Given Pokemon's legendary history of success on the handheld markets, it seems insane to criticize such a consistently good franchise. That said, this is MaristPlayBoy we're talking about, and he believes there's a ton of potential just lurking beneath the surface.
Look, I love Pokemon. One could even venture to call me "obsessed" with Pokemon (and damn proud of it). I've still got Pokemon Yellow underneath my childhood bed, and I'm a member of the Pokemon Society at St. Andrews University. I've played the first three generations multiple times, and I've greatly enjoyed console games like Pokemon Stadium. And I can name all 151 original Pokemon by heart (though we'd need my friend Sam to do it in perfect order. He's like a machine).
Why am I getting so defensive about my status as a Pokemon guy? Well, what I'm about to say is very controversial within the Pokemon community, and I'm sure that people are going to comment below telling me how I "don't get it" and am "not really a fan". But I'm sorry, I have to say it:
Pokemon has stagnated.
Chances are, you're aware of this on some level. If you've never been a Pokemon fan, you probably pointed this out to fans as a reason you've never gotten into the series. If you've always been a Pokemon fan, this has been that little nagging doubt in the back of your head telling you "You know, this just isn't as much fun as it used to be".
Chalk it up to nostalgia if you must, but I am a fervent believer that Pokemon Gold/Silver was, and will always be, the best Pokemon game ever made (an argument can be made for HeartGold/SoulSilver from a purely graphics perspective, but I'll take my shitty Gameboy Color graphics any day). That was when the series had the perfect amount of Pokemon (251; enough that you had a great accomplishment from catching them all, but not so many that you couldn't remember each by name and develop a relationship with them as you trained them), had the perfect end game (going back and exploring Kanto again was priceless, especially because back then, there was no internet spoiling that surprise), and didn't have all the extraneous shit that would bog the game down (I will never understand why PokeContests determining which Pokemon was the most "cute" was a necessary feature to the franchise). It was pure, total fun from beginning to end, with all of that "just one more battle" feeling to propel you forward.
What, I must ask, has Pokemon done since then that has improved the game? Have giving Pokemon different natures to increase the complexity really made the game better, or just more convoluted? Have all the changes to breeding made anything more fun, or was it best at its simplest in Pokemon Gold when you got what the mother was and that was that?
You can argue that these elements added an extra element of strategy to the game, but was it strategy that made the game more entertaining? I know people that play Pokemon simply to breed and catch all the things, but most people I know care about beating the gyms, training your Pokemon, and becoming a Pokemon Master. What have any of the changes over the last ten years done to make that more fun? Nothing, as far as I can tell (unless, of course, you think it's more fun to spend time catching a Pokemon, only to find out it wasn't the nature you wanted and have to release it and start all over again).
That being said, I'm not anti-innovation. I'd love to see Pokemon head in new and interesting directions; I just don't think the current format is conducive to it. The handheld series, as it stands, already has a proud tradition of Catching Them All that isn't going to end anytime soon. And I don't even think it should end; after all, future generations deserve to have the opportunity to play these games just as we did. But for those of us who have already played that formula time and time again, I think it's time for something new. And I'm glad you asked what I think, because I'm going to tell you anyway. Here are my five best ideas for a new Pokemon game:
5. A Hybrid of Pokemon Stadium and Pokemon Coliseum
Ignoring the piece of shit that was Pokemon: Battle Revolution (and it was a piece of shit; no way around that), one of the highlights of my childhood were the few games that did do something new with the franchise. Pokemon Stadium brought the world of Pokemon to the N64, and it was awesome. Battles became 1000% cooler when you could see the attacks happening in front of you. Sure, the animations were stilted and repetitive, but they were there, and that was what mattered. Bring in some mini-games, and you have every child's dream. Of course, the downside was that unless you had a Game Pak, there was no way for you to use your own Pokemon in battles, so you were stuck battling with someone else's rentals with a move set you never would have chosen for yourself.
When the Gamecube came out, Nintendo went in a different direction with Pokemon Colosseum, giving players control of a new protagonist with a set background in a very different world than Pokemon had ever seen. There was a real story there with real themes behind it. Cities had their own personality, and it was nice to walk into town and not have to deal with thousands of random encounters along the way. The best part was the new mechanic they brought in called Shadow Pokemon, which revealed the true evils of what teams like Team Rocket do to Pokemon while simultaneously making it a gameplay mechanic that would shape the way you played the game. There was great incentive to use Pokemon with which you may not otherwise bother because leaving them in their shadow state wasn't helpful to you. Of course, the battles seemed nowhere near as interesting as the story itself, and combat just became a way to get from point A of the story to point B.
Enter my first game idea: Pokemon: Battle Arena. You create a new world with a similar set-up to that of Colosseum (i.e. fast traveling), but give it a more traditional set-up. Maybe the kid just wants to be a Pokemon master like Ash, and getting gym badges is the obvious step in doing so. In each town though, the player will face some sort of moral dilemma (like what Team Plasma should have been in Pokemon Black/White) and have to make a decision. The more morally ambiguous, the better (because while good/evil meters are stupid, a chaotic/lawful meter actually keeps decision making interesting). Decisions you make should change the types of Pokemon that are available to you, how they respond to you, and even what moves they learn. More aggressive trainers should get attack focused Pokemon and learn new moves that inflict more powerful damage, while trainers that are more passive should have defense based Pokemon that learn status afflicting moves and can otherwise control the flow of the game.
In each town, there should be a gym to battle, and every third town can have some sort of tournament like the ones in Pokemon Stadium (with cups being more difficult each time a player completes it until he or she has one all four times). There can be a more widespread story going on, and the moral struggle the main character goes through should by no means exist in a vacuum, but it should be very focused on letting the player have a more complete Pokemon experience, battle tournaments and all.
(Some people might call that one cheating since none of that was really my original idea. To them, I say...
Let's move on)
4. Real-Time Pokemon Combat
In real life, would Pikachu just sit there as a Slowpoke inched its way over to perform a Scratch attack? Of course not! He'd use agility to end up far away, then Thunderbolt that Slowpoke's ass until he was well done (Slowpoke tails are delicious, after all). I know that turn-based combat is kind of a key thing in the Pokemon games, but how much more fun would it be to see these battles happen in real time, just like they would if Pokemon were real.
Here's how it would work: each attack would be mapped to one of the four face buttons (I'm assuming a standard controller here, which I know Nintendo doesn't really have anymore, but damn it, a man can dream!), with the left stick controlling movement and the right stick controlling camera. The left trigger could be used to recall to the trainer's side, with the right trigger being used to administer items in battle (ex. Potions). Jumping and all other terrain overcoming movements could be mapped to the bumpers.
Each attack would have a limited amount of uses, and a cool down timer between uses to prevent spamming abilities (though some, like water gun or flamethrower, could be held down for longer usage at the cost of more rapidly draining the overall number of uses). There should also be an overall cool down timer to prevent Pokemon from just spamming everything at once all the time. Add in a convenient third-person camera that can be easily manipulated, and you have everything you need to bring real-time combat to Pokemon.
Would the animation costs be much more expensive than they were on Pokemon: Battle Revolution? Maybe, but games like Dragon Age: Origins use multiple spell load outs with different effects and a third person camera all the time, and I can guarantee a real time Pokemon battle game would sell far more copies. You could even limit the number of Pokemon available if you have to (or, dare I even throw this out there, offer more Pokemon as DLC as you can make them, a policy I'd actually approve of if done in large enough batches). Just make this happen. Please.
3. Pokemon: The Origin Story
Now, I know this is not likely to happen, as it would require Nintendo to look at anything made by its fans without screaming in terror and trying to kill it as quickly possible, but how cool would it be to actually explore the nuclear war theory of the creation of Pokemon? Let's put the game right after the bombs have gone off and these creatures have started to appear across Japan. You're a military operative that lost his family in the explosion, and you're on your quest to find them and make sure they're safe. But with all these newly radioactive creatures roaming around, it's far too dangerous to go alone, and guns simply aren't handling it. It's up to you to do the unthinkable: tame these creatures and use them to your advantage to help quell the chaos and find your family once more. You are... the First Pokemon Trainer!
I'd play the shit out of that game, but even if Nintendo wouldn't let that happen, why not have a game take place in the early era of Pokemon, whenever that is in Nintendo's mind? Being one of the first people to try to tame Pokemon and learn of their powers would be really exciting. You could even introduce more Pokemon like Kabuto and Aerodactyl that are now extinct, but would have existed back then. Taking a look at what the first relationships between man and Pokemon would have been like, and the psychological journey from fearing them to loving them that the entire society of the time would have gone through is fascinating to me, and it'd sure be a hell of a lot more interesting than being another ten year old who met another professor named after a tree doing the same journey we've already done five times now.
2. First Person Pokemon
Come on, admit it: you've always wondered what it would be like to be a Pokemon. And no, I don't mean like those mediocre Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games where you play in third person on a rigid storyline that's all about the meaning of friendship or whatever. No, I'm talking a first person open world game in which you get to be the Pokemon you've always wanted to be.
The set-up. You're a newborn, wild (insert name of Pokemon here) who's just minding your own business when you are captured and taken in by some trainers. You're raised to be loyal to them no matter what, and you try to do so, even as you're asked to do some questionable things. Over the course of the game, you can perform missions for your trainer, or choose to disobey and help the Pokemon who are in danger thanks to your trainer's actions. If you haven't already guessed, the trainers who captured you? Team Rocket, of course. Knowing who they are and what they do, do you rebel to help your fellow Pokemon, or do you stay loyal to those who raised you?
At the very least, letting me be a wild Pokemon roaming around, making friends, battling enemies, and maybe even forming a relationship with a trainer of my own... that sounds pretty awesome. I'd love to be able to delve into the psychology of what it's like to be a Pokemon, maybe even see what it's like inside a Pokeball. To be a player and yet be unable to fully control my destiny...that's a cool idea in any form, even outside the Pokemon sphere. Something like this needs to happen in gaming; why not in the world of Pokemon?
1. The Great Pokemon War
You know the theory. Lt. Surge, the gym leader of Vermillion City, has a line when you greet him about how you never would have held up during the war. This line, combined with the general disappearance of most males in the communities, has led many to speculate that a great Pokemon War had occurred just before the events of this game, and that you, the player, are one of the first groups of trainers in this newly established peacetime.
How awesome would it be watching the old class of gym leaders battling it out in some epic war scene? How cool would it be to see Blaine lead a unit of 500 Arcanines into battle against the forces of Faulkner's Air Force of Pidgeots and Fearows? Why not allow players to command these Pokemon on a large scale? How has no one done this yet (seriously, modding community, get on this. You made Hyrule: Total War happen; why not Pokemon: Total War?)?
Here's how I see this going down. It can either be a turn based strategy game a la Fire Emblem, except each unit would represent far more than just one Pokemon; or a real time strategy game (the better option, in my opinion) with a battle system much like the Total War series.
In the turn based game, you would play the role of a lowly commander put in charge of a single unit of Pokemon (what type and for what side you fight would be up to the character, though there'd probably have to be a limit just for resources' sake) who works his way up the ranks in his quest to prove himself as a great military mind. Maybe you can even play as Lt. Surge, mapping out your electric Pokemon's attacks, using Electabuzz as melee units and Raichu for ranged attacks. Losses would remain lost to give it a sense of weight, though if Nintendo wanted to shy away from death, they could just say that Pokemon who suffered serious injury in these battles were released back into the wild. The strategy would come from mixing your units with those of other generals to make sure you were ready for everything they could throw at you. The final battle would be all out chaos as the forces of Johto, Kanto, Hoenn, Sinnoh, and Unova all finally met to end the war once and for all. Players would have to balance every type of unit and have trained them completely to make it out alive, but if they do, they'll be known in legends forever as the hero of the Great Pokemon War.
The real time strategy game would be a little different. Rather than following one general, you'd be in control of an entire region. You'd have to continuously train Pokemon masters who can get the most out of your units while also ensuring there are enough people still catching Pokemon to refill your ranks after a lost battle. The key would be invading other regions city by city, with each one knocking out their ability to catch and use certain types of Pokemon (i.e. if the Hoenn army conquered Cerulean City, they'd be twice as efficient in their production of Water type Pokemon, and probably get a bonus when using them, but Kanto would lose access to making more Water types, and probably suffer a penalty when trying to do so). It would making attacking certain cities far more valuable than others in terms of end game play. Wiping out all other water types, for example, would make your fire army so much more powerful as the game reached its conclusion. At the end, whichever country could conquer or assimilate the rest (there'd be diplomacy too, though how leaders would get chosen and what PokePolitics are like is beyond even me) would have created a new Pokemon utopia in which our favorites Red and Blue could follow their ten year old dreams of wandering into the wilderness without any parental supervision and forcing animals to fight for their enjoyment.
So what do you think? Are these games you would play, or do you think I should have stopped writing before I even began? Let me know in the comments below. Until then, this is MaristPlayBoy, signing out.
Chase, aka MaristPlayBoy, is the co-founder and lead editor of the Red Shirt Crew Blog and Podcast Network. He welcomes Nintendo to steal any and all of his ideas, as long as they ensure the game is kickass. You can follow him on Twitter at @RedShirtCrew. You can also reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.