My dad recently bought himself a Playstation Vita. As an engineer, he’s enthralled with it; he’s thoroughly impressed with the leaps and bounds that have happened since the last game he finished – Doom. Any time my dad wants a new game, I get a phone call asking for the 30 second review – can he manage with his skill level, and is it the kind of game that he’d enjoy? Here’s a recent conversation we had when he finished his last game:
“I’m thinking about Resistance. What do you know about that?”
“Burning Skies? It’s not too bad. The franchise has done pretty well. I thought the first game was a bit tedious so I haven’t touched the last few. [My older brother] loves them though, so give it a shot?”
“What about that Call of Duty?”
“The Vita one is terrible.”
“Yeah but I’m crap at games. Think someone at my skill level would get something out of it?”
“No, it’s genuinely one of the worst games on the Vita. It’s utter crap.”
“Ok, I’ll give resistance a shot then. What are you playing at the moment?”
“The new Pokemon game. It’s not on the Vita though, you’d need a Nintendo 3DS. They’ve just re-released Sapphire and Ruby. They kinda work in tandem and [my sister] has the other one in the pair.”
“…Pokemon?? Why are you playing that infantile game??”
While a large part of the rest of the conversation was my dad making fun for the sheer hell of it, this got me thinking. There is a persistent myth that videogames are a childish medium, and while some games certainly are infantile trash – like Duke Nukem Forever – it certainly isn’t true of all games. There are a few in particular which would surprise even the best of us. Cast your mind back 10 years to when most people thought animation was infantile – remember the first time you saw Shrek? Did you laugh at the same parts that your dad/kid did? Do you laugh at different parts now that you’re a little bit older? And then of course there’s the wonderful films of Hayao Miyazaki, whose relatively simple plots hide surprisingly mature and intelligent themes.
I hate comparing films to games, but in this case, it works – kids’ films aren’t always kiddy, and the same is true of videogames. While videogames and movies are entirely different media, we have common ground here in that games, like Shrek, are only as childish as the person experiencing it. One title can quite easily be aimed at more than one demographic.
Pokémon is arguably the best RPG of all time. It’s simple enough that a six-year-old can complete it in a fortnight, but deep enough that an adult can pour hundreds of hours into creating the perfect team. Pokemon can hold appeal for anyone who has the time to spare, and that is why I’d argue that it is one of best games of all time.
Like Shrek, Pokémon comes in a box which appeals to kids. On the surface, and when you consider the anime and movie tie-ins, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a kid’s game. However, if you take a real look at the game you’ll see a depth of mechanics that while you don’t need to master to complete the game, will allow almost anyone to play as seriously and competitively as the like and enjoy the game in their own way.
So Pokémon is simple enough for a child, but deep enough for an adult, and it’s pulled off seamlessly. How is that possible, I hear you ask? By being one of the best RPGs ever built. In fact, I’ll go one further and say that Pokémon may even stand as one of the best games of all time. Of all time.
Pokémon started out as Pokémon Red and Blue for the Nintendo Gameboy back in 1996. Gamefreak and Nintendo created a game where you went out into the world and caught monsters in balls which fit in your pocket. There were a whopping 150 Pocket Monsters, or Pokémon, for you to catch, and your quest was to catch them all. Your quest was never as simple as “catch all the things”, though. It was simply impossible to throw 150 Pokeballs and be done with it. You could catch a portion of these Pokémonwith Pokeballs, but the rest were a mystery. Your progress through the game was dependant on your ability to battle. As you played, your Pokémonwould fight off competitors, gain experience and level up in the process. When certain Pokémon hit certain levels they get the opportunity to evolve into bigger, stronger monsters. Ask anyone who has played Pokémon – the thrill and satisfaction of evolving a Pokémon you’re training is the same no matter how old you are.
Not all Pokémon can be caught, and not all Pokémon evolve by levelling up; some Pokémon only evolve when traded, or other conditions are met, such as giving your Pokémon certain items. This encourages but never forces you to explore the mechanics in the game. Every few years since the original Red and Blue, Gamefreak released a new set of games with new Pokémon to collect and add to your Pokedex – your encyclopaedia of what you’ve caught. At present, this stamp collection now has 619 Pokémon for you to catch, and there are some truly bizarre ways to get some of them. Regigigas, anyone?
So as we’ve said, battling is the way to progress through the game. Each Pokémon has one or more type attributes, giving them strengths and weaknesses against other Pokémon. For example, if you have a fire-type Pokémon, you wouldn’t send it out to battle a water-type as water extinguishes fire. On the other hand, if they sent out an ice type Pokémon, you can bet top dollar that your Charizard would melt the hell out of it. The same logic is why water-type is weak against electric-type, whereas ice-type is not. The problem is that there are 18 different Pokémon types, and you can only carry a maximum of six monsters. How do you cover all your bases and pick the ultimate team? How do you know that the next trainer doesn’t have half a dozen of the one Pokémon which will destroy you every single time?
You don’t, and that’s half the thrill of battling.
Ok, so what happens if you pitch your Charizard against another Charizard? This now comes down to a battle of statistics and mathematics. To a kid, this could be viewed as sheer luck. To a savvy adult, the trainer who raised his or her Charizard by battling predominantly fast Pokémon will have a faster Charizard than the trainer who just blitzed though the game incinerating whatever jumped out of the tall grass. This applies to the Pokémon’s effort values (EVs) – attack, defence and so on. This goes one step further as every single Pokémon has a specific nature when it is hatched from its egg, such as brave, lax or timid, which affects its base EVs – their IVs. You can actually breed your stamp collection in order to hatch a Sandile with the best possible IVs so you can raise it to be the fastest, most face-stompingest Krookodile which will kill the hell out of everything it comes across. This doesn’t make any real difference in the main game, but it’s essential to competitive gaming against your friends or in official competitions.
What we are left with is a game which anyone can play to whatever extent they like. You can be a number-crunching beast and play to torment your friends, or like me you can play because no matter which Pokémon game you play in the main franchise, you’ll have a heartwarming story and a load of Pokémon to collect.
This all contributes to what makes Pokémon one of the best RPGs of all time. No matter how well you know the mechanics, any time you start a new Pokémon game it all still feels fresh, and the game feels new. I’ve been playing Pokémon for the last 18 years, and I was a teacher for four of those. Most of the kids I’ve taught have played Pokémon at one point or another, and some of them were very determined kids with good Pokémon that could hold their own. But the only person I know with fully completed Pokédex is in his late 20s, and his fully EV-trained adamant shiny Mega Metagross is truly a force to be reckoned with.