The first and most important question anyone should ask about Detective Pikachu, the new crime-solving, neo-noir Pokémon spinoff game for the Nintendo 3DS, is how it got made at all. The game features a talking Pikachu that sounds indistinguishable from a 1930s-era Dashiell Hammett protagonist, equipped with a deerstalker hat, magnifying glass, and gruff sensibility.
The sheer alarm at hearing the franchise mascot speaking, and with a voice and personality that feels profoundly out of place, has sent shockwaves through the fandom. The intrigue has only deepened with the official live-action adaptation of Detective Pikachu, which is set for a 2019 release, featuring actor Ryan Reynolds voicing the crime-solving mouse detective in its English version.
For Japanese game and toy maker Creatures, which is best-known for the Pokémon trading card game and multiple series spinoffs, the outlandishness of Detective Pikachu took a lot of convincing. “We really started with the concept of making Pikachu talk,” says Hiroyuki Jinnai, the producer of Detective Pikachu, who’s worked on the Pokémon franchise with creator Game Freak for more than two decades. The goal was to surprise people and alter the perception of the franchise’s most well-known face, Jinnai adds, in celebration of Pokémon’s 20th anniversary. “We really worked hard to come up with a justification and setting to make that work.”
Jinnai, who’s also helped on and off as a producer and adviser on the Pokémon anime, says Game Freak has historically been quite protective of the world it's built. Executives at the game company, which operates as an independent entity with a stake in the Pokémon license alongside Nintendo and Creatures, often stopped writers on the TV program from taking liberties with pokémon, like imbuing the pocket monsters with too many human-like qualities. “It took a lot of convincing to let us break the rules,” Jinai says.
The result is an utterly bizarre and yet lovably quaint video game that will no doubt find its place in the ever-expanding Pokémon canon. The game is very linear: players maneuver through nine chapters that blend traditional video game cutscenes with a heavy dose of problem-solving, clue-finding, and suspect interviewing. Often a crime scene, which can involve misdemeanors as banal as a mischievous gang of monkey-like Aipom pokémon snatching a little girl’s necklace, will be littered with easy-to-find clues and people to chat with. Arranging those clues in order and talking to bystanders in the right sequence is usually the trick to finding the way forward.
It works because Creatures has developed a self-aware product. What makes the game so enticing is not how it’s designed or even the main plot, but the core mysteries that Creatures has concocted. How can this Pikachu speak, and where does he come from? And why does he — and Nintendo is careful to clarify that it is, in fact, a male Pikachu — act and talk like an old-timey detective? While the surface-level purpose of the game’s narrative is to find main character Tim Goodman’s father, who’s gone missing in Ryme City, Creatures says the larger mystery for players to unravel is the origin of the titular character.
The developers behind Detective Pikachu embraced the idea of seeming like a novelty spinoff Pokémon game because they realized they couldn’t escape it. After all, the biggest meme surrounding the title to date is whether Danny DeVito is the English voice actor for this particular Pikachu. (He’s not.) Instead, Creatures leans into the absurdity of a talking Pikachu — a character that, as a fictional electric mouse, is already absurd — with an appropriate level of earnestness mixed with tongue-and-cheek winks to the audience.
The end result is that a simple clue-finding game becomes a fun detour into the weirder and more fantastical elements of the Pokémon universe. In certain situations, Pikachu will take the lead on interviews with other pokémon, communicating back to Tim and helping shape the personalities of these pet-like creatures in ways only the anime has ever cared to articulate. And throughout the game’s many cutscenes, the talking Pikachu and Tim have comical exchanges as they unearth the nature of their relationship, with Tim avoiding tipping off other humans to his extraordinary pal’s speech ability and why, for some reason, only Tim can hear the detective talk.
In a lot of ways, Detective Pikachu is an attempt at injecting some slice-of-life nuance to the world-building in Pokémon. The game doesn’t have any of the typical battles players are used to. The focus instead, Jinnai explains, is more on everyday life and how humans and pokémon interact. “Imagine if pokémon and humans were living in the same setting — how would that look,” Naoki Miyashita, the director for Detective Pikachu, says, adding that traditional pokémon battling will be almost nonexistent in the narrative. “You will see a lot of pokémon fulfilling traditional human jobs.”
Those kinds of scenes — moments that are equal parts quirky, funny, and sincere — are peppered throughout Detective Pikachu, and they’re sure to make the game a worthwhile experience for any longtime fan.
Detective Pikachu comes out on March 23rd for the Nintendo 3DS in North America and Europe.