How the Pokémon games rise above typical RPGs

Pokemon Let's Go artwork

The year is 1997. I’m finishing my first year of grade school. I’m in the schoolyard for recess one day when I see a kid my age playing an interesting video game on his giant Game Boy. As I obnoxiously hover over his shoulder, I see a humanoid sprite fighting a rat-like creature in a grassy plain. He’s not happy that I’m standing there, yet he’s powerless to stop me from doing so. Sure enough, he’s also powerless to stop my first exposure to the Pokémon franchise, a series of games that I’d become obsessed with in the years to follow.

Gen 1 always had the most options.

It wouldn’t be until my 9th birthday, a little over two years later, that I’d finally receive a Game Boy Color and a copy of Pokémon Yellow. I’d already become quite well-versed in the Pokémon world by that point, but what’d end up sticking out anyway is how easily-accessible the game really is. Perhaps I’d been taking that for granted at this point; after all, two years of constantly glancing over kids’ shoulders at recess would give me lots of insight into how the games function.

But even with that in mind, I still learned the ropes of the franchise really quickly — no easy feat given how much I struggle with video games in general. There would always be something special about these games that other RPGs couldn’t easily replicate, a fact I’d realize in my teenage and adult years.

“The secret ingredient is…”

The Pokémon games, at their core, are pretty straight-forward. Avatar character wants to collect creatures called Pokémon. Avatar character travels all over the world map to do so. Along the way, avatar character manages to find many wacky Pokémon, battle others with similar aspirations, earn rewards, and become the inevitable Pokémon master. It’s a tried and true formula that puts you, the gamer, in the role of a blank-slate character and lets you live out your wish-fulfillment time and time again. And it’s been reused with each successive Pokémon generation.

Surprisingly enough, it still works. Sure, the formula’s been tinkered with in the 23 years since its initial introduction, each time with slight variations. But it’s never been abandoned. The idea of collecting wild animals is surprisingly tenable for kids, and the Pokémon games allow for that without any of the danger involved. If you want proof, each new entry still sells like mad and helps to boost the sales of their respective handhelds/consoles.

On a personal level, it’s also a way of helping me enjoy role-playing games without the more aggressive rules and layouts of other, deeper franchises in the gaming genre. See, I’m not that good at video games. And I’m especially bad at RPGs, with all their time-sensitive mechanics and thinking three steps ahead puzzles proving overwhelming for myself. But I rarely, if ever, have the typical issues I have with RPGs in the Pokémon games.

What’s behind door #1?

Perhaps the key areas that differentiate the Pokémon franchise from other RPGs are twofold. For one, they’re incredibly accessible. Many RPGs, especially franchised ones, require a certain level of genre or franchise knowledge to really appreciate them. Battles are usually framed as big, sprawling events, littered with context-specific attacks and defenses. When you win, you often feel accomplished. But losing, which tends to happen to me much more, becomes draining and irritating after a dozen or so times. It also doesn’t help that many RPGs, particularly earlier ones, make recovering health and supplies a literal nightmare.

Pokémon has none of that. Sure, it has the basics of franchise knowledge and context-specific attacks and defenses. But even with genre staples, it never feels like you can’t pick up and play any entry for your first time. You are never once burdened with retroactive research, which is refreshing. It’s so refreshing that NAViGaTR even pointed out how kids as young as 5 can pick up these games and play them in their video review of the original games.

The “original” massively multiplayer RPG.

On the other hand…

The other area that differentiates the Pokémon franchise is its social component. Many RPGs are meant solely as solo experiences, where you can only appreciate them by yourself. This has its pros, especially when competitive play can sometimes slow you down, but after a while, it can feel lonely and isolating. The Pokémon games, however, find a happy medium between solo play and co-operative play, making them ideal RPGs for kids with developing minds.

This is best seen in the franchise’s “Gotta catch ’em all!” mentality. As if on purpose, each iteration of the franchise purposely has more than one version, with several Pokémon only available in one or the other. This forces trading Pokémon to collect the missing ones, something encouraged further by several Pokémon only evolving to their highest forms during trades. Later games would even up this by forcing certain conditions for trades, be it special items or breeding statuses, to encourage further social interaction.

But wait, there’s more!

But if that was too difficult, you could always engage in co-operative battles with friends. We take this for granted now, especially given how advanced Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity both are. Yet in the late-90’s, it was a big deal to be able to battle your friends and family via link cables. It required you to be strategic and plan ahead in ways that most RPGs at the time couldn’t dream of. And, most importantly, it was fun!

Pokemon trading
I see someone’s an X-Men fan…

That’s really the Pokémon franchise’s biggest secret. Sure, the games weren’t terribly difficult. Yes, the concept was quite simplistic. And yeah, the games were pretty short. But it didn’t matter, because none of that was the point. At the end of the day, what mattered more were accessibility and socialization, two key factors that really set the Pokémon games apart from their direct competition.

And still more!

And it didn’t stop there. In the 23 years since Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue first debuted in all their black-and-white, 8-bit glory, the franchise has branched out into various genres and sub-genres outside of its initial premise. Pokémon Stadium, for example, isolated the original games’ competitive component and brought it to TVs for N64 owners. Conversely, Pokémon Snap changed the concept to an on-rails photography mechanic, where the objective was transformed into “Gotta take pictures of ’em all!” Even later RPG branch-offs like the Pokémon Rumble series, which started as a WiiWare franchise on the Wii, has contained elements of the franchise’s roots, most-notably the instant accessibility component.

That’s really what makes Pokémon feel like, well, Pokémon: it appeals to everyone. Maybe the franchise has started feeling a little stale lately. Maybe it’s in need of a complete overhaul, not unlike what the Pokémon: Let’s Go games have done. But there’s no denying that it still works. So while the games themselves might rely on a 23-year-old formula to this day, at the same time, they still sell like hotcakes and bring joy to millions of gamers around the world each time. And isn’t that what matters most?

Speaking of which, sequel, please?

What do you think? Is the Pokémon franchise really that amazing? Or should it become a relic of the past? Give us your thoughts in the comments down below.

Zachary Perlmutter
News and editorial writer for Nintendo Enthusiast. Is hoping to one day publish a graphic novel or two.