If I Were In Charge: You teach me and I’ll teach you

Last entry in this series, so let’s hope it’s a good one.  I’m going to be dealing primarily with battle mechanics here, so odds are good everything I say here is going to be superseded completely the moment X and Y are released in a couple of weeks (hell, for all I know, some of it has been already, since I deliberately pay very little attention to pre-release material), but that’s not going to stop me.  Here we go!

Earlier in this series I talked about my notion that Pokémon is actually two different games http://pokemaniacal.tumblr.com/post/56511544854/if-i-were-in-charge-i-will-battle-every-day-to-claim – a single-player one defined by the game developers, and a multiplayer one defined by the community.  Here I want to talk about one of the big differences between the two that has a nasty habit of bringing about all kinds of plainly unnecessary spite and ill feeling – whether or not Pokémon are any ‘good’ competitively.  Talking about game balance in Pokémon is unavoidably problematic because it seems likely that, early on, Game Freak never really cared whether the games were ‘balanced’ at all, and possible that they still don’t even now.  This then must lead us to question whether game balance is even inherently desirable.  My instinct is ‘obviously it is.’  It is a well-established point of the series’ philosophy, expressed consistently by a variety of positively-portrayed characters throughout its incarnations, that any Pokémon can shine and become a powerhouse with the right kind of love and dedication.  As a child, my favourite expression of the sentiment was always Karen’s: “Strong Pokémon. Weak Pokémon. That is only the selfish perception of people. Truly skilled trainers should try to win with their favourites.”  Read carefully into what she’s saying, though: she’s not denying that some Pokémon are strong and others weak; she’s saying that whether this actually matters is a question of perspective.  We only care about whether Pokémon are weak or strong because we use them to battle (unfortunately, battling is difficult to avoid).  Taken this way, her comment that “truly skilled trainers try to win with their favourites” could be seen as an exhortation to pick weak Pokémon on purpose for the challenge of it – and, indeed, in the single-player game this can be a worthwhile and fulfilling pursuit.  It’s only when we come up against the single-player/competitive dichotomy that Karen’s rhetoric starts to become painfully obstructive.  If your favourite Pokémon happens to be Ledian, Mawile, or Seaking, you should probably get used to ignoring her.  This doesn’t seem fair to me.  Why punish people for liking Ledian while rewarding people for liking Dragonite?

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If I Were In Charge: A heart so true, our courage will pull us through

Damn, this one was hard to write…

Who among us has never once felt a little cheated by our inability to respond “yes” to the Team Rocket recruiter’s offer in Cerulean City on Red and Blue?  One of the more persistent demands fans make of Pokémon is the possibility of being able to ‘swap sides’ as it were – play for the bad guys once in a while.  Many RPGs allow this; some even focus on it, so it’s hardly without precedent, but Pokémon games do not do this.  Even outside the core series, there are (to my knowledge) no games where playing as a villain is an option.  Surely this is somewhere that offers a lot of potential for future developments?

Well, yes and no.  The fact is, I think that Game Freak’s reticence to explore those paths is, in many ways, entirely justified.  So before talking about how I’d do this, let’s first think about whether I even would.

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If I Were In Charge: Arm in arm, we’ll win the fight; it’s always been our dream

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?

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If I Were In Charge: Come with me; the time is right – there’s no better team

When you jump into a new Pokémon game, your first point of contact is invariably your starter Pokémon – often, in fact, before you even play the game; the starters always get a lot of publicity before the games themselves are released, and plenty of people choose their starters well in advance of the release date (as for me, my permanent love affair with the Grass type makes Chespin pretty much non-negotiable for when I first play X or Y).  For many of us, the starters are what defines a game’s character; on-and-off fans may decide whether or not to buy a game based on the designs of the starters, some players go so far as to use only their starters for battle with a couple of utility Pokémon on the side, and Charizard’s flame still sparks nostalgia in people who last played Pokémon in the 1990’s.  This makes them very powerful ideas, and Game Freak, bless their little hearts, know that, which is why the starters have for a long time now been some of the most intensely scrutinised Pokémon of the lot during the pre-release design process, second only to plot-relevant legendary Pokémon.  I spent a great deal of time early last year discussing the starter Pokémon of the past and present; I will refer you in particular to the last entry in that series, which discussed many of the concepts I’ll continue to play with now, though hopefully I’ll pin down something a bit more concrete today, given the nature of this series.  Now, without further ado – how would I handle starter Pokémon in this hypothetical game I imagine myself directing?

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If I Were In Charge: I will battle every day to claim my rightful place

The strange thing about Pokémon is that not all of us are playing the same game.

There’s the game put in front of us by Game Freak and Nintendo, where we accumulate a team of six Pokémon and wander around a region fighting AI trainers, getting stronger, gaining levels, learning more powerful moves and evolving our partners… and then there’s the game of our own making, the world of competitive Pokémon, where the only worthwhile opponents are other players, all Pokémon are assumed to be at their maximum level with their optimum movesets before you ever use them, and effort training is considered essential, breeding to get good genes highly advisable, and using a poor nature suicidal.  Moderately interesting, you might think, but what makes this a problem that needs to be addressed by an ‘If I Were In Charge’ rant?  Well, call me crazy, but I actually believe that a lot of arguments and misplaced vitriol in the Pokémon community stem from the fact that the people on opposite sides of those arguments are playing two different games, and that one or both parties are unwilling or unable to recognise that.  Possibly the greatest part of these problems relate to which Pokémon are ‘good’ or ‘usable’ and which ones are not, which is not what I plan to address today – that gets another rant all of its own – what I want to address now is what defines these ‘two games,’ what makes them so different, why I feel the gap should be narrowed, and how that can best be done.

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If I Were In Charge: Every challenge along the way, with courage I will face

Part of what I’m trying to do in writing this series of articles is illustrate possible ways of giving more time and attention to aspects of the Pokémon world that the core games tend to marginalise.  Battles are the heart of the Pokémon series; I’m not going to pretend they aren’t.  Without battling, Pokémon is a game about a kid who walks around the country listening to people talk and telling his pets to move rocks (now that I write that, I wonder whether someone could make an interesting game out of it…).  As I’ve suggested more than once already, though, there’s no reason we need to be battling just for the sake of battling – which, let’s face it, is what the game is really all about once you’ve defeated the villains of the day.  You go to the Pokémon League and become the very best, like no one ever was.  Then you go to the battle tower and fight other battling enthusiasts to hone your craft.  Your only real aim from that point is to become better at battling and, perhaps more importantly, achieve recognition for being good at battling.  Given that the whole point of Cheren’s character arc in Black and White is that these things aren’t all that important, I think it makes sense that we should look into this structure a little.  Why do we battle?  Why is defeating Gyms so important to us, why is becoming a Champion such a central ambition, and what else can we do with Pokémon Gyms?

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If I Were In Charge: You’re my best friend in a world we must defend

…and oh, how it does need defending.  I’ve discussed all of Pokémon’s past villains before, long ago, but it can’t hurt to summarise… The scale of villainy in the Pokémon universe has swelled considerably since its early days in Red and Blue, when Team Rocket’s dastardly plans nearly brought down one of Kanto’s most important corporations, Silph, to give them control of the prototype Master Ball and its blueprints.  Their return in Gold and Silver nearly reduced all the Pokémon of the nation to servitude through the mind controlling radio signal developed by their scientists.  Ruby and Sapphire saw Teams Magma and Aqua send the very balance of nature into chaos, risking the safety of the whole world to bring about their utopian visions.  Things came to a head with Diamond and Pearl, when Cyrus’ machinations nearly wiped out the entire universe, before Black and White (very sensibly) took a step back and a deep breath, thought about it, and toned it down.  As I am fond of saying, I think Black and White have, hands down, the best plot of the core series so far (and that includes Black and White 2), primarily because of the somewhat ambiguous nature of the villains.  Team Plasma’s stated goals – the goals which most of their members believe they are working for – can conceivably be seen as perfectly noble.  N is a genuinely good person, in spite of his somewhat… unusual upbringing, and he has one of Unova’s legendary dragons to prove it.  Many, if not most, of the Seven Sages are similarly enlightened.  Even some of the grunts appear entirely sincere in their desire to ‘save’ Pokémon from human oppression – and even at the end of Black and White 2, N still has a vision for a new world; a world where humans and Pokémon live together, but without Pokéballs.  It’s only Ghetsis, with his lust for power, who is truly irredeemable (well, and possibly Zinzolin, but I have an unaccountable soft spot for Zinzolin; so sue me).  Ambiguity like this is good.  There are very, very few people in the real world who do things for no other reason than ‘because I’m evil, damnit.’  People who do bad things very often believe they have good reasons – from time to time, they’re even right.  Maxie and Archie in Ruby and Sapphire flirt with similar ideas, but their plans are so far-reaching and so insane that, although they believe they’re working for the good of all, it’s difficult to sympathise (although it’s worth acknowledging that they were a clear step forward).  What I’m going to do here – or try to – is create quick sketches of two villainous factions, not entire storylines, but enough to give some idea of how they might work, what their goals might be, and what kind of conflicts might feature in a game that included them.

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