Pokémon Retrospective, Part 2: Becoming Poké-Pals

Several weeks ago, our family cat passed away. Her official name was Isabel Allende (yes, we named her after the famous Latin American author), but we usually just called her Smudge. She was about 13 years old when she passed away. She went peacefully, and my family buried her near a lovely tree. We adopted her when she was just a 6-week-old kitten. She was originally a farm cat, but her mother got killed in an accident. We took her in, and while I helped out a little bit, it was my younger sister who truly fed her and trained her. Soon afterward I moved away to college and I only saw her occasionally on my return trips. To be perfectly honest, she was a bit onery. She didn’t like being petted, and she especially didn’t like getting picked up. However, she was fun to play with, and she was a good companion even when you were busy. It was hard to say goodbye.

After I mourned her, I pondered on how we as humans have a special place in our hearts for our animal friends. The internet is full of funny cats. When I go outside, I go out of my way to point out every good dog for my partner. For many children, their first words include a name for the family pet. We love animals. They make us feel connected and valued. They don’t judge you or worry about human things. If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you.

Today we’re going to talk about how Pokemon taps into that love and fascination with animals to elevate the experience into something more than just another RPG.

I believe in Sprigatito supremacy.

Designer Pokemon

After a new Pokemon Generation is announced, the first topic of debate is usually the new Pokemon designs. People pick a starter months before they actually pick up the games, and wars have been fought over which one is best. After watching the newest Gen 9 trailer, I had the following thoughts: “I will protect that poor Smolive with my life; Team Sprigatito for the win!”

And yes I will name my starter Smudge.

Pokemon designs are absolutely essential for making a good Pokemon game. And if Game Freak has done one thing well across its decades as a game studio, it’s Pokemon designs. Ever since Gen 1, Pokemon have been charming us and inspiring us. The original game’s creature designers, Ken Sugimori, Atsuko Nishida, and Motofumi Fujiwara, are creative geniuses. At first they designed Pokemon with specific roles in society, such as Rhydon with its drilling horn and Lapras with its seafaring ability. Then with input from Satoshi Tajiri and Shigeru Miyamoto, the team came up with the typing system, and from there, design Pokemon that could embody the various types. They looked to the natural world (flowers, insects, birds), the man-made world (pollution, electricity), and the supernatural world (folklore, legends) for ideas. This team established the template that Game Freak would use for designing Pokemon for years and years, and the method is still effective today.

Game Freak’s original concept art of Pokemon living in harmony with people.

Pokemon appeals to so many people because of its variety. There are “cool and tough” Pokemon like Charizard, “cute and squishy” Pokemon like Jigglypuff, and “weird and derpy” Pokemon like Psyduck. No matter what your tastes are, at least a few Pokemon will speak to your heart. Even the ugly Pokemon have a place — disgust is just as important an emotional reaction as adoration. Making 151 different Pokemon is such an astronomical undertaking, I’m surprised they turned out as well as they did. So much personality is embedded into every design, even the pixelated sprites from Gen 1 feel like they’re about to leap out of the screen.

Pokemons’ designs are so good, I was once tempted to buy a $50 button-up shirt from The Pokemon Center with a Magicarp pattern on it. $50… for one shirt! And that’s how Pokemon became a billion-dollar, multi-media franchise. It’s all thanks to the creature designs.

But How Do You Make A Game About Them?

From the beginning Game Freak intended Pokemon games to involve the player catching, taming, and training Pokemon from the wild. Being a Game Boy game, Red and Blue‘s random encounters simulate the uncertainty of roaming wild areas quite well. At first you see small and unassuming critters like Pidgey and Rattata, but once you venture into Mt. Moon, you’ll start encountering exotic creatures like Clefairy. Every step of the catching process creates a level of randomness, and consequently, a level of tension. Will you find that rare Pokemon? Can you weaken it enough without KOing it? Will the Pokeball work? From the very beginning of your relationship, you’re investing yourself into your Pokemon.

Game Freak’s original concept art of a Pokemon battle.

Once that creature is caught, it’s time to cultivate a partnership. At first, Game Freak conceptualized Pokemon as a more aloof affair, where the trainer treated the Pokemon like tigers in a circus. One design concept for the player character even had a whip in their hand! Thankfully the developers changed course and made the relationship more egalitarian. They made sure to create NPCs with Pokemon friends, a Rival that pushed his Pokemon too far, and an evil team that used Pokemon as tools, all to emphasize you treating your Pokemon with care. Of course, you could cynically rebuke its premise; you’re still making critters fight each other, but the games urge you to frame the relationship more like coach/athlete than master/minion. As the trainer, you care for them and create a strategy for battle, while your Pokemon executes your strategy. It’s a partnership.

I actually quite like the simple yet cohesive theme of caring for your Pokemon that Gen 1 espouses.

I’ve already discussed how Pokemon games try to simulate the bond between trainer and Pokemon in a previous post, but to recap: the RPG genre is well-suited for Pokemon’s concept thanks to the way it naturally simulates a relationship growing over time. You wouldn’t get the same experience if Pokemon games were Platformers — honestly I have no clue how that would even work. Many other game mechanics have come and gone in the series, but the core of your attachment to Pokemon stems from overcoming obstacles together. You’re not just embarking on an adventure all by yourself — you’re doing it with your favorite (or sometimes not so favorite) Pokemon friends.

In most JRPGs, all the party members are chosen for you. They carry out set roles, grow at the same rate, and fight as a team. In Pokemon, you select your party based on who you like and who is a good matchup against your opponent. Since the majority of battles are limited to 1v1 affairs, it makes you focus on one Pokemon at a time. In the early games where the Exp. Share is not very useful, this makes level grinding tedious, but it also fosters a more intimate relationship. You put time and effort into each member of your party. You’ve helped them learn new moves, evolve, and grow stronger. You’re invested in your Pokemon. When your Sandshrew pulls off a critical hit against your Rival’s starter, you pump your fist. When your Rattata gets poisoned in Viridian Forest, you anxiously rush back to the Pokemon Center before they faint.

Game Freak’s beta designs for several Pokemon.

Mo’ Pokemon, Mo’ Problems

However, Game Freak’s biggest asset is also its biggest hurdle. Even in the first Generation of Pokemon, which sported over 150 creatures, how do you create an RPG that 1) balances the combat so that most Pokemon can be viable and useful, 2) has animations for every attack and status condition, 3) make each player’s Pokemon feel unique and special, 4) can fit onto a Game Boy cartridge, and 5) doesn’t take a decade to develop? The studio came up with several solutions that remained in the series’ DNA for generations.

First, they made the battles turn-based. As cool as it would be to make Pokemon battles feel more like an Action game or a Fighting game like Pokken Tournament or Super Smash Bros., it would take millions of dollars and dozens of years to finish such a project. Pokken Tournament only has 20+ fighters, and Smash Ultimate has only 70+. Could you imagine the time it would take to make a game with over 150 playable Pokemon fighters in it? It’s just not realistic from a game developer standpoint.

Having stock attack animations is a clever solution to animating Pokemon battles.

Second, they created a pool of attacks, animated those attacks, and then assigned a moveset to each Pokemon. For example, while Ponyta’s fire comes from its mane and Charmander’s fire comes from its tail, it makes sense for both Pokemon to use Ember. Sharing moves would both simplify the game so that more people could understand it and reduce development cost. Special effects could be added around the Pokemon as well to make the moves seem more impressive. When the series shifted to 3D polygons, the devs even began using tricks like camera movement to simulate the impact of a physical attack, even though the animation on its own is rather basic. TMs go an extra step in making your Pokemon feel unique, and HMs make your Pokemon’s attacks an integral part of exploring the world.

I just adore all of Pikachu’s cute animations and cries in Pokemon Yellow.

Third, Game Freak came up with Pokemon Cries. Junichi Masuda first engineered these by distorting the noise channel on the Game Boy’s sound chip. By altering the pitch, frequency, and distortion, Masuda created a stunningly large sample of somewhat believable 8-bit animal sounds with little storage space. Attack sound effects work the same way.

Fourth, Game Freak created IVs and EVs. Without doing too much into detail, IVs and EVs are hidden numbers that affect the stats of each Pokemon, making each creature of the same species distinct from each other. IVs reflect the innate stats that a Pokemon is born with, while EVs grow the more that a Pokemon battles with its trainer. This way, some Pidgeys will just have stronger Defense stats than others, even if they’re the same level; and a trained Pidgeotto will always be stronger than a wild Pidgeotto, even if they’re the same level. Even in the gritty numbers part of the game, no two Pokemon are exactly the same; yours are unique. Later on, Game Freak would create the Nature mechanic that would make a Pokemon’s stats even more complex.

Finally, Game Freak created a typing system where each type had at least one weakness. Pokemon having dual types, like Bulbasaur’s Grass/Poison typing, creates an insane permutation of possibilities; some type combos compound weaknesses, while others negate them. By the time this post releases, Game Freak hasn’t even used every possible dual type yet. When you combine stats, movesets, and typing, every Pokemon has a specific strategy for how to make the most of them when they’re on your team; and how to defeat them when they aren’t. Unfortunately, some types are more useful than others, but over the years Game Freak has tweaked types enough that the battle system overall feels balanced.

More concept art of Pokemon battles.

These solutions were clever ways to solve Pokemon’s development problems. I know it’s easy to berate Game Freak and complain about everything I wish they’d do, but when I list all the ways that they’ve solved problems in the past, I can’t help but applaud them. Their Digital Pet Adventure Simulator not only works, it has created some of my fondest memories as a child and strong emotional attachments as an adult.

Don’t worry, though. Next week we’ll talk about those nagging problems that cling to Pokemon like a Geodude to a flying Spearow. Game Freak doesn’t get off the hook just because they make Pokemon games.

Sources / Further Reading

  1. https://helixchamber.com/media/capsule-monsters/
  2. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html
  3. https://tcrf.net/Pok%C3%A9mon_Red_and_Blue
  4. https://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2017/08/09/game-freaks-origins-and-non-pokemon-games.aspx
  5. https://youtu.be/9l8V_eQ6wGQ
  6. https://youtu.be/G5aBg6GFufI
  7. https://youtu.be/A-pmh70cZu4

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