Thursday, March 25, 2010

Deceptively Deep: The Undercurrents of Pokémon

2091256545_c09d96350c We’ve been at this blogging thing for nigh on a year-and-a-half at this point, so I feel that you and I have established a sort of trust, a bond. I feel like I can be honest with you.

For nearly twelve years, I have bought, played and enjoyed many Pokémon games.

I never got into the cartoon or the spin-offs or the shameless merchandising, though, only the main RPGs. I’ve always been properly ashamed of the whole business, buying games from the Internet instead of in person when at all possible – when seventh-grade Andrew bought his first game, a beat up copy of Pokémon Yellow, from a classmate, he did it so he could give it to his little brother, not because he was going to play it himself.

Thing is, my shame has never been great enough to keep me from liking the games. They’re damn entertaining, and they’ve got a truly astounding amount of depth to them. Follow me down the rabbit hole, and I’ll show you just a few examples of how insane these games really are.

The basics

my-pokemans Most gamers are at least peripherally aware of the surface gameplay of Pokémon, which can be described succinctly as “rock-paper-scissors meets cockfighting.” You’re allowed to carry a team of up to six Pokémon, and each of them can be one or two of seventeen possible types.

These types are the core characteristic of most Pokémon – some types do extra damage to other types, or less damage, or none at all, and the same is true in the reverse. The key to winning the game is building a team where all of the members cover for each others’ weaknesses.

Each Pokémon can learn many different moves, but can only know four at once. Each of those moves is also associated with one of the seventeen types, and most either temporarily change the stats of yours or your opponent’s Pokémon, or do damage to your opponent’s Pokémon. The attack moves do a base amount of damage, which is multiplied or divided based on the type of the Pokémon being attacked – a Water-type move will do double damage to a Fire-type Pokémon, and so on.

In typical RPG fashion, Pokémon gain experience points by fighting other Pokémon, and gaining a certain amount of experience will make your Pokemon go up in level. This in turn raises your Pokemon’s statistics, of which there are six: HP, Attack, Defense, Special Attack, Special Defense, and Speed.

Nurture vs. nature

pokemans Those are the basic building blocks, and most people could play and eventually beat the game without knowing much else about it, but those seeking a real edge will have to go further down.

The games introduced another element in the Game Boy Advance versions of the games, namely Pokémon “natures” – each individual monster has a certain temperament, and most of those temperaments slightly raise one statistic while slightly lowering another. Many will continually catch the same Pokémon over and over until they get one with the exact nature they want. I believe there are twenty-five different natures, so that can take awhile.


n1225080051300626813353vo9Also a little nuts is the concept of Pokémon breeding, which was introduced in the second iteration of the series. Like so much of the game, it starts simple – put two Pokémon of opposite genders in day care together, put on some Barry White and see what happens. Of course, you’ll only get a Pokémon egg if your two monsters are in the same “egg group,” which dictate which Pokémon can breed with which.

Going a little deeper, each hatched Pokémon inherits some things from its parents – the Pokémon you get is determined by the mother, while the moves it knows is determined by the father. This way, it’s possible to concoct a low-level Pokémon that has moves it has no business knowing. Of course, there are some moves that a Pokemon will never learn on its own – only through several generations of careful breeding can you get certain Pokémen with certain moves, and there are in-depth guides to help you with this all over the Internet.

And that’s just the stuff you can see – Pokémon can also inherit random “base stats” and natures from their forebears. The craziest stuff in these games is never expressly mentioned to you as you play – you can only decipher it by doing extra independent research, which is a phrase often applied to homework but rarely to video games.

The point of no return

pokemans-fuckthemSpeaking of invisible – Effort Values, or EVs, are a great metric by which you can determine how far past the line of no return your are – if you know about them, there is no hope for you as a productive member of human society. You are also over this line if you have ever traded a Pokémon with yourself.

EVs are like secret points that you get along with experience when you fight enemy Pokemans. Every Pokémon nets you a certain amount of a certain EV in one of the six statistics, and three EV points equate to one extra stat point. Insidious Pokémon trainers (did you know that people do this competitively?!) fastidiously battle only certain types of monsters in order to max out these points, which are never ever referenced once in any of the games.

Yes, but what is your point?

pokemans The extra, hidden complexity which pervades these games is a double-edged sword of considerable proportions.

On the one hand, it contributes to the games’ already high replay value. There are several games embedded in the larger package, and some people spend hours trying to get creatures that are just right for their purposes. It’s also necessary that the game’s systems be this deep, because on the surface every Pokémon game is nearly identical to the ones that came before – if they weren’t built on something more complex, the franchise would have run out of steam by now.

On the other hand, there are people who spend hours messing with these statistics and meta-statistics that exist only once you tear away the simple, cartoonish veneer. It often feels more like work than fun, and the trouble is that once you know about all of this it’s hard just to go back to enjoying the game in and of itself.

Yes, I am and always will be immensely ashamed of my unconditional love for these games, but they shouldn’t be dismissed as the shallow, kiddy adventures they’re often derided as. As games, they’re addictive and deep and satisfying, and that’s more than can be said for more reputable franchises.