Our Pokémon experiences were never that different. You may have gotten really into EV levels. I could’ve become an obsessive shiny hunter. But we’d still visit the same cities, meet the same people, experience the same plot beats. From the earliest entries until 2021’s Diamond and Pearl remakes, Pokémon titles were uniform packages in two different flavors. They were an illusion of choice—largely what we made of them.
Nothing made this more transparent than the long-standing tradition of a “complete” third game—Blue (if you lived in Japan), Yellow, Crystal, Emerald, et al. These were chances to sell us the same map a third time, with content from both versions jammed into a colorful cartridge. In hindsight, it’s easy to see this release strategy for the transparently predatory practice it is. After all, if it could all fit on one cartridge, why not just release them that way to begin with?
Being a Pokémon fan meant overlooking this. Buying into the series meant buying into a piecemeal release from the get-go. Even as a kid I understood my relationship with Pikachu was transactional. His series was a swindle to get me to catch ‘em all. He’d be my friend so long as, every few years, I bought at least two—usually three—of his games. Maybe even some of the spin-offs and trading cards, if I was feeling generous. In exchange, we could make believe in and explore a prefab terrarium just like the one my friends bought.
This was our collective understanding of Pokémon for over two decades. We’d race through the story to the post-game and rush to fill out the National Pokedex. Find people to trade with or go head-to-head with our friends’ Pokémon team. Each city, town, forest, cave would become inscribed in our collective conscience as we methodically wiped out each trainer and toppled each Elite Four. Any little quirk from any given entry—from a memorable character to a silly mechanic—would live on fanart and memes. We made mountains out of pixelated molehills (Diglett hills?) and because of that, every square inch of each map felt special.
Violet and Scarlet—the latest incarnations—lack that charm. To make Pokémon resonate with kids raised on Minecraft and Roblox, Game Freak let players run wild this go-round. This region is a sprawl—a massive map players can tackle in any order, at any time. Each quadrant is littered with numerous one-stop Pokémon shops, with the Center and Mart rolled into a series of free-standing structures. From the get-go, players can freely fast travel between these points with no real consequence or feeling that they’re missing much. Those aforementioned cities, towns, forests, and caves all blend together with no loading zones, palette shifts, or soundtrack changes to denote them.
This cheapens Paldea as a region. Previous generations relied on player’s shorthand knowledge and memorization of routes. It reinforced information in an organic way that, over time, taught players every last pixel on their screen. I can practically remember the location of a specific tombstone in Pokémon Red, or spots to catch a rare legendary in Platinum—games I haven’t touched in years. But if you were to ask me a landmark, an item location, or what a town looked like in Scarlet, you’d be out of luck. Just a month later and it’s all a muddy, indistinct blur of primary hues with overexposed lighting.
Violet and Scarlet are a bleak look at the future of Pokémon. A series of maps filled with stuff to do, checklists to go down, menus to fill out. Maps that—once depleted of their resources—will feel empty and dead instead of warm and lived-in. NPCs won’t be in their places because NPCs don’t matter. Maybe you’ll miss a few trainers, dusted across the map with little coherency, but you’ll probably wipe the floor with them. It’s low-effort comfort food for the lowest common denominator. But hey, you can play with your friends!
Of course, this shift makes good business sense. In 1996, Game Freak was competing against other handheld role-playing games. In 2023, it’s squaring off against the likes of Roblox and Minecraft for children’s attention—tricky for a $60 console exclusive. To make matters worse, the Switch isn’t just a handheld, which means that Game Freak has to be cognizant of competition from Xbox and PlayStation. With very few options for multi-billion dollar success in a crowded market, going open world and adding co-op was almost inevitable.
Because above all, Pokémon will always capitulate to what makes the most money. There’s nothing sacred there—the whole thing has only ever been a cash cow exploiting children. It’s an ugly truth most fans don’t want to swallow, but the numbers don’t lie. Violet and Scarlet, unpolished though they may be, are the fastest selling entries in series history—and the fastest selling console exclusives of all time. Whatever complaints can be leveraged at them, the games rang the intended demographics like a bell. That success ensures that there is no going back to the “old Pokémon.”
But maybe the “old Pokémon” wasn’t that different. We bought virtual rat mazes and pretended that we weren’t all just doing the same thing. Ran up, down, left, right—no diagonals—and ascribed meaning to every step. Picked up little bits of unfeeling code that we named and called our “friends.” Sure, it was the same game everyone was playing, but we didn’t think about it. Our Pokémon was ours, and our stories were unique.
As it turns out, those rat mazes were important. Without them, being a Pokémon master doesn’t seem so exciting anymore. There’s only flat and desolate terrain pockmarked with unfeeling creatures—diagonals in every direction. It’s just another map to clear. Another virtual ecosystem to colonize and leave behind when I’m done.
Guess that’s why I’ve always preferred Mystery Dungeon.
Madeline Blondeau is a Georgia-born, PNW-based editor, writer and podcaster. Her words can be found on Anime Feminist, Anime News Network, Screen Queens, and Lost In Cult. She’s also the creator of Cinema Cauldron—a long-form audio essay series on film. You can follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd @VHSVVitch.