The tremendous success of the mobile game Pokémon Go changed everything for the monster-collecting video game series. After 2016, there were suddenly millions of new fans willing to spend millions more dollars to raise digital battle monsters. Despite its popularity, however, Pokémon Go seemed to linger in an ambiguous space, separate from the core Pokémon games and their deep role-playing systems, as well many of the fans devoted to them. Pokémon Go mined “real” Pokémon titles for gameplay ideas and monster compendiums, sure, but otherwise, the two worlds hardly intersected. Until now.
Last week, developer Game Freak surprised fans by proposing something unusual: two new Pokémon RPGs for the Nintendo Switch that mixed the more casual elements of the mobile games with a beloved version of a traditional Pokémon game. Called Pokémon Let’s Go, one version of the game pairs you up with the franchise mascot, Pikachu, while the other game gives you an Eevee buddy. For Game Freak, these upcoming games are a clear attempt to bridge the gap between the two distinct fandoms. For newcomers who mostly play Pokémon Go, mechanics like throwing pokéballs to capture critters will be immediately legible. For veterans, the promise of basking in the glory days of Pokémon remains an attractive prospect. And everyone can agree that having your monsters follow you around is cute as hell. But despite the individual appeal of these elements, Let’s Go is a precarious marriage of ideas, one that could have huge implications for the future of the series.
Game Freak announced that it was exploring ways to connect Pokémon Go to the main games over a year ago, and its solution to the great Pokémon divide is a motley mixture of ideas from both. Remakes of older games often incorporate modern quality of life fixes along with new mechanics all the time, but usually stay true to the fundamental experience of the original game. Let’s Go isn’t like that. Along with alterations to the capture system and the addition of co-op capabilities, you can’t breed pokémon anymore, you can’t evolve your starter, and turn-based battles — which have long defined the series — are out, at least when it comes to wild pokémon. Also, you’ve got to physically swing a controller to capture pokémon. These changes are drastic enough that when the games were initially revealed, there was a lot of confusion among fans over whether or not the games should be classified as remakes, spinoffs, or true-blue entries in the primary franchise.
We know that a more traditional game is coming next year, but regardless of how that entry approaches a new generation of games, Let’s Go is primed to become the more culturally significant game in terms of potential audience reach and influence. Already, Junichi Masuda, producer on older Pokémon games, has said that simplifying some mechanics in Go helped them reach “a much wider range of players” and that this will “affect the business going forward.” If successful, the new remakes will bring a huge influx of new players into the fold of the broader franchise, if not affect the future of Pokémon games going forward. Game Freak will have a reason to consider further simplifying the core games if the experiment is successful.
Game Freak has repeatedly made it clear that Let’s Go is aimed at younger and newer players, but the fact this is the first meaty Pokémon game on the Switch means that hardcore players are unlikely to skip it. This is especially true if a fan has fond memories of the original Pokémon Yellow. And so, Game Freak will have to grapple with the expectations of both audiences, whether it wants to or not.
Game Freak will have to grapple with the expectations of both audiences, whether it wants to or not
In some ways, the two approaches to the franchise seem fundamentally incompatible. Hardcore Pokémon players always want deeper and more complex systems to train Pokémon, if not more mature storylines. Let’s Go won’t deliver on that front. Although Pokémon Go fans aren’t averse to deeper play experiences necessarily, they’re used to playing a simplified game that trades complexity for meaningful social interactions with strangers. The tension goes both ways: hardcore fans are anxious that Let’s Go represents a dumbing down of the franchise, while Go players are nervous about how Game Freak will add complexity back into the mix. For example, in the main games, pokémon have six core stats, whereas Go only gives monsters three core stats. If you import a monster you own in Go into the upcoming Switch game, how will those statistics translate? There’s a lot of room for Game Freak to mess this up or make both fan bases unhappy in different ways.
The Let’s Go games represent a huge opportunity for Game Freak to expand the audience for console-based Pokémon games if it manages to thread this needle. And its success or failure could potentially have a major impact on the identity of the franchise across platforms — what it looks like, how it plays, and who plays it.
There’s always been an “anything goes” quality to Pokémon spinoff games — including the Pokkén Tournament fighting game — but this is the first time that a spinoff has held so much potential power over the franchise as a whole.
When Let’s Go comes out later this year, it will test the waters with what is functionally a reboot designed to marry the old and the new. What this means for the future of the franchise depends on its success, but if even a small portion of the mobile players pick these new games up, they’re probably going to do pretty well. Let’s Go plans to take players back to Kanto, the land of the original 151, and very familiar territory to any long-time Pokémon enthusiast. But there’s a whole slew of fans who have never even been to Kanto before. They’ve only met its residents. If enough of these mobile fans enjoy the journey, perhaps the next “core” Pokémon game will be designed to vie for their hearts as well.