Yearly sports game occupies a strange place in the gaming industry. Many fans of Madden, NBA 2K, and the rest buy each full-priced entry without much regard for their quality. That's not to say they're bad games. That's actually part of the problem. Sports series have been around long enough that they're built on a solid foundation. It's when you look at the impact these games have on the industry that things get sketchy. The idea that a developer can take last year's game, make minor improvements, and still charge $60 might encourage more publishers to seek the same low-effort profits. It's also the direction the Pokémon franchise is going in.
Sword & Shield Are Good, But Not Great
Pokémon Sword and Shield represent the series' first true jump to home console. Yes, there was Lets Go!, but it was a remake. The point of Let's Go! was to be nostalgic, and therefore developer Game Freak faithfully stuck to the simple maps and design choices of the '90s Game Boy games. Sword and Shield are the first Pokémon games built from the ground up for Nintendo Switch. So how do they take advantage of the greater capabilities of the console? They add curry, giant Pokémon, and Breath of the Wild but with N64 trees.
Some readers are undoubtedly firing off their mental arguments against what they see as a reductive take on two fun games. And they're right, to a degree. I gave Pokémon Shield a 4/5 stars in our review, so clearly there's a lot to enjoy. The new Pokémon are worthy additions to the Dex. The open-world Wild Area is a step towards the freedom fans have imagined in Pokémon for years. Gym battles are hype. To sum it up, Pokémon as a game concept is still fun. Capturing, exploring, and battling are still as wonderful as they were when Pikachu and pals were colorless sprites. It's when you put aside nostalgia for the core concept and look at Sword and Shield next to other 2019 games that the warts show.
From a presentation standpoint, the series is stuck in its middle evolution. Some animations genuinely wowed me, mostly those related to the gym battles. Outside of that? Well, just take this important cutscene and compare it to anything seen in Death Stranding or Sekiro. If you want to make the "graphics don't matter" case, then stack it up against Nintendo's own Luigi's Mansion 3, released days before Sword and Shield. It's clear that Pokémon, with its insistence on relying on characters silently flapping their gums, is behind the times. It doesn't need voice acting, but it can do better than this.
From a design standpoint, Sword and Shield don't even hold up to other games in its own series. The journey through Galar is mostly a series of straightforward routes. You start in a town, literally circle back to that town, then go to a different town to do another loop with different-colored backgrounds. Along the way, Hop and Chairman Rose constantly pop up to tell you exactly where to go and what to do. This also extends to the "dungeons." There's nothing as elaborate at the Team Rocket Base spinning tiles puzzle from the first Pokémon game.
Overall, Sword and Shield exude a general lack of polish. Someone even left a mouse cursor in the ending credits for Arceus' sake. That, and other hiccups, aren't dire yet. They just hint at the series going in a direction that prioritizes meeting a yearly holiday deadline over perfecting the product. Much like a certain football franchise.
Why Do You Have To Be So Entitled?
Another successful boycott guys :)))— Hydro (@averagehydro) November 19, 2019
Both Madden and Pokémon are anchored by an enjoyable core experience. The game of football itself hasn't changed in any huge way, so most Madden buyers are simply happy being able to take the field as their favorite current players. Likewise, the average consumer buys a Pokémon game expecting to explore tall grass and capture new cute and weird critters. No matter what capabilities new generations of consoles offer, both game series will sell millions of copies just by providing the signature gameplay.
That financial success breeds the idea that Game Freak must be doing it right. Therefore, anyone who criticizes the latest Pokémon game is just another entitled gamer. I've seen that logic on this very site. If you support the idea of not buying Sword and Shield to protest their lack of polish, you're being childish. Why not keep your opinion to yourself and let other people have their fun?
The problem with this argument is that it assumes bad intentions on behalf of those who vocally protest Pokémon Sword and Shield. As if these people are out to make Game Freak pay for ruining their childhood or something. While there are some bad eggs out there, the majority of critics are those who love Pokémon. They want to see their favorite series push to innovate the way other Nintendo series have on Switch. If Breath of the Wild and Fire Emblem: Three Houses could expand the scope of their franchises, why couldn't Sword and Shield? Yet as long as enough people are willing to say "I don't care about the graphics/national dex/competitive, it's fun," copies will sell. And when sales are high, there's no impetus to improve.
The Future Looks...
The current state of sports games is a very possible outcome for Pokémon. The massive sales numbers of Sword and Shield, and the reactions to movements like Dexit, prove that the majority of fans enjoy the core experience of catching and battling Pokémon enough to buy into it without taking a critical eye to the individual game. Those who want more from the series can write all the essays they want, provide what they think is a sound strategy for the best consumer product, and it won't matter. Just try and tell Madden fans how they could force improvement if they stopped buying the games for a year or two.