My Reaction to the 2/27 Pokémon Direct

Image from Gamespot

How can a presentation be so boring and yet so exciting at the same time?

2019 is shaping up to be the year that Nintendo finally let go of its recent past and went all-in on its red-hot Switch console. The announcement of Super Mario Maker 2 was the final nail in the Wii U’s coffin, and yesterday the Pokémon Company drove a stake through the heart of the 3DS with its much-anticipated announcement: The eighth Pokémon generation Pokémon Sword and Shield is coming, and will be in the hands of Switch owners everywhere in late 2019 (here’s betting that it anchors Nintendo’s holiday lineup much like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate did last year).

As I watched the presentation, I found myself a bit conflicted. On one hand, this was a mainline Pokémon game through and through, which meant that there were almost no surprises or twists that really made me stop and say “Wow! That’s amazing!” On the other hand…this was a mainline Pokémon game through and through, which meant it looked like the usual enjoyable, high-quality experience I’d been gorging on for the past twenty-plus years, so how could I not be psyched about a new region to explore and monsters to find? At this point, Pokémon is like your all-time favorite comfort food: You know exactly what you’re getting and perhaps the excitement of getting it isn’t what it used to be, but no matter how many times you consume it, you’re always down for more.

My specific thoughts are as follows:

  • I don’t play Pokémon for the graphics, but good grief, this thing looked like a straight-up 3DS port. (In fact, the game was probably developed early on to run on the 3DS, in case the Switch ended up flopping.) Sure, the textures may have more detail and the colors might pop a bit more, but for the Switch’s first mainline Pokémon game, I honestly expected a bit more than this. This isn’t a deal-breaker, of course, but it make me wonder what other unwelcome surprises Sword and Shield might have in store (especially the nasty performance issues that plagued Pokémon Let’s Go!). If I still have to wait an extra second or two per turn in battle because of a status condition animation, I’m not going to be happy.
  • As a region, Galar looks…okay, I guess? It’s hard to get a sense of the scope of the world from a brief trailer, but my early impression is that it’s a fairly linear area filled with diverse environments…you know, just like every other Pokémon game ever made. The long, straight appearance of the land mass is a bit of a departure from the wider, more expansive regions of years past, but there are still plenty of places to scour for new monsters. While the giant sports stadium intrigued me as a battle location, very little stood out and really grabbed my attentionI’m withholding judgment on Galar for now.
  • Speaking of new monsters, I’d say Grookey, Scorbunny, and Sobble do a solid job filling the starter Pokémon role. None of the three grab me the way Litten did in G7, but they all have the standard cute designs and personality quirks (Sobble’s timid anxiousness in particular seems to capture the zeitgeist of 2019). You can’t judge an entire generation on three monsters, of course, but at this point I see no need to worry about how inspired the G8 monster designs will be. (Personally, I’m curious to see how the overall stats match my predictions…)
  • Presentation-wise, the Direct didn’t have quite the energy of the recent Nintendo Direct (the presenters were more buttoned-down and less charismatic than Yoshiaki Koizumi), but it radiated a sense of calm confidence, as if the developers know darn well that this was Poké-freaking-mon and didn’t need a bunch of extra bells and whistles. At a brisk seven minutes, the Pokémon company did only what they needed to do: They gave us names, they gave us starters, and they walked away from the explosion like the chill folks they are.

In truth, I would sum up the Pokémon Direct with a single “meh.” Game Freak and the Pokémon company have a successful, time-tested approach to these sorts of reveals, and neither they nor Pokémon Sword and Shield deviated from it. This pointed lack of innovation and excitement would normally cause the Internet to flip a virtual table in frustration, but we all know as well as these companies do that Pokémon is a winning formula, and that nothing really needs to change here to bring people into the Pokéverse. (That’s what Pokémon Go and Pokémon Let’s Go! are for.) For as unexcited as I was at the Sword and Shield reveal, I’m still excited to go running around a new region and encounter new (and old) monsters. The region may be UK-based, but it could have been based on Australia, Africa, or the moon for all I care. Sword and Shield were a must-buy for me the moment I first booted up Pokémon Red, and as incremental as the updates between G7 and G8 appear, it’s that fundamental sameness that keeps me (and a lot of other people) coming back for more.