Why Pokemon is a Cultural Phenomenon

Pokemon is so huge that it’s become a household name, even among people who have never played the games.  It’s a cultural phenomenon on par with Super Mario, even though far fewer people have played it.

This is in no small part because of the media marketing strategy that the series is known for.  There’s a lot of interesting research out there about its “media triangle,” that is, the games interface with the anime, which interfaces with the real-life trading card game.  Pokemon has boatloads of merchandise, spin-offs, and, yes, rip-offs inspired by it.

Pokemon logo
The logo for the Pokemon series. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

So, the games must all be masterpieces, right?

Well, yes and no.

Before I go on a tirade, I should talk about my experience with Pokemon as a franchise.  I’ve only ever really played one game: Pokemon X, released in 2013.  It was soon after I bought my Nintendo 3DS, and I found it more interesting looking than earlier games.  So I bought it soon after release, and I got into it.

Pokemon X and Y
Pokemon X and Y, the sixth generation of Pokemon games. (Photo: Honou via Flickr)

I really got into it.

Playing X, I suddenly understood all the positive things people have said about the series.  Picking your starter and growing with them through the entire game.  Meeting all the gym leaders and experiencing their different personalities.  Battling rivals and comparing your progress to theirs.  Discovering new Pokemon around every corner.  It was like being a little kid in a world of possibilities, and it reminded me of my days watching the anime and wishing I could be in that world.

In total, I played the game for over 330 hours.  I did everything from the Battle Chateau to legendary battles to shiny hunting (hatched a shiny Honedge, I was real proud).  I bought all the insanely expensive clothing.  Most importantly, I completed the Kalos Pokedex.  Through hours of grinding and trading, I obtained all 718 Pokemon in the game.  I literally “caught ’em all.”

All in all, I had a great time, and I remember the game fondly.  But as strange as it sounds, I hardly remember it as a great game.  I remember it more as a journey, and an experience.  My favorite part of that experience wasn’t battling, instead it was trading.  By the end of my time with it, I’d done dozens of trades and only about three actual battles.  The rest of it was in-game battles, and I was pretty overpowered by the end of the game so I never felt much of a sense of climax.

Now I know that the meat of the gameplay is battling, and boy is there a lot of meat there.  You have to consider type advantages, Choice Scarves, Stealth Rocks, and so on.  It’s so extremely complicated at high levels.  And I can’t deny that it’s intricately crafted, but personally, it’s not what drew me to the game.

Yet, I’m a huge Pokemon fan.  Half of my friends are huge fans of the series.  So what is it specifically about Pokemon that has such a universal draw?

The key lies in the famous slogan of the franchise.  “Gotta catch ’em all.”

My favorite part of Pokemon is not really the gameplay as much as the creatures themselves.  New ones are created with each new generation of games, and although I’ve only ever played the one game, I love seeing the new Pokemon and how their designs reflect the overall aesthetics of the game’s world.  As silly as some of the Pokemon are, each one is unique.  Even Smeargle, who is virtually useless is battle, is so lovable because of its strangeness and personality.  Sure, Pikachu is the iconic mascot, but I’d rather have a plush doll of Smeargle.

Ash and Pikachu from Pokemon
Ash and Pikachu from the long-running Pokemon anime series! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

That’s why I think the anime series is so brilliant as well.  Sure, as a long-time viewer I think it’s kind of lame that Ash is the eternally young main protagonist.  But it does now what it did well back at the turn of the century: it enriches the world of Pokemon.  In a lot of ways, it paints a cooler picture than what we see in the individual games.  All the characters, plotlines, and voice acting are campy and sometimes absurd, but because each episode usually focuses on specific Pokemon, it creates a memory for when the viewer finds them in a game, or on a trading card.

For example, I watched the anime a lot when I was little — most of it was the original Kanto series, but I vaguely remember seeing some of the episodes in the Johto region.  That’s why getting Totodile, Chikorita, and Cyndaquil had special value for me in Pokemon X.  I had memories of seeing them in action about ten years prior, and suddenly they were real again.

Pokemon GO
Pokemon GO was a global media sensation. (Photo: edowoo via Flickr)

This is what I’m talking about when I talk about the genius media presence of Pokemon.  It’s the perfect example of a game franchise that goes beyond games into popular culture.  Pokemon GO is another great example: it played less on being a game than being a cool social trend in the mobile age.  The appeal of each of the hundreds of monsters makes the fandom of Pokemon extremely compelling.  It’s why I still buy Pokemon toys after not playing it for years.  It’s why I hope that, even far into the future, Nintendo keeps finding ways to bring the fun and magic of Pokemon into the hearts of people across the world.

My Six Video Game Commandments

I was disappointed recently by a livestream from the team behind the upcoming Middle-Earth: Shadow of War.  Specifically, it showcased the game’s second currency.  In addition to Mirian, the game’s regular currency, there is also Gold.  Gold is used to purchase war chests and loot boxes for the chance of obtaining legendary items and gear.  So how do you obtain gold?  Through community challenges, reaching milestones in the game, and, of course, by paying real-life money.

That’s right, Shadow of War has micro-transactions.  Everyone’s favorite.

This makes me furious, because I wrote a post specifically on why I was excited for this game.  I can’t remember wanting a game so much in a long time.  Now, I’m not sure I can buy it, because I can’t support these practices.

People have covered this controversy pretty thoroughly already [insert], but Angry Joe’s coverage is what I want to focus on today.  If you watch this, hopefully you don’t mind cursing.

If you’re not familiar with Joe “AngryJoe” Vargas, he’s a video game and film reviewer on YouTube with subscribers in the millions.  His biggest claim to fame is tackling corporate scheming in games.  In an era where scheming is more common than ever, he tries to make sure people get their money’s worth from games.

I’ve always admired Joe for this, and he said something in the above video that intrigued me.  He proposed the idea of creating a list of “Gaming Commandments.”  These commandments would provide guidelines for what’s fair to consumers and creators in games.

Joe hasn’t even created his own list yet, but just for fun, I thought I’d take a crack at it.  I’ve been watching his show for years, and I think I could create a decent list based on his wisdom.  Especially for big budget releases.  These are my six standards of quality that just about every game should adhere to upon release so that consumers get what they deserve.

Commandment 1: New Releases Should Provide At Least 1 to 2.5 Meaningful Hours For Each Dollar Paid

I’m taking a risk by including some kind of concrete ratio of time to money, because not all games fall under one umbrella.  Companies have varying amounts of resources, and some games are meant to deliver shorter, more refined experiences.

What I’ve noticed across the board, however, is that even with games like Shovel KnightSuper Meat Boy, and Mark of the Ninja, I felt like I got my money’s worth.  The games around around 10 to 15 dollars, and were so deep that I got at least 30 hours out of each.

Compare this to some licensed games that expect you to pay 30 or 40 dollars for 10 hours of gameplay at the most.  This is called being cheated out of your money.  If a game is fairly short, it should be challenging, deep, and/or interesting enough to make you play it more than once to get the full experience.

Commandment 2: Consumers Should Not Be Made to Pay For Raw Graphical Quality

This one overlaps with the first commandment a little bit.  Some games justify steep price tags by being graphical and visual knockouts.  Take the 2015 remake of Star Wars Battlefront, for example (this one’s gonna come up a few times).   It’s the most faithful recreation of the original Star Wars trilogy ever to be made in a game engine.

The problem is, there are often balancing and longevity issues surrounding all the eye candy.  If a game’s worth is defined by the explosions in its animated cutscenes or how convincing your character looks holding a gun, then priorities are probably in the wrong order.

Commandment 3: Micro-transactions Should Not Affect Paid Singleplayer Games

This commandment was actually the impetus for the list.  Shadow of War is running into this problem right now.  It’s a singleplayer game with a multiplayer component that interfaces with the singleplayer experience.  That multiplayer component allows players to spend money and accelerate the process of obtaining resources.

And this is after players paid $60 dollars U.S. retail for the game itself.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in the virtue of earning one’s place at the top in paid multiplayer games.  Micro-transactions have been getting in the way of that.  They work better in a free-to-play model, where you can spend money to build yourself up, or invest time to do so.  Paywalls are still a problem, but at least no one is punished for playing the game.

DLC and cosmetic purchases are also fine, as long as they’re priced appropriately.  They enhance an experience without necessarily breaking it, and they allow a game to stay relevant.  For example, Elder Scrolls DLC consistently charges the player an appropriate amount of money for the amount of game they get in return.

Micro-transactions are a whole different ballgame.  In big-budget releases, they are almost always a way of siphoning money from people who just wanted a focused, complete game.  Things get especially bad in games like Assassin’s Creed Unity where the player can go into a menu and buy more treasure chests to open.  It adds artificial value without real substance.  It needs to stop.

Commandment 4: No One Should Pay Full Price for Half a Game

I mentioned a moment ago that DLC is great when it’s reasonably priced.  Guess what happens when it isn’t?  Ask Electronic Arts.

EA has a bad habit of charging people money for perfectly extraneous things.  Like the Call of Duty games they release year after year that only seem to decrease in quality.  But another horror story from Battlefront saw them charge for a DLC Season Pass that was, on average, about the same price as the game itself.  This might have been understandable, except the game at launch was bare bones.

What we ended up with was people paying twice market value over several months to get a reasonably complete but mediocre game.

Other games like Killzone and Destiny have used poor DLC models that left players feeling scammed.  Here are some examples of really good and really bad DLC.

Nintendo got this right with Splatoon in a simple way: don’t make people pay.  The game got free new weapons and maps over a period of about 6 months, and the full game proved worth it.  It also didn’t split the player base into people who did and didn’t purchase the content.

DLC is a double-edged sword.  It’s important to give players valuable content if it’s not included in the game.  Otherwise we’re left nostalgic for the days of cheat codes.

Commandment 5: Paying Money / Pre-Ordering to Tip the Scales in Multiplayer Should Be Off-Limits

This commandment is an offshoot of the third, but I’m specifically talking about player advantage.  Multiplayer games often entice players to spend extra money by offering better gear faster.  This method has some problems, like how randomized rewards lead to wasted money and frustration.

The worst offense, however, is when a game offers a head-start for pre-ordering the game.

Not only does this prioritize 1) people who have money to spend on pre-order copies, and 2) people who are able to get to these copies first, but it asks people to take a leap of faith and assume that the game they’re pre-ordering is going to be good.  That guarantee never exists, especially not before release.  On the surface, pre-ordering seems like a harmless gesture to reward brand loyalty, but it’s now usually pegged as making a deal with the devil.

At the very least, pre-order bonuses or special bundles should involve fun, cosmetic additions.  They should never, ever give players an edge in the game itself.  Don’t be EA, who sells the best pistol in Star Wars Battlefront 2015 for 10 dollars so that people can pay to kill 25 opponents for every death.

Commandment 6: Games Should Refine Their Core Software Functions Before Launching

A big problem in the modern age of games is when companies don’t polish their games enough before release.  I’m not saying all games must be bug-free.  Most open-world games would be impossible to get free of bugs.  But if you have a game on Steam that runs online or on PC hardware, it’s really important that it works.

So many games crash at random times and have to be reset.  Too many connections are dropped in online games.  Splatoon has this problem even now, two years after release.  This is why so many companies have paid subscriptions for online play.  It means better servers and more reliable connections.

Crashing is simply a matter of rigorous testing and making sure the game runs properly.  If this is a recurring problem, it has to be minimized before release, even if it means delaying the game.  I’m sure most people will be happy to wait for a game that doesn’t glitch or crash on them.  Patching helps this process after launch, but too many games have been declared dead on arrival because they don’t work right.

Conclusion

I hope this tirade has been helpful to you readers out there.  It’s a far cry from what I normally write, but I felt the need to write it.  I’ve seen too many games get more money than they deserve by complicating their money-making schemes.  What we, as consumers, end up with is a market full of cutting-edge games that pull wool over our eyes.

Thankfully, there is hope that things will improve.  EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II is ditching a lot of broken mechanics and DLC season passes in favor of more content.  If it turns out good, we’ll know that our voices matter.

Meanwhile, if we’re trying to determine whether a game stands on its own two feet, I think this is a good start.

Star Fox Needs A Real Identity, Here’s Why

Star Fox is one of the biggest tragedies in gaming to me.  I can’t believe a series so charming, original, and out-right cool is so rarely done right.

The series follows ace pilot and anthropomorphic fox, Fox McCloud, leader of the space combat team “Star Fox.”  His friends, Peppy Hare, Falco Lombardi, and Slippy Toad, back him up.  Under the command of General Pepper, they serve as peacekeepers in the Lylat System.  Their enemies include the parallel team of mercenaries Star Wolf, and the evil galactic conqueror Andross.

Star Fox has broken ground since the 90s, but has since fallen from grace.  The games struggle to find a common identity, and that’s what I hope to figure out.

Star Fox 64 Sets the Perfect Tone

It sounds great.

Star Fox 64 is the major example of how to execute the idea behind the series.  The soundtrack is a masterful blend of sci-fi, space opera, and 80s action overtones, similar to what you’d hear in Top Gun.  The N64’s sound chip had distinctive horn and synth channels that complemented the soundtrack perfectly.  The puppet-like 3D models of the N64 look somewhat silly, but they come closest to echoing the game’s artistic influences.

The same thing goes for the voice acting.  Star Fox 64 was the first fully voice-acted Nintendo game, and it contributed massively to the game’s character.  The actors’ delivery is consistently campy, but it became iconic as well.  One-liners like, “Hey Einstein!  I’m on your side!” or “Do a barrel roll!” are so self-aware that they bring the player firmly into the game they’re playing, and make them laugh at the silliness of it all.

Star Fox 64 3D
Star Fox 64 3D art, from the reboot of the N64 version. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)
It looks great.

Shigeru Miyamoto said that one of his biggest influences for creating Star Fox was Thunderbirds, one of his childhood shows.  It was a futuristic kids’ show made entirely with puppets and practical models.  The aesthetic of Star Fox is a play on the usual perception of puppets as the kind of juvenile medium to tell stories about woodland creatures, and also a tribute to the cheesy action serial style of Thunderbirds.  By combining these two styles, Star Fox flips them both on their heads and makes something that surpasses them.

Star Fox 64 also has some great tropes from other media.  If it wasn’t already clear, the series is also similar to Star Wars.  The game has several homages to the films, like the medal ceremony at the end, and the voice of Fox McCloud’s father in his head at the climactic moment that echoes Alec Guinness as Ben Kenobi.  Even the way the members of Star Fox communicate with each other reminds me of X-Wing pilots.  The idea of playing with multiple vehicles also seems to reference not only Thunderbirds but things like Gundam and Power Rangers.

It is great.

All style aside, the game also plays remarkable well.  The levels are full of well-placed enemies, and secret hidden paths that lead to tougher challenges.  The fun of Star Fox is learning how to get the full experience.  It reminds me of what I said about Crash Bandicoot: the game makes a lot out a little.

The sense of camaraderie within the Star Fox team is also great.  Your teammates help clear out enemies and give you hints as long as you keep them safe.  They have distinct names, faces, and personalities too, and that makes me feel attached to them as a player.

How Nintendo Did Star Fox Dirty

Nintendo is no stranger to leaving cool and promising series behind for lack of sales, but Star Fox actually suffers something worse.  It’s now Nintendo’s testing ground for gimmicks and fads.

And when I say a testing ground, I unfortunately mean that a lot of the tests fail.  This excellent video by HeavyEyed explains what I mean, but I’ll lay it out myself as well.

In the early days, it wasn’t like this.  The very first Star Fox was essentially the first fully polygonal shooter, and Star Fox 64 was the first ever game with rumble.  This made it the first game to give physical feedback to the player, a revolutionary move.

But then we got Star Fox Adventures.

Adventures Threw Everything Off

Star Fox Adventures is a 3D Legend of Zelda clone that overhauled a Rareware game with a Star Fox skin.  The game was uninspired, poorly designed, and completely abandoned everything that made the other games stand out.  Instead of a ragtag space shooter, we got a game about fighting lizards on a dinosaur planet.

Star Fox Assault art
Star Fox Assault artwork. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

After this divergence we got Star Fox: Assault, which was decidedly a step in the right direction.  The problem is, it sacrificed a lot of its dog-fighting action roots in favor of third person shooter combat.  Maybe not terrible, but certainly a far cry from where the series started.

Star Fox Command went even further down the rabbit hole by heavily integrating turn-based tactics.  Again, this came at the price of good aerial combat.  The game also had a branching story that bordered on fanfiction, which added insult to injury.

Star Fox Zero was a Near Miss

Then, along came Star Fox Zero, and I had my money at the ready.  Everything about the game was promising at first.  Miyamoto talked about how he was planning to create the best example of Wii U GamePad integration on the system.  It brought back the original cast of characters, and the old presentation.  What could go wrong?

Star Fox Zero
Promo art for Star Fox Zero! (Photo: BagoGames)

Well, Zero delivered on a lot of fronts, but missed out on something important: good controls.  The game required its players to split attention between two screens: the TV and the GamePad screen, both of which are essential.  The TV lets the player maneuver, while the GamePad lets them aim properly.  What it feels like is playing two different games at once and failing at both.  This is the same kind of problem I had with The World Ends With You, although that’s one for much later.

To make matters worse, the story and levels are mostly a copy of Star Fox 64 with a little Assault mixed in.  Secret-hunting and multiple paths are there, but less robust.  So playing Zero essentially amounts to playing a worse version of 64.

The Problem and How to Fix It

If you thought Sonic the Hedgehog has trouble trying to create consistent gameplay, Star Fox blows it out of the water.  It’s basically a series with no idea what to do next.  It either experiments with ideas that don’t fit, or lives in the shadow of its one great installment.

What Star Fox needs is to work off of its 64 formula, optimize it, and set it against a completely different backdrop.  Different planets, different levels, different story, and possibly new characters would be ideal.  Going back to basics was a smart move by Nintendo.  The problem is, they never went past the basics.

No Innovation Without Representation

Having a formula doesn’t mean the series can’t try new things.  I wouldn’t ditch the original formula completely, because I think it works.  If it were me, though, I would add in some ground combat sequences myself.

For example, in Star Wars Battlefront II, there’s a Space Assault mode.  The object of the mode is to destroy as many enemy ships and freighters as possible.  One of my favorite things to do is infiltrate an enemy ship and sabotage it on foot from the inside.  This might be an interesting way to give players options for secrets and defeating bosses.  Just as long as it doesn’t make it most of the game the way Assault did.  It might even be interesting to give the player a way to temporarily hijack ships mid-air.

Nintendo has plenty of room to commit to a major Star Fox game without having it be a remake or a re-skin.  I sincerely hope that the mixed reception of most Star Fox games makes them stop bringing the games back.  It’s probably one of the most brilliant concepts they’ve ever had, and no other game has managed to imitate its fun, intense style.

The thing is, Nintendo will never make the series sell if it keeps throwing in gimmicks without refining them properly.

I want to see Star Fox return to its old-fashioned charm and unique gameplay, without sacrificing the wondrous possibilities on the table.  A good Star Fox game makes me feel more like I’m in Star Wars than an actual Star Wars game would.  That’s saying something, and Nintendo shouldn’t waste the opportunity to make it great.  Here’s hoping we get some space fox on the Switch.