The looming shutdowns of the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U online shops hang over Nintendo as we barrel toward their projected March 2023 date. But while the company doubles down on taking a wrecking ball to two of its systems’ libraries, one of its biggest franchises faces something even bigger than the loss of digitally accessible video games.
The 3DS has acted as the final gate between every previous Pokemon generation and the Nintendo Switch’s modern hardware. What makes this possible is Pokemon Bank, the current primary means for players to store their pocket monsters from the franchise’s 3DS games. With an annual fee of $4.99, the service holds up to 3,000 Pokemon from Pokemon X & Y, Sun & Moon, Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon, and Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire. It’s compatible with Pokemon Home, a console-agnostic platform available on Switch and mobile devices that allows you to transfer 3DS Pokemon to modern hardware. As such, it permits transfers between compatible Switch games and from Pokemon Go. Currently, recent games like Pokemon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl and Pokemon Legends: Arceus are awaiting patches that make them compatible with Pokemon Home.
Pokemon Home not being tied to a specific device gives it future-proofing that Pokemon Bank doesn’t have, as the latter acts as a bridge between old games and new hardware but is only available on 3DS devices. That lack of a safety net means Pokemon Bank, and the very act of trading a Pokemon from one generation to the next is in trouble.
Although Nintendo has confirmed Pokemon Bank’s servers will remain online and the service will be free of charge after the 3DS store shuts down, the app itself will nonetheless be caught up in this artificial scarcity. Anyone who hasn’t already added it to their digital library won’t be able to download it when the store closes in March 2023. This might mean 3DS systems with Pokemon Bank installed will become a hot commodity, as is often the case with devices with software that is no longer readily available to download. But as a result, most people won’t be able to transfer Pokemon from entries released before 2018. For many fans, this marks the loss of the crucial connectivity that has made the series feel like an ongoing experience.
Bridges Between Generations
The first generation of Pokemon games consisted of Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow on the original Game Boy. For a player to collect all 151 Pokemon, they would have to trade between games, as not every monster was obtainable in each entry. This facilitated a social aspect that would become central to the series going forward, and gave Nintendo and Game Freak two products to sell at once.
With the next generation, Pokemon Gold & Silver set the precedent for cross-generational trading. Pokemon could be traded between old and new generations, so long as the critter heading from Pokemon Gold & Silver was obtainable in the first set and didn’t get additional attacks in the sequels. However, while this was a great feature, it wasn’t immediately the standard for the third generation, which launched on the Game Boy Advance.
Pokemon Ruby & Sapphire were released on the Game Boy Advance in 2002, and while the original Game Boy games were still playable on the new machine, Game Freak didn’t implement any way to send Gold & Silver Pokemon forward. Since then, the same mistake hasn’t been repeated, but it took Game Freak and The Pokemon Company time to nail down a universal method. Third-generation games like Ruby & Sapphire, as well as the remakes of the original games with Pokemon FireRed & LeafGreen, allowed you to send Pokemon from the Game Boy Advance games to Pokemon Diamond & Pearl through the Nintendo DS’ Dual-slot mode. By inserting both a DS and GBA game into the device at the same time, players could communicate between them.
But simplifying the trading process wasn’t a priority for Game Freak. Pokemon Diamond & Pearl only allowed players to move six Pokemon a day. Pokemon also had to be re-caught in a special area called the Pal Park, a feature that vanished as future iterations of the DS removed the Game Boy Advance slot. The shenanigans didn’t stop with Pokemon Black & White or their numbered sequels, as the fifth generation games required a visit to a Poke Transfer Lab to send fourth-generation Pokemon to the new games, and then play a mini-game to actually complete the trade. While these features could feel novel for those who only moved a few Pokemon each generation, it was exhausting — especially for devoted players.
“I remember being on a plane moving Pokemon from FireRed to HeartGold & SoulSilver, and it took me a three-hour plane ride to move about 100 Pokemon over,” Steve Sarumi, host of the It’s Super Effective podcast tells Fanbyte. “I think it’s always kind of been this Band-Aid solution to get Pokemon from one game to another.”
The sixth generation saw the release of Pokemon X & Y on the 3DS, as well as the beginnings of the more unified Pokemon transferring tools of Pokemon Bank and Poke Transporter (a separate app used to transfer fifth-generation Pokemon to Pokemon Bank). It created a centralized destination for Pokemon from any game playable on a DS system, and a means to transfer them freely between compatible games. The games of the seventh generation – Pokemon Sun & Moon, their enhanced Ultra versions, and the Pokemon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire remakes – were also compatible with Pokemon Bank. But even with a subscription service, Pokemon Bank was still tied to a video game device Nintendo would one day abandon.
Pokemon Go to the Phones
Pokemon Go threw a wrench into the usual way of capturing and transferring Pokemon, as the augmented reality phenomenon brought the series to an audience beyond Nintendo platforms. Anyone with a mobile device and a desire to explore their neighborhood could capture Pokemon. Since its launch in 2016, it’s been updated to include most of the Pokemon in other games. Just earlier this month, Pokemon that debuted in Pokemon Sun & Moon finally joined Pokemon Go.
In 2018, Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu & Let’s Go Eevee iterated on Pokemon Go’s capture mechanics. Initially, much of Let’s Go’s compatibility was strictly with Pokemon Go, as players could receive in-game rewards for sending compatible monsters from their phone to their Switch game. But as Pokemon Go would now factor into the future of Pokemon acquisition, Nintendo and Game Freak needed a solution inclusive to games not found on Nintendo hardware.
That wouldn’t occur until after the eighth generation began on the Switch in 2019. Pokemon Sword & Shield was the first new generation to debut on the platform, as well as the first new-generation games since Ruby & Sapphire that featured restricted continuity from previous games. Pokemon Sword & Shield didn’t bring back the National Pokedex, which meant they wouldn’t support trading for Pokemon not available in the games’ region of Galar. By the time the games and their two DLC expansions were released, Pokemon Sword & Shield supported 664 out of 898 Pokemon.
What followed was an online controversy known colloquially as “Dexit,” with fans calling for a boycott of the two games until Game Freak brought back the National Dex. Despite this, Pokemon Sword & Shield went on to sell over 23 million copies, making it the second-best-selling joint entry in the series.
With Pokemon Sword & Shield only allowing certain Pokemon to enter the next generation, players needed somewhere for non-eligible critters to go. In comes Pokemon Home — a new subscription service compatible with Switch games, Pokemon Go, and Pokemon Bank — in 2020.
Priced at $2.99 a month, or $15.99 a year, it acts as a universal tool for storing and moving Pokemon. This may solve some of the convoluted hassles of bringing Pokemon to future games, assuming The Pokemon Company and Game Freak have the backend support to maintain it beyond the Switch.
“I think going forward, this is going to be less of an issue, although still a bit of one,” Joe Merrick, webmaster of Pokemon fan site and database Serebii, tells Fanbyte. “Pokemon Home appears to be more platform-agnostic with its mobile portal, which indicates that we won’t necessarily have to deal with going to new ‘storage software’ in the future. But if it still bounces off the Switch servers rather than just connect directly to their own, then there will be a problem in the future.”
But even with Pokemon Home setting a stronger foundation for storage and transfer than Pokemon has ever had, there are still over two decades of Pokemon history that can’t be moved through games without Bank, which is a year away from becoming a scarce digital product. In general, Nintendo’s lack of preservation for its own games has affected all of its platforms. The Switch is gradually getting games from the Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, and even Sega Genesis, but that hasn’t extended to handheld games thus far. The 3DS has seen ports of past handheld games, including Pokemon Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, Gold, Silver, and Crystal, which gave the first two generations of Pokemon an opportunity to port forward like every game that followed. But those ports will also become impossible to download for anyone who gets a 3DS after March 2023. That digital scarcity has made physical copies of old Pokemon games go up in price, further limiting their accessibility to new fans.
“I remember pre-pandemic, I walked into a used game shop and I picked up Pokemon Black for $30,” Sarumi says. “Case, book, everything. I went back during the pandemic and it was $100 and it was just the cartridge. It wasn’t even the case or the book or anything. I get that a lot of retro games went up in price because of the pandemic. I just think of a Pokemon fan that says, ‘I never played Black & White. I want to go play it but it’s, like, $100.’ I don’t know how other series have it out there, because Pokemon games have always felt so connected. That’s why it’s kind of weird that these games are hard to find, and if you do find them, they’re super expensive.”
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But how important is bringing forward all that history? Is that interconnectivity as much of a pillar of the franchise as it seems to hardcore fans? Merrick isn’t so sure.
“For the average Pokemon fan? I don’t think it’s that important,” Merrick says. “In the grand scheme of things, players tend not to use things from outside the game they’re playing. The hardcore community is where this will hurt as these things are important.”
Sarumi echoed Merrick’s sentiment, citing Pokemon Sword & Shield’s commercial success in the face of boycott threats.
“I think for the average Pokemon fan, it’s honestly not that big of a deal,” Sarumi says. “When [Pokemon Sword & Shield were] announced, and [Game Freak] was saying not all the Pokemon would be available at the start, hardcore Pokemon fans were like, ‘We don’t want this. We want all the Pokemon. The game is going to flop. Let’s boycott the game.’ But it’s clear that the non-hardcore fan doesn’t care that much about it.”
While the loss of connectivity between Switch entries and previous generations would theoretically have a greater impact on Pokemon accessibility than Pokemon Sword & Shield not supporting the National Dex, it hasn’t had the same community reaction. Part of this is that, through Pokemon Go, most Pokemon are still catchable in a game compatible with Pokemon Home. But Sarumi says the scarcity of these old games may also make it feel less immediate and real. Because how many Pokemon fans are playing those old games right now?
“I think of how you can play a spin-off Pokemon game like Gale of Darkness or Colosseum,” Sarumi says. “You can catch a Pokemon in that game and get to the very end and see credits, transfer a Pokemon from Gale of Darkness into FireRed and LeafGreen, and then move that Pokemon up. And that’s a super cool experience, too, and kind of gives you a reason to go back to those old games.”
However, old games like Gale of Darkness can run you a sizable chunk of change, and that’s due to lack of preservation making these games more scarce and rare as time goes on.
“On one end, personally, I love that you can do this and you can move these Pokemon over, and I would definitely be heartbroken if they burn that bridge because I own all those games,” he says. “But on the other end, a Pokemon fan can’t even go out and reasonably buy these old games to begin with.”
The Friends We Make Along the Way
If a lot of players don’t use these features or consider it a make-or-break issue, what’s lost in closing channels like Pokemon Bank? For players who have been invested in the series for years or even decades, it’s about the memories that accompany these Pokemon as they travel between games.
Personally, I have a specific party of six Pokemon — with some dating as far back as the original Pokemon Sapphire save I had in fourth grade — that I’ve transferred between generations. Remembering the Torterra I’ve traded is the same one I started my first Pokemon Pearl save with makes me feel like an old friend has been on a journey with me. Once Pokemon Sword & Shield took away the National Dex, my Raichu was the only Pokemon from that team that could accompany me in the Galar region (though we’re reuniting in Pokemon Shining Pearl). For some, such as myself, that sentimentality is something most other video game series can’t replicate.
Some fans use Pokemon for competitive play, meaning something like an Incineroar carries with it a career history as it moves forward. Sarumi bred one in Pokemon Sun & Moon, then moved it over to Pokemon Sword and Shield. Over the last five years, he’s dedicated plenty of time and work into making Incineroar one of his primary competitive Pokemon. He hopes future games “also have that capability” to allow others to have experiences like his, and to let him still use the Incineroar he’s bonded with in another five years.
For others, Pokemon are reminders of their adventures throughout other games. Jay Petrequin, a longtime Pokemon fan, explained how he encountered a shiny Patrat in Pokemon White, and it held a sentimental place in his heart. But the 3DS’ eShop shutting down has reminded him that Pokemon like it are still waiting in old games to be transferred.
“I never finished that run, but kept that little guy on my team the whole time I was playing,” Petrequin says. “He’s terrible, but he’s special. The one thing I never did was transfer the guy up through Pokemon Bank. It always just felt like an annoying thing I would get to eventually, and then I put it off until now.”
Petrequin has been transferring Pokemon between generations since the DS era, but says he’s been procrastinating on moving some of his old Pokemon into Pokemon Home for years. However, the sudden precariousness of Pokemon Bank has lit a fire under him to move some lingering friends from his 3DS to the new service.
“I don’t know if I feel like The Pokemon Company owes it to anyone to keep transfer possible through the generations after a certain point in time, but this was the first time in a while I was reminded that being able to do so isn’t a given,” he says.
Some fans, like Rhea Storm, appreciate the business realities that lead to something like the 3DS eShop’s discontinuation, but also feel it’s antithetical to the series’ ethos to treat the connections between players and Pokemon as disposable.
“It says to me, ‘Your friends no longer have value to us. By extension, the way you played no longer has value to us, and ultimately you, the player, no longer have the same value to us,’” Storm says. “I understand why they are doing it. It’s a reasonable business decision and from a game design standpoint, I know it must have been quite the hassle to work out every generation. However, they marketed emotional attachments to us over the years, told us we needed to catch them all, and then just ripped it away and changed course.”
Beyond their in-game utility, Pokemon are often sentimental representatives of moments in time. For Storm, some of those emotional attachments — such as the one they have with a Roserade they obtained during the fourth generation — were formed when they were coming to terms with being nonbinary.
“As I was coming to understand myself better, it clicked that a lot of the Pokemon I happened to like in the past, that I had grown attached to, express themselves in ways I wished I could express myself. By extension, they genuinely were a way to express my own gender identity,” Storm says. “Without even realizing it, these friends I built over the years were just as much their own selves as a way to look at myself. And they would always accept me, they would never judge me for who I was, who I am now, and in the future who I will become. They were there when I needed them and for that, and I will always be grateful.”
The Pros and Cons of a Digital Pokemon Future
If every Pokemon needs to be evacuated from the 3DS and onto Pokemon Home moving forward, some fans fear there will be characters with no means of offline storage on a game that won’t be caught up in the eventual shutdown of Pokemon Bank. Between Pokemon Let’s Go, Sword & Shield, Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl, and Legends: Arceus (the latter two of which are still not Home-compatible as of this writing), there are still many Pokemon that can’t be transferred to a modern game, and thus can only be stored in Pokemon Home for the time being.
Pokemon Home’s free plan allows users to store 30 Pokemon on the service, but even that’s not enough to hold just one of each Pokemon with no modern game to go to. Evan Conley, a fan who has a Pokemon Bank subscription but doesn’t want to pay for two adjacent services, says he will likely switch over to Pokemon Home when Pokemon Bank no longer requires a subscription service. Even so, the idea that some monsters won’t have an offline home is still worrisome.
“I thought the ‘Dexit’ outrage was silly, but I do have concerns over no longer having any offline storage options for a number of Pokemon,” he says. “That being said, if another generation comes out and covers all the remaining Pokemon, my biggest worry there would be solved. At least, until a new console comes out and we’re forced to do this dance all over again.”
Broadly, this mostly affects Pokemon from the fifth, sixth, and seventh generations at the moment. Pokemon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl cover the first four generations of Pokemon as remakes of Diamond & Pearl. Sword & Shield cover the eighth generation and several Pokemon from other games. But there’s no modern console game that covers the entirety of the Unova, Kalos, and Alola regions. Pokemon Go features all these Pokemon, but transferring Pokemon from it to Pokemon Home only works one way.
We reached out to both The Pokemon Company and Nintendo for comment on this story. The former declined to comment, the latter didn’t respond.
The Pokemon series is in a transitional period, and with those changes come anxieties about how things will change. In some ways, it feels like a cage of its own making. This series has set a precedent that players can expect a continuous experience, and that in and of itself is daunting to consider after 26 years. But it also feels like the solutions Game Freak has put together with gum and string are being undermined by Nintendo’s own disinterest in preserving its games and services.
The Pokemon train keeps rolling as The Pokemon Company is putting down tracks, with annual releases both complicating and complimenting the systems it already has in place. New games like the upcoming Pokemon Scarlet & Violet may bring back old favorites and allow new players to still capture Pokemon from previous entries. However, short of porting forward old iterations onto modern platforms, the experience of taking one friend across multiple generations is in danger. Unfortunately, it’s yet another casualty of the video game industry’s disinterest in keeping old games alive.