It’s kind of funny finally getting into Pokémon over twenty years after it first became popular. When I was a kid, my family couldn’t afford the cards or a Gameboy, so when the Pokémon craze hit in the mid-’90s, I mentally checked out, never once guessing it would still be a hit two decades later. As a games reporter mostly handling Nintendo news, I often had to talk about or cover Pokémon without really understanding it; trying to find a starting point to get into the series at that point (at least seven generations and several hundred Pokémon in) felt like trying to hop on a whirling merry go round. I was also intimidated by the thought of memorizing stats and surviving the nail-biting tension of strategizing through endless battles. How would I even know where to begin? It felt like there was too much catching up to do, too many Pokémon to learn and too many players way ahead of me. It didn’t seem worth trying to conquer the massive learning curve.
Fast forward to Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu and Pokémon: Let’s Go, Eevee, the first core Pokémon games to grace a console and, in a sense, the first Pokémon games. Modeled closely after the original Pokémon Red, Blue and Yellow games from the ‘90s, much of what made up the originals is alive and present in this Nintendo Switch revival. It provides the perfect opportunity for novices to understand the full scope and balance of the Pokémon universe, both by offering a starting point for newcomers and by tapping into the mechanics of the lucrative mobile phenomenon in Pokémon Go.
Those who played the original games already know the script of Pokémon: Let’s Go: a plucky kid in Pallet Town works their way through the Kanto region collecting badges as they challenge other Pokémon trainers and, ultimately, Gym Leaders, to ascend the ranks to an elite league of trainers and confront and take down Team Rocket. Players catch Pokémon, train them for battle and level them up by fighting other trainers, and travel to obscure regions to secure the rarest and strongest Pokémon of them all in their quest for justice and glory. There are a total of 151 Pokémon to collect, each with their own attacks and strengths, and along the way trainers learn how to pair them masterfully to dominate in battle. And in this new, almost light version of Pokémon, catching Pokémon, which mechanically once consisted of the same combat as trainer battles, no longer requires a traditional, hit point based exchange of attacks. Instead, the player uses the controls to physically lob a Pokeball, a maneuver similar to the arching swipe required for catching Pokémon in Pokémon Go.
This crossover aptly illustrates how much Pokémon: Let’s Go is designed to be integrated with Pokémon Go and reward those who use both. As an avid player of Pokémon Go, it’s among the features I appreciate and enjoy the most; I’ve been using Pokémon Go to get out and exercise more since it first came out, and recently even more so with the new, more sophisticated distance-tracking features. That they were able to combine the series’s past and present by tying the mobile game to a core game while also reinforcing the social and trading aspects that helped make it popular in the first place is a bit brilliant. I like that my persistence and hard work paid off, and that exercising while I play a game can help assuage the guilt of having spent excessive amounts of time on either. In a weird way, despite my lack of childhood experience with Pokémon, I wound up one of its most ideal customers as an adult.
So how does a game built entirely on the sensibilities of one released in 1996 hold up in 2018? Pretty well, actually. The core premise of catching and batting Pokémon still holds a lot of tension, and the new refurbishing details are a nice little facelift to seal the deal. In particular, some of the attack animations are stunningly over the top; my jaw dropped every time Waterfall, which washes the entire screen with a cascade of strong water, and Surf, which covers the battlefield in ocean waves, were dropped, to say nothing of the world shaking magnitude of Earthquake or Explosion. I’m also ridiculously entertained by the fact that certain Pokémon can be ridden when taken out of their Pokeballs. Not only do many of them help your trainer get around faster, it’s also just dang cute.
One negative thing about having been introduced to Pokémon through its peripheral games like Pokémon Snap and Pokémon Go is that I’m more taken with trying to find cool Pokémon than I am with actually battling the trainers, which is a problem given how many of those trainers there actually are. I can’t tell if there are too many trainers, or if I’ve completely missed the point of Pokémon. But one thing that’s good about being introduced to the series through games like Super Smash Bros. or Detective Pikachu instead of the core games is that playing Let’s Go feels a bit like learning each Pokémon’s backstory; suddenly I was able to grasp the significance of certain attacks or attributes that I’d taken for granted in passing, and that made it more thrilling. It’s nice to not just gloss over the stats and details of each of my Pokémon in the mobile game, and to feel as though I actually “get” it now. It’s actually far less complicated than I thought it was. I’m already easily picking up the minutiae of what special attacks are best and what types of Pokémon to use in battle against others.
As for what doesn’t hold up about Pokémon: Let’s Go, some of the conventions of the game are outdated. The map, which is filed behind a few menu selections, isn’t very accessible or easy to view, and I dislike the repetition of all the identical Pokémon trainers. There are also many dialogue windows that could have been eliminated or consolidated to make transactions and conversations go faster. A few conventions seem to have been stuck to for tradition’s sake and the game suffers for it: I see no point in making the player cut through bushes every time they re-enter a screen if the game’s storage limitations no longer demand it.
I also disliked at least something about all of the controls. Playing with a single Joy-con, which requires sweeping motions of the arm to catch Pokémon, makes the process much harder, and almost impossible if the Pokémon is jumping around on the screen. Using dual Joy-cons on the Switch device, supplementing with the gyroscope (which I actually love) is much better, but when pressing down on the left analog stick, the character’s running stalls and lags. The Pokeball Plus is not so bad (and I love taking it on the road to level up my Pokémon; one of them leveled up from 31 to 33 over the course of a single 5k walk), but clicking the analog stick feels imprecise and unreliable. Luckily, the game easily swaps between big and small picture modes, which let me catch Pokemon with the gyroscope but then return the Switch to the deck and keep using my TV screen. It’s a bit laborious at times, but it works.
Since I didn’t play Pokémon Red, Blue or Yellow when they first came out, I’m not the best judge of how this game holds up in comparison or what specific improvements have been made. But I think it says a lot that Pokémon: Let’s Go manages to enchant and captivate a full grown adult so many years after the release of the originals. The game has completely taken over my life the past few weeks and, honestly, I’m fine with that. Some of my fondest gaming memories the past two years have been centered on the social aspects of Pokémon Go, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how that plays out now that Let’s Go is here. Pokémon: Let’s Go is the perfect entry point for new fans, and it’s definitely made a new fan out of me.
Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pkachu! and Pokémon: Let’s Go, Eevee! were developed by Gamefreak and published by Nintendo and The Pokémon Company. It is available for the Switch.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.