Find Drowzee in the flats? You’ll get knocked drowsy instead


Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! (2018)

The year was 1999, and Pokémon did what the Catholic Church could no longer do – got an ecclesiastical grip on children up and down the country (wait a minute, let me edit that one). Even as toothless simpleton kids, we were able to get on with the fact that Pokémon weren’t real and they were never going to poof into existence. It was just a sad fact of life. Big shame though, not having Pokémon all around us. Didn’t matter that the world was already full of thousands of beautiful creatures of all kinds of different species, waiting for us to learn all about them, maybe even help save them from extinction. No no, we wanted them to breathe fire and shoot water cannons, and we each wanted six of our own.

Flash forward to 2015, and by the living Lord Jesus, there it was: 151 Pokémon, there in real life, waiting for us to flip our baseball cap backwards, assume a mean look and catch them! Well, in a sense. A digital sense really. We were still confined to 1s and 0s, but this time on our phones. The new phenomenon was Pokémon Go, and it was the latest chapter of the long-running Pokécult.

The mobile game snuck out onto the Australian market in June 2016, prompting us sad sacks to get a dodgy download as quickly as we possibly could, and get playing. But golly, were there ever a lot of launch issues. The downloads in the first 12 hours alone had to have been in the millions, and somewhat predictably, the servers began whistling like a cartoon kettle that’s about to explode in Sylvester the Cat’s face.

It’s a good thing the allure of the Pokémon franchise is so strong, because the whole Pokémon Go thing threatened to explode in developer Niantic’s face as well. With both the app’s popularity and the game’s servers going nuclear in sweet harmony, Niantic did what I always do in work when the going gets tough – it hid under a big pile of coats and did not communicate with anybody.

That is, until it soft-launched a new patch for the app, and the unapologetic patch notes have become immortalised: rather than saying reassuring things like “Cheater accounts being identified and banned”, “GPS actually kind of sort of working a bit” or “User’s phone no longer liable to become hotter than the sun”, this patch merely offered “Minor text fixes”. If nerdrage was a tradable commodity, its prices would have hit peak around this time.

Still, you don’t me to spell out the ending for you – the game has turned around, somewhat, offering much needed new features. Such as trading and battling, finally. You’d have thought they’d be Day 1 integrations wouldn’t you, since that’s what Pokémon is all about? Well, better late than never… It’s still slow, unstable, makes your phone breathe fire and has inevitably lost some popularity due to the fad factor.

But it’s a good bit of fun, so long as you don’t live rurally. Conceptually, of course it would have been far better having more Pokémon out in the sticks and maybe the odd Grimer and Koffing in urban areas. But you gotta bring the game to the highest amount of people. Hard luck to agricultural sorts out there – stick to Farmville instead.

Buoyed by the app’s financial success, a Switch tie-in game was conceived of to give the mobile branch of this soul-sucking franchise some legitimacy. Taking the guise of a quasi-remake of Pokémon Yellow, the Pokémon Let’s Go games (Pikachu or Eevee versions, sadly no Chatot versions just yet) aim to bridge the gap between casual mainline Pokémon games and the even more casual geocaching mobile app.

It was probably about time a major Pokémon release did things a little differently. You’re still talking about 8 gyms, 6 Pokémon on your belt, and Misty, Erika and Sabrina’s stubborn refusal to give you their number. This time though, the way wild Pokémon are encountered is overhauled completely. First and most notably, there are no longer any random encounters in the wild. Rather, you see the Pokémon spawn in real-time, similar to Pokémon Go (if the laggy app can be considered real-time), and you can choose whether to run over and catch them. Touching the Pokémon will still bring you to a new screen, but this time, you won’t be fighting them directly. No, all you have to do at this point is throw a Pokéball at them and hope it sticks. Maybe forcefeed a berry or two down its throat to help you here. How you manage to jump up twenty feet and get some pink raspberries down Onix’s gullet, I don’t quite know.

It’s actually hilarious seeing something as humongous as Onix just appear out of nowhere in the Rock Tunnel, alongside tiny little Cubone. The Pokémon are drawn pretty much to scale, see. And you’ll see that for yourself as, finally, each of the 170ish Pokémon in the game (the original 151, 2 metal chaps exclusively available in the app, and a dozen or so Alolan forms) will come out of their Pokéball and follow behind you. Better than that, you can ride them around Kanto as well. I even clung onto a Snorlax with my Pikachu buddy as we slowly ambled around the place, looking for trainers to mug.

Yes, there’s still trainers. And they’re mostly very easy, most of them packing just a single Pokémon. There are also Coach Trainers around, who ask for your permission to battle first of all, and give excellent rewards despite only being a bit tougher. Then, once you’ve beaten the game, Master Trainers for each and every Pokémon, from Magikarp right the way through to Mewtwo, will appear. And if your Bellsprout ain’t at a tough level, then forget about it. The verdict on battling? Actually, though my expectations were low, I was a bit pleasantly surprised – I was actually expecting something far more babying.

You can play with the Switch undocked, or have it docked and play with one Joycon, which I usually do. You can even get a friend in to help you and travel along with you if you like. Doing this makes the Trainer battles 2-on-1, which is obscenely unfair. Throwing balls at wild Pokémon with the motion-controlled Joycons can often be wretched of course, especially when your target starts jittering and pirouetting side-to-side and suddenly your Ultra Balls are going 720 degrees off course and bouncing off your own Pikachu’s head. In fact, I’d probably peg the Wii Remote as being more accurate for motion control in this regard.

The story, if for some reason you’re interested, is dealt with a bit haphazardly. Plotwise, nothing has changed from the old Game Boy days, which means you’re having to deal with Team Rocket and send them packing. However, Gary Oak, or Blue to give him his actual name, is already established as a previous Champion of the Pokémon League and a living legend.

So what, did Team Rocket just try the same scheme twice and it worked again? Did those two Snorlaxes that block your way decide to run away from Ash (ah, Red) and go back to sleep in the exact same location? And that darn building in Vermilion City still isn’t built yet. Although if it was, it’d cause a time paradox with Pokémon Gold, Silver and Crystal where the building still wasn’t even started, three years later. And yet the newly discovered Mega Evolution phenomenon is available in Let’s Go…

Apologies – one of my tangents. I’ll leave the actual story details to the pencilnecks. And speaking of pencilnecks, you have a different rival in this game, rather than Gary. He’s this creepy non-entity who I’m certain is in love with your protagonist. I don’t know if it’s the same when you play as a girl, but there was one scene where I was sure he was coming in for a kiss with my guy. He walked slowly towards me, eyes narrowed, dopey smirk, and the screen went blank as if I was closing my eyes, so what do you think? Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Anyway, this non-rival conforms to the unfortunate recent Game Freak trend where the rival has absolutely no ill-will against you, like Silver had, or even any kind of snideness or sarcasm like Blue. This guy is just double-nice to you at all times, a real finger on his lip kind of boy. He’s the type of lad your mother would unfavourably compare you to. In fairness, he’s probably not as bad as that troupe of pilchards that hung around like a bad smell in Pokémon X and Y, slowing you down with insultingly easy battles and crap dialogue before healing your team a dozen times. Not to mention acting as roadblocks and destroying any kind of nonlinearity those games might have had.

By many measures, Let’s Go is a bit of a half-arse. It’s a retread of Kanto, a place I know better than Dublin. The graphics, appealing in some ways, insipid in others. The story is the same old. The flow, though streamlined, is still that bit repetitive. An ignoramus would find it easy. It’s no place for competitive battlers. Nintendo say sod off if you want to do online trading with strangers and they say double sod off if you want the cloud saves you’ve paid for.

Still, a streamlined Pokémon adventure for the hybrid system, where you’re not bogged down with 800 Pokémon, wild encounters out the wazoo and madman stories about fashionistas bringing about the apocalypse was just what we all needed. All eyes are now on the proper Generation 8 offering of Pokémon games, Sword and Shield. I’ll be honest though: while Let’s Go drew pretty favourable reviews, I’m starting to see a bulwark of nerdrage, quite similar to the backlash against Pokémon Go’s early launch, forming against it: it’s not quite the Breath of the Wild-esque revamp that zillions of fans are expecting, and now it looks like it won’t have every Pokémon either. Do you think Mr. Mime will make it in…?

14 June 2019

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