Pokémon Scarlet and the Value of Nostalgia (Plus Good Gameplay Fundamentals)

I’m going to start this post with a fake-out conclusion, and then pivot away from it sharply. Let’s see…

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are, on a technical level, pretty bad games. The issues have been publicly documented and are well-known to many, but include a litany of issues that would make anyone nervous to ship a game, much less a title with a high level of scrutiny. The game’s graphics are pretty bad, with muddy textures, a minimum use of lighting that ends up being inconsistent anyways due to severe pop-in, and a level of detail system that pops absolutely garbage-tier 3D work in when the object in question is perfectly visible, but because the game refuses to use any sort of obfuscation like fog or world-designed walls or modern tech like depth-of-field, end up being very obviously bad. The game tried to optimize for the Switch hardware, but failed – it looks worse in nearly every way compared to even Arceus before it, much less platform launch title Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is visually more appealing in every way despite being 6 years old now. It suffers a litany of bugs, mostly visual, which include strange visual glitches, terrain occlusion culling in plain sight, awful camera angles for battles and other cutaway moments that lead to ground clipping or the camera getting stuck in weird places, issues with NPC placement in fights that leads to some hilarious clips of gameplay, and a series of actual hacks already in the game, populating the world with potentially fake Tera-raids that can cause you to be banned if you partake in them. It’s also obvious that Game Freak tried some stuff to fix things, which make parts of the game worse. The level-of-detail system for distant models I already noted, but they also put a LOD reducer on animations, making distant NPCs and animated props move at fractional framerates – not a bad idea, but the problem is that the range where this animation culling starts is insanely low and obvious when you see it, and even then NPC pop-in still happens an alarming amount, including the game forgetting where Pokémon were if they are culled from the scene and you then immediately go to where they were. It really, from a technical level, needed another month or two in the oven, and it shows.

Pokémon Scarlet is also one of the best games I’ve played all year (there’s the pivot you ordered!).

Most of us have a sliding scale in our video game tastes for jank. If a game is really captivating, but also fundamentally broken, at what point does the sheer brilliance win out? It’s an idea I contemplated a lot while putting in just a smidge over 40 hours to finish the full story of Pokémon Scarlet (minus the post-game content, which I am diving into). Pokémon Scarlet’s jank is immediately apparent, from mere minutes into the opening. It batters your eyes with a visual cacophony that stuns the senses, asking a lot from players to square the circle in their mind as to what the creators were actually trying to make. But the gameplay on offer here, as a total package, exceeds the weight of the jank to still soar highly, in my opinion.

Pokémon as a franchise has a steady formula it only ever makes small deviations from. There’s a good reason for that – the game’s core design has been exceedingly strong and makes a great case for why sometimes, you don’t fix what isn’t broken. The base idea of 6 Pokémon per team, 4 moves per Pokémon, and turn-based combat all serve the game very well. Short of differences per generation, like the Abilities adding passive traits, various forms of Pokémon empowerment through transformation, and differences to the world navigation (away from bikes and HM moves taught to Pokémon and towards a travel system using some other plot contrivance to get you places), if you played the original Pokémon games on Game Boy in the 90s, Scarlet and Violet will remain very familiar and easy to pick up.

And here’s the thing I recognize about all I’ve just said – that sounds bad, right? Evolve or perish (and not just your Pokémon into their better forms), so if the game isn’t changing that much, what makes Scarlet and Violet good? What makes them worth pushing past the incredible array of issues that present almost immediately upon booting up the game?

In short – the game delivers on interesting gameplay within the formula.

Pokémon is always a smash-hit because it has a broad appeal. It is, unquestionably, a game designed to build a children’s franchise on, with new video games feeding new chapters of anime, new toys and merchandise, and keeping the flame alive for the next title and the next sequence of aggressive merchandising and advertising. The game, for its part in this, is a simple JRPG vibe, and it makes an excellent argument for the gameplay basis of the golden era of JRPGs. Pokémon has remained an excellent strategic RPG with team-building aspects, a focus on small bits of customization that make huge differences, and basic matchup strategies which the normal route-based gameplay teaches to you at both a basic level (an Electric Pokémon versus a Water one is going to favor the Electric!) and advanced (type-advantage based on both move type and Pokémon type). The small number of simple choices given to the player add a lot of depth and make every person’s playthrough of the game different – even with identical teams of Pokémon, it’s very likely you and I would have different experiences with different moves on our Pokémon and even slightly different stats, due to how the game’s randmomness affects the stats of each Pokémon with slight variations.

Scarlet and Violet make sparing changes to the base formula, but they’re also the roll-in of much larger changes that were forecast through Pokémon Legends Arceus earlier this year. Gone are the random encounters in the high grass and the heavily-segmented, divided world map of yore, and in are deterministic encounters you can see on the map and an open world design that is still segmented, but into very large chunks broken up only by the Academy grounds and its small region at the south of the map. You can fast-travel early on by flying to Pokémon Centers you’ve visited previously, along with a few story-significant flight points, so the open world is fairly easy to traverse. Instead of a single story route involving the eight Gyms you need to best for badges, the game has 3 story routes you can tackle in any order, including a standard Gym route and two smaller 5-objective routes for Titan Pokémon and dealing with the game’s delinquent squad, Team Star. Each of these routes has their own story being told as you progress, and by the end, the three stories present their own finales – a standard Pokémon League challenge for the Gym route with an Elite Four and Champion fight followed by a rival encounter, Team Star having you fight the leadership to dethrone the organization as a whole, and the Titan Pokémon route having an appropriate ending for where that story goes. You can tackle these routes in any order and can weave between them at your leisure, but there’s a catch, and it is a fairly big one.

The game’s open world nature is, by and large, a ruse. In the purest sense, the game is an open world, but nothing is level scaled, which means deviating from a level range of objectives is a challenge that can waste time. Given that the level-matched route with good, gradual progression involves a lot of backtracking from west to east of the map in the early stages of the game, this is…not ideal! The game has Pokémon Centers equipped to tell you how to progress if you ask, but I could see the young version of me who fell in love with Pokémon Red on the Game Boy being kind of lost and just sort of aimlessly puttering about, or overleveling to challenge a Gym that is around level 50 in spite of being one of the first gyms on your map (albeit behind a lot of navigation that is made easier through navigation tech you won’t have that early on), and then that overleveling making the rest of the game feel trivial. The routing, however, does make smart use of some environmental design to make getting places where the challenge is too high hard, if not impossible-seeming.

The end result is a game that feels more open and engaging than random-encounter Pokémon, but is also still a pretty familiar lean into the formula – the route is bigger and more interesting, but you’re after 18 badges across 3 stories instead of 8 in one (or 16, looking at the Gold/Silver era), and then the game winds to a combined finale that opens up the endgame for you. The other distinctive twist for Scarlet/Violet are the Terastallized Pokémon. In battle, once per Pokémon Center rest, you can charge up a Pokémon to a Tera form, with a distinct Tera type that is sometimes matched to a base type the Pokémon has and other times is a curveball, and this empowerment grants moves matching the Tera-type a power boost. This is used most commonly in story battles, where the final Pokémon at each gym is Terastallized, as is each final choice in the League battles and your other route finales. In addition, Terastallizing is used as the context for two world event types – Tera Raids and fixed-encounter Terastallized Pokémon. Tera Raids are objectives you can challenge with 1-4 players, filled out by NPCs. These do not have a fixed level for the Pokémon, but instead are star-rated 1-6, with 1-4 being available as you progress the main story, 5 opening after the credits roll, and 6 requiring some farming of 5-star raids as a quest. The fixed battles are solo encounters where you can face a regionally high-level Terastallized Pokémon for a chance to catch them. Other than starting the fight in Tera form, they’re otherwise standard and nothing really special seems to be present for them to be more worth catching if you already have the Pokémon in question.

After the credits roll, you have a mix of things you can do in game, in true Pokémon fashion. Firstly, and new to me, there is a sort of pseudo New Game Plus option, in that you can go back to challenge the Gyms with higher-level, less merciful teams. There is a set of four legendary Pokémon that you can catch after solving a series of world puzzles, and there is a full endgame area you get to run through with some unique Pokémon, so we’ll hold that for later with spoilers.

For me, what about this experience appealed?

Well, it is worth recounting my history with Pokémon first, to explain how I came to genuinely love this game, flaws and all.

I was a huge Generation 1 Pokémon fan. I had Pokémon Red on Game Boy with hundreds of hours of played time, trades with my friends since we all played during breaks in middle school, and a high degree of fandom – watched the anime on TV before school, read about the game online via dialup (!), the whole thing. Pokémon made me friends with my current FFXIV Free Company leader, who introduced me to Blizzard games, and so in many ways, Pokémon was a gateway to a lot of interests I have to this day. Pokemon introduced me to JRPGs, which I hadn’t played a lot of before, and it wasn’t until after Pokémon Red that I became a Final Fantasy fan. Pokémon’s TCG is how I got into that genre of gaming, which led to Magic The Gathering, which led to more friendships and solidified interests. If I never played Pokémon, so much of who I know myself to be as a 37 year old now is out the window, because it was a gateway to more interests and a shared experience for bonding with people who pulled me into things that would later be foundational for new interests, including WoW, MMOs in general, Final Fantasy, TCGs, and the like.

However, it would also be fair to say that my Pokémon fandom wasn’t long-lived. I fell off pretty hard as early as Generation 2 – I played the Japanese version of Gold on an emulator before the North American release, finished it (I couldn’t read Japanese but fan guides helped me get through it!) and that was the last Pokémon I put more than an hour into before the updated versions of Gold and Silver on DS a decade later. I’ve owned multiple games of Pokémon since then – I have Black, X, and Sword, but none of them grabbed me in the same way – I never even started Black or X, and I put about an hour or two on-stream into Sword a year or so ago and it just wasn’t a way to play the story that I liked, so I gave up on it.

I wasn’t sure if I would try Scarlet or Violet, to be honest, and I didn’t make the decision to even buy one until the day of launch last week. I felt bad talking about it with my wife, having read enough to be a little excited but also skeptical of whether or not I would even start the game, much less finish it – Dragonflight comes out in a week, after all, and I’ve got maintenance stuff to do in FFXIV alongside progression raiding! But a good chunk of both of my Free Companies in FFXIV and some of my WoW raiders were excited for the games (one of my WoW raiders is a HUGE Pokémon fan, like, far above and beyond even my biggest moments with the fandom), and the surrounding of hype I was wrapped in got me. I downloaded it to my Switch and started when it launched, and it got me good.

In spite of the technical advances (and accompanying bugs and bullshit!), Pokémon is still Pokémon. That core formula still works, and it tugs on the nostalgia hard. The modern games have a better balance of mixing in established, franchise Pokémon characters with a good number of new options, such that for every new and strange one I found in Scarlet, I had one that I knew, probably owned a TCG card of at one point, and thus it had this deep pang of familiarity that was nice. In the same way I have nostalgia for areas in WoW I explored the first time nearly 20 full years ago, there’s something nice and welcoming about having those old favorite Pokémon pop up to say hello, to get a Pikachu to go with my Skeledirge. The strategic depth as you level up and get in deeper anchors the game for all audiences in a way that is very compelling. At its heart, Pokémon is a game for children, but adults can engage with IVs, unique stat systems, shiny catching, advanced team comps, min-maxing, and all these things that the game sort of explains but also leaves open and as un-intimidating as possible.

So early on, I was caught and captivated with the iterative nature of the core Pokémon formula – a tactical JRPG-style romp with lots of fun characters and a world that is interesting, even if the visual style is a mess outside of the graphics glitches and bugs. What kept me engaged to the end was the story, especially the non-standard routes. So here is where we plop a spoiler warning.

And here is some text just in case…

Alright. So at their heart, the version difference actually gives us an interesting wrinkle in that there is an explanation as to why most of the Pokémon are different between versions! Scarlet and Violet are the same core game with the same map and only a renamed Academy and unique mount Pokémon in Koraidon (Scarlet) and Miraidon (Violet) to carry the differences…at first. However, astute Japanese speakers might note the mount Pokémon names give up some of the game – Korai in Koraidon being a Japanese word for “ancient” and Mirai being a word meaning “future.” This represents the core thrust of the version distinction – Scarlet’s Pokémon include a bevy of Ancient variants, many of which draw upon existing Pokémon like Jigglypuff and Donphan but with a distinct, primordial sort of feeling – Scream Tail, based on Jigglypuff, is probably the funniest one to me! Violet, on the other hand, draws upon futuristic Pokémon, with many of the variants being Steel dual-types. Likewise, the story is modified slightly for each, with Scarlet’s main antagonist being Professor Sada, who is the mother of Arven, a character you meet early on who puts you on the Titan path, while Violet has the Professor as Turo. Both are dressed to give up the game early if you’re paying attention – Sada in loincloth with a lab coat and fanged necklace, Turo in a sleek form-fitting body suit.

The main story arcs are tied to each of the 3 paths, and have a surprising amount to offer. The gym path is the most dull, in my opinion – it’s standard Pokémon fare with little setting it apart other than some fun and distinctive Gym leaders, and everyone on that path is tripping over themselves with how cool your character is. The Team Star path is an actually-interesting tale of how bullying affects kids in school and actually ends up being a touching misfit’s tale about finding shared meaning and standing together against bullies when the academy fails them. The Titan path is the most interesting to me, as it has an easy tug on the heartstrings with a dying dog (Pokémon) needing herbs to be healed, while you learn more about Arven’s character that sets up the true finale. Regardless of the version, the core story of Arven is the same – left behind by his Professor parents (you only hear about the one in your version when playing through), Arven has only one real treasured relationship in his life – his Mabosstiff, who is injured in a plot-convenient way that cannot be healed by the in-universe Pokémon gameplay contrivances. His character has a full path that is fairly tragic, finally healing his Mabosstiff to the point he can fight again (and is Arven’s ace for the Titan route finale!) before the story routes converge.

Once you finish all 3 story routes, you can do the final quest and true finale – combining the NPCs guiding each of the 3 routes into a team for an adventure into Area Zero, the valley at the bottom of the Great Crater of Paldea that has been out of bounds for the rest of the game. As you run through, you discover that the Pokémon here are a mix of normal and those out-of-chronology, as the Professor of your version has built a time machine at the base of the crater that is bringing back through Pokémon from the past/future. Arven’s story is always going to be bad here, because the truth at the bottom is that his parent in the version of your choosing is long dead, having died fighting the territorial evil version of your cover art mount Pokémon to save the more docile one you’ve been riding around the whole game, and the Professors have replaced themselves with an AI mind and robotic body that held on to ensure the shutdown of the time machine for the right, chosen child Pokémon trainer (it’s you, shocker!).

As a story in a kid’s game, it’s a little dark and deep in a good way, one that touches upon themes that kids can encounter and resonates with adults alike. Bullying is a thing that we all face at many points in life, including as adults, and that theme is interestingly explored in a way that subverts how the dastardly Teams of my childhood Pokémon were handled, while Arven’s story tugs at heartstrings any pet owner understands (and if you had to put down a dog like, say, a year and change ago, will really punch you in the heart). It paints how sort of meh the Pokemon story can normally be that the League challenge, the bread and butter of Pokémon, is by far the worst story in the game, with only just barely enough anything to guide the player through to the end. It is sort of an anime cliche style in that way, but it stands out here because the two other routes are better by comparison.

And so, in the end, just under 42 hours deep and with more content still to do, how do I feel about Pokémon Scarlet?

Well, it’s an interesting tale. On the technological front, the game is a fucking mess, worse than all prior Switch iterations of Pokémon, worse than most open-world titles on the system, and clearly rushed in a way that lowers my opinion of both Nintendo and Game Freak. Even setting aside the obvious layers of glitches and problems, the game just visually isn’t as good as Arceus, its clear inspiration in many of the features it brings to the table. The visual style is incoherent, with a mix of colorful, high-contrast nature environments and smooth, realized Pokémon, against a lot of baffling choices like bad texture tiling in the environment, crusty low-resolution normal maps that take away instead of add to the visuals, and clear attempts to optimize the game that actually make it look measurably worse while not adding enough performance to even be that useful. Cynically, the game was obviously rushed and crunched, with credits that show a multitude of third-party outsource developers being brought in to hopefully get it over the finish line, and the implication that I see is that the game is broken today, but by the winter holidays where it might be given as a gift to young children, there are likely to be patches fixing up some of those aspects of the game. This isn’t even a situation where bugs are sporadic and maybe you won’t face them – no, they are impossible to ignore because they are everywhere in the game and you will undoubtedly come across them.

But on the gameplay and story front, the game just hit for me in a really satisfying way I have a hard time contextualizing. I’m a long-lived Pokémon fan, but I’ve been out of the game for over a decade at this point. It’s nostalgic for me, but more in how my Pokémon fandom gave way to more recently engaging fandoms. A lot of friends and acquaintances play it, but not really together or in a way where I have FOMO if I don’t get in on it. Yet in spite of all of that, Pokémon Scarlet absolutely roped me in to the game in a powerful way that I have not yet escaped. Sure, next week with Dragonflight, that feeling is likely to dull a bit, and the game will settle in to an occasional curiosity more than a main going concern in my gameplay, but I bought it with significant doubt I’d even get more than an hour or two in before it hit the backlog heap, and yet something early on hooked me so deeply that I went hard over 5 days to finish the story before almost all of the people I knew playing it.

It’s a mix of things for me, I think – there’s nostalgia trapped in it, a solid base game worth playing, peer pressure, an interesting story, the nature of collecting and checking off lists, and the exploration of the world it offers, even as it struggles with a sense of identity and purpose. It also feels like the truly new Pokémon experience I’ve wanted for a while – more open and modern, with a greater emphasis on exploring the world as a full place, with no random battles or old-school 2D mechanics like eye-contact battles and a greater emphasis on choice as a key component of the gameplay.

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