Pokemon battles are… fine. It’s kind of odd in a game where battling is the core mechanic and holds the key to both story progression and ultimate victory, but it is what it is. They have so much more potential to be great though, so it’s disappointing that battles are basically a distraction we have to indulge in rather than the game’s biggest asset. The anime could help, but the games haven’t taken influence in the areas they should.
Pokemon has a simple turn-based system of either attacks or buffs, with basic type advantages in the mix. Each Pokemon also has their own individual stats that determine how effective they are at different strategies, and there’s a lot of hidden depth with the Physical/Special split, EVs and IVs, STAB… it’s complex. On a technical level, it’s very good. But it’s clear from the overall game design, with the handholding and the childish narrative, that the game was not made to be appreciated first and foremost on a technical level – it’s supposed to be fun.
It’s on that plane that Pokemon battles are just fine. I’ve been playing since Pokemon Blue, so I must have been having a good time, but it feels like battles could be so much more, especially nowadays. The original games were held together with sellotape and bubble gum, so a pixelated sprite vibrating forwards was enough animation to sell the move. Seismic Toss? Sure, let’s turn the opponent into a big Malteaser and move them up and down – that’ll do. These days though, the bland animations just don’t do it for me.
There’s a bit more to things in modern games. The character models actually look like the Pokemon they’re supposed to, and we don’t just see the ugly over-the-shoulder angle – but the moves are still naff. Tackle and a hundred others still just rely on a little vibration forwards, while even the more animated ones like Surf make no sense. A big, sweeping wave appears behind your ‘mon, they leap over it as if they’re Poochie going back to his home planet, and then your foe takes damage. There’s no real interaction, and nothing at all to make it feel like these two Pokemon are actually fighting each other like they are in the anime.
The argument that it would take too much memory space just doesn’t hold true for me either. Sword & Shield already cut a boatload of Pokemon, and this is not some indie hit; Pokemon has been raking in billions for two decades. When they’re operating on the same console as Breath of the Wild, Monster Hunter Rise, and a competent Crysis Remastered port, the memory defence is weak.
I don’t think a like for like recreation of the anime battles is the answer, but the games should definitely be paying closer attention. Ash seems to only vaguely get that Pokemon is turn-based, and the moves are a lot more nonsensical or literal in the anime, especially in the early days – he earned his first gym badge by setting off some sprinklers, after all. Still, more interaction is key, and that’s where Charizard and Magmar come into it.
I haven’t kept up with every episode – there’s over 1,000 now – but I watched the first 200 and have tuned in every now and then since, but nothing has come close to this battle for me. Charizard vs Magmar is not an exception to the anime formula either – it’s a perfection of it.
Charizard is grumpy and disobedient, rarely willing to step up to the plate at all. So when he goes up against Magmar, it instantly feels personal. The battle takes place over an active volcano on stone platforms, and when one Pokemon attacks, the other feels the hit. It’s not just a series of moves, vague animations, and then another move – it’s a fight. It’s a smackdown. When Magmar lands a Skull Bash, Charizard falls off his perch like a scene from Gladiators, and has to recover in time to swoop back up, his wings making ripples through the lava. There’s then a face-to-face grapple, before they both plummet into the lava itself, only to emerge and soar high above the island, with Charizard then demonstrating a real Seismic Toss, swinging Magmar around and slamming him down so hard one of the platforms shatters. Every impact matters, and everything is connected.
I never really feel like I’m fighting my opponent in Pokemon. I feel like I’m choosing a move, and they’re taking damage. It’s closer to a game of cards or chess than it is to a fight. I want games to feel like a basketball match, constantly flying end to end with dunks and barges and steals. I want to feel like I’m in the sweat catchers, feeling the tremor of every collision. Charizard and Magmar felt like that. It was personal. Battles in the games feel far too impersonal, like you’re watching a spreadsheet run numbers. It’s a game of maths (stats plus type plus move equals damage, relative to the same equation for the opponent). Every boss battle in video game history has some kind of equation running underneath it, but fighting The Stranger in God of War never feels like you’re just pushing buttons on a calculator.
I’ve written before about how Pokemon games need to borrow gym designs from the anime, and how Misty in particular gets the short straw. I think, in general, even though I love the games and have stuck with them longer than the anime, it’s the show that does Pokemon as a concept better. Because it’s the same protagonist, we see actual character evolution and development, and because it’s animation the creators aren’t held back by the limitations of memory – even though that should be a worry of the past on Nintendo Switch. Pokemon games need to learn more from the anime, and if they do, matches might finally get a bit personal.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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