Why I Can't Get Into Pokemon

Why I Can't Get Into Pokémon

I've tried. Oh believe me, I've tried. I've tried my hardest to get into the rhythm of Pokémon, to fall into the groove of critter collecting and trainer battling and all the other activities that Pokémon fans love so much.

But I just can't do it. It's been 15 years since Pokémon Red/Blue — the only one I've played to completion — and since then, I've fallen into the same stale pattern: 1) see new Pokémon game; 2) think new Pokémon game could finally be the one for me; 3) try new Pokémon game; 4) give up after two gyms; 5) repeat.

It's bizarre. These are supposed to be adorable, addictive JRPGs with broad appeal and an unrivalled ability to make you feel like you're going on a grand ol' adventure. They're supposed to offer the type of complex customisation only possible when you can train and breed your very own stable of quirky critters. They're supposed to be charming and inimitable and loads of fun. Really, I should love these games.

With all that in mind, I started playing Pokémon Y with a singular goal: pinpoint exactly what I don't like about Pokémon, and why I can't get into it, no matter how hard I try.

I think I figured it out.

But first, let's talk about this email I got a couple weeks ago from a feisty Kotaku reader named Doug:

I've noticed (or rather, it unsubtly hit me in the face) that if there's ever an article about JRPGs on Kotaku, it's going to be written by you. I haven't kept any data, but I'm pretty sure that if it came to betting on Jason-written JRPG articles vs Caity-written Beyonce articles over on Gawker, betting on you would be more of a retirement plan than an actual gamble.

The only others who I think might have even touched on the same topic are possibly Patricia and Evan? I don't even know anymore. Jason is to JRPGs as Hitler is to military dictatorship. Not that I'm complaining, mind you — most of your stuff is at least mildly entertaining or informative, like that recent XSEED translation thing.

So I'm wondering — how would you classify your relationship with JRPGs? Obsessive? A hobby? A life's passion?

Do you feel that your enthusiasm for JRPGs could possibly be some kind of self-justification for having spent so much time on JRPGs when you were younger? At least, I assume you did.

"Most of your stuff is at least mildly entertaining or informative" is the nicest thing anyone's said to me all month. Thanks, Doug. And, yes, I do spend a lot of time asking myself that core question: what's so appealing about JRPGs?

I think Pokémon offers something of an answer for me, mostly because of what it doesn't accomplish as a role-playing game. When I play the game, and pick it apart, I can see all the blank spots that need to be filled in, and figure out what works so well in the JRPGs I do love.

Dialogue, for example. One of my favourite pastimes in a JRPG is wandering around towns and hearing what people have to say — it's sometimes amusing, sometimes helpful, and often interesting. Good NPC dialogue helps add flavour to a world. RPGs like Lunar and Grandia and Earthbound populate their cities with quirky, alluring individuals who tell you about their days, their habits, and their desires. These people help enhance the illusion that you're wandering through a place that could actually exist.

In Pokémon, well...

Why I Can't Get Into Pokémon

This is a game built for children, and perhaps because of that, the characters all talk like children: everything they say is either functional — designed to help you out or guide you toward your next objective — or vapid, like "Pokémon sure are mysterious!"

The language is simple. The verbs are straightforward. There are lots of exclamation points. None of it is particularly interesting, and it's hard to feel like you're missing out on much if you skip out on the NPCs you see in the world.

What's more, nobody talks about anything except Pokémon. The entire world feels one-note, like an SNL skit that lasts 30 hours too long. People don't seem to live for anything beyond Pokémon hunting, capturing, and battling. It feels so... shallow.

Why I Can't Get Into Pokémon

But it's not just the lack of random character flavour that bugs me — when I play Pokémon, I find myself bored by the fact that I'm walking around with a bunch of creatures whose only way to interact with the world is to battle with other creatures. In Pokémon, your characters are cyphers, because they're animals. They're Pokémon. You can stamp part of yourself on each one of them, training and breeding and customising their abilities, but you can never make them talk, or tell them to interact, or have them do much of anything other than fight with one another.

When I play an RPG, I don't want cyphers; I want people. I want personalities. I want to go on an adventure with people who have motivations and flaws and conflicts and relationships, and I want to see how they evolve — both narratively and mechanically — as they overcome the obstacles along their way. I want to see Cecil transform from a dark knight to a paladin, starting all over again from level one as he reevaluates his life decisions and, fittingly, has to lean on his friends for support in battle. I want to see Chaz learn to deal with, and even grow to respect Rune's arrogant, sometimes hostile demeanor. I want to feel like this journey meant something to the characters I've been accompanying along the way.

In Pokémon, your journey is to go take down other Pokémon trainers, and if you don't immediately develop a desire to collect critters and battle them against one another, there's not a whole lot to drive you forward. It's why I've never been able to stay interested in these games.

Besides, when a JRPG does rely upon cyphers, I need more than what Pokémon offers. When I play a game like Shining Force II — a game in which your party members can be each be identified with a single adjective — I can find satisfaction through combat, which is complicated: you have to simultaneously think about positioning, healing, and manoeuvring your units around a grid-based battlefield in order to take down enemy armies as efficiently as possible. At every moment, you're making important decisions.

In Pokémon, you also spend most of your time battling, but the outcome will be determined mostly by this chart:

Why I Can't Get Into Pokémon

This isn't strategy — it's a glorified version of rock-paper-scissors. To beat the game, you just have to make sure you've got the right Pokémon at the right time. Your preparation before a battle is significantly more important than any decisions you make within that battle, because as long as you have the right abilities and high enough levels, you're always golden. (In single-player, at least — I haven't spent any time with competitive multiplayer battling, but by all accounts that's a much different beast.)

At this point I suppose I should make it clear that I don't begrudge anyone who does find Pokémon interesting. We all play games for different reasons.

On his lovely blog Brainy Gamer, the always-insightful Michael Abbott has an interesting essay about why people love JRPGs. Here's the bulk of his argument:

A good JRPG (any well-designed RPG, for that matter) envelops a player in a unified ecosystem that weaves together rules, mechanics, and storytelling such that each informs the other in the player's mind. In other words, everything should feel interconnected and deliver meaning in the sphere of the game. When I'm determining my tactics in a real-time battle, my position, buffs, skills, spells, inventory, etc. all factor into outcomes, constrained by the game's rules. Nothing new here.

But a great game plugs me into a super-system that adds momentum, stakes, and narrative consequences to those actions. I make this move here and now, not simply because I judge it optimal, but also because the relationship I've cultivated with my battle partner has made this move possible.

By Abbott's rules, Pokémon is a well-designed JRPG. The rules make sense, and they fit the game's structure perfectly. You choose to use Pikachu's thunder attack on that Squirtle because you know lightning is strong against water, and because you've trained Pikachu for that moment, and because you're a trainer who wants to be the very best in the world.

But if you can't buy into the world, and if you can't bring yourself to care about that Pikachu, and if you can't find a reason to keep playing the game because it all just feels so shallow, then that ecosystem might just not work for you.

I sometimes feel left out when gamers talk about their obsession with trophies and achievements. I've never quite understood the desire to get a 100% completion rating, or to spend hours obsessing over a perfect score, or to collect all 700-something Pokémon, or to spend time in a world that feels as explicitly unsatisfying as this one.

Maybe that's what really appeals to people about these games — that impulse to collect. I get it. I do. I get the appeal of challenging yourself to accomplish something, and monster collection has been ubiquitous for a reason: people love it. I can get into it too, sometimes. But when it comes in a wrapper like Pokémon, I just can't bring myself to care.

Top picture: deviantArt

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.


    Battling may be easy in-game, but it's a whole different thing when you battle a person of similar knowledge.

      Exactly! And Pokemon X and Y are the perfect games for people to experience this as it is as easy as ever to get a battle

    I'm the same, I just can't get into it despite having 2 tries at it. My kids love it though, they're glued to their 3DS versions and I'll probably get them X and Y for Christmas. But yeah, I think it doesn't have its hooks into me cause I didn't grow up with it. Show me some Ninja Turtles though and watch this 33 year old regress into total childhood mode.

      "Show me some Ninja Turtles though and watch this 33 year old regress into total childhood mode."

      Ohhhhh yeah, bring on some TMNT!


    Good article. I completely relate to this, I can't bring myself to play out a full Pokemon game these days and I think it's all to do with depth.

    Funny, but I was just talking about this with my wife recently. I had received an email from EB Games regarding a new Pokemon game coming out and that I never really understood the whole craze with the game. I am massively into RPGs (and JRPGs), but Pokemon to me has always been something that I could never get into, and I have also tried again and again, but found the world void of anything to keep me hooked. The premise of the game just doesn't interest me at all. Glad I am not the only one!

    i think when it comes to pokemon, you'd have to have the love of it planted into you when you were younger, or when it first came out, because there was nothing like it at the time, and it was an awesomely fresh experience.

    then from that moment on, until you grow out of it, you'll be an avid fan.

    that's why it's difficult for newer generations to get into it.

      There were games like pokemon back then, pokemon is basically a rip-off/mash-up of megami tensei and dragon quest.

    "it’s a glorified version of rock-paper-scissors."

    a glorified version of quite possibly the most common schoolyard style game on the planet? gee I wonder how that's become sucessful.

      Yeah, his comment came out as nasty.

      Last edited 20/10/13 10:19 am

    Even though I am a Pokemon fan, I understand PERFECTLY how you feel as I have this exact same problem (of not buying into the game's world)... for Animal Crossing
    Good opinion piece

    As a pokemon fan, I'd say Jason has raised some good points. I've always felt that the single player is way to shallow and simple and is really not even a challenge, it is just you going through the motions to win. And then comes the competitive multiplayer (which is what I'm in it for) which is so in depth from pokemon Types/Movesets/Abilities/Matchups/Teammates/Items and then there is human element, which pokemon will they choose from the battle box, who will open, what move will they use. Honestly there's almost to much to remember.

    This isn’t strategy — it’s a glorified version of rock-paper-scissors. To beat the game, you just have to make sure you’ve got the right Pokémon at the right time. Your preparation before a battle is significantly more important than any decisions you make within that battle, because as long as you have the right abilities and high enough levels, you’re always golden.For someone who's supposed to be the JRPG expert, I thought Jason would realise that this is pretty much the core of most JRPGs; grind your levels and have the right abilities and equipment. It's also quite interesting that he thinks strategy isn't about planning ahead based on the knowledge you have of your enemies and then having the right attacks and counters ready. I'm pretty sure that victory doesn't go to the army that turns up without knowing anything about the fight and having the wrong gear. (Ref: Gun fights, and why you should bring a rocket launcher and not a knife)

    I'm not defending Pokemon in particular, I find it a little too simplified and hollow myself at times too. It's just that my inner JRPG demon tends to get riled up at Jason's articles because he often seems to not quite have the breadth of knowledge I'd expect a JRPG column writer to have. Or maybe it's my own attempts to justify the incredibly large portion of my life and savings spent on JRPGs, both niche and widely popular (though mostly niche). I'll let myself down off my high horse now, and hope not to trip on my own words.

    Last edited 20/10/13 2:56 am

      I think he's talking about in-battle strategy.
      A great deal of JRPGs make it very simple to carry pretty much all of your options into battle, so even if you grind or select your best gear in preparation for battle, the real fun is when you're in battle there will be a huge variety of strategies to employ as the battle changes. But with Pokemon, most types with the right moves will simply win and all the player has to do is spam them.

    I personally find a lot of jrpgs are far more immature than Pokemon, because a lot are made for that raving dribbling hardcore weaboo crowd. I'd prefer the characters say simple things than completely ruining the game by squeenixing it.

      I could never figure out why, but Vanille drove my up the wall in FF XIII for some reason...

    YOUR SCREEN IS DIRTY. I kept scratching my monitor until I figured out it was your nintendo.

    Funny that most of the characters you come across in the game are children and teenagers. Can't imagine why they'd speak like them.

    The single player game of pokemon is mostly rubbish. You rush through it to get to post game competitive multiplayer which is one of the greatest turn based competitive games around. For me pokemon is a love letter to maths. I take small pleasures in the single player game where I can find them, like skating around and dressing up. Mostly I'm excited to discover base stats and new move combinations.

    I'm skeptical about your suggestion that other jrpgs somehow have better strategy than pokemon. Single player experiences are always poor in strategy.

    It's a game aimed at kids and teenagers, featuring mostly kids and teenagers. It is not really an RPG. It's more like a CCG (gee, I wonder why that is). There's nothing wrong with non-kids and teenagers liking it, but unless Pokemon was part of your youthful gaming experiences or unless you like that type of gameplay you're not going to like Pokemon and there's nothing wrong with that either.

    Whats that weird spot on all the photos? at least clean your DS before taking photos.

    I too have trouble getting into Pokemon. I think it's because I grew up with the Wing Commander franchise being such a large part of my gaming experience. Basically if a game hasn't got a rich story and characters to pull me in. I just cant' be bothered.

    I have the same problem with Mario and Zelda franchises. I didn't grow up with them (I went Atari/Sega/Playstation/Dreamcast/PS2/360/PS3 so missed out on them. I have tried to enjoy those games now, but just can't 'get' them. I think without the childhood/teen play in your memory, it is hard to connect with some franchises.

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