Pocket Monstrosity

Like pretty much everyone these days, I’ve just had a bout of Covid. Thankfully it wasn’t too bad, but it did mean me and my kid were trapped in the house for a whole week. What does any responsible parent do in these situations? That’s right. They buy a ton of LEGO™, four big cakes, and a new video game.

The game in question was Pokémon Legends: Arceus – an adventure guaranteed to absorb every waking, snuffly hour we gave it without threat of completion. Despite being only six, and precisely because her father isn’t a proper adult, this is my daughter’s fourth Pokémon game, following Let’s Go, Pikachu!, Pokémon Sword, and the original Pokémon Red.

How is it? Well, not only does Arceus fail to improve on the graphics of those earlier Nintendo Switch titles but, despite the fact Pokémon Red is over 25 years old and has a monochrome palette, and despite the fact my daughter played it on a 28-inch arcade cabinet screen which made every pixel as big as her head, that much older title is still far more aesthetically satisfying.

Is this a testament to the creativity of the graphic designers of yesteryear, or the ahead-of-its-time power of the original Game Boy? No. No, it isn’t. Despite The Pokémon Company – co-owned by Nintendo and Game Freak – generating over a billion dollars in sales in 2020, they have, for some reason, chosen to use the 2003 N64 game Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life as the aspirational target for the graphics in the latest instalment of the franchise. What’s more, they’ve approached this challenge with a zeal for copy-and-pasting assets that makes even my A-level English essays look original.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus, featuring some of the most spectacular graphics of 2002.

But does this actually matter? At no point during the many, many hours me and my daughter have spent with the game has she commented to me that the water effects seem a bit last-last-last-gen. She’s far too busy focusing on our next quest, on the latest evolution, the newest recipe we can use to give ourselves the edge in battle on our quest to catch ‘em all.

In answer to my question, though: yes, it does matter actually. I’m no graphics snob; I’ll take gameplay over graphics any day of the week, but we really should hold a large developer like this to account. It’s one thing for an indie developer to make aesthetic choices based on what is reasonably deliverable with a small team and budget, but it’s hard to believe Game Freak made this game look so awful because of a desire to pay homage to the nostalgia surrounding the consoles of yesteryear.

Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey are several years old, and yet have done far more with the Switch’s modest hardware. There really are no excuses. And yet, I bought it. We all did. On day one. And loved it. So it obviously doesn’t matter. Except it does. But it doesn’t, really. But it does. But… (repeat ad infinitum)

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