It has been quite a ride, hasn’t it? The Pokémon explosion that began with the first release of the GameBoy games in the late 90s and soon took the world by storm has had a colorful history. The series is easily the most successful Japanese Role Playing Game series ever, with more than double the sales of the Final Fantasy franchise. Let it never be doubted that there is an entire generation that will never forget the day they received their first starting Pokémon in their bygone youth, but let’s also not fool ourselves. In that same audience that loved the series so much for so long, the games are dying.
There have been a variety of symptoms of Pokémon’s decline: the Vanillish memes, the starter memes for Pokémon Sun and Moon this year, or the fact that there was a Pokémon in X and Y that was called “Talonflame,” which sounds more like a cheesey Forgotten Realms villain than a member of a storied JRPG series. The series has gone stale. The unchanging goals and mechanics of the games from generation to generation and rapidly deteriorating quality of the stories that are involved in each game have brought the series to a point where the entertainment value of what is being produced is simply not at a level that will allow the series to do anything more than coast on its previous success.
The amazing thing about the original Pokémon series was the combination of the world’s vastness, the variety of Pokémon, and the tried-and-true JRPG mechanics championed by Final Fantasy. What Game Freak and Nintendo accomplished within that mould was truly incredible. It appealed to a huge audience. Collectors were going to collect every Pokémon they could, completionists would topple the relatively believable villains, Team Rocket, and take on the gyms and the Elite Four, and others would just play to acquire a team that they liked having around and would make their way through the world.
Likely due to their success, Game Freak never actually made any sweeping changes to that model. That was fine for a while, but eventually the villains got weirder and were either evil for evil’s sake or just plain poorly executed, and the repeated expansions in the monster pool started to look like the weird part of YouTube. 3D battling, which had been around since Pokémon Stadium but somehow hadn’t made it into the mainstream of the other games (except Colosseum), finally made an appearance in X and Y, but it seemed far too late, and ultimately, like a failure to address other problems with the series.
However, in Sun and Moon, I detect the first signs that Game Freak may be finally addressing some of what made the series grow stale in the first place: the gym leader model. The new series will feature a reworked model in which the players will have to pass trials by battling an Island Captain, followed by a “Totem Pokémon,” which is followed by a Kahuna. Needless to say, we can probably expect the same level of puzzle solving that we've come to expect from these games interspersed with the battles. While this scaling model of shounen anime-style bigger baddies isn’t exactly the lemonade needed to freshen everything up, it is a step in another direction, which the series so desperately needed. Sun and Moon need to show that the series is not satisfied with languishing in its past successes and actually wants to improve upon its model. If Game Freak wants to do more than just coast, they’ll need to take risks and they’ll need to accept failure as OK in the name of potentially finding a fresher game style.
The games could also benefit from a better story, which means a better villain. Honestly, the premise behind Team Flare was not awful. Good intentions gone wrong is a lot of fun to play through...if it's done well, that is. However, if Game Freak fails to do a better job of putting together even a reasonable set of bad guys, we'll end up in Team Galactic territory again, and nobody should want that. Nobody. Further, a pretty good story would help to at least distract players from the repetitive model that has been Pokémon's schtick for so long and it would add immensely to the series' prestige. I did see an attempt from Game Freak to go down this road in the first Pokémon Black and White, but the attempt did not quite coalesce. As much as I enjoyed N as a character, I didn't really feel like the devs quite got it right, and the attempt to create endgame content by putting all those sages into random spots in the world wasn't really worth much. Another serious attempt to build a good story would assuage many of my concerns about the series' future.
If Sun and Moon end up as further iterations of the same monotonous model, I can’t say that I’d be disappointed. However, I do sincerely hope that Sun and Moon will not simply be a re-skin of the gym leader model with a set of organized criminals who want to destroy the world, yet again (cuz THAT always made sense). If the newest iteration in the Pokémon series proves to be fundamentally different from the last four games or so, it would at least mean that our friends in Japan are trying to find some inspiration for something radical and new for their future endeavors with the series. I certainly won’t hold my breath, but if the series can find a good new direction for itself, I’d be able to write much less morose content about the state of the games.