Pokémon Generations – Episodes 1 and 2

So, Pokémon Generations.  We should probably talk about it.  Generations is a series of 3-4 minute animated shorts that are being released each weekend on Pokémon’s official YouTube channel, as part of the ongoing barrage of promotions to mark the franchise’s 20th year.  Its aim is to shine a spotlight on a selection of memorable events from the games, in the same sort of spirit as Origins did, but covering the whole of Pokémon’s life rather than just Red and Blue.  Its point is to evoke nostalgia in veterans of each generation of games, but also to the stress their continuity – Pokémon is the same adventure it’s always been, and will continue to be, as the first episode does its utmost to stress.

Episode 1 of Generations opens with the antiquated black-and-white loading screens for the original games, Red and Blue.  We see a relatively new player loading up his game in Viridian Forest, where he encounters and captures a wild Pikachu.  The rest of the short is a montage of Pikachu’s adventures with the player throughout the six regions and generations of the core games, with lots of gratuitous legendary Pokémon cameos.  The focus is firmly on Pikachu.  We see enough of the trainer to know that it’s still Red, the player character of the first games, and not any of the later protagonists like Ethan or Dawn – which stresses the continuing experience of players who’ve stuck with the games all this time.  His face is in shadow, though; and I suspect this is sort of the visual equivalent of the “silent protagonist” trope in video games, where the main character is deliberately not defined in much detail to encourage the player to identify with them.  Pikachu’s trainer here is supposed to be you, and these are snapshots of your adventures.

As for the scenes themselves, the first thing we see is Pikachu’s first battle with the player, against a wild Caterpie, as a Zapdos flies overhead.  This is followed by a battle with some wild Wooper in a canal in Ecruteak City (Pikachu, predictably, does poorly, but is miraculously scooped up by Lugia before he falls into the water), then one against a Vigoroth near the Hoenn Weather Institute, fighting on a rope bridge that gets cut by Latias and Latios as they fly past.  Next, Pikachu battles a Probopass outside the Snowpoint Temple, the resting place of Regigigas (who does not take kindly to being disturbed), and then delves into the Relic Castle ruins beneath Unova’s Desert Resort, where he comes face to face with both Volcarona and Landorus.  Finally, we see Red and Pikachu riding a mine cart through the abandoned tunnels of Terminus Cave, with a Noivern in hot pursuit, until they reach Zygarde’s chamber.  Simple, repeating structure: a battle between Pikachu and a Pokémon introduced in the appropriate generation, in a memorable location from that generation, with an appearance by a legendary Pokémon from that generation.

To be honest, I don’t quite get the overwhelmingly positive reaction that the first episode has received – “captures the essence of the classic games,” “can’t get over how cool it is,” “perfection,” etc.  It’s simple, it’s straightforward, it does one thing and it does it well – namely, prompt us to recall our own experiences playing twenty years of Pokémon games, filling in the gaps in the story with our own memories.  Also, they’ve clearly figured out that a transition from cruddy 1996 Gameboy graphics to smooth 21st century animation is like candy to the fanbase; seriously, we can’t get enough of that $#!t.  It works as a statement for what Generations is trying to be – a highlight reel of the events depicted in the games – and has clearly gotten people to buy into what will follow.  And… that’s all it is.  I don’t think there’s anything particularly interesting about it beyond that.  Let’s move on.

The second episode is a retelling, from a new point of view, of the fall of Giovanni and the end of Team Rocket’s operations in Kanto.  It focuses on Agent Looker, the Interpol investigator who has appeared in every game since Platinum, on the trail of various bad guys.  Personally I think Looker is annoying, ineffectual and irresponsible, and should ideally be taken out the back and shot, but he seems to be a permanent fixture of the games now, so I’ll just have to live with him.  In the company of Kanto’s police, Looker reviews footage from raids on Team Rocket’s Celadon and Saffron operations, and is alerted to a new lead: the boss, Giovanni, has been tracked to the Viridian Gym.  He accompanies a police team in riot gear to Viridian City, where they surround the building and use their Pokémon to bust in; a Machamp punches a hole in one wall, an Arcanine melts through another, and a Magnemite (in what is easily the coolest part of the whole episode) plugs itself into a security door and hacks it open.  But when they get inside, the Viridian Gym is abandoned.  Looker finds only the debris of a recent battle in the arena.  He explains, via voice-over, that they later discovered Giovanni had secretly been the Viridian Gym Leader, and had left after conferring badges on two random children (Blue and Red), leaving rumours in his wake that Team Rocket had disbanded, but no-one is sure whether that’s true.  We then see Giovanni outside the city, looking back at his former home.  He declares that Team Rocket will never fall, and paraphrases a line from the Team Rocket Credo – “all Pokémon exist solely for the use of Team Rocket” – before turning to leave.

So this is interesting because it takes such a different spin on Giovanni to what Origins did.  Now, I happen to have felt that Origins’ portrayal of Giovanni was exceptionally well done and interesting, and I think it’s a little odd that Generations would try, in the space of just four minutes, to establish a contradictory narrative that doesn’t appear to serve much purpose other than giving Looker something to do.  Maybe Giovanni will appear in future episodes, and make what they’re trying to do here a bit clearer.  Because frankly, Origins did it better (and that’s no surprise; they had a twenty-minute episode to work with); Giovanni was a nuanced character with identifiable beliefs and motivations, and develops as a person as a result of his interactions with Red.  Generations’ Giovanni appears for just long enough to make it clear that he’s a cardboard villain, and dispel any sense of mystery around whether Team Rocket is really finished.  It would actually have made things more interesting if he had never appeared at all, leaving us with only Looker’s speculations, or alternatively, if Looker had found Red in the Viridian Gym’s arena, and heard his account of their meeting.  Exactly what happened in that battle, and what Giovanni really thought of it, actually has tremendous importance for the plot of the Kanto and Johto games.  The Sevii incident in Fire Red and Leaf Green is caused by Team Rocket members who don’t yet know that their boss has disbanded the organisation, and it’s implied that the leaders of that group are the same executives who go on to cause so much trouble for Johto later, in hopes of bringing Giovanni out of retirement.  The fact that people don’t quite know where he’s gone or why is a pretty big deal.  Maybe that’s why Generations is willing to give us a version of Giovanni that’s so inconsistent with what Origins showed us, but, at the same time, more consistent with his appearance in the Celebi event from Heart Gold and Soul Silver, where he is totally unrepentant, and ready to rejoin Archer’s faction when they take over Goldenrod City.  More than one interpretation of Giovanni’s character exists, because people in the world of the games have also seen his character in more than one way.

That’s all I have on these two episodes, but I’m going to try to keep commenting on them as they’re released – I believe the intention is to have a new one out every weekend until Christmas.  I’m not 100% sold on these yet, but I like the notion of them; let’s see how the execution measures up in weeks to come.

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