So, apparently the National Dex is going away. For all the Internet riots that have been going on about this, wasn’t it pretty much inevitable that the series would eventually create more Pokémon than it could fit in one game? And I’m saying all this despite knowing my personal favorite is almost certainly getting the axe (sorry Piplup, but you’re a non-Kanto starter, your animal basis doesn’t live in the same hemisphere as Britain, and your anime appearance was an obnoxious spotlight stealer)
Okay, I’m gonna hijack this question to get out everything I think about this and be the one and hopefully only time I talk about it, so here goes nothing:
I have something of a track record of holding verrrrrrry contrary opinions relative to the majority of the Pokémon fanbase (“fewer new Pokémon per generation can actually be a good thing,” “we already have more Eeveelutions than we needed,” “Mega Evolution is fine, but I’m not that interested in seeing more of it,” “the whole ‘XYZ legendaries = Norse mythology’ thing is probably bull$#!t,” “yes, I still think Garbodor is dumb”). It should perhaps be unsurprising that, when I first saw that Sword and Shield would not include every Pokémon, I shrugged and moved on, naïvely thinking that this wasn’t a particularly big deal.
This is, it turns out, extremely not the case.
Game director Junichi Masuda has said that they decided this was a necessary economy because doing higher-quality animation for the Switch is very labour-intensive, and having too many Pokémon makes the game harder to balance and takes the spotlight away from the new ones. And… I mean, honestly that seems totally reasonable to me; I myself have even cited the sheer number of Pokémon as an impossible hurdle to ever creating a balanced game, and suggested… well, this. I wasn’t considering animation costs at the time, but… well, yeah, that too seems reasonable; animation is time-consuming and expensive. Like, it’s a shame that we can’t have everything we want, don’t get me wrong; I would love to have everything I want. But given that video game design always involves a mountain of compromises, this seems like one that Pokémon was going to have to make sooner or later. There are a lot more existing Pokémon than there could ever conceivably be new ones in a single set of games. That $#!t’s unwieldy. As long as every Pokémon game has to accommodate every Pokémon, then each game is going to be more difficult and more expensive to make than the last, even if it doesn’t actually try to do anything new or interesting. There is a hypothetical breaking point where it’s just not worth making the game anymore.
There is this narrative out in the Pokémon community that Masuda-san is just… like… straight-up lying about how difficult it would be to animate all nine-hundred-and-whatever Pokémon. Supposedly the models from X and Y were in some way future-proofed to make it super easy to keep improving them and adding new animations in the future, so the real reason is just because Game Freak is “lazy.” I… have to admit here that I don’t know very much about graphics or animation, and if you want someone to debunk this argument from a technical perspective then that’s not me. Still, “animating 800+ characters is actually really cheap and easy” doesn’t seem to me like a particularly firm reason to accuse a game developer of lying through his teeth to the media and the public, and I haven’t seen that narrative accepted by anyone who actually works in game design or games journalism. Pokémon has a truly ludicrous number of playable characters, and can’t reuse a lot of animations between them because their models are just totally different shapes. Meanwhile, any new feature that involves Pokémon has to be open to all of them (like, say, Pokémon Amie was), so as long as we want to keep every damn Pokémon there’s ever been, there are some pretty hard limits on how interesting or creative those features can actually be. Doing anything new is, like, eight times harder for Pokémon than it is for any other game that isn’t committed to this massive cast of legacy characters.
There is an argument, of course, that you can make a fantastic JRPG with 8-bit graphics, which… kind of gets into the whole “graphics arms race” issue that is frankly bigger than Pokémon, and I don’t want to touch it. Honestly, though, I am still kind of enamoured with the sprite graphics of the generation IV era, so personally if that were what it took to support every Pokémon indefinitely I might be okay with it. People love the 3D games though. People loved Pokémon Amie not just because of what it mechanically did, but because it let you interact with your Pokémon in this new and more realistic-feeling way that sparked the imagination. And… y’know, I think Game Freak’s developers are probably in the same place on this one. They could pour their heart and souls into Pokémon designs that are going to be rendered as sparsely-animated sprite graphics, but I think they probably want to see their creations in 3D too. That seems valid to me as a creative decision; I have trouble seeing it as just wrong.
I also see people reacting under… what seems like the assumption, though it’s never explicit (probably because anyone who actually says it out loud realises how stupid it is), that the Pokémon who aren’t in Sword and Shield are also never coming back. And… I don’t think there’s any good reason to think that; I mean, not every Pokémon that was left out of the Unova Pokédex was left out of the Kalos Pokédex or the Alola Pokédex, so why would every Pokémon that’s left out of the Galar Pokédex be left out of generation IX or beyond? I don’t think anyone’s said that Pokémon Home won’t support all Pokémon (just that it won’t be able to send them to Galar if they aren’t in the regional ‘dex) so clearly Game Freak is working under the assumption that there will still be roles for these Pokémon in the future. Total Pokédex completion isn’t tied to a single game anymore, so it’s not like you need to keep migrating every Pokémon you own along to the latest games every time. Even if there’s never another Pokémon game that has the entire ungodly complement of the blasted things, why would every future game include exactly the same subset of them? Apart from anything else, it would just be throwing away perfectly good IP.
Having said all of this, though… if you are upset about this, don’t buy the game! You don’t owe Game Freak or Nintendo your money, and frankly it would be good if more fans skipped the first Pokémon game of each generation. After all, there’s probably going to be another one set in Galar, with about $30 worth of new features and story material (and maybe 3 or 4 new Pokémon, à la Ultra Smoon), in 1-2 years, and that’s way more of a problem than deciding that maybe not every game needs to feature every Pokémon.