Pokemon Shining Pearl is a Small Magikarp in a Big Ocean

Despite its place in the Pokemon world, Sinnoh feels small and culturally indistinct.

It’s been a big year for Pokemon. With the 25th anniversary, The Pokemon Company has been busy with new games, limited-run anime series, new merchandise initiatives, and even a pop album. As a fan of the franchise, I’ve had something new to devote my attention to throughout the year. Pokemon Unite has become my go-to time-killing game, I bought an ungodly amount of merch like a Pikachu turntable, art books, and even some holiday decorations. So I’ve been sitting with Pokemon nonstop throughout 2021 in a way I don’t usually with most franchises, all culminating in the completion of Pokemon Shining Pearl this week. 

I’d been ready and eager to go back to the Sinnoh region since the remake’s original announcement. Especially when it became clear that through the addition of areas like Grand Underground and Ramanas Park, I would be able to reunite my six favorite Pokemon in a way I couldn’t in Pokemon Shield. Playing through the game after a year of concentrated lead-in has required me to confront what I want out of a franchise that has been so many different things for me over the past 25 years. This game reminded me how the series has evolved, and how my love for it has evolved, too. It’s no longer the same blind infatuation I had as a child.

Diamond & Pearl held a special place in my heart for many years. This isn’t necessarily because of anything the game did itself, but because it was where my party of six favorites became a reality. Raichu, Latias, Palkia, Beautifly, Torterra, and Houndoom have been who I considered my “canon” party in the Pokemon universe since the launch of Diamond & Pearl in 2006. When I played through Shining Pearl, I gave myself a bit of artificial challenge by refusing to use any Pokemon outside of those six. Because I had to capture most of them as I made progress, there were many early segments where I was fighting teams of four or five with only a Turtwig and Beautifly. There were some close calls, but eventually, we found Houndoom and the Pichu that would become Raichu. Palkia awaited us at the end of the Team Galactic subplot, and once I overcame the Elite Four and dealt with the tedium of mining the Grand Underground for shards, Latias rounded out the team at Ramanas Park.

Over the years, I’ve shown people my save files for various Pokemon games and have been met with surprise when they notice how few pocket monsters I capture. That’s the entire point of Pokemon games, right? To catch them all and be the very best, like no one ever was? But if the fact that there are over 900 of these things and I’ve managed to narrow them down to six favorites didn’t clue you in, I have a more personal connection to these Pokemon as characters than I do as numbers in my Pokedex. Even the idea of catching every Pokemon has never sat well with me. I don’t like capturing these creatures just to throw them into a PC box where they’ll never be seen again. 

Now that I’ve come back to Diamond & Pearl in the form of the remake, I realize the game itself isn’t touching on the things I’ve grown to appreciate most about Pokemon as a franchise. But it’s the only game that naturally lets me journey through this world with my best Pokefriends by my side. Shining Pearl felt like our origin story. And I think that has helped keep my interest as I came to terms with how the game wasn’t touching on what elevated a lot of modern Pokemon media for me as an adult.

There was a window where the Pokemon franchise wasn’t occupying my head and heart like it did when I was a child and as it does today. Even now, my memories of the games between Pearl and Shield are foggy. I don’t feel strong connections to the Unova and Kalos regions, even though I saw those games through to the end. This was the point where I stopped finishing some of the games because they just didn’t hold my interest. White 2, Alpha Sapphire, and both Moon and Ultra Moon sit unfinished on my shelf. Detective Pikachu (the game) was the shot in the arm I needed to become invested again. Not just because it was an interesting genre spin, shifting from RPG to a mystery adventure game, but because it showed how Pokemon themselves are integrated into a culture outside of competitive sport. The live-action movie adaptation that followed took this a step further by outwardly criticizing Pokemon battles as a concept. That vision of the Pokemon world is what drew me back in during 2018, and I’ve been riding that high ever since.

Pokemon Sword & Shield felt like that sense of place and character was making its way into the main games. The Galar region’s sense of place as the universe’s Britain equivalent is strong, and how it culturally deviates from other areas of the Pokemon world can be felt throughout. It’s even seen in the cities you’ll pass through, as each of them feels like a distinct place even within Galar. Towns like Ballonlea, dimly lit by its forest’s glowing mushrooms, and Motostoke’s industrial foundation feel like they could be world’s apart. But they’re all found in one region, and it makes every new town in Sword & Shield feel like a new discovery. The world seems so large because its open to so many possibilities.

Playing through Shining Pearl, I didn’t feel that same sense of wonder. Nearly every town in Sinnoh is generic, like a bog-standard Pokemon town. Coming back to it after Detective Pikachu and Sword & Shield opened my eyes to the fact that this was a remake of a game before developer Game Freak had the technology to create spaces that were memorable visually and culturally, rather than being tied to a specific in-game moment.

It’s interesting to realize all of this now, because thinking back on what I thought Sinnoh was, I realize it runs counter to reality. This is the origin point for the Pokemon universe. It’s where Arceus created the world and the Pokemon who reside over it. But there’s only one small town that really feels dedicated to this important touchstone. While the Mount Coronet fight with Palkia felt like it had some gravitas to it, very little of Sinnoh feels as grand as the sights of Galar, or Detective Pikachu’s Ryme City, even on a Switch. Even as someone who didn’t finish Sun & Moon, I can at least look back on the Alola region and recognize that it was a distinct place in the world culturally and geographically. I’ve long thought that even when I was having to use Pokemon I didn’t care about, I still appreciated the Pokemon world. But Shining Pearl has me realizing how much of that world-building had either come from my own extrapolation, or from other media like the anime where characters are able to sit with what it means to be here rather than just facilitating battles. 

That understanding feels more prevalent in recent games, and while much of that presentation of the world has been elevated through new technology, it has even bled into the character writing. Black & White is often held up as a shift in the series’ storytelling, as it focuses on an antagonistic organization called Team Plasma, which has, on its face, a more noble goal in Pokemon liberation. This was followed by broader cast dynamics in Pokemon X & Y, which have a larger supporting cast almost akin to the Pokemon anime. But for me, Sword & Shield was the point where those arcs felt most fleshed out, with the player’s rival Hop being a standout

He’s the champion Leon’s little brother, and is dealing with imposter syndrome and a desire to live up to his brother’s legacy. It eventually ends with him realizing that his journey doesn’t have to be the same as his elder brother, and he decides to become a Pokemon professor. It’s a game-long arc, and though it’s not going to win any awards, the writing holds up. Meanwhile, I never felt like I got to know my rivals in Shining Pearl. Lucas and Barry serve a mechanical function of interstitial battles between your progress, but who are they really? I couldn’t tell you.

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I leave Shining Pearl having enjoyed the majority of my time with it, but recognizing that a lot of that enjoyment is either self-imposed or self-inserted. I found myself genuinely emotional as I caught Palkia and Latias again, as the battles that brought both dragons to me were part of big events or story beats. But the presentation of those moments still feels rooted in a system far less powerful than a Switch, and a series that wasn’t leaning into the potential of its world and stories how it is now. But even if much of what the game was putting forth wasn’t stirring that sense of adventure and scale that it did when I was a kid, I can’t help but look at my party of six and get a little choked up. 

If nothing else, Shining Pearl was a reunion. One I was happy to see through. But it also was a reminder of how much Pokemon as a series has grown in the 15 years since. Not as a story-driven RPG, but one that at least better understands how to present its world and the people in it. Perhaps if I’ve grown out of viewing regions like Kanto and Sinnoh as these big, awe-inspiring places, I can at least take comfort in seeing all my best Pokefriends together again. Then maybe Pokemon Legends: Arceus will be Game Freak’s second chance to make Sinnoh a region more in touch with its place in this universe.