I recently picked up Pokémon: Shield because I have a Switch and several friends of mine have it and I was starting to feel left out. Also because I haven’t played a proper Pokémon game in ages, and here was one that I had the system for so here I am.
And it’s adorable and fun, and a neat step forwards in where Pokémon has gotten in the past fifteen-odd years since I’ve played a mainline game. I’m having a ball exploring the Galar region and catching new creatures and fielding a team (while fighting the temptation to have it composed solely of Stuffuls and Bewears).
Naturally, this has me thinking about older Pokémon games. And I really mean older. Let’s talk about Red, Blue, and Yellow, and what the original games did so freaking well. Especially in the first few hours.
The world seems so big, right out of the gate. There’s a sea to the south, which you can’t cross, and after getting your started and going on your way, you venture through the tall grass of Route 1. On either side, though, there’s more grass that you can’t reach, there’s something beyond there that could hold more adventure. Though it is, in fact, inaccessible, just its being there hints at there being more, and early on in the game, that more-ness is exciting.
You then reach the first town of Viridian City. There’s more set up done here, and I don’t just mean the first PokéCenter and PokéMart (and learning to catch Pokémon from a grumpy old man!).
Let’s say you head west from Viridian. There lies Victory League and the Indigo Plateau… which you can’t go to. Because you need gym badges. Which you don’t have. You want to get them, though, because your rival is talking about it and, hey, those people said you couldn’t go unless you had gym badges, so you need gym badges!
Hang on, there’s a gym in Viridian City! But there’s no one home. Which is curious, but hey, you don’t know any better yet, ya noob. It’s when you come back after having the other seven badges that you realize, holy crap, Team Rocket’s leader Giovanni is also the gym leader of Viridian! But the seed of a mystery of the gym is planted there, right at the beginning of the game.
By the time you go on to the Viridian Forest you’ve already been introduced to the need for gym badges and had a little inkling of a Bigger Plot planted.
It’s in the forest that we meet another of Pokémon’s big mechanics: evolution. There’s been mention of Pokémon being able to evolve in dialogue, but it’s in the forest that can witness it first hand. Chances are, you’re gonna catch a Caterpie or a Weedle, given that they’re everywhere in the forest. Both of these Pokémon evolve at level 7, which your Pokémon will be hitting very soon. They evolve into Metapod and Kakuna, which are cocoons, before evolving again at level 10. Right away, we’re given the imagery of a butterfly’s life cycle: crawley thing into a poddy thing into a flying thing. Using that familiarity from the real world, Pokémon introduces the concept of evolution early on in a way you understand it. The game shows you Caterpie -> Metapod -> Butterfree so that, later on, something like Magikarp -> Garydos or Machop -> Machoke make sense.
It’s after the forest that we have our next lesson: Type Effectiveness. Pokémon follows a rock, paper, scissors mentality when it comes to battling; water beats fire, fire beats grass, grass beats water. The first gym leader you fight is Brock of Pewter City. He fields rock-types, which no matter your starter, there will be some relation. Bulbasaur and Squirtle’s grass and water attacks are super effective, while Charmander’s fire attack isn’t very effective. Since you have to beat Brock to proceed, you’re essentially being forced to learn how that mechanic works. Thus by the time you leave Pewter City and head to Mt. Moon (and your first encounter with Team Rocket!) you’re not just curious about the rest of the world, you’re pretty well versed in the basics of the game.
This is excellent game design, pure and simple. It sticks in my head so much in part because I played it when I was a kid, and in part that owing to having a pirated cartridge that wouldn’t let me save, I played these opening moments many, many, many times. There’s such wonder when you’re eight years old and exploring this fantastical world, and those games, with all their graphical limitations, made it all the more magical.
I think that’s part of the reason why I’m enjoying Pokémon Shield so, it’s like a time capsule to twenty years ago, where even though everything in the game looks so much prettier, fundamentally it’s a very comfortable return to magic.
Also, somewhere along the way, Stufful was introduced and I am so happy.