4. FAMILY SAGAS ARE BETTER THAN CHILDREN’S STORIES
This gripe is an odd one, because the series has sometimes been guilty of it, yet sometimes not. Generation one didn’t really have a story, yet bashing my head against the tedium of Team Plasma in Pokemon White felt like I was being punished for a crime I couldn’t remember. Not surprising I couldn’t remember it though, what with that ponce with the green hair dragging me across yet another Ferris wheel ride to mumble animé angst at me for the third time in a row.
The annoying thing is that it is possible to write stories that can appeal to both children and adults. Movies tend to be the best example of this. Toy Story, The Jungle Book, The Princess Bride, all are examples of great narratives that can be appreciated by all ages. But games in general, and Pokemon in particular, often struggle with this.
I know I said earlier that a gamer can ignore context, but I’d prefer not to. A game with fun mechanics is good. A game with fun mechanics AND a great story is a plus-sized bag of sweets with a prostitute on top. So aim for that, please. You did quite well with Platinum, almost getting a little Lovecraftian in tone (though almost certainly by accident) as we wandered through an absolute void, hunting for the horribly powerful creature of darkness that dwelt spitefully at the bottom. But when you fuck up and start writing for kiddies again, I’m uncomfortably reminded of my age, as random NPC townsfolk no.37 talks to me like I’m a particularly thick toddler, or tells me that “I love my Pokemon!” in a manner that would seem patronising to Barney the Dinosaur. Yes, I know how much you love shorts, idiot child. Can you get me an adult to talk to?
I know that this is probably Nintendo’s least pressing issue. Those who are on board the Pokemon bandwagon aren’t likely to be diverted by a crap narrative at this point, but it would be nice to see a good one, and like I said, you can write a plot that works for all ages without too much difficulty. Just a thought, because I’ve heard Pokemon has a bit of money floating around, and I know that a writer will do anything for a bit of cash, up to and including lick the employer’s testicles.
5. DON’T LET IT END WITH THE ELITE FOUR
I know this one kind of ties into point number three, but it’s an important point, so I feel the need to reinforce it: Once we become champion, don’t let it end there. I know, some games didn’t stop at that point, but enough did that it’s worth mentioning. Make an effort to add new features, because it’s frustrating to go through all the effort and get nothing out of it. Winning the Elite Four always felt a bit anticlimactic to me. You smack down member number four, move onto the champion, who is always either your rival or that confident character who helps you out two thirds through the game, beat the hell out of him, and boom. You’re done. No really, we just have to upload your scores to Reddit on this overly large machine (don’t pay attention to how much it looks and sounds like the one in the pokemon centres) and we can all break for lunch.
The worst games have always let it end there. Oh, you can still explore, but it’s all places you’ve been before, and now you’ve levelled up to the point where it’s all too easy and without any reward. I kind of imagine this is how Superman would feel if there were no supervillians. He just breezes through, detached and disinterested, whilst all those he fights bounce off him like tumbleweed against a freight train.
But adding new regions with tougher threats helps with this problem, as do areas that were previously too high level with interesting plot stuff in there. Fire Red’s matrix of islands worked well, bouncing between various places to find a rock that was useful for some contrived reason. It was too short, and again, it was an anticlimactic ending to the game as everything just sort of resolved itself with no twist, but the intention and the spirit was right. Ideally, the Elite Four should not represent the end, but the midpoint of the game, as new stuff opens up that is worthy of such a kick-ass trainer. Perhaps an island full of former champions, or an escaped and dangerous legendary that needs taking down a peg? Perhaps a Team Rocket revival in which they are planning some new, stupid scheme? Whatever it is, make it thick and meaty and full of juicy content, not a few table scraps that got rejected from the main game by the QA department.
6. GIVE ME SOMETHING TO DO BETWEEN BATTLES
Alright, I’ll just say it – I liked the Pokemon contests in Gen III. They were flawed, and a bit too reliant on chance, but I liked the idea of developing some aspect of my team that wasn’t related to stamping on somebody else’s. It made them feel less like weapons in a fight and more like actual creatures, as other NPCs judged how pretty or cool they looked.
Pokemon’s battle mechanics have always been fairly strong and are constantly being refined, but the games have forever struggled to think of things to do when you’re not fighting. The contests, the casino, those weird minigames it would throw at you at the end of Fire Red, nothing really sticks out. None of it has had the effort put into it that this sort of thing needs. Compared to the combat, any other mechanics or gameplay styles felt rushed, like they uploaded whatever the designers had been working on in their spare time at the end. What Pokemon needs is something fun, developed, and rewarding with regards to how you play it and what it gives you, and I think I have the idea – the player’s own safari park.
Seriously, I mean it. Manage the thing like a business, see what customers do and don’t like, research ideas, pay for new pokemon, build new features, and so on. The benefits? Regular cash income based on how well it’s performing, items found when excavating new land, and the occasional rare pokemon from the park itself. Simple.
No? Alright then, how about the ability to act as some sort of peacekeeping force once you become champion? Randomly generated crimes are sent to you via text, you can respond to them and sort them out with your pokemon like some brightly coloured, under-age SWAT team, breaking into Team Rocket Headquarters and tackling them to the ground. Hell yes.
Not your kinda thing? Fair enough, how about a job at the Pokemon Day Care Center, where you have to deduce how to elevate the creature through a combination of loving care and drill-sergeant training, like an even more sickeningly cute version of Nintendogs?
These were just thought of from the top of my head. I’m not saying it needs to be any of these, though I do think the first idea has some potential. Just make sure that there is something else, something tangible. You can stop it feeling like a contrivance or a gimmick by making real and tangible rewards to bring into the main game, and have the main game influence the other mechanic in some way. Maybe you beat a gym leader using a fire-type pokemon, so suddenly there’s a demand for fire-types in the safari park and you can make some extra money by throwing charmanders in there. Or perhaps you catch a legendary ice-type, and this gets around, until everybody wants an ice-type pokemon, at which point you can capitalise on that and start getting snow machines in and painting all the creatures blue.
Basically, we’re getting there. We really are. Pokemon is like most other Nintendo properties, full of potential but unwilling to progress unless it’s guaranteed safety, but people know what’s needed and should tell Nintendo, because that will motivate them. Any of the above would help, all of them would help make a magnificent game. I’m not saying that would be all it would take, nor would I suggest that it should never go anywhere after this, but it’s a damn fine start.
Oh, and take out Vanillish. That thing is just weird.