In The Beginning…
After working for over a decade on anything, things start to change. You run out of new ideas, try to rehash the old ones, and look everywhere for the magic your creation once had. Some might even try to change their very nature while others may decide to stay the same forever. As the saying goes, if ain’t broke don’t fix it, and the Pokémon series had been holding that close to its heart for some time. After three generations, the Pokémon formula had been unwavering in its dedication to the series framework, only seeking to refine and improve. But as time went on and the series moved from the Gameboy to the Gameboy Advance, their ecstatic fanbase had begun to dwindle in numbers and leave the series behind for good. Pokémon was ever so slowly creeping toward its deathbed, with only one way to change it. With a new console on the horizon and the talented team at Game Freak still at its side, Pokémon just had to find that one diamond in the rough.
The Ultimate Culmination
Pokémon’s popularity was waning. No longer did it reach the lofty heights of its heyday, and in fact sales had been nearly been cut in half. Pokémon was still exceeding nearly every single franchise in the gaming industry but it was still falling short of expectations and fading from any sort of relevance. It had been nearly a decade since Pokémon Red and Green set their foot on the world stage so trying to innovate after all these years was a tall order. However, as always, Game Freak and its dedicated team of series veterans and newcomers were up to the task. They would pool all of their collective knowledge together to make Generation 4 a new type of experience; one that offered numerous ways to play. Their end goal was to make these the ultimate culmination of the entire series up until this point; a feat not to be taken lightly. This new effort would make full use of the DS’s Wi-Fi capabilities, allowing for 16 players to communicate wirelessly as a time. Players would even have the ability to trade between the Gameboy Advance titles, helping to continue the unbreakable chain of connectivity that Generation 3 had started. The world would take on a partially three-dimensional look as well, keeping the series grounded in the past while elevating toward its future. Even other sought after features such as a day/night cycle were going to be put back into their rightful place. Everything seemed set for the franchises return to grace and more.
Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, releasing in 2006 and 2007 globally improved on many of the elements that had grown to be a part of the series since its inception. Taking place in the brand new Sinnoh region, the story as usual started up in a little town with a young boy or girl setting out on their first Pokémon journey. Whether you choose Chimchar, Piplup, or Turtwig your goal remains the same, defeat the 8 Sinnoh gym leaders and conquer the Elite Four to become the Pokémon Champion yet again. The obstacles were familiar as well albeit with their own unique twists. Barry proved to be one of the most energetic rivals yet, to annoying degree for some, and the evil Team Galactic had their own unique twist to world domination by destroying it all and remaking the world anew. Diamond and Pearl proved to be yet another thrilling trip through a new locale. Taking inspiration from the Japanese island of Hokkaido, the region offered many new sites to behold with a variety of intriguingly designed Pokémon to inhabit it. 107 new Pokémon could be trained and collected in total with a variety of them being evolutions of some of the original pocket monsters. A celebration of the series past in more ways than one, the Sinnoh region made players feel nostalgic of the old times, better times for some.
However, Diamond and Pearl weren’t even done yet. The competitive side of the series was alive and well, with this entry further refining it to a tee. Attacks were split into physical and special stats making moves and Pokémon that were never useful eminently more powerful, changing up the games dynamics forever. The touch screen replaced the standard battle screen, making room for new and exciting animations. Wi-Fi was the most important aspect of Diamond and Pearl. What had once been a fever dream was now a reality. Players could now trade and battle across the globe, encountering many others with their own unique teams and strategies. Now even if you didn’t have anyone else to battle against you, Wi-Fi battling was there to test your competitive skills out online. This finally started the rise of something new in Pokémon, the competitive scene. No longer was Pokémon just a kid’s game that required little skill or thought put into it; there was true depth to the combat system. IV’s, EV’s, and natures, if one had true mastery over these they could conquer all in their path. The hard work and determination of the series many hardcore fans over the years was just starting to take shape and the notion that Pokémon was just for children was slowly fading away. And it was all thanks to one simple feature.
Other additions weren’t as groundbreaking but still added to the experience. Contests were upgraded from their Ruby and Sapphire days. Now called Super Contests, they were now less of a sidequest and more of an essential part of the experience. Consisting of three rounds of new and varied competitions, each used the same stats that were introduced in Ruby and Sapphire with berry flavored muffins called Poffin helping to improve their performance. On the other hand, the Poketch was implemented to take advantage of the Nintendo DS’s touch screen. A collection of apps from a calculator to a friendship checker each offered helpful advice for your journey, making the touch screen all the more useful. All of these new characteristics helped to broaden the series further to even greater heights. The effort that Game Freak had put into this next generation was very apparent, and there was no doubt that they would succeed. Selling over 17 million copies worldwide, Pokémon had started its meteoric rise to popularity once again. With a marketing push that the series hadn’t seen in years and even older fans returning to the franchise, Pokémon Diamond and Pearl had reinvigorated the brand for the whole world to see. However, there were still some bumps along the road, as somehow the games garnered a negative reaction from the gaming community. Some thought the battles were to slow, others thought that the franchise just hadn’t innovated enough in the time since the original, and many just went along with the popular consensus of the time. Never before had a Pokémon title become as polarizing as this one. However, with time it would become a beloved title as much as any other Pokémon adventure.
After this, the routinely made third version was next in line, but what could they change? While Diamond and Pearl were well received, some aspects weren’t as much. Some complained of the games battle system being slower than usual, as the frame rate had to be dropped due to their then unfamiliarity with the handheld. Others lamented about the lack of a Battle Frontier and a place were the best of the best could truly hold their own. Junichi Masuda (Jun-ichi Mas-uda) heard these complaints and set out to correct them, changing only the most important aspects so it wouldn’t be too different from the originals. Its title also fit in with the design ethos of this latest generation. Diamond was for chosen as its inner meanings of love while pearl, on the other hand, meant happiness. Since they wanted it to be the perfected vision of these title they chose something that dealt with beauty, Platinum. Pokémon Platinum, releasing in 2009 was much stronger then the ultimate culmination that Game Freak had originally sought out to create. Taking place in a newly snowed over Sinnoh, with winter related gear to match, the story mostly follows the same beats but with the mysterious third legendary Pokémon, Giratina, taking stage. Its Distortion World flipped physics on its own head by having players walk on walls and going in other unique directions, making the story even more appealing. Other slight editions came with the much sought after Battle Frontier making a triumphant return, a Wi-Fi plaza that let up to 20 players be in a single space and play various Pokémon related mini-games, and even the ability for the GTS to send you an email or a message on your Wii if a trade proves to be successful. Combined, Pokémon Platinum proved the Pokémon formula right again, introducing a third version that corrected the mistakes of the former two while making itself a unique experience in its own right. Game Freak had certainly accomplished what they set out to do, make Platinum even stronger than their ultimate culmination. With its sales far exceeding any of its predecessors, Pokémon Platinum truly proved that the franchise was back from the brink.
The World’s Fair
Because of this, the series was about to see its biggest event yet. Forget the long lines that come with every release and the Pokémon Centers strewn about the world, the Pokémon World Championship was going to blow all of those out of the water. Taking the competitive metagame that had always been hiding in the background and bringing it to the forefront, with both local and nationally led tournaments, the VGC became the pinnacle of competitive Pokemon battling and a yearly celebration of all things Pokémon. From the main games to the trading card game, the Pokémon Video Game Championships were the one and only way to truly prove you were a Pokémon Master. Competitors both young and old showed up to compete, starting in their regions then conquering their countries and later the world. While the regular video games could provide quite a challenge at times there was no comparison between that and the skill that it took to become a leading competitor on the world stage. However, if battling wasn’t your forte the Championships were still some of the best ways to meet fellow fans and make friends in the spirit of Pokémon. Pokemon had always been about building friendships and creating communities and now the fandom truly had a place to call home and the celebrate the franchise that had brought them together.
The Ultimate Celebration
This celebratory period of the Pokémon franchise was just missing one thing, a remake. If Pokémon Red and Green had been brought back from the brink after losing themselves in the void between the Gameboy Color and the Gameboy Advance why couldn’t Gold and Silver do the same? Game Freak understood this sentiment and sought to bring back what many consider to be the greatest Pokémon games of all time to a new generation of players who may have never experienced them before. The major problem was that this was a remake. Game Freak needed to respect the feelings of those who played Gold and Silver a decade ago, keeping many of the same elements and characters in all the right places. They had to also appeal to newer players, innovating on the formula and trying to make an original creation. To capitalize on this, they brought on veteran programmer and series battle director Shigeki Morimoto as the game director. After his work on Pokémon Emerald, Masuda had seen promise in Morimoto as a director so putting him in charge of this project seemed like a no brainer. Masuda in turn stepped down into a producer role for the first time in the series, a sign of things to come. With roles picked and the team order the remakes of Gold and Silver were on their way, but what to add? Of course everything that had been implemented within Generation 4 was a necessity. The Physical/Special split, double battles, and extensive Wi-Fi capabilities were all essential to the games success in the modern era. However, since this was a nostalgic trip through the series past, some ancient ideas were given new pep in their step. Introduced in Pokémon Yellow and largely forgotten, Pokémon could now walk outside of their Poke balls just like Pikachu did, giving some personality to their character. A feature completely embedded in nostalgia, the eventually unlockable GB Sounds item would bring back a rush of memories for older fans and give Junichi Masuda’s classic music another place to shine.
Game Freak had poured their hearts and souls into this celebratory effort and it showed. Pokémon Heartgold and Soulsilver, releasing in 2009 and 2010 worldwide were everything that a fan could hope for. The story hadn’t changed one bit. Playing as the newly renamed Ethan or his female counterpart Lyra, Heartgold and Soulsilver follow the same plot as before, with the same partners, rivals, gym leaders, and evildoer’s fans expected although with several changes to fit the times. You also encountered similar Pokémon to what you would catch back in the day yet after sometime all 493 Pokémon that had been introduced up until that point would be catchable, finally letting Gold and Silver work within the franchise’s framework. In other places content was beefed up considerably, especially in Kanto. Satoru Iwata had made the region possible due to his technical knowhow back in the day but couldn’t implement everything they had planned due to hardware limitations. Heartgold and Soulsilver were able to alter this, turning the journey in Kanto from a lifeless one with the gym leaders and Red being your only real challenges to a lively place that felt right at home next to Johto.
Other than this every aspect was as it should be, the best parts of Diamond and Pearl and the best parts of Gold and Silver mixed together to create an incredible concoction of epic proportions. If Diamond and Pearl had been the ultimate culmination, Heartgold and Soulsilver were sheer perfection, the finest experience that Game Freak as a whole had ever crafted. Soon Heartgold and Soulsilver would overtake their original versions to become the definitive Gold and Silver experience. Selling over 12 million copies the game continued the tradition of hit titles in the pantheon of the Pokémon franchise. With a fully realized world, stellar gameplay, and a compelling narrative, Heartgold and Soulsilver were a fantastic way to go out on a generation. Steeped in a rich amount of amazing titles, redefined classics, and iconic events, Pokémon’s fourth generation proved that the franchise was anywhere from being finished. With more work to be done and yet another generation on the way, Game Freak was poised to continue the trend that had been established over the many years. Throwing out their own conventions and starting from scratch wouldn’t be in the cards… right?