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Pokémon's new evolution was inevitable

With two generations of fans, The Pokémon Company has made some big changes

In retrospect, it was obvious that Pokémon Go was going to change the franchise fundamentally.

It went far beyond what was expected of it - which was to be an entertaining, possibly shallow, kid-friendly collect 'em up. One former Pokémon PR told us that ahead of Go's launch they tried to send preview versions to press but only one journalist expressed any genuine interest.

Expectations weren't sky high.

It was of course more than just a cheap smartphone tie-in or some nostalgia fest for 1990s gamers. Sure, the 150 monsters brought in the adults, but the combination of the modern platform, technology and idea pulled in everyone else.

Yet it was still quintessentially Pokémon. Over the last 22 years, the 'mainline' series has layered on new concepts and strategic depth, yet at its heart it's a game about collecting, training, battling and hanging out with friends - and not online but in real life.

In that sense, despite its positioning as a spin-off, Pokémon Go was as true to the essence of the series as the more recent 'main' Pokémon titles.

"When it came to Pokémon's mainline debut on Switch - the first Pokémon created in a post-Go world - it was inevitable that the smartphone title would be involved"

Go also achieved something few other Pokémon spin-offs have managed before - it surpassed the popularity of the titles on which it was based. The cartoon series did a similar thing in the late 1990s, and the result was that it became part of the games themselves - with new characters and monsters appearing on TV before their video game debut. There was even a mainline title based on the anime in the form of 1998's Pokémon Yellow.

So when it came to Pokémon's mainline debut on Nintendo Switch (which is the first main Pokémon adventure created in a post-Go world) it was inevitable that the smartphone title would be involved.

Let's Go Eevee and Let's Go Pikachu is the marriage of a traditional Pokémon title and Go. The visuals, the catching mechanics, the co-operative gameplay, the fact you can see the creatures moving around the world... for a series that has changed only iteratively over its 22-year history, this is already shaping up to be the bravest departure for a mainline Pokémon game yet.

Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee bridges the gap between Go and the core RPGs

Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee bridges the gap between Go and the core RPGs

It appears to have been simplified, too. For a series that does have 22 years of iteration and history, the games have become increasingly aimed at core fans. Understandably so. Let's Go Eevee and Let's Go Pikachu appear to have jettisoned a lot of it - just like Go was able to do - and focus down on familiar monsters and a familiar world (this game returns to the same place as the very first Pokémon titles).

It makes sense for a franchise that wants to convert Go fans into players of the main RPG series. And despite what some fans might argue, this is a main Pokémon game. Junichi Masuda, the director at developer Game Freak and one of the original Pokémon creators, is leading its development. The word 'mainline' was repeated several times during last night's (unusually dark and serious) press conference. And the game is a big cross-company production, with Nintendo working on the Pokéball Plus accessory and Niantic enabling integration with Pokémon Go.

"Pokémon has a challenge that most video game franchises would die for - it has too many different fans"

It's a full Pokémon RPG designed to target this new generation that have come in via the smartphone, and that inevitably is going to upset some of the IP's core enthusiasts.

Pokémon has a challenge that most video game franchises would die for - it has too many fans. In particular, too many different fans that want different things. There are those that own every game, compete in the tournaments, collect the cards and watch each new cartoon series. There are those that loved the series in the 1990s and early 2000s, who dip back in now and again but couldn't tell your Chespins from your Pikipeks. And then there are the millions who discovered Pikachu and pals with 2016's Pokémon Go.

And everyone in between, too. In fact, last night's other game reveal - Pokémon Quest - is a smartphone and Switch game targeted at the most casual of Pokémon players.

Let's Go Eevee and Let's Go Pikachu is trying to satisfy as many of the fans as possible. Towards the end of the conference, Game Freak stressed that they believe these games will be a great "entry point" to the main RPG line, but that they're also unique enough to appeal to those that have been with them all along.

That might be the case, but it's still not exactly what some of its more loyal followers were hoping to see. They wanted Generation 8. They wanted new Pokémon, new worlds, new moves, new characters... the next chapter in a franchise they've stuck with since 1996.

That's why The Pokémon Company ended its conference by stating that it is working on a more 'traditional' Pokémon, too. There was nothing to show of this title, but the firm clearly felt it was important to mention - if only to counter any potential disappointment from those who wanted something a bit more familiar.

Yet the focus for now is on these Let's Go products. And their arrival this November comes at an opportune time for Nintendo.

Switch is still a hot product, but after its stellar first year - one dominated by hit title after hit title - things have quietened down. So far, 2018 for Nintendo has been full of niche titles, Wii U ports and Labo - which has yet to become anything especially significant. The end of the year will be different. Switch will hurtle into its second Christmas with Super Smash Bros and a new, ambitious Pokémon game on the release slate.

It's no wonder Nintendo expects to sell 20 million machines over the next 12 months.

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Latest comments (3)

Jeremiah Moss Software Developer 4 months ago
If what you say is true, I would say it's a rebranding of the word "mainline" to be honest. It used to be that the "mainline" and "core" were one and the same with previous titles.

However, with the game splitting into essentially two series, it really looks like they are splitting it towards two audiences, the "mainline" audience and the "core" audience. The "mainline" audience will be the focus of the "Let's Go" games, and the "core" audience will be the focus of the game(s) coming in the second half of 2019. The Pokemon company went to great lengths to indicate there is in fact a core Pokemon RPG title coming in the second half of 2019.

That said, a mere word count isn't really the same as taking the word in context. Other publications aren't really saying this is mainline. They may have used the word a lot, but in what context were they saying it? Context can literally negate a word count.

Either way, the Pokemon company is in fact trying to reach a much wider audience. Which actually they've been doing for a while - there are a lot of smaller spinoffs of the game, I've still got Pokemon Rumble on the Wii, and of course Pokemon Go. I'd say the "Let's Go" series is a bit more unique because of the much closer ties to the core series, but not wholly out of line for the Pokemon company.

In any case - the only disappointment from core gamers is really that it's going to be another year for the core audience. I wouldn't be quick to trump up any sense of actually abandoning them.

I think this is good for everybody, even core fans who want that in-depth game. They're going to get that game, and I think the inclusive approach is the right way to go. This could very well show the game industry that you don't need to abandon one audience to appeal to another.
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James Batchelor UK Editor, GamesIndustry.biz4 months ago
@Jeremiah Moss: I think we're in danger of getting hung up on semantics (we've seen plenty of people debating 'mainline' vs 'core). The point is - as you say - Game Freak is trying something different, reaching for a larger audience (most notably the new generations of potential Pokemon fans brought in by Go) and attempting to coax them towards the traditional games at the centre of the franchise (or at least a close approximation of them). Given the resurgence of Pokemon in the last couple of years, this can only be good for the series and the Switch. So far Switch was missing a system-seller for 2018 - it just got two (albeit two versions of the same game)
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Christopher Dring Publisher, GamesIndustry.biz4 months ago
@Jeremiah Moss: I don't think you can compare outsourced spin-off games like Pokemon Rumble to the Let's Go concept
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