If you’d only ever watched the animated series, it would be easy to believe that the core theme of Pokemon is friendship. However, the games offer a very different story to that of Ash and Pikachu; while NPCs from Professor Oak to N emphasise the importance of building friendships with Pokemon, the games themselves rarely reflect this. In fact, the only games that truly embody the core relationship between people and Pokemon are the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon titles, through the personification of Pokemon and the Pokemonification of people.
Every Pokemon Mystery Dungeon game begins the same way — with a series of questions about yourself. The questions range from serious ethical dilemmas to silly situations which ultimately determine what kind of a person — and thus, which Pokemon — you are. Once you’ve covered every aspect of your person and delved into some deep introspection, you wake up. Was it all a dream, or have you really turned into a Pokemon? No. You really are a Skitty.
You’re My Best Friend
Pokestrology out of the way, the first friendly face you see is another Pokemon. You can pick your partner, but they are always a kind, slightly weirded out, soul offering help. What happens next changes depending on the game, but generally the pair of you happen upon a lost, stranded, or otherwise helpless Pokemon. After a successful dungeon crawl, you both realise that helping others is kind of great, and increasingly necessary due to unexplained events happening in the Pokemon world. Thus begins your illustrious career as a Pokemon Rescue Team, and a beautiful friendship between you and your team, despite the fact you are in actuality a human being.
Contrast this with Ash’s first encounter with Pikachu. Their infamous partnership began with a bang — but not in a good way. Pikachu, for want of a better descriptor, was a moody bastard, and really didn’t want to be Ash’s partner. However, they overcame their initial struggles and grew to love each other. After 23 years of adventures in the anime, their bond is stronger than ever. That’s what the anime is all about — forming friendships with Pokemon on your journeys together.
And it’s not just Pikachu who Ash bonds with and befriends. Remember the abandoned Charmander suffering in the rain? Ash and Pikachu, along with Misty and Brock, save Charmander, and Nurse Joy helps it back to health. And what about Ash’s Butterfree, who he releases to be with its own kind? The anime plays host to hundreds of stories around battling, sure, but friendships take the fore, and this is something that the main series games are severely lacking.
A World We Must Defend
“This world is inhabited by creatures called Pokemon!” Professor Oak tells you in the opening of Pokemon Red and Blue. “For some people, Pokemon are pets. Others use them for fights.”
While Oak studies Pokemon, you have no choice except to use them to battle. It’s for the greater good, you beat Team Rocket, save the world, yada yada yada, but where are the opportunities to really bond with your Pokemon?
Pokemon X & Y introduced Pokemon Amie, grooming and play mechanics which make your Pokemon happier and have a slight influence on their performances in battle. Subsequent games have included similar options in Pokemon Refresh and Pokemon Camp, but they are very much separate from your journey and completely unnecessary to complete the game.
In fact, the hidden friendship statistic that has been fully incorporated since Generation 2 has a negligible effect on gameplay also — it alters the base power of the moves Return and Frustration, and allows a handful of Pokemon to evolve once it reaches a certain level. If you’re really struggling in a game, increasing friendship won’t help you, but levelling up your team certainly will. And there’s only one way to do that — grind.
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Rise and Grind
Grinding is easy in Pokemon games. Go for a walk in the long grass and knock out every Pokemon you encounter until you massively outlevel them. But what does this say about our relationship with Pokemon? Those countless Pidgeys lying fainted at your beloved Geodude-now-Graveller’s feet certainly aren’t your “best friends,” nor are they your pets. Now they’re just experience, and you haven’t spared a thought for them in your quest to be the very best like no-one ever was.
Shiny hunters suffer the same fate. Mass breeding has been one of the easiest ways to get shiny Pokemon for generations thanks to the Masuda method, which massively increases the odds of finding one of the rare-coloured monsters. However, this results in discarding hundreds or thousands of freshly-hatched Pokemon. This doesn’t seem like something Ash would do, and it’s certainly not in the spirit of friendship. Your eventual shiny may be your new best friend, you may love and cherish them forever, but at what cost?
While levelling up is identical in the Mystery Dungeon games, battling isn’t the aim of the game. The credits roll in a main series Pokemon game when you beat the League Champion and take their mantle for yourself. Never mind what Professor Oak says about filling in your Pokedex, the endgame consists of battling the strongest trainers to take their titles. And that’s the biggest difference between main series games and Mystery Dungeon titles.
Each dungeon offers you opportunities to level up while completing it, but the aim always is to help or save another Pokemon. While most conversations in main series games revolve about your battling prowess, the conversations in Mystery Dungeon games are, for the most part, about other Pokemon’s problems. The dungeons embody the spirit of friendship that Pokemon claims to represent better than anything across the eight generations of main series games.
What’s more, the Pokemon are personified. They have their own voices and motives and lives. Much like your original partner who found you lying confused on a beach, they join you in battle because they too want to help. You aren’t capturing them to join your crusade to become League Champion, they are signing up to your noble lifesaving cause.
By personifying the Pokemon and Pokemonifying your character, the Mystery Dungeon games let players build much more important relationships with the Pokemon they meet. It ultimately comes down to the fact that they are portrayed as characters, rather than animals. Every Pokemon in Mystery Dungeon has its own personality, and every mission is about helping those personalities. Just like Ash befriended Pikachu, just like he saved Charmander, you’re helping Pokemon every day.
Pokemon is built around promises of friendship and cooperation, but the only games that truly embody this benevolent spirit are the Mystery Dungeon series. The core premise of helping and rescuing other Pokemon is a perspective that, in the main series games, is often lost amongst the constant battles and grinding, and by characterizing Pokemon as sentient and motivated, Mystery Dungeon explores our relationship with Pokemon in a way that no other games can achieve.