Opinion

Pokémon Games Have Always Been Better Than Their Graphics

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Pokemon Sword and Shield starters

As fans learned more about the upcoming Pokémon Sword and Shield at E3 this year, a portion of them turned against the titles. Back in February, a Pokémon region based on the United Kingdom enticed players, and they constructed thousands of memes around the premise. Now, though, a subset of the Pokémon community is complaining about two elements of the titles: the lack of every single Pokémon ever created, which developer Game Freak addressed but does not plan to change, and the graphics and animations. The latter gripe is especially odd since the Pokémon franchise has never had especially good graphics or animations. 

The Pokémon games have always had an especially strong art direction, but the graphics that realize this vision are notoriously lackluster. While the outrage is somewhat understandable, it also seems misplaced; graphics were never a core part of the Pokémon experience. This anger also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what made Pokémon such a successful franchise and why it is still such a significant part of the video game landscape today.

An Art Style Full of Substance

Pokémon Red and Blue premiered in 1996 for the Game Boy. The series began towards the end of the handheld’s lifespan, with the Game Boy Color releasing in October 1998. With essentially 151 playable characters, a world rich with personality and lore, and a game design that strongly encouraged players to interact with each other outside of the games, the first generation of Pokémon became an international phenomenon. However, the graphics and animations in these original games were noticeably limited compared to other Game Boy games. 

In these games, character sprites are static, only the simplest of animations are used to convey attacks, and the overworld is borderline minimalistic. Compared to titles that premiered earlier on the Game Boy, such as 1992’s Kirby Dream Land or 1993’s The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Pokémon Red and Blue are a huge step down graphically. 1999’s Pokémon Gold and Silver for the Game Boy Color would do little to improve these graphics, merely using the console’s enhanced hardware to add color to the games while adding brief introduction animations for monsters in Pokémon Crystal.

Pokémon games have never had hardware-pushing graphics. Instead, they made up for this shortcoming by having a never-before-seen scope of characters and truly outstanding art direction. Sword and Shield seem as though they are continuing this tradition of exceptional art direction, and will realize an extraordinary version of the United Kingdom where Pokémon battles are treated like sporting events. Furthermore, the player can easily interpret what kind of personality Pokémon and trainers have from their designs; especially in the early games. Giovanni’s hunched posture and receding hairline demonstrate that he is a villain, and Erika’s resting pose and closed eyes convey her serene nature. Likewise, Poliwrath’s superhero pose reinforced its newfound fighting-type and Gengar’s grin and raised hands defined it as a ghostly prankster. This focus on art direction is a big part of why the Pokémon games are so full of life and character, and Game Freak was right to focus more on this element of the games than pursuing high graphical fidelity.

How Character Overcame Graphics

That some fans are upset about the graphics and animations in Pokémon Sword and Shield is understandable, so long as they are not harassing Game Freak and its employees. After all, the fans just want a franchise they love dearly to be the best possible version of itself. However, this anger seems to misunderstand what made Pokémon popular in the first place. 

Pokémon rose to prominence because it is an appealing concept that was executed well. When one plays the first and second generation of games, they understand that the team behind them had a very specific vision for this world and its characters. The Pokémon games are kind of strange in that their worlds contain a lot of culture and lore that do not have any bearing on the actual gameplay or story. For instance, the gym leader Sabrina has psychic powers even though her supernatural abilities never really come into play, and the Sinnoh region of  Pokémon Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum has a distinct religion that does not impact the game whatsoever. This meticulously crafted world is very much like a supernatural version of our own, and that made Pokémon such a success. The very specific tone of the games comes off as both familiar and incredible, making players wish that their own reality was just a bit more like that of Pokémon

Of course, the emphasis on social features also played a far larger role in Pokémon’s success than the graphics of any given game. The focus on trading, competitive battles, and even sharing details on a hidden area or how to evolve a specific Pokémon rapidly created a community surrounding the franchise. Then, with the launch of the anime and trading card game, the community rapidly expanded and people could enjoy the franchise in whatever way they enjoyed the most. Graphics were never a part of what made Pokémon a hit and for Game Freak to focus on the elements at the core of the franchise, rather than 3D graphics and animations that are going to look dated in half a decade anyway, is a smart move.

Using A Small Team To Achieve A Brilliant Vision

A common response to the suggestion that Pokémon games do not need stellar graphics or animation to be great games is that Game Freak has abundant resources considering Pokémon’s unmatched success. A part of the group that takes issue with the visuals and animation of Sword and Shield thinks that Game Freak is making enough from its games that it can afford to make them look much better than it has so far. While this idea has some merit, executing it could betray the core ideals of the franchise and ignores the fact that no new Pokémon game will make everyone happy. 

Each new Pokémon game is so well received because it is a solid execution of a specific vision that a small group of people share. Game Freak has around 150 employees, making the team behind each game rather small for such an established franchise. Pouring more money into a game does not automatically make it look better, and Game Freak would have to bring on more staff members to improve the game’s graphics or, for the people upset about the lack of a complete National Pokedex, code every single monster into the game. Expanding Game Freak’s team like this could cloud the vision of the games, though, and easily work against the company. Creating top-tier graphics and animations for a game that includes hundreds of characters will always be a herculean task to which no easy solution exists.

This issue of middling graphics and animations is not actually all that significant in the first place. Most Pokémon fans are excited for Sword and Shield and only a small section of them draw significant issue with their visuals. The Pokémon fanbase is so big that pleasing everyone is impossible. Game Freak is right to focus on honing the core themes and mechanics that made Pokémon a success, rather than pour a terrific amount of time and effort into visuals of the games. The last time a Pokémon game really marketed itself on exceptional graphics and animations was 2006’s Pokémon Battle Revolution—which sold less than two million copies, a rather meager number for a spin-off Pokémon title. 

Pokémon

Personality Over Polish

For people to be upset, within reason, that something they love is not living up to their expectations is fine. However, the expectation that Sword and Shield should have hardware-pushing graphics is an unreasonable one that fails to consider that the Pokémon games have always had subpar graphics. Pokémon is a hit franchise consisting of several great games in spite of the graphics in those titles. In fact, the more limited graphics and animations suggest that Sword and Shield are on track to be similar to the previous Pokémon games. Some may perceive the graphics as weak, but the world, characters, and the events of the games will more than make up for this overstated shortcoming.

Lucas DeRuyter

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