Pokemon Sword and Shield has been out for a few weeks now and fans have had time to simmer with their thoughts on the controversial new installments in the beloved franchise. With the widespread popularity of the Nintendo Switch, many Nintendo-related IPs are being reinvented to see a fresh start on the hybrid handheld-console, but not Pokemon. When the two games were first announced, many fans were expecting a bold new take on the Pokemon franchise, but leading up to release many fans realized that they were getting effectively little more than another handheld game. When looking at the other hit franchises on the Switch, it is clear that Pokemon needs to take some notes from The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. franchises to truly win back longtime fans while taking the series to new heights.
A Lesson in Taking Risks
Pokemon has long been a series that has played it safe when making design choices, and that needs to change. Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield feature some small changes, but when comparing them to previous installments like Sun and Moon, fans are finding that little has changed in the grand scheme of the series. At the time of writing, Pokemon Sword is sitting at an 81 Metacritc critic score (only a 4.2 user score), while Pokemon Sun is sitting at an 87 critic score (8.3 user score). Clearly fans are dissatisfied with the direction the series has taken - or rather the direction it hasn't taken.
But what does this have to do with Mario and The Legend of Zelda? Nintendo put out The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey during the Switch's launch year, and these two very quickly became some of the most successful games in Nintendo history. But what did these games do differently than their previous installments? They revolutionized their formula. While Sword and Shield feature some minor changes to the core Pokemon gameplay loop, Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey took a risk by being revolutionary in their game design for their respective series, and it made each of them massive hits.
Freedom of Choice and Gameplay
Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey feature one major gameplay hook that keeps players invested: freedom to choose how to play the game. With Breath of the Wild as soon as players complete the tutorial, the world is opened and players are free to explore and complete objectives at their own pace. If they want to fight Ganon right off the Great Plateau they can do that. Or, if they want to leisurely explore the world and uncover shrines they can do so. Pokemon has traditionally been a linear experience, though the early generations of the series had a feeling of exploration when wandering around Kanto and Johto with no guides or assistance. Players have long asked for an open world Pokemon title, and with the Switch's hardware now would be the time - if done correctly it could be one of the best open world games of all-time.
In the case of Super Mario Odyssey, Nintendo returned to the style of games like Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario 64 by creating a loosely-linear Mario title that ditches the standard level design in favorite of larger, open maps for players to explore to find collectibles. Super Mario Odyssey features hundreds of moons to find, and players can tackle the puzzles in any number of ways to get them. Players are rewarded as they go based on the number of moons collected, so players can find moons on any of the worlds to get rewards.
Once players complete the main story, they are free to explore the worlds and collect the many moon that unlock post-game. Pokemon has this to an extent due to the all the new Pokemon added with each generation, but cutting the available Pokemon per game severely limits this. If Pokemon were to give players more freedom of choice when it came to gameplay, it would not only add replay value but overall increase player time investment to make fans happier.
Bringing Back a Challenge
In recent years, Pokemon titles have gotten easier in many fans' eyes. With the introduction of things like the always-on experience share and "hand-holding" tutorials and features, many fans feel as if the game is just railroading players through the Pokemon experience rather than letting them get immersed and dive into the experience themselves. The Legend of Zelda as a franchise was notoriously known for having pretty rough "hand-holding" features, like having traveling companions who interrupt the player frequently to remind them of the main objective. Pokemon has also lately been notorious for this - namely in the form of the rival(s) the player travels with. In Sword and Shield, Hop is almost always waiting to stop the player with a conversation about the current objective, and while Hop is a very fun character his constant interjections gets tiresome very quickly.
To take a page from Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, Pokemon could either have tutorials be optional or just outright throw players into the world with little assistance. Both Super Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild introduce their main mechanics and concepts without berating the player with tutorials, and if Pokemon did that it would likely go a long way to earn back some of the favor of long-time fans that was lost during the #Dexit controversy. To go one step further, having players work harder to make their Pokemon battle-viable would help players appreciate their Pokemon more and make each battle more fulfilling. If more battles tested the mettle of the trainer, it would make the entire experience a true tale of a trainer climbing the ranks to be a champion.
Getting Sidetracked (and Being Rewarded for It)
If players of Super Mario Odyssey or Breath of the Wild took a wrong turn or got sidetracked exploring, odds are they would in turn find something worthwhile to do while they wandered. With Mario, moons are hidden throughout the various worlds. Clues are scattered around for keen-eyed players to track down. With Breath of the Wild, Hyrule is filled with shrines to complete or Korok seeds to find. Even if players did not want to track down shrines, there are plenty of items to find or enemies to fight - and players can always stop to cook whenever they like. Sword and Shield's brand-new Wild Area has some secrets to find, but despite the Wild Area being a large part of the Galar region's map, it lacks any sort of driving reason for players to keep exploring.
Pokemon needs to reward players for exploration again. Earlier Pokemon titles encouraged thorough exploration of the region. Players could find secret challenges, powerful items, or even legendary Pokemon just by venturing off the beaten path. In Pokemon's third generation, players could accidentally stumble upon an entire hidden quest to find the three Regi Pokemon, which had players learn braile to uncover the mystery. Diamond and Pearl featured several legendary Pokemon that could only be found by the curious and adventurous soul. Pokemon Sword and Shield has some impressive secrets hidden in the game, but nothing that drives a player to truly explore.
Many longtime fans of the Pokemon franchise have argued that the series has gotten stale, and that the games need a revolutionary change to revitalize the beloved series. If Game Freak took a page from their publishing partner Nintendo, the Pokemon series could sail to new heights just by following in the footsteps of Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. These titles became some of the best selling titles of 2017 for good reason, and Pokemon could end up the same way if Game Freak took a risk and made some key changes to the Pokemon formula.
Pokemon Sword and Shield are available now exclusively for Nintendo Switch.