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The effective disappointment caused by 'Pokemon Sword and Shield'

By Blake Chapman The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinion of Byte or Byte’s editorial board. Since the current generation of video games stepped onto the scene back in 2013, we have witnessed some of the most spectacular moments ever before in gaming. Within this last decade, video games have grown from a niche genre in the scope of the entertainment industry to a powerhouse of influence and economics dominating the global market. Money is not the only factor of notable importance though. When looking back on this generation, it is the ability that games have to connect across differences that excites me the most. Esports and its professional players have garnered as much respect and notoriety as traditional sports teams and athletes. Games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Disco Elysium, and even the Quantic Dream collection have redefined storytelling in an interactive space. Arguably, the most impressive aspect of the last ten years of gaming is the range of artistic expression only possible in a virtual landscape. The rise of indie culture has offered some of the most beautiful games ever conceived. Along with beautiful graphics, you have experiences that become more personal and emotional the deeper you dive in. Undertale, Cuphead, and Life is Strange are just a few games that are like this.  https://youtu.be/AURVxvIZrmU However, not a single year goes by that controversy is absent from the headlines of gaming media. Now that 2019 has come to an end, it seems that we will be discussing the discourse of that year far into the future. Between the abandonment of EA’s newest live service ‘Anthem,' Blizzard’s abhorrent reaction to community dialogue about the Hong Kong protests, all the debates surrounding the gameplay of Hideo Kojima’s ‘Death Stranding,' and online personalities’ fall from grace like Projared; there are a ton of topics to cover and debate. One confrontation that happened throughout 2019 reminded me how fragile the gaming community is and how close it can get to caving in on itself. The online strife surrounding Gamefreak’s development of ‘Pokemon Sword and Shield’ drove gamers to turn their scorn and dissatisfaction against each other. When the dust settled, their rage had evaporated and everyone decided to just deal with the end product instead of working toward legitimate change. The lack of proper care on Gamefreak’s part was the biggest disappointment in gaming for 2019 and caused this longtime Pokemon fan to reconsider my affinity to the franchise.

Don’t settle for less

The first sign of trouble came back in June when the now infamous Nintendo Treehouse premiered at E3. It was during the Pokemon portion of the show that director Junichi Masuda’s statements expressed the first hints of what would come to be known as Dexit. Dexit was not just a clever play on words, it solidified the departure of the national pokedex, a feature allowing pokemon to be transferred into the newest title that has persisted since the third generation. In essence, this has cut half of all series favorites from making the jump to the Switch, including pokemon that fans have made memories with for 16 years.
Image from Slash Gear
But do not fret, the 500 or so friends we made along the way are not the only things erased from Sword and Shield. Certain moves that are a staple of the competitive scene, such as Hidden Power, Return, or Pursuit have all been wiped clean and seemingly made specific pokemon worthless outside of the base game. The eighth-generation has also left behind all notions of difficulty and as a series first, Exp. Share cannot be blocked. In the past, you could turn Exp. Share on and off to influence how fast your team leveled up, in turn changing how difficult or easy it would be to defeat opponents. The absence of this ability means the last scrap of difficulty present in Japan’s most famous role-playing game is no more, nevermind the laughable 15-hour main story on a home console. So, what was Gamefreak’s explanation for excluding all of this? Masuda and the rest of the developers had to balance importing as many species as possible, updating them to higher standards of expressive animation, and meeting development deadlines. Ultimately, the team decided that allowing only the Galar region pokemon into the game was the safest way to ensure a holiday release was met while still advancing the quality of pokemon expression. Too bad the models and character animations are pasted straight from the 3DS games, pop-ins are ridiculous, and the graphics at times seem straight out of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Finally, the gimmicks and schemes of Sword and Shield are some of the worst the world of Pokemon has ever seen. Dynamaxing and Gigantimaxing are unimaginative forms of mega evolution, and the wild area lacks so much life and vigor that it would be better to just stick to linear routes.

Overwhelming outrage amongst a loyal fanbase

The most disheartening part of this whole fiasco was the community reaction that split new players and veterans apart, beginning with the online movements that started immediately after the Dexit announcement at E3. The “#bringbackthenationaldex” campaign began on Twitter with users pointing out their distaste and frustration with GameFreak. Many users cited how it went against the core principle of the series as you can no longer obtain every species, unless you want to spend $16 a year and hope your favorites become available in the future. Along with that, many users shared past articles and interviews where producers said that 'Pokemon: Sword and Shield' would be a title that would make fans say, “this is what I’ve been waiting for.”
Image from Slash Gear
Right around the time that the disastrous Nintendo Treehouse presentation happened, loyalists and apologists started to make their voices heard online and fought back against the overwhelming tide of negativity. Multiple excuses for this subpar entry began to circulate around the community. The first of which was that those sad early demonstrations were of an unfinished game and upon release, it would look much better. Also, Gamefreak is an indie developer; their staff numbers are exponentially lower compared to other famous JRPG studios, and Pokémon is technically a third-party title that just so happens to be a Nintendo exclusive. This argument goes sour if you do any digging on just how much Pokemon— as an intellectual property—is worth. It is the highest-grossing media franchise of all time, beating out titans like Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even other Japanese mainstays like 'Hello Kitty.' The current total estimate sits right around $95 billion dollars. Approximately $17 billion of those dollars are from the video games alone, making it the second-highest-grossing video game franchise, right behind the Mario franchise. Do not forget the fact that while fleshing out Sword and Shield they decided to leave their cash cow behind and develop Little Town Hero. A game that will leave a humongous mark on generations to come if it can only get over its Metacritic score and make it out of the abyss that is Walmart’s bargain bin. Throughout those disappointing early demonstrations of Sword and Shield, some pointed to Pokemon Battle Revolution and Stadium as a comparison. Sword and Shield’s meager showing was a direct reflection of Gamefreak’s laziness considering the power of the Switch. However, the loyalists chimed in to claim that these titles were purely battle simulators, and without the need to focus time and effort on a story or supplemental elements, Hal Laboratory and Genius Sonority could easily up the quality of those titles. Once again, this argument is unfounded; based on GPU and CPU power alone, the Switch is almost twice as powerful as the Wii, and that is when it is undocked. When connecting the Switch to a television, it is almost four times more powerful, and this extra processing should be enough to not only support all pokemon, but also handle impressive leaps in animation without decreasing fidelity.

Fight for more

These last seven months of discourse across the community have done next to nothing to influence Gamefreak to do better. Sword and Shield has become the highest-selling Switch title and DLC will now be released throughout 2020. Some would say that there is not much left to do in terms of influencing positive change, but I would disagree. While many people claim that “voting with your wallet” never works because the giant corporate entity will always make a profit, consider the recent case of Ghost Recon: Breakpoint. The disappointing critical reception and poor sales convinced Ubisoft to delay their entire 2020 lineup so they could restructure their entire development process. If a positive example will not convince you, then consider the yearly EA sports titles which consistently cut down available features and increase monetization of each respective game to where it feels more like gambling every single entry. The least we can do for the future of Pokemon is to continue to vocalize online. While it may not have a direct impact on future titles upon release, sharing new information in the development cycle and how it contrasts against past iterations or statements is crucial to consumer decision-making; however, fans should avoid targeting their anger and frustration at other members of the community who still choose to support the official game. Just because you disagree with another player’s point of view, it does not grant you the right to disenfranchise and degrade them on social media or in public. Finally, the worst thing you can do is remain silent. A lack of a perspective does not mean you are undecided. Apathy and neutrality simply mean that change remains stagnant and nothing can evolve for the better. Now after all that heavy recapping and staunch criticism, it would be unethical of me to lie and say I have completely abstained from playing Sword and Shield. Over the winter holiday, I had the opportunity to experience it for the first time and I will admit that I was not totally disappointed by what I saw. The world of Pokemon has always been a nostalgic experience, reminding me of simpler times in my life where the world did not always seem at odds with my hopes and dreams, and Sword and Shield delivered on that craving in every way. It also felt like a vision of the future and while some of those visions did not totally hit the mark (the wild area, a controllable camera, pokemon camp) I do have a little faith that the designers at Gamefreak will expand on the positive elements into the next generation. Now that the dust has settled, I have begun to consider what I want for the future of Pokemon and how Game Freak can earn back my trust. First, much like how Ubisoft benefited from injecting more development time into each Assassin’s Creed title since Syndicate, yearly releases of main series Pokemon games need to stop. Even if it is a new Let’s Go title or that Sinnoh remake everyone so desperately wants, extra time to make mistakes and figure out how to better utilize the hardware of the Switch is crucial. Secondly, I expected the first main series Pokemon game on Switch to be a brilliant advancement toward blurring the line between the anime and video games. I still hope for a Pokemon title on the level of Breath of the Wild; one that encourages exploration and offers a nonlinear experience. Finally, I want Gamefreak to take a step back and realize the importance this franchise has to billions of people. There is not a single other series in the history of video games that has meant more to me than Pokemon. Without it, I would have never believed that a life spent writing about video games could be possible. However, without necessary conversation and debate over what can make these games better, we will never break the loop of disappointment followed by eventual acceptance. If we are to demand more of our games, we must demand more of the community that supports their release.
Sources: Eurogamer, gamesindustry.biz, Polygon, Nintendo Enthusiast, Tech Power Up, Forbes, YouTube Images: Slash Gear Featured Image: Blake Chapman

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