Ever since the first games, Game Freak has always presented Pokemon as creatures that you share a special partnership with. In the beginning, they simply conveyed this through its RPG mechanics. The hours you spent leveling up was meant to create an emotional investment in your pocket friends. I once had a theory that the Pokemon’s level didn’t reflect the Pokemon growing stronger, but your relationship growing stronger.
It’s also worth mentioning that they tried using HMs, special moves your Pokemon learned to help you travel the world, but this did not work as intended. HMs took up your moveslots, making the Pokemon less useful for battles. It was too cumbersome to give you any real sense of relying on your Pokemon.
So for decades, people felt connected to their Pokemon primarily through the RPG mechanics. In the 2nd Generation they introduced the “affection” stat, which changed how some Pokemon evolved, dashing away my leveling theory. In the 3rd Generation they introduced contests, essentially beauty pageants that let you participate in something outside of battles with your Pokemon.
X and Y had their issues, it’s true, but they dramatically changed the way you could bond with your Pokemon outside of RPG battles. I adored the Super Training and Amie features. It felt like I was actually guiding my Pokemon like a coach, and forging a friendship through minigames.
Sun and Moon had a similar feature called Pokemon Refresh, which refined Amie’s mechanics and helped me feel like I was taking care of my Pokemon. I could give them medicine to cure status ailments, clean them up after battles, feed them, pet them, and even go to a photo booth with them! Best of all, they replaced HMs with PokeRide, something like a Pokemon Uber, to taxi you around. It was convenient, but it lacked the personal touch of your own Pokemon helping you out.
Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee both removes and adds features that, while it’s an imperfect Pokemon game, has been the best so far in improving your relationship with your partner Pokemon. For me, Eevee went from a Pokemon I felt ambivalent about to one of my favorites. It has revealed to me a new potential that Pokemon games can have.
Your relationship with Pikachu / Eevee is woven into almost every fiber of the game. You no longer see just your player avatar running around the game, your partner is always visible as well. You have an option to “Play with Pikachu / Eevee” similar to Pokemon Refresh, though it’s only with Pikachu or Eevee. The play is also limited to petting and feeding, but they include adorable flavortexts that vary according to where the player is, how much your parter likes you, and what events have happened in the story. These never failed to surprise and delight me.
Next, any single Pokemon in your party can follow you around, and some you can even ride! This is hands-down my favorite feature. It adds a stronger sense of you and your Pokemon relying on each other. There are even small events where you can interact with your Pokemon, giving once again adorable flavortext on what your Pokemon is interested in.
Then they had Eevee learn the HMs, only this time they were “Secret Techniques,” and they didn’t take up moveslots. It had the best of both worlds: you relied on Eevee to help you travel the world, but it wasn’t a burden to have it around, either.
Finally, there was a specific event in Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu / Eevee that cemented in my mind a new potential for the games.
At one moment in the game, as you are sneaking around Team Rocket’s hideout, there is a brief encounter where only Pikachu or Eevee can go through an airduct and retrieve the key to the boss’s lair. It was only a moment (an adorable one), but it helped improve my relationship with my Eevee, and that’s when the idea struck me.
I hope that in the next game there are more story moments such as these where you can rely on your Pokemon, only all your Pokemon have this opportunity. Or at least your starter would be able to do it. It might be a pain to implement, but if they pulled it off, having your Pokemon be a real part of the story would finally achieve what Game Freak has been going for.
Then again, they may go a different direction with the 8th Generation entirely. It’s important to have high hopes and low expectations, but someday I hope to see this potential realized someday.