Pokemon has always been at odds with itself. There’s a famous episode of the anime from near the very beginning of the show, where protagonist Ash comes up against the first gym leader, Brock. Brock is a Rock type gym leader (his cousin, Bwater, is a Water type leader), and his signature Pokémon is an Onix. Ash, as he so often does, opts for Pikachu. Contrary to popular belief, Pikachu’s Electric type actually does neutral damage to Rock, but unfortunately Onix is a dual Rock/Ground type, and Ground is invincible to Electric attacks. Ash eventually wins the battle by accidentally letting off the sprinklers, because I guess, why not?
If you’ve ever played Pokémon Yellow though, you’ll know that pitting Pikachu against Onix is a deathwish. With no sprinklers to save you, it’s either a Nido or Mankey with a Fighting attack you’ll need. This though is why Pokémon seems to fundamentally misunderstand itself so often; the series is built on companionship, friendship and a spiritual connection, but to actually succeed at the game you need to leave these naive notions behind.
Early game Pokémon are, aside from your starter, notoriously terrible. While there are a few examples of ‘mons who might evolve well and stick with you throughout your journey, most early catches are discarded in favour of slightly stronger or cooler ones you meet further down the line.
The vague notion of a deep bond is kept in place by the constant presence of your starter, but that’s not because of any spiritual connection, it’s because your starter Pokémon always kicks ass. ‘That’s not true, I love my Greninja!’ I hear you cry, but what happened to your starter Charmander in Pokémon Go? Right in the candy grinder as soon as you caught one with better IVs.
The problem is that Pokémon still hasn’t realised why it’s such a success. It’s become a phenomenon despite the marketing, not because of it. Sword & Shield are build on the same notions as Red & Blue; catch weak Pokémon, use them to catch stronger Pokémon, throw weaker Pokémon away, rinse and repeat. We all loved Wooloo when we first saw it, but the structure of the games makes it impossible to keep one around unless you’re prepared to carry a passenger. Hop keeps his all the way through, but especially considering the Galar endgame favours the Steel type, Wooloo and its evolution Dubwool aren’t much use.
For all it was magical for me to see my native Britain in a Pokémon game, Sword & Shield’s formula and lack of appreciation for how much fans want their own Ash-Pikachu experience made parts of it feel stale. The Pokémon are, funnily enough, the best parts of Pokémon, but the main series games just don’t get that.
Luckily, most of the spin off games nail it to the floorboards. Recently, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX released for the Nintendo Switch and by removing the humans, it elevated the Pokemon.
The game casts you as a Pokémon; technically a human who became a Pokémon, but that’s all very by the by, since you quickly adapt to life as a ‘mon. A short personality quiz determines who you should play as, though you are free to change the game’s choice and select your character, along with selecting your partner Pokémon.
While in regular games your partner Pokémon fights for you, here they fight with you. My Cubone (Jenny) was partnered with a Psyduck (Lizzie), and Psyduck especially felt like the perfect choice for the excitable, loyal, slightly hapless sidekick. Though stats, type matchups and Pokémon levels still matter, Mystery Dungeon strips away most of the mathematics of Pokémon and leaves room for their personalities to shine.
The game fully commits to the themes of friendship and companionship Pokémon is supposed to be about. But it also cares to make each Pokémon unique, meaning Gengar stands out for more than just his high Special Attack. Here, he’s mischievous and conniving, Kangaskhan is kindly and mothersome, and Xatu is wise and mysterious. These are traits we’ve always associated with these creatures, but the quote-unquote real Pokémon games never highlight them.
Mystery Dungeon is an average game, a little too fiddly and repetitive to really shine. In truth, Sword & Shield was much more enjoyable, but Mystery Dungeon made me feel like I lived in the world of Pokémon, instead of just playing a game where I battled them. I loved my Appletun, but I never felt like I really knew him. Is he dopey? Friendly? Stoic? Sarcastic? I’ll have to wait for the Galar anime to let me know, despite spending over 30 hours with mine.
Though the main series games are the ones which have the biggest (if extremely similar) narratives, introduce new ‘mons, define the generations and make the big bucks, it’s the smaller spin offs which exemplify the franchise’s ethos. PokePark Wii is nowhere near as good a game as say, HeartGold. But the dumb little interactions with each ‘mon directly was much more effective at making me feel like these creatures were living, breathing animals and not just colourful battle droids.
Likewise, playing through Mystery Dungeon gave me a stronger connection to Cubone and Psyduck than a hundred gym battles ever could have. Now, whenever I catch a Cubone, I’ll think of Jenny.
Then I’ll swap it out, because Marowak’s stats suck.