Pokémon Red is the first game I can remember playing myself. And while revolutionary for the time, the rudimentary, 8-bit graphics of the series left a lot to the imagination. Pretend this grass hides wild pokémon. Imagine this pokémon is wielding vast elemental powers. Picture an epic gym battle for the right to be the champion of the entire country. The Game Boy classics could never live up to the dream they were selling. With Pokémon Sword and Shield, though, you don’t have to imagine. For the first time, developer Game Freak has brought the world of Pokémon to life in a way that the pixel-art of Red and Blue never could.
Sword and Shield’s Galar region feels alive to me in a way that no Pokémon game ever has. Wild pokémon peer their head out of the grass as I adventure along the path, ambling along in their native habits like the wild creatures we’ve always been told they were. There’s the pervasive sports culture (complete with practice fields, rowdy fans, and merchandise) around Pokémon battles that makes my adventure feel a part of the world.
And then there are Dynamax gym battles. For decades, the Pokémon games have told me that I was a legendary trainer, facing down the world’s greatest pokémon masters in huge battles, but Sword and Shield finally shows that. It’s one thing to be told that you’re competing in a country-wide league against the pros — but it’s another to see building-sized pokémon duking it out in a massive stadium to the roaring cheers of a huge crowd.
On top of all that is the Wild Area, the crown jewel of Sword and Shield, which feels like the future of the franchise. A wide open area to explore, with different biomes, filled with dozens of different pokémon just wandering around and massive Dynamax and Gigantamax raid battles that let players team up across the internet for truly legendary pokémon battles. You can camp with your pokémon, creating delicious snacks to share or just play fetch with them. It’s so much fun to explore and see what rare or interesting pokémon is around the next corner, in fact, that it’s responsible for sidetracking most of my playthrough of the actual gyms and storyline.
That’s before getting into all the quality-of-life changes that Game Freak has made with Sword and Shield, cutting out unnecessary cruft like limited-use move teaching items, environmental moves like Fly and Surf that were essential to travel, and the requirement to have to travel back to a town to change up your team’s lineup. Sword and Shield even does its best to be transparent about that with in-battle menus, allowing players to see which moves are most effective or what temporary stat effects are in play. The games mark the biggest step forward in ridding the series from the annoying artificial barriers to fun it had erected over the years, and in turn make more high-level aspects of the long-running RPG series even more accessible.
Sword and Shield are still easy games by nearly any metric, at least for the main storyline. But with the maddeningly difficult Battle Tower and the sheer delight of exploring the Wild Area and taking on the endgame multiplayer raids, there’s plenty of depth for more mature fans willing to put the effort in to train the ultimate team of competitive fighters.
But the difficulty almost doesn’t matter. The games themselves are less Pokémon game and more like a lovingly created, playable version of the popular anime. I vividly remember playing Pokémon Red all those years ago and wondering if the games would ever reach the point of the cartoons, creating a world where wild pokémon roam free and my battles had the stakes that Ash Ketchum’s did. With Sword and Shield, the series finally caught up to my imagination.
To me, Pokémon Sword and Shield highlight the possibilities of what modern video games — with all our technological advancements — can be, bringing what were once childhood dreams to interactive life. After two decades of getting closer to that reality, Sword and Shield make it real. They’re not only the best Pokémon games ever made — they’re the best video games I’ve played all year.
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