Pokémon’s 25th anniversary just passed and longtime fans finally got confirmation that a long-requested Pokémon Diamond and Pearl remake is coming to Nintendo Switch. What was most surprising about Nintendo’s recent birthday stream, however, is that the announcement wasn’t the biggest news of the day.
The Pokémon Company shocked fans by revealing Pokémon Legends: Arceus, a new open-world Pokémon title that looks a bit like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The game is a major departure for the turn-based RPG series and that has fans talking about the future of the franchise.
While the idea of Pokémon Legends: Arceus eschewing the series’ established formula could be a disaster, it’s exactly what the franchise needs right now to reinvent itself after 25 years.
Moving past nostalgia
Since the series launched in 1996, the mainline Pokémon games have all followed the same general formula. Each entry is a turn-based RPG where players set up a team of six Pokémon and travel the world, fighting in turn-based battles. Even with technical changes and graphical leaps over the years, many of the main games are virtually interchangeable on a pure gameplay front.
Change has been slow and at times thorny for fans. Sun and Moon made the biggest shift to the series formula when dropping gym leaders in favor of island trials featuring boss fights against totem Pokémon. Let’s Go! Pikachu and Eevee dropped traditional random battles in favor of a Pokémon Go-style catching mechanic. Then more recently, Sword and Shield introduced the concept of the Wild Area, adding an open world experiment to the series.
Each decision was met with varying levels of skepticism. There’s a strange tension in the community between those who want to see the series progress and those who want it to stick to its roots. Sometimes, those talking points come from the same people who decry developer Game Freak for being “lazy” while complaining anytime it attempts a new twist on the series.
That’s put Nintendo in a tricky position over the past two and a half decades. As Pokémon continues to grow, so does fans’ nostalgia for it. At this point, the RPG game formula is as much a part of that nostalgia as the original 150 roster, making it hard to create meaningful changes.
A new legend
With Pokémon Legends: Arceus, Nintendo is taking its boldest attempt yet to break out of that holding pattern yet. The new game is an action RPG that makes some fundamental changes to how Pokemon works. While the specifics are still a mystery, it appears that Arceus trades pure turn-based battles for something slightly more akin to a game like Genshin Impact. It’s not even clear if it’ll have gym leaders or an Elite Four at the moment.
That may sound like a drastic departure on paper, but it’s a logical next step when looking at the game in the context of the slow stream of changes brought by the past few generations. Recent Pokémon games have slowly tried to ween fans off the hallmarks of the 1996 classics one element at a time. If previous entries tested the waters to see how many would react to changes, Arceus is a full-on cannonball.
What’s particularly smart about the approach is how Nintendo decided to account for any potential blowback. Before the game was revealed, the company showed off Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, which is the most traditional mainline Pokémon game we’ve gotten since 2014’s Ruby and Sapphire remakes. The new Switch titles are so faithful to the original Nintendo DS games that it retains the game’s original look, just replacing sprites with a comparable chibi art style (though even that’s given some a reason to complain).
The tandem announcement presents a new vision for the future that may finally let people on both sides of the debate co-exist. The remakes offer your average Pokémon RPG for fans who aren’t ready to let the core series go, while Arceus is an entirely new experience that can finally shake things up free from fully upsetting diehards. It’s perhaps telling that Game Freak itself is working on the latter, while the former has been outsourced to the studio that created Pokémon Home.
There’s a chance that the experiment could be a grand disaster. The first trailer for Arceus is notably rough around the edges with a choppy frame rate and limited draw distance. But the franchise has rarely ever been allowed to fully fail when it comes to mainline games, leading to that sameness. The fact that the new title could end up being bad makes it more exciting than the remakes we know will be perfectly good.
For Pokémon to grow, Nintendo needs to be able to take those risks without fear of backlash. That means that players need to leave their nostalgia at the door and go along with the ride. Otherwise, we’d never have gotten The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game that’s fittingly guiding this new project.
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