Pokémon fans were given a surprise this week with the announcement of Pokémon Legends: Arceus, which will be coming to the Nintendo Switch. The game is an open world adventure set in historical Sinnoh, and the main character (with their team) is tasked to create the first Pokédex. The gameplay revealed a design very different from past Pokémon games, with classic graphics replaced by stunning landscapes similar to Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. However, some fans of the series may be wondering why it took the developers 25 years to create an open world Pokémon game, and what changed their minds.
The Pokémon series has been producing linear RPG games since the release of Pokémon Red, Blue and Yellow in the 90’s. The original games were colorless, pixelated adventures for the Game Boy handheld system. Back then, the games were surprisingly well-done and complex for the platform’s capabilities, and Pokémon enjoyed success and popularity with fans. The main Pokémon games would continue to release on handheld platforms in the years to come, and for a long while the systems simply couldn’t handle the requirements to produce a high resolution, open world adventure in the Pokémon universe.
These limitations began to ease during the era of the 3DS, with games becoming more complex and diverse on small, but powerful, platforms. However, the Pokémon series had found a formula in its original games fans seemed to enjoy, and instead of challenging what worked, the developers continued to release games that were relatively similar in mechanics, only differing in locations and slight variations to achieve the same core goals and objectives. This caused the games to stagnate and become repetitive by the release of Black and White in 2010.
The battle between nostalgia and innovation would continue for ten more years, as small changes were made to games in an attempt to push them forward and into the same league as other franchises which were growing in popularity. Full 3D graphics were implemented in Pokémon X and Y, as well as customizable characters and new gimmicks like Mega-Evolution. These changes would continue into Sun and Moon, where Gym battles were replaced with Totem Pokémon challenges. However, the core issue remained the same.
The Pokémon games weren’t opening up the maps or giving players more autonomy during their adventure, while games like Skyrim, Fallout, Minecraft and Dragon Age became increasingly popular for that freedom of choice. It wasn’t until the introduction of the Wild Area in Sword and Shield was a solid success that the Pokémon developers seemed realize that players wanted an open world Pokémon game.
With the Nintendo Switch as the primary platform for upcoming Pokémon games, the series is competing against popular titles like Animal Crossing and Breath of the Wild. Because of this, the games were forced to adapt, and push boundaries they had never tried to tackle before. These changes have given players DLC as an option in Sword and Shield, as well as more inclusive multiplayer gameplay. Whether Pokémon Legends: Arceus’s open world gameplay is a success or not, it will be an important milestone for the future of the Pokémon series.