It’s a little hard to quantify exactly how toxic the Pokemon discourse has gotten in the last four years. Despite the games breaking sales records with each new title, there’s been an ever-loudening dissatisfaction with their quality and ambition — a dull roar that has only gotten more intense with the recent release of Pokemon Legends: Arceus for Switch. The open-world Pokemon title is derided by some and loved by most, but the two camps are mostly at war with each other across social media and comment sections over the internet. To one side, all virtues of the game are actually negatives; to the other, all negatives are ignorable at worst and positives at best.
Which leaves me, someone who thinks the game has great systems and poor execution on most other things, somewhat confused. I don’t wish to side with the people who want to tear the game down, but I find my complaints about it falling on deaf ears with everyone else. For as weird as it is to say: I think I’m a Pokemon centrist.
Those who listened to our Pokemon Legends: Arceus review last week already know my thoughts, but I was significantly more down on the game than my colleagues Kenneth Shepard and Niki Grayson. That discussion is one where I talked openly about how I felt the game needed to be better. But I’m usually sitting at the center of many friends and compatriots who absolutely love Pokemon Legends: Arceus and those actively seeking out complainers to get mad at. I want to pipe up, “But, like, this game can improve, right?” but I’m not sure I want to really invite that heated discussion.
But I also don’t want to throw my lot in with the people who spend their entire days yelling at Pokemon and relitigating the National Pokedex in spittle-laden rants on YouTube. These people must absolutely love Pokemon Red because that’s the only color they see when anyone online likes anything about a Pokemon game.
At some point, Pokemon became a culture war I have no interest in actually participating in. This back-and-forth negativity and positivity has left the actual discussion of the games’ quality in the dust when the series needs genuine feedback more than ever. But somehow, we’ve entered a new age of ideological entrenchment where these games are either abject garbage or impossible-to-impugn masterpieces.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus is a fantastic foundation for future games, but this has been the ongoing refrain for the series for five years. Every single time a new Pokemon game comes out with missing features from previous games, poor tech, or boiling itself down to its most basic beats, everyone suspects the next one will fix these problems. And Game Freak, without fail, will solve a lot of problems in addition to introducing a host of new ones.
And I want to talk about these things! I want to say that it’s actually kind of unacceptable to have distance loading where actual Pokemon move at two frames a second when less than 20 feet away. I want to talk about how the new systems are very good, but I don’t think the new turn order system is very well thought-out. I want to say talk about how it sucks that there’s no dungeons or really anything of note to explore beyond the 100th Paras seeing you from across the map. But there’s very little room for these discussions between the extremes of everyone screaming “Pokemon!” either angrily or happily.
Which I think is part of the problem: Pokemon is almost impossible for people to really look at objectively. We all grew up with it in a way that makes the mere presence of these little creatures send serotonin to our brains, and some people rage hard because they’re not getting enough of it after 20 years. This has made people both protective and vicious about the series, probably more than with something like Mario or Legend of Zelda because the monolith that is the Pokemon machine is so ubiquitous. Even if you wanted to, you can’t really escape Pikachu, or Bidoof, or Eevee, or whichever creature The Pokemon Company has decided to market this month, between the YouTube videos, Twitter posts, Superbowl commercials, video games, TV shows, movies, restaurants, parade floats, etc.
Pokemon, as a property more than just a game, has become so big that different groups of people have grabbed hold of different pieces and all found different definitions of it. And that’s exhausting to me to a large extent. I’m genuinely a little glad that people can love a thing so much that all criticism of it is pointless, but as a critic, it also feels like Pokemon is being done a disservice because of this. I don’t think the fanbase is able to really separate the idea of “exciting” and “good.”
I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The gears of Pokemon grind so rigidly that feedback likely falls on deaf ears, at least in comparison to the massive amount of money each new game makes. The titles will continue being churned out with some good and some bad with little impetus for improvement, and the civil war within the fandom will continue unabated. I wish Pokemon fans had higher standards for the games and I wish Pokemon haters would get a hobby.
Everyone needs to touch grass but also that grass shouldn’t look like it fell out of the Gamecube.
Maybe the next one will be everything I want. But even if it’s not, I’d love to finally be able to talk about Pokemon’s flaws and virtues without feeling like I have to join a gang that commits for life.