Right. I’m in America. I have an apartment. With a bed. And food. Good. I have just over a month until X and Y are released, promptly making this entire series quite obsolete, and three planned articles left. That seems like a perfectly reasonable timeline. On with the show!
Now, where was I?
Red and Blue. Gold and Silver. Ruby and Sapphire. Diamond and Pearl. Black and White. Pokémon games, as a matter of tradition, come in pairs. The games’ storylines are broadly very similar; the essential difference is in the Pokémon that are available in each one – generally, each game will have perhaps five or six Pokémon of the current generation that are missing from the other. The obvious purpose is to encourage trading; it’s impossible to complete the Pokédex on a single game, so one must enlist the help of friends (this is, of course, the intention; for the purposes of this discussion we will leave firmly aside the stereotype of the lonely Pokémon trainer who buys two consoles and both versions to trade with him or herself). These days, with so many legacy Pokémon scattered across so many different games, one questions whether this is actually necessary; it is almost impossible by this point to complete the entire national Pokédex even with three or four different games at one’s disposal (the handful of deliberately omitted Pokémon seeming but a minor speed bump in comparison) completing the regional Pokédex only requires one to see all of the local species anyway, plenty of Pokémon still need to be traded to evolve, and there are no shortage of other multiplayer functions to reward playing with friends, which will doubtless continue to proliferate. I would go so far as to suggest that the concept of paired games, as originally intended, is obsolete. However, the games have been evolving. Pairs of Pokémon games aren’t just about trading so you can get a Bellsprout anymore – the tradition of pairing has almost become a part of the medium, something that later games have been using to make a point. Can this concept continue to be relevant and beneficial even when its original purpose has become almost meaningless?
Ruby and Sapphire were the first pair of games to attempt to use the ‘pairing’ concept for something beyond its basic gameplay function, with two enemy factions – Team Aqua and Team Magma – each game featuring one of the two as its primary antagonist, while the other takes a very minor role, acting primarily as an ally, but perhaps with a slight implication that the only reason they aren’t just as dangerous is because they’re losing the war. Arguably Emerald alone, by featuring both groups as antagonists, is equally effective in conveying the essential message – that, in spite of their conflict, both teams have effectively the same ideology, and that both are dangerous because what’s important is not the primacy of either land or sea but the balance between the two. However, the pairing of Ruby and Sapphire is an interesting way of doing the same thing, since it lets two players see the same events taking place while putting two different sets of characters in different roles. Of course, this only works because the whole point is that the conflict is unnecessary and both parties misguided. Black and White actually use a similar idea, although they’re a bit more subtle about it; as Drayden points out in the sequels, Reshiram’s truth and Zekrom’s ideals aren’t even opposed at all, really, and of course the player and N can each be partnered with either dragon, interchangeably. This isn’t the only way Black and White reference and exploit the twin game structure, though; those games love duality, the big one being nature/civilisation, which is in a sense the whole point of the story, by way of N’s desire to separate people from Pokémon, dividing the world into black and white. Tradition/progress is another important one, remarked on by a number of townspeople when spoken to, particularly in Opelucid City – itself an interesting idea, a town which is radically different on each of the two games – and in the version-specific towns of Black City and White Forest.
Black here stands as a cipher for science, innovation and sophistication, while White stands likewise for simplicity, harmony and naturalism. The pairing is more than a gameplay obstacle; the games advocate for two contrasting philosophies or ways of life, which – and this is important – are envisioned as being equally valid (perhaps one could draw a similar contrast between the reverence for nature espoused by traditional Japanese Shinto faith and the focus on technology that has made modern Japan an economic powerhouse). One presumes that X and Y will do something similar – there seem to be hints that ‘X’ and ‘Y’ stand for the X and Y chromosomes and therefore, symbolically, for masculinity and femininity. Exactly how Game Freak would use something like that is quite beyond me. If it really is what ‘X’ and ‘Y’ mean it could be very interesting, although also potentially dangerous, since it is physically impossible to discuss gender without offending someone (heck, we’re already upsetting a lot of people just by considering masculine and feminine as a duality). This isn’t about Game Freak, though, or X and Y – this is about me, and appreciating how much better I am at every conceivable aspect of existence. With that in mind, let’s talk about what else we could do with the concept of paired Pokémon games, and with Pokémon’s multiplayer facilities in general.
While I like the idea of having two opposed teams of villains, it’s been done before with Aqua and Magma (although it could admittedly be done better) and I’ve already said my piece on villains in Pokémon, so let’s put that aside this time. I’m tempted to look at something really esoteric, like a Pokémon that changes its form and powers on the different games (the way Deoxys did when it was first introduced in the third generation), but I’m not sure how that could be done effectively. No, I think the first thing I’d like to build on is the idea of version-exclusive areas, as used in Black and White – but not quite. Let’s have different starting locations. The two games begin in two different towns. These towns could be nearby and have a traditional but friendly rivalry, or they could be at opposite ends of the region, with cultural differences as stark as Black City and White Forest. Perhaps they are both known for different aspects of raising Pokémon – one for breeding, the other for contests or some other artistic pursuit, which could perhaps be used to set up a contrast between two different areas of civilised life, namely labour and culture. Different starting areas would also make for an interesting variation on the traditional idea of version-exclusive Pokémon: players would navigate the region’s routes and areas in a different order, encountering different species of Pokémon in the early parts of the game (this would, of course, necessitate that the levels of wild Pokémon in certain areas be different from one game to the other). Doing things like this would also provide a good excuse to make the home town actually important, rather than just a random backwater that you leave at the beginning of the game and then never return to except after defeating the Elite Four. If you find ways to build up your own home town and make it more prosperous – attracting a tournament organiser to set up a new Pokémon battling event there, establishing a nearby area as a safari zone-style Pokémon preserve with rare species, for example – those same changes will appear on a friend’s opposite version game if you link up, and vice versa (there’s some overlap, obviously, with some of the ideas I brought up when I talked about being the Champion). The nature preserve could also provide an extension of the old idea of version-exclusive Pokémon – earlier in the game, you can add your own games’ exclusive Pokémon to each other’s safari zones to be captured, while later on, after the end of the primary storylines, you can each add different Pokémon that don’t appear on either game (that is, ones from earlier generations). The culmination of the ‘build up the hometown’ sequences could be larger expansions that also add something to the game’s multiplayer functions: for the ‘worker’ town, a huge ‘agricultural centre’ with an international day care, a place where you can leave several Pokémon and have them breed, at random, with Pokémon belonging to trainers you’ve met on the Global Link (or similar), as well as buy rare items for helping Pokémon grow; for the ‘artist’ town, a great amphitheatre where you can compete in Pokémon contests over Nintendo Wi-Fi, or have your Pokémon pose for paintings and sculptures that you can use to decorate your home and other areas (these same works of art could appear on the games of other players you connected with, carrying plaques to explain where they came from).
Part of the traditional two-game structure, of course, has always been a pair of version mascots: initially the fully-evolved starter Pokémon, Charizard and Blastoise, but since Gold and Silver, pairs of legendary Pokémon, who since Ruby and Sapphire have been directly relevant to the plot. That means I need a link with my ‘Team Eden’ plot (assuming people still remember it), as well as, hopefully, with my putative labour/culture contrast. In terms of an animal inspiration, the first thing that comes to mind for me, perhaps oddly, is a pair of legendary insects, of all things, drawing on Aesop’s story of the industrious ant and the musical grasshopper. We need more legendary Bug-types, right? The ant is a Ground-type who taught humans both farming and the basics of engineering in ancient times, as well as the virtue of simple hard work, which is what she values above all else. She is willing to help Cassandra and Team Eden because she feels that humans have come to rely on Pokémon for everything, losing touch with what it’s like to have to work for themselves. The grasshopper could be a Grass-, Psychic, or Fairy-type; he loves art in all of its forms – music most of all, but painting, sculpture, dance and poetry too, as well as all manifestations of natural beauty. He joins the fight because, although human artistic endeavour pleases him, he feels that we suppress the ability of Pokémon to enjoy the freedom of creative expression. Your version mascot, of course, appears at the culmination of the plot, as normal; the mascot of the other game will remain in its lair. You can only find this place and fight the legendary Pokémon inside if the other game’s home town has been built up sufficiently – the Pokémon can be drawn out of seclusion if they are sufficiently impressed with humanity’s dedication to either hard work or artistic creativity (so, instead of trading to get the other legendary Pokémon directly, you link with someone who has the other version in order to gain access to the extra features of their home town, allowing you to fight the other version mascot yourself).
Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try to say something about the Pokédex quest, so as long as I’m on the subject of how two games can work together, here’s an incredibly obvious idea that has somehow never been tried before: sharable Pokédex data. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that two trainers working together to complete an encyclopaedia of all Pokémon would, y’know, compare notes once in a while? The obvious danger here is that it could quickly trivialise the whole thing; completed Pokédexes would spread like wildfire until anyone could finish the game in about five minutes as easily as making a wi-fi trade. There could be a simple solution, though – only allow players to share data they’ve obtained themselves, using something like the key system in Black and White 2 (I confess that typing the words “like the key system” sends a little of a shiver down my spine, but clearly some sort of limit is necessary, and this method is demonstrably possible). Alternatively, only allow a limited number of entries per day to be obtained by sharing (say, ten – chosen at random from those your partner has but you don’t). If the two games get different flavour text for each Pokémon, as has always been standard, sharing Pokédex data could also be another way to collect more information even on Pokémon you’ve caught already.
This is one entry that I didn’t really approach with any grand plans in mind. Still, after Black and White, it seemed important to think about further possible ways of using the traditional two-game structure. At the moment, my thinking is basically ‘pick an interesting duality and run with it.’ There are, of course, other directions you could take this – you could get rid of the concept of paired versions entirely, finally ending the criticism of ‘one game for the price of two,’ but although possibly a more pragmatic option, that’s not really interesting. You could switch to a three-game structure, to match the traditional three starters, and other significant trios, both in the games and in mythology (of legendary Pokémon, for instance – every generation has had at least one trio of those) – but that’s getting a little bit ridiculous. You could even make the differences between the two games something radically more pronounced – like having a ‘good’ game and an ‘evil’ one. But would that actually work? Hmm. Might be something worth talking about next time…