One lunatic's love-hate relationship with the Pokémon franchise, and his addled musings on its rights, wrongs, ins and outs. Come one, come all, and indulge my delusions of grandeur as I inflict my opinions on anyone within shouting distance.
As part of my eternal contract of service to the Dark Council of my highest-tier Patreon supporters (to whom special thanks, and a mighty tribute of souls and magic, are as always due), I regularly solicit topics from them to discuss in longer articles – and once again, that time has come. Today I’m supposed to be talking about the (so far) three generational flagship mechanics of the Pokémon games – X and Y’s Mega Evolution, Sun and Moon’s Z-Moves and Sword and Shield’s Dynamax – in all their aspects, both how they practically work in the game and how they influence the story and lore of their worlds. “Flagship mechanics” is my own term for these, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else say it, but I like it better than “gimmicks” because I think it’s a better reflection of what the developers seem to want them to be, so I’m gonna keep using it, and you all just have to deal with that because… it’s my blog, so shut up.
Let’s start with a summary for people who might not be familiar with one or more of the games that introduced and featured these mechanics:
Every month, in accordance with dark prophecies written in the stars, I am fated to write an article on a topic chosen by my Dark Council, the conspiratorial conclave of readers who support me for at least $10/month on Patreon. This month, the decree of the Council was that I watch a video by Pokémon YouTuber Tama Hero (formerly Tamashii Hiroka) re-evaluating Pokémon: Ruby and Sapphire and use it as a springboard to revisit the characterisation of those games’ villains, Team Aqua and Team Magma. The video can be found here; you don’t have to watch it to understand everything I’m about to say, but I do think it’s worth your time if you like thinking deeply about Pokémon and game design. If you don’t know Ruby and Sapphire, the fifteen-second summary of Team Aqua and Team Magma is: Aqua likes the sea, Magma likes the land; they both want to wake up an ancient legendary Pokémon (Kyogre or Groudon, respectively) in order to “expand” the sea or land through floods or volcanic eruptions; they eventually succeed and very quickly wish they hadn’t; it’s now your job to clean up the mess.
So, I really liked this video. Jim the Editor didn’t, because it’s framed as a review but doesn’t really succeed at being impartial, which… is true, but not in my opinion particularly relevant. The way I see it, the ship has long since sailed on any kind of rating-oriented “review” of Ruby and Sapphire, but this discussion left me with a much clearer understanding of what those games were trying to do and a keener awareness of both their successes and failures in that attempt – and that, to me, is good media criticism, of the kind that I aspire to. Honestly, to me it often feels like saying at the end of a piece “I liked this Thing” or “I didn’t like this Thing” or “here is how much I liked this Thing out of 10” obscures a lot of what you actually thought about the Thing, which may be a lot more nuanced than your conclusion captures. I almost think there’s an argument for having no introduction or final summation at all, utterly refusing to give a condensed verdict just to force people to decide for themselves whether your analysis revealed more good points or bad points.
(There is a counterargument that this would needlessly cultivate an antagonistic relationship with one’s audience; however, the beauty of Pokémaniacal is that you bloodsuckers already know I plan to bring about the end of time so I can sacrifice you all to the dark gods I truly and ultimately serve, so really we have nothing to lose here.)
One of the seemingly immutable fixtures of the Pokémon games is the system of gyms and badges. In each game (barring the Alola generation) the main challenge set before you, as a young trainer, is to visit eight Pokémon gyms, battle and defeat their leaders, and earn their badges – little bits of metal and brightly-coloured enamel that you pin to the inside of your coat, so you can flash them at people to get into clubs and impress boys. I assume. Today, in this article brought to you by the Dark Council of my Patreon supporters, we’re going to talk about badges and their history and meaning. I honestly don’t know how that’s going to go, but that’s what’s happening, so let’s get to it!
There is a venerable video game trope of “Travel the World, Raid the Dungeons, Defeat the Bosses, Collect the Things” that provides a useful structure to hang your story on. There’s multiple Things of a single class that you’re trying to collect, or perhaps multiple pieces of a single Thing, and they’re in different places being guarded by different enemies. This means developers can do things like, say, create a series of thematic dungeons with thematic boss fights, without having to come up with a unique story rationale for why you’re going to each one – it’s more gameplay mileage out of a single story element. That sounds lazy, but creating a video game is essentially about training players to do something, then presenting them with more and more variations and twists on that thing, so some amount of repetition can be part of good game design. Arguably the most straightforward and best-known examples are from Japanese games – Pokémon Red and Blue are themselves classic examples by now, but there’s also things like the elemental crystals of early Final Fantasy, or pieces of the Triforce in the Legend of Zelda series, as well as plenty from western games.
Somehow, after writing on this blog for nearly 10 years(!!!) and having reviews of individual Pokémon be a pretty big part of my schtick, I’ve never actually talked in depth about Pikachu – the beloved mascot, the one Pokémon everyone knows, even people who have never played a Pokémon game or seen an episode of the TV show; heck, I’d wager there are people who don’t even know what a Pokémon is who’d recognise Pikachu. But no more, for I have been commanded by the mysterious cloaked figures of my Dark Council to write next about the most famous Pokémon of all. So… what exactly is Pikachu’s deal, anyway? Where did it come from, and what makes the design so effective? Whence Pikachu? Read on, as we delve into the history of Pokémon’s favourite child.
The Dark Council has convened, and by the will of my mysterious Patrons, my fate is ordained: we’re talking about Ghetsis, the villain of Pokémon: Black and White. Black and White have always been games that I have very mixed feelings about, for all sorts of reasons, and Ghetsis and his role in the story are inextricable from those feelings. I love the story of Black and White and their sequels; taken together I still think they have the best plot a core Pokémon game has yet produced (although more recent games have different strengths of their own). I also think they’re deeply flawed and could easily have been so much more. Ghetsis is a fantastic character – but he and his relationship with the games’ anti-hero (anti-villain?), N, are at the heart of what holds Black and White back. I’ve talked about Team Plasma, N and Ghetsis before in places, but that was ages ago and some of that old stuff is a little patchy, so this has been a long time coming. Let’s talk about what makes Ghetsis arguably the most evil character in Pokémon’s history and how he shapes the story of these now-classic entries in the series.
The Dark Forces from Parts Unknown whose occult powers sustain my life and strength have anointed new emissaries to convey their terrible will! By which I mean, I have two new Patreon supporters pledging $12/month, the amount required to bribe your way onto my Dark Council. The Dark Council can vote once a month on any topic (I mean, I assume Pokémon-related, but strictly speaking I suppose it doesn’t have to be) for me to write about at length, and this month I’m writing on the suggestion of Miame Irohara (thank you so much for your support!) whom I have named my new Chancellor of Fate. By the authority vested in the Council, she has requested that I write about her favourite generation I Pokémon (and some of mine as well): Staryu and Starmie.
This is actually pleasantly topical, since Staryu and Starmie are among the Pokémon who weren’t previously in Sword and Shield but have become available in the Isle of Armour expansion (reminder: even if you haven’t bought the expansion, you can still trade for Staryu, or transfer it from an earlier game via Pokémon Home), and as any veteran trainer knows, they are some seriously kickass Pokémon. If you’ve never had the pleasure of training one, maybe give this article a read, pick one up and take it for a spin (…literally). But first, let’s talk about starfish.
This is the first of what will, in principle, be a monthly
“series” of investigations into topics chosen by the unfathomable whims of my
shadowy advisors, the Dark Council. The
Council is made up of everyone donating at least $12/month to me on Patreon – at
the moment that’s one person, the newly appointed Lord President of the
Council, Verb, who therefore gets THE SUPREME POWER to dictate the direction of
these studies. However, if you value
what I do, think I deserve something in return for my work, and would like me
to maybe someday be able to do more of it, YOU TOO could be inducted into the
Council’s hallowed ranks, nominate topics for future months, and vote on them
(listen, bribing your way to power and prestige is totally on theme with the
whole “cult” thing I’m going for here).
Here is the prompt I was given this month:
“I’ve often thought about the episode of Indigo League in
which Ash’s Butterfree is released in order to join the migration, and it’s
caused me to wonder the effects that similar migrations might have on Trainer
culture, with their inherent desire to remain with their chosen partner Pokemon
potentially conflicting with the Pokemon’s own desires.”
So let’s talk about Pokémon migration and what happens when
Pokémon leave their trainers!