Since the release of “Pokémon: Red and Blue” on the Game Boy in 1996, the Pokémon franchise has become iconic around the world, spawning countless spin-off games, an animated series and movies, a trading card craze, an on-stage musical, and most recently, a live action film.
And as Pokémon has gradually secured its place in our cultural memory, the video games have continued to add new layers to the franchise’s rich world with generation after generation of new Pokémon. In the 22 years since the series began, the original 151 monsters in “Pokémon: Red, Blue and Yellow” have ballooned into a roster of more than 800 different species, with even more variations.
It’s a lot to keep track of, even for those who have been fans of the series for years. The days of casually naming every Pokémon are long gone.
On Friday, November 16th, Nintendo will take a step back to the basics with the release of “Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu!” and “Pokémon: Let’s Go Eevee!” The two games, which cost $US60 (or $US100 with a special controller), are the first games in the main Pokémon series to be released for the Nintendo Switch console, and they represent an effort to recapture the magic that enraptured the franchise’s first generation of fans.
Here’s what it’s like to play the latest Pokémon games:
Developed by the studio Game Freak, the new Pokémon titles come in two flavours: Pikachu and Evee.
The games are basically the same – the only difference is which Pokémon you customise to be your “partner” (each version also has about 10 to 15 exclusive Pokémon for you to catch).
The games return to the Kanto region of the first Pokémon games and retell the familiar story of “Pokémon: Red, Blue, and Yellow.” The games can’t be considered true remakes, but they bring a bevy of new features while retaining the simplicity of the original game.
“Pokémon Let’s Go” is also designed as a starting point for a new generation of players introduced to the franchise by the “Pokémon Go” mobile game.
Let’s Go” brings the gameplay back to the basics of “Red, Blue & Yellow,” forsaking the increasingly layered role-playing elements of the newer “Pokémon” games. The result is a much simpler game, which may disappoint longtime fans, but it will make “Let’s Go” much less intimidating for new players coming from the mobile game or kids who might be playing “Pokémon” for the first time.
“Let’s Go” returns to the original Pokédex with 151 Pokémon, with a few surprises.
“Let’s Go” chooses to stick with the original 151 Pokémon, which includes skipping popular evolutions that were introduced in later games, like Pichu. You’ll start with either Pikachu or Eevee depending on which version of the game you buy, and several wild Pokémon are exclusive to each version, as has been the case in past Pokémon games.
The decision to include only the first generation of Pokémon is clearly weighted by nostalgia, but it also helps keep individual Pokémon from getting lost in the crowd of hundreds. “Let’s Go” refreshes the old Pokémon by giving them access to a larger library of moves than they had in “Red, Blue and Yellow,” making things less predictable and helping each Pokémon feel more unique.
“Let’s Go, Pikachu and Eevee!” uses a mini-game for catching Pokémon that’s clearly inspired by “Pokémon Go.”
Several gameplay mechanics have been revamped with new players in mind too, especially encounters with wild Pokémon. All wild Pokémon now appear on the world map as they would in “Pokémon Go,” and touching them will trigger a catching sequence.
Instead of battling a wild Pokémon to weaken it, players enter a “Pokémon Go”-style minigame using motion controls to throw Poké Balls in hopes of a successful catch. While not everyone enjoys the touch screen catching mechanics of “Go,” the Switch’s motion controls rarely feel like a hassle.
Catching Pokémon now gives experience to all of the Pokémon in your party.
The random high-grass encounters and battles with wild Pokémon that were at the core of the last seven generations of Pokémon games are now a thing of the past. Beating wild Pokémon used to be one of the main ways to strengthen your own team in the old games, but now every Pokémon in your party will receive experience for each Pokémon you catch, which in turn encourages players to spend more time catching Pokémon, rather than just fighting with them.
Seeing wild Pokémon as your explore the map adds to the atmosphere.
While it is a major shift for the series, the ability to avoid random encounters and rewarding players for catching multiples of the same Pokémon feels like a welcome change. Seeing wild Pokémon on the map as you travel the world does makes the game feel more alive too.
“Let’s Go” adds new characters to the story of “Red and Blue,” like Team Rocket members Jessie and James from the Pokémon anime.
The presentation of “Pokémon: Let’s Go” is an overall high point for the series, adding cutscenes for the story’s most powerful moments and incorporating memorable characters into the narrative more often. The franchise has returned to the Kanto region of “Pokémon: Red & Blue” many times in the past, but “Let’s Go” still manages to refresh the world with colourful redesigns and some nice thematic visuals.
There are tons of fun ways to build your relationship with your partner Pokémon
Forming strong relationships with your Pokémon is one of the game’s overarching themes, and the bond with your partner Pokémon, either Pikachu or Eevee, is the most important. Inspired by “Pokémon: Yellow,” the partner Pokémon will always stay on the player’s shoulder during the game and has a big role in the story. Before you pick a version it should also be noted that your partner Pokémon can’t be evolved, meaning the Eevee that you get at the start of the game will never become Jolteon, Flareon, and Vaporean, and Pikachu will refused to evolve into Raichu.
The extra time you put into playing with your partner pays off in the game too.
During the game you’ll receive a number of matching outfits for you and your partner, allowing you to mix and match for a custom look. The game lets you feed, pet and play with your partner whenever you’re walking around, and the more often you do it, the more personality you’ll see out of your buddy. Caring for your Pokémon has direct benefits in battle and can help your partner learn exclusive moves too.
You can have your favourite Pokémon follow you around, and maybe even ride them if they’re big enough.
In addition to your partner, you can have any Pokémon in the game follow you through the world. If the Pokémon is big enough you might even be able to ride it. It’s a fun expansion on the PokeRide system introduced in “Sun and Moon,” which let you ride certain Pokémon for the first time, but didn’t let you choose from your own party. Spending time with your Pokémon will help increase your bond and offers a fun reason to play favourites.
Battling trainers works the same as past Pokémon games, with the occasional 2-on-2 battle.
Of course, the other staple of Pokémon gameplay is battling other trainers and working through the series of gym leaders who function as the game’s bosses. While some of the more complex Pokémon abilities seen in the newer games are absent in “Let’s Go,” the core battle mechanics remain the same; the player can carry six Pokémon at a time and each can learn four moves. Most battles are 1-on-1 affairs but there are a handful of 2-on-2 fights as the story progresses.
Cooperative play lets a friend join up to help you catch Pokémon or battle.
“Pokémon: Let’s Go” features cooperative play for the first time in a main series game, letting a second player drop-in on the game to help with catching Pokémon or controlling a second Pokémon in battle. While the second player doesn’t have any progression of their own, the features seem ideal for sharing the game casually with friends, and allowing parents to step in and help their child through the game in tough spots.
The game includes familiar network features for trading and battling with other players too. Players can connect to friends locally, or online if they subscribe to the Nintendo Switch Online service. Nintendo has opted not to include the global trading features that let players trade Pokémon online with strangers around the world in past games.
A special controller, the Poké Ball Plus, will release alongside “Pokémon Let’s Go,” and it’s less silly than it seems.
Nintendo will also release a new device called the Poké Ball Plus alongside “Pokémon: Let’s Go” this Friday. The Poké Ball Plus is primarily a controller that allows the game to be played with one hand. It functions as a single Joy-Con for the Nintendo Switch with two buttons and small joystick in the center. Players can use the joystick to move around and can swing the poké ball at the screen when catching pokémon, as they would with a JoyCon.
While I originally felt like the Poké Ball Plus seemed a bit gimmicky, it ended up being the controller I used the most while playing the game. Though its can take some time to get used to holding it correctly, the ease of the two-button design is a testament to how easy it is to play “Pokémon: Let’s Go.”
The biggest bonus with buying PokéBall Plus might be the legendary Pokémon, Mew.
The Poké Ball Plus also allows players to transfer a Pokémon to the device to be carried around with them, and the ball will glow different colours and make different sounds depending on what Pokémon is inside. Each Poké Ball Plus will come with the legendary Pokémon Mew already inside inside.
The device doubles as a Pokémon Go Plus and can be paired with your smartphone to earn more rewards in the mobile game as well. Still, with a $US40 price tag it’s hard to think of the Poké Ball Plus as an essential accessory.
You can import Pokémon from “Pokémon: Go,” but it’s a one way deal.
“Pokémon: Let’s Go”also lets “Pokémon Go” players transfer their Pokémon from their phone into the Switch game, though the transfers are one-way, permanent and limited to the original 151 Pokémon. However, the newer Alolan versions of the original Pokémon introduced in 2016’s “Pokémon Sun & Moon” can be transferred into “Let’s Go” from the “Pokémon Go.”
Though the “Go Park” transfer features were not activated at the time of this review, Pokémon from the mobile game can be caught in the park and added to your party, and give the player access to special mini games and rewards.
Hardcore fans may not love the simplified gameplay, but “Let’s Go” has all the makings of a classic Pokémon game.
While the most hardcore of Pokémon fans may feel like the simplified “Let’s Go” is a step back for the series, those who have taken some time away from the series or feel nostalgic for the original games will find themselves right at home. In the end “Let’s Go” feels like a credible entry into the main Pokémon series; the core gameplay is still there, even as it scales back some of the growth the games have seen through the years.
Now more than two decades removed from playing “Pokémon: Red & Blue” in black and white on my Game Boy, it’s easy to imagine a parent guiding their child through “Pokémon: Let’s Go” and enjoying all of the new wrinkles and surprises in the game.