon games. Just as I was struck by Pokémon Red with wide-eyed wonder, drawn to its novelty, Pokémon: Let’s Go! may do the same to today’s newcomers. That means that the competitive parts of the game — the more granular stat-building, the increased level of difficulty, the grind of leveling up — are much less important than in the series’ more recent, mainline RPGs. For someone new to Pokémon, or who has only played Pokémon Go, softening the edges is a good choice. Co-op play or one-button wild battles may not be what I’m used to, but reiteration seems against the point here. This is Pokémon’s console debut, and with that comes reinvention for all kinds of players, not just the ones who came of age with Pokémon a long time ago.

Keeping that aspect in mind makes Let’s Go! a whole lot easier to like. I will always find something comforting about the Kanto region, a place that feels as familiar to me now as any place I’ve lived in. And the undeniable cuteness of becoming best friends with Eevee is a touch that almost by itself justifies playing through the game. Shedding expectations about what Pokémon is supposed to be is the toughest challenge here, more than trying to become a Pokémon master. But we’re now in a new era of Pokémon, with a new generation of young trainers. Maybe the only way forward is to let go of the past.

Pokemon: Let’s Go, Eevee! was reviewed using a retail Nintendo Switch copy provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.


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