Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the biggest shake-up in the Pokémon formula in twenty-six years. No doubt, the success of Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has forced GameFreak, Nintendo's other posterchild, to act. Pokémon Legends: Arceus completely rewrites everything we have learned about the Pokémon games while keeping what worked from the previous titles. The question remains: Why is Pokémon Legends: Arceus important to Nintendo & Pokemon?
We will examine this from both in-game and the natural world to understand why it has resonated so strongly – both positively and negatively – with its audience.
If it ain't broke, why fix it?
A phrase that seemed to be the prevailing motto of GameFreak and Nintendo. For the past twenty-six years, Pokémon has been the same formula with new layers of paint every couple of years. During this time, Pokémon has had its share of hits and misses. The jump to 3D saw the 2D sprites lose their charm. GameFreak reduced the scope of the games, and the decision to have a limited range of Pokémon in the games was controversial to many.
However, despite this, the games continued to sell. GameFreak's reputation of making a fun, polished game loop would be noteworthy – even if the package around that core game loop is not always polished itself. The developers at GameFreak are brilliant game designers. Picking up older games and playing them today shows how much care and attention went into it. Even as programmers, the technical achievement of Pokémon Red/Blue/Green/Yellow for its time was incredible and worthy of praise.
This brings us to today. Pokémon Red and Blue were released in 1996 – twenty-six years ago. The landscape of video gaming has changed immensely, far more than most people envisioned all those years ago. Despite this, GameFreak continues to give us the same, though at times genuinely fun, game loop as they did before. GameFreak, and Nintendo, was incentivized to continue giving us the same experience as they did in 1996, but why?
Gamers forgot they were once children.
Pokémon is and always was, targeted towards children and teenagers. Most gamers seem to forget that their first exposure to Pokémon was through the movie that every one cried for, Pokémon: The First Movie, or through the cartoon/anime Pokémon the Series. Most of us played our first Pokémon Game when we were children, as did most fans throughout the years. The fans came after us because their first exposure to Pokémon was the refined game loop that made us fans all those years ago.
Some parents bought Sword and Shield for their children. Is it the best Pokémon Game? Not mainly, but these children love the tv show. They love how they interact with Pikachu or Eevee in Let's Go or even with the Pokémon in the camp in Sword and Shield. They love watching Pokémon jump out at them in Pokémon Snap.
We can be as critical as we want. However, Nintendo and GameFreak know what they must do to keep Pokémon going into the Next Generation. As mentioned before, people who grew up with Pokémon are giving their children Switches and Pokémon Games, even if we do not think it is the best game.
Does this mean that Nintendo and GameFreak get a free pass to do the same thing repeatedly?
How the mighty have fallen.
The gaming landscape today now bleeds into the tens and hundreds of billions. The onslaught of the pandemic saw the gaming space become the prime cultural field before losing it to TikTok. Among Us, Minecraft, Roblox, and the like have become cultural juggernauts, unlike anything before it. Discord became the primary communication tool for gamers of all ages. Technological progress was turned up to 11 in the gaming space as every company tried to profit in any way they could.
Corporations such as Microsoft and Disney have staked their claim. The game industry has exploded in growth with no signs of slowing down.
Where does that leave the Triple-A, multi-billion dollar, hundred-year-old gaming company? In a spot they have never been in before.
Too big to fail.
The Pokémon Company - which GameFreak, Creatures Inc, and Nintendo jointly own - is a titan.
Pokémon is so ubiquitous worldwide that it is hard even to think it could fade into obscurity. After all, Pokémon is the highest-grossing media franchise in the world. Despite this, its video game division has brought in less than a quarter. However, it is ~24% of the franchise's USD 110 billion revenue since its inception in 1996. It was a staggering USD 27 billion, but nothing compared to its gargantuan merchandising revenue of USD 88 billion. The video game division certainly has done better than its Box office revenue of only USD 1 billion and home entertainment of USD 148 million.
Numbers do not lie, and it is clear that Pokémon's video games are the main driving factor. The tv shows are glorified advertisements for the games and the merchandise.
With the changing landscape of video games, Nintendo – and Pokémon – have found themselves in a tough spot.
When Pokémon first burst out onto the scene back in 1996, no other game had that level of content, particularly in a handheld system. Though other games were more visually appealing, that did not matter because none had the sheer amount of content. The game boasted a hundred and fifty-one monsters, each with their stats, each with their own independent move sets, creating multiple teams from any 151 characters, with a surprisingly large world and a considerable number of quests, all on a handheld. Most RPGs, at the time, did not have something like that at that scale.
When Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1983, they effectively saved the games industry, in the US, after the video game crash of '83. Nintendo was untouchable for years after that. Even when Nintendo seemed to falter, they eventually got back on track. They built a legacy and staying power that is beyond enviable.
It is not 1983, though, and it is not 1996 either.
The eyes see, the hands do
The Nintendo Switch launched with what many now consider Nintendo's ace up their sleeve, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The developers meticulously designed and crafted a stunning demonstration of what was capable on the Switch's hardware. The game still holds secrets almost five years later. The game was a resounding success, and it was an instant hit with both fans and non-fans alike for The Legend of Zelda. In the eyes of many, it is a must-buy when picking up a Nintendo Switch.
The game ushered in a new era of copy-cats, from Ubisoft's Immortals Fenyx Rising to, most notably, MiHoYo's Genshin Impact.
This open-world concept on the Switch only served to remind long-time Pokémon fans of what they have always wanted.
Then came Sword and Shield, with the Wild Area. In this semi-open world instance, Pokémon roam around before interacting with them.
The fandom now divided, many praised GameFreak for trying something new. However, many criticized the game, as it felt inferior to what they could have gotten and what GameFreak had made prior. The graphics were also a sore point during Sword and Shield's release as the expectation for a console-class Pokémon game was high. It certainly did not help that the game's animation was simplistic and lacking from previous games. The topic of a reduced Pokédex reared its head in popular discourse. However, it would eventually make its way back into the game as DLCs, another sore spot for long-time fans.
Nintendo's disastrous Wii U launch had placed the company on a potential downward spiral. A failure on every front. Everything was riding on the release of the Nintendo Switch, had it failed to meet expectations, it would have spelled the end of Nintendo in the console space. It was not.
The rise of the Switch saw renewed interest in the handheld space. The recent innovations in laptop CPUs and GPUs saw many companies trying their hands at similar hardware. Among these was Valves Steam Deck. However, Valve was the least of Nintendo's problems.
The Switch initially came to market in the middle of a console refresh. It ended up releasing alongside the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One refresh. Now the Switch is competing with the 4K-possible Xbox Series X and PS5. The Switch's graphics and hardware performance were already considered weak by PS4 and Xbox One standards, and now the gap has widened.
The recent trend of larger companies buying game studios, such as Sony and Microsoft, meant that these companies would no longer be third-party developers for the Switch. While some companies claim they would continue to support the Switch, in practice, it eventually returns to the parent companies' platform cough Microsoft Store cough.
Things have only gotten worse as larger companies with much different interests buy out smaller game studios.
While this is business and most businesses – like Nintendo – are out to make money, Nintendo should be rightfully concerned.
All together now
For at least a decade, fans have been clamoring for an open-world Pokémon game. While many would have liked more polish on Pokémon Legends: Arceus, it is an excellent direction for the long-time fans to return to the franchise.
The fans who have been here since day one who watched Nintendo and The Pokémon Company released what many consider a bad visual experience has been the nail in the coffin. Cementing that Nintendo and GameFreak are milking their fans for all they are worth.
The shake-up from a gameplay standpoint has made Pokémon Legends: Arceus a unique experience unmatched by anything that came before it. It is sure to spawn copy-cats much as the original Pokémon did.
Over the years, many fans attempted to bring Pokémon to life in a 3D space. These projects could not get any real footing as Nintendo often sent "cease and desist orders." Dealing with Nintendo's lawyers caused many fans to sour and thus caused these persons to be far more critical of Nintendo and the Pokémon Company.
The "Monster Catching/Pokémon-inspired" genre has fresh blood from the very developers who helped bring it to the mainstream.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is important because Nintendo saw what The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild did for the Switch. After this success, it would have put pressure on GameFreak to try something new, and we saw with Sword & Shield that they dipped their toes in that open world that was requested so heavily.
Nintendo (+ The Pokémon Company) would have been content with almost 20 million in sales for a mainline game. With the increased competition in both hardware and software from new and seasoned developers across the globe, Nintendo and The Pokémon Company knew it was finally time to start taking chances. Nintendo now has more ammunition for exclusive to the Switch. Breath of the Wild – a brilliant launch title that will go down in history – and Pokémon Legends: Arceus – a revolution in its genre and the fastest-selling Pokémon Game.
Pokémon Legends: Arceus is ultimately important because of a whirlwind of events, each putting pieces in place and waiting for someone to pick it up. Pokémon Legends: Arceus represents to fans for Nintendo & Pokémon that these companies are not only listening but actively implementing what the fans have wanted for years. This game renews faith in The Pokémon Company. It ensures everyone, fan and non-fan alike, keeps their eyes firmly on what Nintendo & The Pokémon Company has yet to do.