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Pokemon needs fixing and here's how to do it

After two decades Pokemon is in dire need of a revamp - here's four small changes that need to happen.

By the time Nintendo finally re-releases the original Pokémon games Red and Blue on the 3DS early next year, it will have been over 20 years since their initial release. Time flies. But when you stop and think about it, Pokémon at its core has remained virtually unchanged in those two decades.

That doesn’t quite mean Pokémon has remained exactly the same, either. Over the years, a lot of extra layers have been added to each new installment. But now it’s starting to look less like a franchise staying true to its roots and more like a series in dire need of a culling and an update.

So before we all jump back into the familiar monochromatic land of Kanto (and pick Bulbasaur because he’s the best starter) let’s look at what needs to be improved before the next big, inevitable generational shift.

Stop adding Pokémon

Which Pokémon you think make up the best of the franchise largely depends on when you started playing and what you consider the peak of the series. But a line was crossed when a garbage bag (that evolved into a larger garbage bag) and an ice-cream cone became Pokémon. Seriously...Trubbish?

Trubbish

It’s true that some of the original 150 are as bad as any of the more recent misfires -- like Voltorb who is basically just a Pokéball with eyes, or the pile of goo that is Grimer who evolves into a bigger pile of goo called Muk -- but the original Red and Blue games should be thought of as Game Freak’s first album. It was a time for experimenting and breaking new ground, long before Pokémon became a billion-dollar business.

It’s clear that by the time Game Freak’s sophomore release Gold and Silver burst out the door, they knew exactly what they were doing. There was a logic to the designs of the Pokémon, and their placement within the world began to feel cohesive and natural. But as the games have continued to expand and change there have been diminishing returns on not only the design of the Pokémon, but their reasons for existing.

Right now, there are 721 little pocket monsters that range from truly inspired to ridiculously pointless. Of course, not all Pokémon need to be battle-hardened creatures; there’s always been room for the quirky and interesting within the series, like Smeargle or Shedinja. But would anyone care if the next game didn’t introduce a huge new crop of Pokémon to catch and train?

It’s hard to not feel for Game Freak -- after all, coming up with new Pokémon and making them balanced and engaging must be a nightmare. But it also feels a bit pointless when they have so many already being underused. Adding a new legendary or two to push the story forward and act as a carrot on a stick for returning players makes sense, but when there’s so much else to work on for the next game I seriously question the value of adding another horde of creatures. Spend the time and resources elsewhere, because I don’t think many fans are crying out for the new equivalent of Luvdisc or Lopunny.

Get rid of HMs

Customizing your Pokémon and growing your team is arguably the biggest strength of the series. My reliable Furret from Pokémon Gold wouldn’t have won any tournaments, but man did that little guy ever save me during a few close calls early on in my journey.

 

But at some point, it became clear he wasn’t going to be my lead fighter, and I’d gotten to the point where I needed access to Hidden Machine moves to progress the story. Sadly, my once trusty partner became little more than an HM slave, and was eventually tossed aside when I couldn’t be bothered to work with him anymore.

If you’ve ever played Pokémon, you’ll no doubt have a few bad memories of the dreaded Hidden Machine (HM) moves. Their inclusion made sense though -- they help block off areas of the game until you’ve both collected the HM and the gym badge required to use it. But somewhere along the way, HMs became more of a burden than clever way to guide the player.

Waterfall. Whirlpool. Rock Smash. Does anybody actually like using these moves during battle? I mean, I’ll defend Fly and Surf to the death, but seriously I cannot remember a time when I’ve thought “I can’t wait to teach this little guy Rock Climb!” HMs are a necessity that strip your Pokémon of their personality and make them tools rather than partners.

The solution is an easy one. As I mentioned before, HMs require a corresponding gym badge to work outside of battle, but what if that gym badge was all you needed? Say you find your path blocked by river. Why not make it so that any Water-type Pokémon can get you across, whether it knows Surf or not, provided you have the right badge. Same goes with Cut -- I mean does a Pokémon like Scyther really need a HM to know how to cut a bush? Its arms are literally blades!

Keep HMs in the game by all means, but just make it so they can be easily replaced after being taught to a Pokémon and aren’t required for progression. They’re a relic from a bygone era, and it’s time to move on.

Open world

As large as the worlds of each Pokémon game have been getting with new installments, they’ve always been fairly linear in their layout, usually winding the player in a circle back to their home town before sending them off on a new path. Even moves like Fly that allow you to go between areas you’ve previously visited don’t open the world up so much as speed up return journeys.

Nintendo should take a page out of their own book and open the world of Pokémon up a little bit like they did with the brilliant The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Imagine if your home town was in the centre of the map and you could move off in any direction and challenge any gym leader or take on a bunch of side quests and find new Pokémon. Exploring the world in a more organic fashion instead of sticking to a closed path would change the whole feel of the game without killing too many sacred cows.

Obviously there’d still be blocked off areas, and locking movement over rivers or through bushes could still be done if need be, but why should everyone’s Pokémon journey be so rigid? Why not let us choose our own path?

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The most obvious problem is the gyms which are spaced out logically to let you level up in between then and take on the gym leader at just the right time. But simply adjusting gyms to suit whatever your current Pokémon levels and play time are could change the whole feel of the next game. You’d always be in that sweet spot of exploring new areas, experimenting with new Pokémon and taking on challenges that suit your skill level.

Breeding revamp

Back in the mid-90s, a friend of mine and I sat down early one Saturday morning with our Game Boys, our copies of Red and Blue and a link cable. We then began the painful process of collecting all the starter Pokémon. I’d choose a starter, get to the point where I could trade with him, send the Pokémon to my friend’s game and then restart and do it all again. Long story short, both us eventually had a Squirtle, Charmander and a Bulbasaur, resulting in us both collecting all 150 Pokémon. To this day I count it among my most shameful/proudest video game achievements.

Now I have a Pokémon storage box filled with Charmanders, Squirtles and Bulbasaurs. I’ve been breeding in an effort to find one with the right Individual Value. But they have no value; I didn’t do much more than get on my bike and ride up and down a long stretch of road to create them. And frankly I’d trade any of them for some low level junk just to fill out my Pokédex.

Breeding needs to changed. It’s a tricky formula to mess with, because if it becomes a chore it won’t be worth doing, but adding a little complexity would make it feel more rewarding. The Nature stat of Pokémon could be used to determine if they’d actually want to breed with each other. Or simply make the production of eggs and their hatching happen in real-time so that common Pokémon like Rattata could take an hour, while rarer species like Feebas could take half a day or more.

It’s not about complicating a simple system, it’s about returning the balance to a series that’s gone from relying on trading and making fair deals with friends to Pokémon eggs farmers flooding the market with easy to reproduce junk. Oh, and seriously stop letting Ditto breed with any Pokémon. It’s ridiculously easy. But I fear with the online Pokémon Bank, the horse may have bolted on this one, still it is a shame that once highly coveted monsters have become so commonplace.

Knowing what to keep

The truth is that while there are a few things that need to be changed to improve Pokémon, there’s a whole lot more that should stay. The battle system may have gotten a bit bloated with the double and triple battles, but the core one-on-one fights still feel like the perfect blend of strategy, improvisation, and luck.

A lot of the side activities like the fashion shows and Poffin cooking haven’t really done much for me, but I’m sure they have their fans, so I don’t see why they should be eliminated. Even the rigid grid-based design of the world doesn’t need to be reworked -- because again, as the age-old saying goes, "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."

The truth is, Nintendo is probably pretty reluctant to shake things up with Pokémon, as it’s remained a solid franchise for two decades. But their willingness to evolve much-loved properties like The Legend of Zelda with Hyrule Warriors, or give gamers the reins with Super Mario Maker, proves that the big N has been taking a few more risks lately.

Like a nagging mother, I’m only saying all this stuff because I care. I still like Pokémon, but I want to see it grow into the series I always knew it could be. So here’s hoping the lightly updated Pokémon Red and Blue on the Nintendo 3DS, complete with trading over Wi-Fi, is their tip of the cap to the Pokémon of old and that the future of the series brings back the magic a nostalgia-riddled fan like myself so desperately wants.

Published Dec. 14th 2015

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