It has been two weeks since the three starters for Pokémon Sun & Moon were officially revealed. While one of these beginner creatures is usually received less enthusiastically by the general gaming public, particularly when compared to the other two, it’s hard to remember the last time that this fondness gap between Pokémon starters was so large. While I happen to favor the Grass type Rowlet, and others prefer the Fire type Litten, the Water type Popplio has a vastly smaller, yet just as ardent following.
In all of the excitement for Generation VII of the main series Pokémon games, an article popped up in my feed recently that suggested things that should change in the Pokémon games to make them more exciting again. The author, who seems to be pushing 30 like I am, presents some intriguing points about co-op play and open world design, which would completely reinvigorate the franchise for those that grew up with it. Then, he presents this statement, when it comes to the current Grass-Fire-Water typing of starter Pokémon.
“The beauty in these three is that each one is strong against one and weak against the other – it’s a perfect “Rock-Paper-Scissor” metaphor, except for some reason plants hurt water? The issue is – it’s boring. There are so many other types of Pokemon in the games – from ghost to psychic to dragon and on and on. And there are other types that could also mimic this RPS circle of destruction. So why not mix it up a little? Psychic, Dark, and Ghost? Dragon, Ice, and Fighting? Really, anything else would be a nice and INCREDIBLY easy-to-implement change.”
It’s this perspective that appears to represent a misunderstanding of what has made Pokémon so sustainable and popular for the last twenty years. The truth hurts a bit for series veterans, so prepare yourself…
Pokémon is and always has been a game series that is designed for children
Pokémon is not a game franchise that grows with the players as they age. Every year, there are new players who are finally ready to play their first role-playing game, whether they have aged enough to do so, or if they are new to video games altogether. This is where Pokémon has firmly established its niche. By capturing these players and keeping them invested over the years to come with gameplay that is superficially simple, yet complex behind the scenes, this is where Pokémon’s audience has grown and maintained. When each game launches, for the handful of series veterans that decide that they are “too old for Pokémon,” a whole generation of new players is ready to take their place. It’s a much more sustainable practice, as opposed to trying to follow the wishes of those who first played Pokémon Red/Blue, accidentally slipping up, and losing the market viability of the franchise altogether. Simply put, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
It may hurt to think that The Pokémon Company owes its original players from the late ’90s very little, in terms of overarching design. Yet, the games have clearly adapted over time to still respect the older players, which is a very important distinction. After all, it’s the reason why players like myself still stick with the series. Whether the game references past titles, includes monsters from previous generations, or refines the subtle underpinnings of its battle system, Game Freak uses clever means to retain the series veterans. These types of adjustments are welcome, as long as it doesn’t change the core of what Pokémon is – an experience that is primarily targeted at children.
What does this mean for the types of Pokémon starters?
The loss of sight regarding the intended audience is where the hope of wishing for Psychic-Dark-Ghost or Dragon-Ice-Fighting starters falls apart. That is, aside from the fact that Fighting and Dragon is a neutral matchup and Dark beats both Psychic and Ghost. Regardless, deviating from Grass-Fire-Water starters changes the crux of the design that Pokémon is intended for children. The rock-paper-scissors cycle of those three works so well because it appeals to a fundamental child-like understanding of the real world.
Water extinguishes fire. Fire burns grass. Grass absorbs water to grow.
The inherent advantage of one type over the other makes learning the basics of battle entirely accessible for children, which is the entire point. Is there an easy, real world parallel to why Ice trumps Dragon? Why Ghost beats Psychic?
Now, as an older player, I appreciated what Pokémon X/Y did with its starters and their subtypes as they evolved. By pairing Grass-Fire-Water with another type triangle in Fighting-Psychic-Dark respectively, it gave those grown starters an additional advantage over their counterparts. If I had a say for Generation VII, I would recommend using that triangle in the opposite way to nullify the advantages, since by the time those beginner Pokémon evolve, new players should have enough experience to come up with alternate type solutions to counter their rivals. Yet, this writing comes at a time where Rowlet, Litten, and Popplio’s evolved subtyping is still only speculation – even with the theory that Rowlet will change from Grass/Flying to Grass/Ground, Litten will stay Fire, and Popplio will become Water/Fighting. Perhaps we will discover that for sure on June 2nd.
At the end of the day, as we get older and experience more games, we can imagine aspects of other titles integrating so well into the Pokémon series. It’s only natural. Let’s use co-op to journey to the top of the Pokémon League together! Sidequests in an open world would flesh out the region of Alola more than ever before! WHERE IS MY POKÉMON MMO?!?
But that’s not what Pokémon is. That’s not what it will be. That’s not how it’s designed. And if that’s not good enough for you, feel free to move on, if you so choose. The rest of us will be here, ready to welcome in a new generation of players into the world of role-playing games.
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