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Friday, Feb. 23, 2024
The Observer

Pokemon Day 2023: The fault in our franchise

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Pokemon Day is advertised as a celebration of the world’s highest-grossing media franchise, a universe that is, at its heart, the illustration of a simple childhood dream. The appeal of befriending magical, and in some cases, divine animals and competing against the animals of others is rather fundamental. There’s a magic to the series that still endures, but if one watches the Pokemon Presents showcase of upcoming releases that debuted for Pokemon Day, there won’t be much magic to see. The presentation rarely excites, devoting far too much time to uninteresting side projects in the franchise. But its promises for the mainline games are genuinely exciting.

Most of the presentation is devoted to dull detours from the main games, such as mobile games, a controversial MOBA and, somehow, the logo for an upcoming Pokemon tournament. (Regrettably, that final element is not a joke.) At the center of the show is “Pokemon Sleep,” a sleep-tracking app that, depending on how the user sleeps, connects the user with virtual Pokemon. And that is it. Given that this is a presentation intended for all fans of the franchise, putting an ultimately banal product at its core, is a bad choice for the show. The other mobile games are more interesting by default, but nonetheless, these are probably not the products for which thousands of people who willingly seek this show out on YouTube care. (The voice work promoting the battling game “Pokemon Masters EX” deserves mention for being entirely ineffective, completely clashing with the cartoon characters from the game.)

The most interesting element of the presentation is the announcement that Pokemon and Netflix are partnering for animated series based on “fan-favorite [Pokemon] stories and manga.” Unfortunately, the first project seems to be a fluff piece: entitled “Pokemon Concierge,” it is about, well, a concierge at a hotel that Pokemon visit. This partnership is an obvious opportunity to finally develop a more thematically mature Pokemon product for older fans, especially given the popularity of franchise dramas streaming now. This is not to advocate for a needlessly grim thriller or even a pure drama, but the world of Pokemon, with its cast of moody gods and misanthropic supervillains, easily lends itself to a more emotionally intense story. Even the all-ages stories of the “Pokemon Mystery Dungeon” side games would work as a starting point for a show. (A new Pokemon Mystery Dungeon game would be an interesting side project and was rumored to debut in this presentation.)

There is the inevitable announcement of “Pokemon Scarlet” and “Violet” downloadable content, and it looks pretty good. The DLC for “Pokemon Sword” and “Shield” vastly improved upon the original games with two new side quests in large new areas, featuring genuinely inspired writing. The “Scarlet” and “Violet” expansion has a similar premise, with two new adventure areas far away from the main area of the game. Given that the base game is markedly better this time, this expansion could easily be the best mainline Pokemon experience on the Nintendo Switch. Additionally, the presentation announces a limited-time event for new Pokemon in the base games available right after the show, and this is an amazing concept. The possibilities for patching new Pokemon into games at a moment’s notice are endless, especially if more nuanced adventures for rare Pokemon are developed in the future. “Scarlet” and “Violet” were upswings for the franchise, and they continue to provide a basis for successful “Pokemon” games.

“Pokemon” has practically unlimited potential to inspire wonder, and the few highlights of the presentation elicit that wonder.  But risk is a requirement for truly wondrous works, and this is a franchise fundamentally afraid of innovation. After all, if one can print money without innovating, why change? The universe in this series can give adults a spark of childhood and expand the dreams of younger players, but that is only if its human authors are willing to give the work and take the chance necessary to make something special.  This author did not expect a masterpiece to be unveiled at this presentation, but Pokemon Day was a stark reminder of how far off that mythical adventure that can so easily exist still lies.