Tag Archives: Pokemon

Catching ’em All

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. 

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Tasty Words

If you’ve ever played the Pokémon Trading Card Game or Magic: The Gathering or really any trading card game, you’ll have read the little bit of text on the bottom. Not the copyright information, but rather the flavor text that tells you a little about what the card is and how it fits into the bigger world. Stuff about where that character might come from or what the geopolitical situation in the world’s like. These are usually really small blurbs, probably not more than a sentence or two at most, but they’re usually enough to conjure up images of entire worlds.

Flavor text adds depth to a world. It turns Charmander from some fire lizard thing to a creature who would die if the fire on its tail is extinguished. It’s a small thing, but it’s enough to create some kindling for your imagination. What do Charmander do when it rains? Since their life can be a little fragile, it stands to reason that these Pokémon would be defensive and non-trusting, right? It doesn’t really matter what’s actually canon or not, what is important that it’s enough for you, the reader — or player, in this case — to have an insight into this world and, by crafting a narrative around it, to make a connection.

What’s really interesting about flavor text is that it really only shows up in games. Sure, books will offer little tidbits about characters and places, but those are usually fleshed out by the rest of the book. Scripts typically have a short blurb about characters and places when introduced, but, like books, there’s a lot more going on than just that. The flavor text offered through the images on the cards in Settlers of Catan (and really, flavor text can be pictures too) offer us the only glimpse into what Catan is ‘really’ like beyond the little wood abstractions with which the game is played.

XCOM 2 has you as the Commander leading a resistance against an occupying extraterrestrial force. Your team is comprised of my Mostest Favoritest Trope (a ragtag multinational team) that you recruit from around the world and who can, if you turn on the option, speak their native language. Now, XCOM is infamous for its brutal difficulty, and if a soldier gets killed in a battle, they’re dead for real. They don’t respawn, they’re not just injured (that’s a whole ‘nother thing where it can take weeks of in-game time for them to recover); they’re dead. Gone. You can’t use them anymore. Even if they’ve survived a dozen combat missions and been promoted equivalent times. Dead. Gone.

On the one hand, you’re already invested in these characters/soldiers by virtue of them being of strategic importance. But XCOM 2 has ways of making you more attached to them. You can give your soldiers nicknames and customize their appearances (why yes, I think the Archangel the Ranger needs a pair of aviators) and, when recruited, soldiers have a little bit of flavor text in their bio saying where they’re from, why they joined the resistance, stuff like that. It’s small stuff, generated from a preset bunch and nowhere near as wonderful as what you see in some other games, but it does add an additional measure of personality to the game.

Look, games are just rule systems dressed up in some theming or some other. It’s how you have Star Trek Catan and Game of Thrones Catan and a friggin’ Mega Man themed Catan that all have the same ruleset and all arguably work equally well. Theming is what makes Mario whimsical and makes Pokémon child-friendly and not a game about dogfights. Flavor text is part and parcel to theming. Think of it like a flash fiction on steroids: it’s a sentence or two that can somehow suggest a bigger, complete world. And you get to play in it.

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The Economy

I think it’s time we talked about The Economy.

In video games.

A lot of games have an economy of some sort, where you earn something and spend that something on a something beneficial. In Super Mario Bros. and Crash Bandicoot you collect coins and wumpa fruit (respectively) and when you get a hundred of them it’s an extra life. It’s a simple enough exchange, one that, like provides impetus and rewards for doing stuff.

You’ve got the other end of the spectrum, of course. Finance simulators like Zapitalism (a wonderful game from ’97 that I played a lot of in the early 2000s and remain wonderfully inept at) has you running a store by managing upkeep, stock, prices, a stock market, salaries, import rights, building permits, government bonds, betting on how long someone can stand on one leg, corporate sabotage, loans, insurance, etc. It’s a delightfully complex game, and really is a game all about economics. Now, while Zapitalism teaches you many principles and pitfalls of unrestrained capitalism (eg: having money makes it easier to make more money and so the rich get richer), it’s not quite the economy I’m thinking of right now.

For that, let’s talk about Pokémon. Any of them, really, but we all know Gold and Silver are the best. You get money in the games by beating other trainers, money that you can then spend on PokéBalls or healing items like potions. If you wanna catch ’em all, you need that money to catch more Pokémon. Now, if you lose a battle and all your Pokémon faint, you black out and lose a chunk of your money; thereby providing consequences for running your team into the ground. The nice thing about Pokémon is that money is a renewable resource, insofar as there’s always ways to get more money; even after you beat the game you can still challenge the Elite Four for their precious precious money. Earlier in the game you can also sell items you’ve collected along the way for an influx of cash. Even though there are (economic) consequences to losing, they’re remediable enough.

Not so in Mass Effect 2. The money (credits) in this game is earned by going on missions, in other words you get credits for advancing the story and pursuing optional side-quests too. It’s a clever system, since these credits are what let you buy new armor and weapon upgrades. Basically, the more of the game’s story you explore, the more stuff you can get. The problem is there is a finite amount of missions in the game and thus a finite amount of credits. Which wouldn’t be that bad, except for the fact that Fuel and Probes cost credits, and depending on how you play the game, you can bankrupt yourself on Fuel and Probes and thus not have enough credits for, y’know, making your guns shootier.

Speaking of making guns shootier, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker introduces a resource management aspect. Your combat unit generates GMP (Gross Military Product, you are running a non-governmental/national private military force out of international waters, after all) which you can then in turn use to research and develop new weapons and other tools for use in the field. It’s a fairly simple mechanic, of the GMP earned you allocate x amount to whatever project, do a mission, the project completes, you can then reallocate those funds elsewhere.

It’s the sequel, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain that takes things several steps forward. Your combat unit still earns GMP, but this time it’s earned periodically and once GMP is used it’s gone until you get more. Rather than the budget allocation that defined Peace Walker’s economy, Phantom Pain is built upon the more ‘traditional’ earning and spending of funds. The twist of the game’s economy is that research and development programs aren’t the only things that cost GMP. Going out into the field will cost you GMP, in that you have to pay for your ammunition, weapons, helicopter fuel, and so on. Once out in the field, GMP is spent if you want to call in a helicopter for air support, swap out your sniper support for your pet dog, extract enemy combatants/vehicles by balloon, and even get an ammunition resupply or catch a ride out of the area of operations by helicopter.

Sure, you get more GMP by completing missions and side ops, but making aspects of missions cost funds encourages the player to play a little smarter and has them taking economic factors into consideration when planning missions (“I could swap out my sniper rifle for a rocker launcher to take down that enemy chopper, but if I sneak into the enemy outpost and get control of their machine gun nest instead I could save some money to develop a new shotgun”). It adds another dimension to what could easily be just another Open World Shooter, plus it has the player make more interesting choices (“Alright, I didn’t’ bring a rocket launcher, looks like I’m gonna sneak up to that tank and extract it via fulton balloon”) which, hey, isn’t that what games are about?

Though somehow I doubt anyone expected an action-stealth series like Metal Gear Solid have such  strong focus on financial planning.

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The Beauty of Pokémon Go

A recent issue of TIME Magazine (a magazine I usually like) ran a small article about Pokémon Go. In an article describing how the game “shows the unnerving future of augmenting reality,” writer Matt Vella describes players in Prospect Park as “a dozen people shuffling about haphazardly, their zombie eyes fixed on glowing phone screens.”

Okay. Fine.

Honestly, I shouldn’t be too surprised. This is the same publication that ran a cover article about how millennials (ie: me) are entitled and narcissistic; Pokémon Go is more smart-phone enabled shenanigans. But that this article essentially dismisses the game is frustrating. Because yes, Pokémon Go is another game, but it’s position as a augmented reality game makes it something really special.


Something beautiful.

The open-endedness of games like Mass Effect make comparing notes with other players a lot of fun. Who did you romance? What did you save? Red, blue, or green? Your choices in the game give you a common ground. Same with discussing responses to The Last of Us or describing that great moment you had in Halo. Video games create (virtual) experiences and memories. Like any memory, these then become things you talk about.

But Pokémon Go exists in the real world. You don’t catch a Seel in the Seafoam Islands, you catch a Seel in Battery Park. You don’t hatch eggs by walking from Cerulean City to Vermillion City over and over again, you do so by walking to work and back. That gym doesn’t exist in your GameBoy, it’s the Washington Square Arch.

Because of this, those memories become physical. My brother and I roamed the East Village together looking for Pokémon, glued to our phones, yes, but also talking and enjoying the outdoors. The outdoors outside, in the real world. In other words, Pokémon Go makes the very act of walking into an adventure. The game augments reality itself (hence the whole AR genre) into a game.

That Pokémon Go exists in the real world is part of its beauty. Players have to go outside to catch Pokémon, collect items, and challenge gyms. So folks are going to parks, museums, and zoos to find Pokémon. Yes, on their phones, but actually out there.

With the game comes a community, one that, in my experience, has been remarkably positive. Stopping at Astor Place to take over a gym and catching someone’s eye, knowing we’d worked together to claim it in the name of Team Valor. Or striking up a conversation with someone at the Garibaldi Statue Pokéstop where someone used a lure. Then there’s my Facebook feed starting to look more and more like a schoolyard conversation about where to find Pokémon and whose is the best.

Pokémon which, remember, you find in the real world.

Look, I’m twenty-five; smack-dab in the middle of Generation Y. I’m one of those who grew up with the internet and social media. We’re those who see technology not as something to be scared but by which we’ll save the world. Pokémon Go, though probably not quite that extreme, exists within that vein. For all the stories of players finding dead bodies in rivers and falling off cliffs, there are many more about the game helping people deal with anxiety or depression and stories of it providing an avenue of social interaction for autistic kids. You can complain all you want about phone-addled Millennials, but a fear of AR as a harbinger of awfulness is unfounded.

‘cuz this present is the future.

Our future.

And it’s wonderful.

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Catching ’em All

Like many people born in the early ’90s, I grew up playing Pokémon. And man, I caught ‘em all. Literally all of ‘em. At least in Yellow and Gold; I got close in Ruby and that’s where I stopped.

So when Pokémon Go was first announced last year I thought it seemed really cool. Like worth upgrading my four-year-old phone for. In case you haven’t heard, here’s the skinny on Go:

It’s Pokémon in real life. You go places, your phone tells you there’s a Pokémon there, you catch it. Certain landmarks are gyms where you can battle people and other landmarks give you items. Again, it’s Pokémon in real life.

Now, the game is very much in its infancy. It’s a drain on battery and there isn’t much in the way of depth to the game (there is no way to traditionally level up Pokémon, which means you’ll probably find yourself releasing your starter). Then there’s the awful server lag currently present that makes playing a crapshoot at best. A game’s not great if you can’t really play it. It’s a mess.

And yet.

I’ve found myself walking through Washington Square Park, looking for Pokémon with friends, and running into other people also looking for Pokémon. I walked to the Arch to challenge the gym there and, upon seeing that someone had used a Lure Module on the Gibraldi Statue, sat around there catching Pokémon with a handful of strangers. And then all of us getting excited when a hitherto uncaught Ekans showed up.

I think this is where the beauty of Pokémon Go, even in its nascent state, shines. There’s an excitement in the traditional Pokémon games when a random encounter yields that one Pokémon you’ve spent ages searching for (I’m looking at you, Tauros). Same with when that egg you’ve been walking around with forever finally hatches. Go takes that feeling of success and translates it to real life. When an egg hatches it’s because you’ve carried it for five kilometers. Not your digital avatar walking around Johto, but you, in real life, walking around your town. When you, at last, finally get a Pinsir it’s because you decided to walk to Starbucks for coffee instead of spending your break inside. That joy you got in the games is made visceral. Now your ability to catch ‘em all is a direct result of your own exploring — you’re looking for Pokémon.

It helps that the simple mechanics (go somewhere, find a thing, get a thing, look for a better thing) is bolstered by the pop culture familiarity brought on by Pokémon. It’s no coincidence that the available Pokémon are the original 150, the ones people my age fondly remember from growing up. There’s an appeal to the familiar, and man, it’s working — I don’t think I’ve been this excited to find a Bellsprout since I was seven. There’s an implicit invitation in the game to be a kid again, to look around your world with a wonderment because that mural on the wall could be a Pokémon Gym and there’s a Bulbasaur down that road in the West Village.

Pokémon Go still has a lot of room to grow — and it’ll have to to keep people interested over the long term. But for now, just a couple days out of the gate, it’s a whole lotta simple, magical, fun.

Except for those Rattatas. I am so sick of finding freaking Rattatas.

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