Pokemon Sword and Shield’s “The Crown Tundra” DLC is good. Really good, honestly. It’s got some interesting new Legendary Pokemon, memorable characters who have rapidly ascended to the top of my list of supporting heroes in the Pokemon world, and I’m excited to jump into the Galarian Star Tournament to cap it all off. But by being so focused on Legendary Pokemon and funneling literally all of them into one DLC area, it really becomes apparent that Sword and Shield doesn’t succeed in making each of them feel as impactful as they should be.
Legendary Pokemon began as these singular in-game instances in Pokemon Red & Blue. They were mysterious, and something you would only find in the depths of high level dungeons. Pokemon like Mewtwo or the Legendary Birds Moltres, Zapdos, and Articuno were treated with a level of grandeur they earned. Mewtwo was built up in the lore as an experiment gone wrong, and if you went around Cinnabar Island reading notes from scientists who created him, by the time you actually meet him in the Cerulean Cave, he has been painted as a force to be reckoned with. He was terrifying. Not that it means much to a 10-year-old with a Master Ball, but the lore implications of what Mewtwo was were well-established, and solidified him and his appearance in the game as something significant and special.
This trend continued into Pokemon Gold and Silver, which reveals Lugia and Ho-Oh were masters of two trios of Legendary Pokemon, implying god-given hierarchies exist within the Pokemon universe, and that these beings hold crucial roles in this world. Groudon and Kyogre are progenitors of land and sea, Dialga and Palkia created space and time, and somewhere in all of this, Arceus is the creator of all of it.
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And yet, Pokemon’s own lore seems at odds with the “gotta catch ‘em all” tagline the series has been touting for decades. The implication of repeated appearances of god-like creatures is that there are more than one of them in the universe, which is, in theory, fine. But “The Crown Tundra’s” streamlining of acquiring Legendary Pokemon has more in-universe ramifications than a simplified catch all (no pun-intended) dumping ground for the world’s most powerful creatures.
“The Crown Tundra” shows Legendary Pokemon presentation at its best and worst. It begins with Calyrex, the crown-sporting mascot of the DLC, revealing he was once revered among the locals for his ability to grow crops, but he has been powerless for so long that the citizens of Freezington have forgotten him. There’s an entire questline about reuniting him with his steed and really ingraining the two in the world in a way that has weight and goes beyond just adding them both to your Pokedex.
But while this is happening, “The Crown Tundra” also has an area called the Max Lair. Here, you and up to three other players can travel through a cave system that, without fail, has a Legendary Pokemon waiting for you at the end. This can be Pokemon ranging from the relatively grounded Mewtwo, to characters who have hypothetically had a hand in the creation of the universe like Palkia. It does elect to pass over the “Mythical” Pokemon like Arceus or Mew, so we’re at least not finding literal “capital G” God chilling in some random cave system in the Galar region. But given that Legendary Pokemon still have some huge roles in this setting, that there’s a lair where almost all of them congregate in that is more or less treated like a tourist attraction for trainers to come and test their skills at feels…convenient?
Ultimately, the Pokemon games thrive on the idea of collecting these majestic creatures, and completing a Pokedex is a large part of the appeal of the series for a lot of people. But it does mean that when those mechanics have to be implemented in the world somehow, it chips away at the world Game Freak has built up with each passing instance of a once mysterious entity becoming a regular occurrence. Mewtwo, who was supposed to be a one-of-a-kind creation by a group of researchers with enough hubris to try and create life, has now appeared in multiple forms over the course of several games, and is hanging out in some tourist attraction in the Galar region so he’s obtainable in the new game somehow. Pokemon whose entire backstories are tied to locations across the world are assembling in one location as Game Freak finds a way to mold its world around its collection mechanics.
I had hoped that Pokemon Sword and Shield’s removal of the National Dex would see a shift in philosophies, one that would allow its world to more naturally integrate the monsters that live in it, rather than constantly bending around the ideal of a completed Pokedex. Which could have been poetic in its own way for people learning that not everyone you love can go where you’re going. That idea is intact with new Pokemon that debut in Sword and Shield, but there’s not much reason to hope that they’ll be given the same care in the future. But whether it was including old Pokemon because the extensive Dexit backlash or just by trying to find places to fit old gods into new settings, characters who once seemed larger than life feel smaller than ever in “The Crown Tundra.”
The Pokemon universe is vast, mysterious, and in recent years it’s felt like The Pokemon Company has been finding new ways to examine it, even if it means being critical of the premises that are at the center of its culture. But “The Crown Tundra” feels like falling back into old habits, ones that dilute a world that, when it wants to be, isn’t beholden to the notion that we should be able to poach every corner of the map.