Forget the advent of Beanie Babies or the never-ending Super Soaker wars. What commanded the scene in the 1990s wasn’t a water-logged play gun or a pellet-stuffed toy. For many, the halcyon days were characterized by the introduction of Pokemon, a video game series-turned-anime-turned-cultural phenomenon. Created by video game designer Satoshi Tajiri, the eponymous creatures debuted in the 1996 GameBoy games Pokemon Red and Pokemon Green (Blue outside of Japan) and took the world (and, much to my mother’s dismay, my life) by storm. Now, 24 years later, the franchise has achieved such popularity that each new game brings with it a deluge of praise and preorders, even if the product itself smells of hot garbage months before its release. But now, with the releases of Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield, fans (and critics) must answer a crucial question: Should Pokemon stay the same for nostalgia’s sake or should it…ahem, evolve? And how will the fan/critic divide influence what comes next?
Predictably, fans and critics are divided on the answer. One group is fine with change as long as the quality is retained. The other group isn’t so keen on the idea.
Critics are raving about the new set of Pokemon adventures, but fans are vehemently opposed to the dramatic changes made to the games. The long and short of it? Fans, particularly longtime Pokemon players, detest change as fervently as I protest the existence of canned tuna. And you know what? They aren’t wrong to feel that way, and they aren’t right to demand the same from forward-thinking creators. Especially ones spending their careers pumping vitality into your favorite thing.
But updates such as more restrictive trading and fewer Pokemon to catch aren’t the sources of their ire. It’s what those changes mean. Older players feel left behind, and if producer Junichi Masuda is to be believed, that may be what the franchise is doing. Unwittingly, of course.
I think it might be fair to say it’s not a transition, but for example, at Game Freak, Ohmori-san is the director for these games, so we’re passing on a lot of responsibility to the younger generation to kind of move the franchise forward. Also, being on the Nintendo Switch allows new play styles, not just handheld, but also on the TV screen. I think it’s definitely going to represent a new chapter for Pokemon.
Do the developers have a choice in the matter? Of course they do. They can stagnate or step forward for as long as they please. Is it fair to expect them to keep creating the same shit for nostalgia’s sake? Absolutely not.
Sadly, because critics have responded so positively to these new releases, the rift between fans’ reactions and critics’ analyses widens, sparking debate about whether or not these games are worth the hype at all. In other words, you can forget any kind of middle ground. They either blow or they don’t. And that’s what the fan/critic divide does. It turns that precious middle ground into No Man’s Land. Step onto that turf and you’re fucked.
Here’s the thing: Critics and fans have the same job. Two sides of the same coin, if you will. The only differences are pay, perspective, and the presentation of reasoning. Fans aren’t paid shit to like or hate something and critics are paid peanuts to like or hate that same thing. Critics are often fans, too. Read Casey DeFreitas’s IGN review and tell me she doesn’t love these games. The review isn’t the best example of objectivity, but that’s not what I’m arguing here. As for reasoning? Critics have to present it to establish and keep their credibility. Fans do not, although it’s helpful for them to do so if they want others to take them seriously.
As for perspective, that varies from person to person. Obviously. But all viewpoints are valuable because they come from an emotional response. And we all have emotional responses to different things for different reasons.
But let’s get to the good stuff: How will this divide impact the future of Pokemon? Honestly, it probably won’t. Even the weakest installments made crazy bank, and as long as new generations (and lifelong stalwarts) keep buying the games, the franchise will continue to thrive.
And what about its evolution? Should the developers reintroduce the old formula?
The cheap answer is that there is no correct answer. My answer is that it should evolve, but carefully and strategically. I’ve been a Pokemon fan my entire life and I want to see how this franchise pushes the medium. That’s why it became big in the first place, right? Because it pushed boundaries and offered something new, challenging, and engaging.
It all doesn’t have to be so Black and White. Level with the people making shit you enjoy, dammit.