Pokémon Go was a fun activity for the summer of 2016. I was working a job at a local restaurant in between college semesters, and found myself with a lot of free time. When the game came out, a friend and I downloaded it to our phones and took a walk in a local park, making friends on the go with others who were looking for elusive Pokémon and trying to claim gyms as their own. It’s the kind of interactions people talked about all the time while the iron was hot. It’s the reason Pokémon Go got big at all. Anyone, rookie or veteran, could download it to devices they already had and go out and play while interacting with people in their everyday worlds. Sure, a couple people got mugged while playing it, but that’s the spice of life.
Two years and change later, I’ve long since fallen off the game. Without any kind of strong sense of progression, the simple act of catching tons of Pokémon wasn’t enough to keep me hooked; in the main games, I was always a player who wanted the strongest team among my friends more than I wanted to have the most complete pokedex. I find the day-to-day gameplay loop of Go fun enough, and I like the community event work that they’ve finally managed to explore in a way that seems downright (dare I say it) functional. But I always drew a line in the sand.
To me, it always felt inherently idle in a way that no mainline Pokémon title, from Red and Blue to Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, has really aimed for. The main games are journeys, campaigns with goals at their ends. Pokémon Go never convinced me that I was playing more than a time-killer. It was a different thing for a different audience, and hey, that was fine.
That said, that time-killer’s genes are flowing through Pokémon Let’s Go! Pikachu and Let’s Go! Eevee, and I think that’s great.
They both had a fun dose of rumor-filled buildup before their release. Everyone soaked up the news that they would be a return to the series’ original homeland of Kanto, essentially as a remake of the quirky-but-beloved Pokémon Yellow Version from back in the day. Pokémon follow you around, like in 2010’s HeartGold and SoulSilver on DS? Even better. I think part of the disappointment on the part of those with their hearts set on core experiences came down to what a nice list of things these games sound like on paper. Everyone loves a remake, after all.
So what these games actually are – still a remake, but with some mechanics simplified down to match their mobile game versions – scared some people. It’s an odd thing to describe. A core game from way back in a series’ history gets a remake, but the nature of the remake turns it into a spinoff title, a vehicle for a gimmick that wasn’t part of its original heart at all. It’s a bit like carefully restoring an antique car and getting it running again with a new engine, and then painting over it and driving it around to sell ice cream. Even if the ice cream is good, some car purist is going to see that thing on the street and be mad about it.
But, as angry as that guy is going to be, someone else is going to see that car coming up their street and think it’s cool as heck. And if you’re willing to be that person, at the end of the day it’s likely you’re going to manage to have a pretty good time. And I don’t know about you, person who is maybe in a similar position to my own, but that sounds like enough to make me hopeful.
Pokémon has always been an entity of two core messages. One is to train your creatures to be the biggest, beefiest boys they can be and fight your friends. But the other, increasingly so through the generations, has been one of unity. Pokémon bring people together; this is a message the series finds new ways to elaborate on time and time again. Sometimes (usually) it’s cheesy, but other times (often!) it’s also very sweet and good-natured. And what better way to bring people together than to bring entire fan bases together?
Pokémon Let’s Go! Pikachu and Let’s Go! Eevee aren’t by-the-book remakes of Yellow. At the same time, they aren’t just Go in a different and more expensive package, either. They’re something in the middle. By injecting classic mechanics with the simple catch-centric gameplay of Pokémon Go, it invites mobile game players a chance to play something with more of a campaign to it, without feeling like they’re wandering somewhere they don’t belong. By that same token, by distorting a classic game into something with mechanics it didn’t previously had, it invites classic Pokémon players to try something new. To both camps, it offers a middle ground.
If Pokémon Go was Niantic adapting what Game Freak started, these new Switch titles are Game Freak saying hey, hold up a minute, and offering for Niantic to come and sit a spell. Maybe there’ll even be ice cream served out of an old car.