wtf is the “Main Series” of Pokémon Games, Anyway?

I read an interesting Twitter conversation this morning between two major figures of the Pokémon community: Joe Merrick, who runs serebii.net, one of the most important (if not the most important) English-language Pokémon fan reference sites, and Pokémon YouTuber Tama Hero.  The topic at issue: what exactly is a “main series” Pokémon game?  Because I firmly believe that no human of Earth should use Twitter, I reproduce the conversation here in full:

My first instinct on reading this was to say “yeah but genuinely who gives a $#!t?” but on thinking about it a bit more I was horrified to discover that I actually do seem to have an opinion, so now you’re all going to have to hear about it.

I think what’s interesting about this conversation is that you can see how their views come from their respective positions in the community.  Merrick runs a reference site.  If someone comes to serebii.net and wants to know what a “main series game” is, then he’s not really in a position to answer by giving an independent opinion; if an official answer exists, then that’s what he should give.  Tama makes videos that analyse, review and discuss Pokémon games.  She needs terms that are analytically useful, terms that actually say something meaningful about the things we apply them to, whether or not they have official sanction from the creators.  These are both totally reasonable positions for each of them to take, and for each of them, accepting the other’s position would make it harder for them to do their respective jobs.

So, again, my first instinct was “who gives a $#!t,” but my second – as someone whose niche and purpose are much closer to Tama’s than Merrick’s, and coming from a vaguely death-of-the-author-y place – is to agree with her and say that we are under no obligation to use or respect the creators’ own terms for categorising their work.  If the creators choose to define “main series” in a way that isn’t actually helpful for discussing and analysing the games, then we should either reject their definition of the term or ignore it altogether and create a new category to replace it.

On the other hand, there is probably still some value in going through the background of this question and figuring out what the hell Game Freak and Nintendo do mean by saying that something is, or is not, part of『ポケットモンスター』シリーズ (“poketto monsutā” shirīzu – “the Pokémon series”).  And to be honest, I actually suspect that, in Game Freak’s minds, “the Pokémon series” was for a very long time, and on some level perhaps continues to be, just all the games they made.  From 1996 to 2018, that definition would have given you identical results to anything that any fan might reasonably have come up with.  Until the release of Pokémon Quest in 2018, nothing that we would call a “spinoff game” was ever made by Game Freak – Ranger, Conquest, Mystery Dungeon, Trozei, Go, whatever else we care to name, those were all developed by other studios working under the aegis of the Pokémon Company.  That’s a good 22 years in which Game Freak could, without fear of contradiction or dispute, just think of “the Pokémon series” as “our Pokémon games,” with any other studio’s Pokémon games being part of something different and broader.

It’s only starting in 2018 that anyone would have ever needed to actually think about what counts as part of “the Pokémon series,” and from that point on, we start getting confused and they, I suspect, start making ad hoc judgements.  First there was Quest, which was made by Game Freak but is much more lightweight than their previous Pokémon titles and uses very different game mechanics.  Then in the same year we had Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, which was just as high-profile as Game Freak’s other Pokémon games but has somewhat different mechanics, an extremely different feel and arguably a different target audience.  And now here we are in 2021, awaiting the release of Timey Diamond and Spacey Pearl, which are being developed by ILCA, not Game Freak, but are remasters of games that are clearly part of the “main series” and uncontroversially made in the same mould.  Next year’s Pokémon Legends: Arceus, on the other hand, breaks the mould in lots of obvious ways but is being developed by Game Freak.  The official party line is that Pokémon Quest (which used significantly less development resources than the “main series” games and seems to have been designed with the intent that it be playable on a mobile phone, although it was first released on the Switch) is not part of “the Pokémon series” but all the others are.  Tama thinks (and I agree) that it makes more sense to regard only Timey Diamond and Spacey Pearl as part of the same lineage.

Anyway, as Tama suggests in other tweets, if the terms “main series” or “mainline games” or “core series” are now officially defined to include such disparate games that they’re no longer analytically useful, we should stop using them and change the way we categorise and talk about Pokémon games.  That being the case, I propose the following new definition.

A “traditional Pokémon game” is a game that:

  • Features battles with both wild Pokémon and trainers as an integral part of its core gameplay loop.
  • Has a hard distinction between the overworld, where the player moves around, and battle screens, where Pokémon fight.
  • Requires players to “train” Pokémon to amass experience points, gain levels and make them stronger.
  • Has battles that are largely symmetric (i.e. with rare exceptions, your opponents can make the same kinds of moves as you can and are normally constrained by the same rules).
  • Focuses primarily on one-on-one battles, but may have other formats (doubles, rotation, etc.).
  • Features turn-based battle mechanics, no tactical movement, some form of type chart governing the effectiveness of attacks and four usual options for each Pokémon’s combat turn (use one of four “moves,” switch to a different Pokémon, use an item or attempt to flee, the latter two unavailable in multiplayer).
  • Allows the player to freely assemble their limited battle roster from a wide selection of playable Pokémon, with few or no mechanically enforced restrictions on combination.
  • Has a story that asks players to complete a Pokédex by catching Pokémon and attain some type of championship title by defeating progressively stronger leaders.
  • Allows players to trade Pokémon with, or battle, other players of the same game or complementary versions.
  • Has some backwards compatibility with recent “traditional Pokémon games” for the purposes of transferring a player’s Pokémon.
  • Is set in a previously unseen region of the Pokémon world that resembles the “standard” Pokémon setting (modern with abundant near-future technologies; made up of multiple urban centres joined by rural or wild “routes”; normally safe for children to travel accompanied only by Pokémon).
    • OR: is a remake, remaster, multiplayer-compatible alternate “version” or direct sequel of an earlier game that did this.
  • Introduces a large number (50+) of previously unseen Pokémon species.
    • OR: is a remake, remaster, multiplayer-compatible alternate “version” or direct sequel of an earlier game that did this.

“Traditional” is not meant to imply a value judgement, or that this is a list of things Pokémon games should do.  I would have no problem whatsoever if Timey Diamond and Spacey Pearl were the last games ever made that fit every point on this list; in fact I kind of hope they are.  I’m writing this in anticipation of a somewhat uncertain future, where we don’t actually know how many of these criteria future Pokémon games will hold onto.  We might never see another “traditional” Pokémon game, or we might see a bifurcation of the “main series” into “traditional” games and more Legends titles, or “traditional” games and a wide range of different variations on formula, or we might see a return to nothing but “traditional” games and remember Legends as only a blip.  The point is to list things that would unavoidably feel like a significant departure if they were changed by a future Pokémon game in the “main series,” and to think about how we might measure future games’ adherence to or variance from formula.  I can imagine other things that might be included in a definition like this (I almost included “Pokémon can permanently evolve into stronger forms,” for instance); I can also imagine that someone might want to make an argument for only including mechanical criteria in the definition and not narrative ones – discussion on either point is welcome.  For now this is a satisfactory definition for me, and something I can refer back to if I ever need to ask whether or not something is a “traditional Pokémon game.”

I have written this definition to include two of the main reasons that a person might not regard Let’s Go as a “traditional” Pokémon game: the lack of symmetric battles with wild Pokémon and the lack of backwards compatibility (you can’t get any Pokémon onto Let’s Go from, for example, Sun and Moon).  It doesn’t include a lot of other reasons we might want to exclude Let’s Go – the lack of held items, abilities, breeding and a day-night cycle – for the simple reason that those are also missing from other games that uncontroversially are “traditional Pokémon games” (they’re all missing from Red and Blue).  The real difference of Let’s Go in those cases is that “traditional Pokémon games” seem to see themselves as building on one another and generally retain new mechanics introduced by previous titles in the series – but not always; Ruby and Sapphire are missing the day-night cycle, Black and White are missing contests, Sword and Shield are missing mega evolution and Z-moves.  I can’t think of a way to make this attitude part of my definition without requiring a pretty subjective value judgement about whether a game is “generally” retaining new mechanics introduced by previous titles (it would also mean, in the future, that a game’s status as a “traditional Pokémon game” would depend on which other games it borrowed mechanics from and what their status was).  However, I think I can justifiably say that, although a new “main series” Pokémon game with no held items would certainly be a surprising choice, you can hardly claim that it would not be “traditional,” as it would have that trait in common with the very first Pokémon games.

We also have on this list several of the reasons a person might not regard Legends as a “traditional” Pokémon game: battles with other trainers appear to be rare or absent; there does not appear to be any equivalent of the gym challenge; battles can often be asymmetric (human vs. Pokémon); the setting is not a “standard” Pokémon setting (not modern, not urban, not particularly safe).  Legends also appears to be eroding the hard distinction between the overworld and battle scenes with its asymmetric human-vs.-Pokémon battles, but from what we’ve seen so far it looks as though Pokémon-vs.-Pokémon battles are going to follow a fairly conventional format with no tactical movement and no interaction with overworld features, so I’m not sure whether to count that as a departure from formula.

Naturally, I expect that everything I have said here will quickly and uncontroversially be taken up by all English-speaking Pokémon fan communities, and that this will elegantly and harmoniously end all debate on the subject forever.

11 thoughts on “wtf is the “Main Series” of Pokémon Games, Anyway?

  1. I am not necessarily a death-of-the-author kind. But I am firmly against stupid genre-ey distinctions. So I am strongly on Tama’s side here.

    I think it’s worth framing this whole debate though around the fact that we’re 100% certainly getting a Gen IX. There was minor rumbling that ‘ooo maybe Legends will be the start of a new series and SwiSh will be the final game we get like that again’.

    But Game Freak have shown their hand when they quickly said at the end of the stream that Competitive Ranked Battles will be firmly staying in SwiSh. Not to BDSP or L:A. This can only reasonably mean one of two things
    – Competitive Pokemon is being abandoned (I *guess* is possible but… why would they do that)
    – Gen IX with traditional mechanics and release is due, probably November 2023.

    When that gets announced, we’re probably going to be more inclined to see Legends as what it is, an experiment. Then maybe we’ll get Legends 2. Maybe we’ll get a third thing. And how we talk will change then. But we need to keep in mind that the idea that we *need* to change the meaning of the term because *things will never change* kinda just feels like the wrong way to look at it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah, I refuse on principle to predict things but I think that’s *probably* the most likely future, and continuing to use the official definition of “the main series” in that scenario would make it almost impossible to say anything about “the main series.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have thoughts. Wall of text incoming!

    So this whole debate smacks of formalism vs. functionalism to me, which is a classic categorizational debate in many fields. Do we define things by what they are (formalism) or what they do (functionalism)? Joe’s position is the former (the main series is what their creators say it is), Tama’s is the latter (the main series is what we’ve known them to do). Your proposal is essentially a list of functions – the things we know main Pokémon games traditionally do, mostly – which fits with you aligning more with Tama on this case.

    Tama actually hit the nail on the head with her last tweet posted here: there are, effectively, two different categories that we’re all so far calling “main series Pokémon games”: what TPC/GF have in mind, and what we have in mind (which may or may not be different). This is not an unfamiliar concept to most of us: for example, tomatoes. Are they fruits or vegetables? The answer is they are both, in the sense that they’re fruits when we’re talking botany and that they’re vegetables when we’re talking culinary. What tomatoes are depends on which categorizational system we’re using at the time. There are plenty of things that are fruits in both systems, and that are vegetables in both systems, but tomatoes cross that boundary.

    So when we talk about what, exactly, is a main series Pokémon game, my first response is: “which categorizational system are we using at the moment?” Because there are (at least) two answers: TPC/GF’s, and your own. And then the discussion on whether So-and-So game is main series or not will follow on naturally from that. As with the tomato example, it’s always prudent to first set the grounds for discussions; otherwise you get into inane debates like what Joe and Tama’s discussion seemed to be heading towards (seriously, if Tama had said first what she said last, their discussion would have been much shorter, dependent on only if Joe was willing to accept the existence of a categorizational system distinct from TPC/GF’s).

    And on that note, my own personal categorizational system. Following Rosch’s theory on prototype effects, take Red/Green/Blue (and only them, being the first ones) as the obvious prototypical Pokémon games. With RGB being the centerpoint 0, I argue the following (the values are the degree of removal they are from the prototype):

    – Yellow is a 0.2, mostly for the Pikachu forced onto you as a starter, which comes with its own special mechanics not seen in RGB (noticeably, the burgeoning happiness mechanic). But it’s identical to RGB otherwise.

    – Gold/Silver/Crystal is a 0.5, for being very similar to RGB but expanded and colorized.

    – Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald up to Black/White are 1, for the rehauling of several of RGB’s base mechanics (such as the EV/IV system, which prevented backwards compatibility), rehauling the graphics set by RGB (individualized sprites), continuously adding non-combat bells and whistles (Contests, Musicals, Pokéstar Studios), and changing up the story structure (focus on Team Evil’s plot to use the region’s Legendaries). But they still play almost exactly like RGB.

    – Black 2/White 2 are 1.5, for being direct sequels and thus incomparable to anything before it. But they still play almost exactly the same like RGB.

    – X/Y up to Sword/Shield are 2, both for transitioning to 3D (to me: vastly important, as important as the distinction between 2D platformer Mario and 3D platformer Mario) and for making the series a gimmick-of-the-game series that is incomparable to RGB in any way. An argument could even be made that SwSh should be 2.5 for being released on a home console instead of a handheld and having expansion packs. But they still play largely like RGB.

    – The remakes are either a 1 (FireRed/LeafGreen and HeartGold/SoulSilver) or a 2 (OmegaRuby/AlphaSapphire). BDSP could be a 2 or a 3 depending on how important it is that it’s not actually being made by GF (to me: not important at all). The way they play, obviously, compares to RGB in some fundamental way.

    – The Let’s Go games are a 3, for using the RGB template but introducing foreign, incomparable-to-RGB elements that significantly affect the way they play (namely, the elements from Pokémon GO).

    – Legends: Arceus is right now a 5, possibly more further removed depending on the final product. It has far more foreign non-RGB elements (the battle system, the catching system, the traversal system, and obviously, the game structure itself) than Let’s Go did, and no comparable elements to RGB barring a few familiar character archetypes (the Player Characters and Professor Tree, so far). The primary comparison to RGB is, well… it’s a Pokémon game made by Game Freak. So is Quest, I suppose, but Quest is even less like RGB than L:A is. I’ll put Quest at a 6 for the radically different graphics (at least L:A is comparable to an upscaled Sw/Sh).

    – Everything else (GO, Snap, Masters, Mystery Dungeon, Ranger, Colosseum, Unite, Conquest, Pokken, Detective frickin’ Pikachu, etc.) is a 7 or more.

    So where does the line of “main series games” end? 5? A mythical 4? Heck, maybe even 3? Or so restrictive as to be 2? I think the answer is ultimately up to everyone to decide. But my point is, like everything else, it’s a spectrum. It’s not so much as “So-and-So game is either main series or spinoff” as it is “How similar is So-and-So game to what we can all agree is the prime example of a main series game (e.g. RGB)?”

    And Legends: Arceus is absolutely not similar to anything that has been established before it at all. Which, all things considered, might be exactly why it’s the most exciting thing to happen to this franchise ever since its inception.

    P.S.: I am personally hoping for a bifurcation of “main series games” into “traditional games” and “experimental games, but still made by Game Freak to allow them the creative freedoms they’ve been denied for so long”. Not unlike the current state of DC films, where we get both traditional DCEU films (Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Shazam, etc.), and experimental DC films (Joker, maybe the upcoming The Batman).

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “An argument could even be made that SwSh should be 2.5 for being released on a home console instead of a handheld”
      But THAT argument is contingent on which of those things you consider the Switch to be. I play the heck out of mine and don’t even have a television to hook it up to, so I’m biased by my unusual circumstances.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmm… that’s a good catch. After everyone was so upset about Sword and Shield not having *full* backwards compatibility I sort of thought I had to put *something* in, but yeah, Ruby and Sapphire have basically nothing. What do you think, do we remove that criterion completely, try to rewrite it somehow or just accept that Ruby and Sapphire are a special case? Is there any point in twisting ourselves into knots trying to get the 3DS virtual console releases of generations I and II to count for that?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Honestly, I think that criterion is better removed, even if it upsets people. Honestly, we’ll probably always have some sort of backwards compatibility at this point because it’s easy enough and increases value of playing every generation, but I think it’s still not necessarily a key part of mainline titles. It’s a feature that came about because we had the technology to do so – gen 2 had it because, face it, it was originally intended to be more of an expansion than anything else and, when it was being worked on, Game Freak didn’t had more idea it would be such a long term series. I imagine gen 3 is where they expected it might be, and yet they were perfectly fine having players start from scratch. I think it was brought into gen 4 and onwards simply because it seemed like a fun little feature.

        So yeah, I suppose we *could* say RSE were exceptions, but ultimately I don’t think it makes a huge difference because they likely will keep it to some degree moving forward either way (and if they’re insane enough not to, despite how bad the backlash will be, then I don’t think that generation of games suddenly won’t be mainline because of that one reason). If it was me, I’d keep it out, but as far as I’m aware it’s the only criterion where we’d have to make an exception.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Also, I don’t blame you for forgetting gen 3 didn’t have backwards compatibility, I forgot that half the time due to the entire natdex narrative. I honestly only remembered because I’m so contrary I had to look through your list and see if it all applies to each generation. 😂

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I guess what confuses me personally about this debate is that I don’t see too much that’s different from Legends compared to what are traditionally considered mainline pokemon game? There are differences for sure, but it’s not like it’s so different as say, trozei or mystery dungeon are. There are some funky overworld mechanics, but the core gameplay, where you fight pokemon v pokemon is certainly updated but hardly to an unrecognizable degree.

    Like

  4. Love this blog for the way this topic led to a longer and more impassionate discussion than the latest direct and all the announcements in it. To clarify, I do mean this fully unironically.

    Like

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