Just in case I’m one of the last gamers who haven’t tried a Pokemon game, this post is for you. You see, I dismissed Pokemon, like most Nintendo games, for most of my gaming life because I figured they were too kiddie and too simple. I was guilty of judging a game by its color palette and character design. Oh, and let’s not forget the awful anime, which I had to suppress a groan anytime the kids watched it. How could a game so embraced by little kids, even my kids, be interesting for a serious gamer?
The game is deep, much deeper than I expected. Thinking I was touching the bottom of it, I swam into the multiplayer end and discovered a whole new depth, one that I probably won’t touch bottom on for some time. This isn’t so much an introduction to the possible gameplay as much as my coming to see it.
how I was sucked in
My kids have played Pokemon games for more than 2 years, though mostly for a love of learning the various Pokemon and their evolutions. The card collecting side of it, if you will. My daughter especially loved it. So, I bought her Diamond and one of the Mystery Dungeons. She played them for a while but left it to pursue other interests.
About 5 months ago, the kids’ interest flared up. My daughter restarted Diamond and was doing much better. My son bought HeartGold and fell in love with it. Over in Alabama, my brother and his son [now a high school senior] were playing. Not to feel left out, I decided to buy Pokemon White when it released. For the first couple of hours, my fears seemed confirmed–it was a mindless, repetitive hack n’ slash RPG-lite.
finding new depth
Still, my kids were excited that I was playing, and I kept on playing partly on their behalf. Then around 10 hours into the game, I saw some of the depth.
- With only four slots for moves [types of actions, like attacks, buffs, heals, etc.], I had to decide which moves to keep and which to forget. [I later learned that I can forget and relearn forgotten moves, though not until much further in the game, some 50+ hours.] For a long time, I looked no further than the game, with little idea of what future moves awaited me. This brought an element of surprise as the levels varied at which each pokemon got a new move. Still, it was a move-by-move decision as the game provided no means to look ahead a la Diablo’s skill tree. Not only did I have to decide what type of move to keep [grass, water, fire, ice, steel, etc.] but I also had to decide what fighting style I wanted to develop for each Pokemon. On the last point, my notions were fuzzy, but I had fought Pokemon that immobilized and drained hit points rather than use attacks. I saw it as a kind of caster vs melee choice, though more subtle.
- Similarly, I could carry a maximum of 6 Pokemon with me as I traveled and battled. At first, I didn’t quite have a mental model for this type of game. It wasn’t exactly like the party combat found in so many Japanese RPGs because, for the most part, it was one-on-one combat. But still, it was a kind of party combat.
My first problem in seeing it as a party-based game is that I became very comfortable with my starter Pokemon, Oshawatt/Dewott. Its Sea Shell attack was very effective, and I found myself one-hitting my way through battles. I looked at my other Pokemon more as second-rate backups than as a team of any sort. That is, until I encountered a grass Pokemon that defeated Dewott easily. Then, I focused on building a Pokemon team that could tackle Pokemon of any type. [Insert mocking laughter from the Pokemon oldtimers.] The problem is that there are too many types to cover with just 6 Pokemon. But I knew it would be too much of a time sink to try leveling up more than 6 Pokemon at a time. I did want to finish the game, after all. At this point, I saw there was no easy answer to my question, and my respect for the game grew.
At 30+ hours into the game, I was seeing the subtleties of the various types of Pokemon [grass, fire, water, etc.] as well as the different roles to use while in combat. I was using Throh as a kind of tank, my default starter Pokemon for battles, because he had the highest hit points of all my 32 Pokemon at the time. But I also observed that the Pokemon that made the first move in a battle varied, something that I figured was determined by the Pokemon’s speed attribute. I also noticed that the different attribute values changed, even without leveling. As I was to learn later, this is a significant part of the game. I began to re-build my Pokemon team based less on their types and more on some fuzzy roles that I was defining for myself and on their abilities.
thrown into the deep end
One night about a week ago, I met my brother online, and we explored the various multiplayer features, including some friendly combat. The game allows for custom matches, but the point was that I saw a whole new side of the game that was now more like the card game battles. I hadn’t really played the card game, but I knew that it was like others that I had played where building a deck of compatible, complementary cards is key.
We then went to see my brother and his family for a wedding, although for the first night, it was all about Pokemon as the 5 of us played and talked about the games. My nephew had played Pokemon for several years, starting with Pokemon Blue when he was 9.
In short, I learned that the campaign in the game, of defeating the Elite Four, could be viewed as a setup for the real meat of the game–the multiplayer game. Four things in particular opened my eyes about this part of the game.
- Effort Values (EV)–In addition to leveling, you can boost your Pokemon’s stats by defeating Pokemon in combat. As it turns out, particular types of Pokemon boost different attributes. That means, by fighting specific Pokemon, you can increase any one attribute by a maximum of 255 points, significantly altering a Pokemon.
- Natures–Pokemon have natures–timid, naughty, brave, impish, etc.–and I learned they are more than cute descriptors but important influences on a Pokemon’s abilities. My nephew bred several Zorua to get the right nature for the role that he planned for it. If I want a tank, then I might look for a bold or impish nature to improve its defense against physical attacks or a calm, or careful nature to improve its defense against special attacks.
- Effectiveness–I knew that each type of Pokemon was weaker against some Pokemon than others. What I didn’t realize was that it was more subtle than that because the damage might be 0.25, 0.5, 2.0, or even 4.0 of the normal damage.
- Roles–The roles are not hard and fast, but the community has some well established roles, with some general agreement on definitions. But the idea is that you have lead, attacking, defensive, and supporting roles with many variations.
There’s more than just these, but just seeing these 4 aspects changed how I saw the game. At smogon university, you can find tools, like a team builder, and analyses of each Pokemon, of good roles for it to play, different sets of moves, distribution of EVs. I also saw that attacks and defenses were more than just grass, water, fire, ice, or some other type–they were also physical or special. So, I might want a Pokemon that was focused on special attacks–raising that attribute and focusing on moves that used the special attack attribute.
Admittedly, I’ve not battled online except with my family. I don’t know that I will. But seeing that the game is a lot more than ‘catch ‘em all’ has impressed me. I’m now playing the campaign a bit differently, more aware of which Pokemon I level, what moves I keep, how I groom a particular Pokemon for a role. I check Serebii and bulbapedia for information about specific Pokemon, their resistances and their list of moves. Maybe I’ll plan a team and try the Pokemon Online battle simulator to see how well it might play.
What impresses me most, though, is that the game works at different levels. It’s a fun collection RPG as well as a sophisticated strategy game. It’s something my 9-year-old daughter can play and love as well as my competitive 18-year-old nephew.