Anticipation and apathy; for me, that was the prerelease cycle for the newest entries in the Pokémon series. As a lifelong fan, I couldn’t help getting excited with the reveal of Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee!, especially since they would hold such a unique place in the franchise. The developers, Game Freak, intended to bridge the gap between the long-running “core” series and Pokémon Go, the still popular mobile game that was a worldwide craze when it launched in July 2016. As information was disseminated however, my anticipation turned to apathy, doubtful about adjustments being made to accommodate features of the mobile game. Then, on the day of its release it hit me: there would be a new Pokémon game waiting for me when I got home! I was excited again, and that excitement remained all the way through my nostalgic journey of Kanto.
The basis for the Let’s Go games is Pokémon Yellow, the Game Boy enhancement of Pokémon Red and Blue, which was released in North America in October 1999 (although it debuted the year before in Japan). From a narrative standpoint, the Let’s Go games are frame-by-frame remakes: the story, region, and characters are all nearly identical, down to dialogue from the NPCs. There’s not much depth to the story (there never was with these games, even with more recent releases), but key moments have been made to feel more important through cinematic cutscenes. Going along with that, the new coat of paint the game has received is remarkable. For someone like me, there’s something thrilling about seeing, and hearing, the world of Pokémon presented so vividly.
Besides the visual overhaul, the most impactful changes related to the gameplay, and specifically, catching Pokémon. For the first time in a core game, the varied critters were visible on the Routes and in the Caves that I traveled through. Gone were random encounters spurred on by walking in tall grass, long synonymous with the series. Now, I could cherry pick the Pokémon I wanted to try and catch, or avoid particular ones altogether. These encounters no longer played out as battles, either. Instead, the focus was solely on the act of catching Pokémon.
When playing in docked mode, on the TV, I had to catch Pokémon by making throwing motions with the Joy-Con. The shrinking circle catch mechanic from Pokémon Go was present, for better or worse, and how technical and accurate my throw was dictated how likely I was to make a catch. Akin to the mobile game, I could also throw berries to make the Pokémon more susceptible to capture. The motion controls were pretty solid. My throws went as intended the vast majority of the time, which made it more frustrating when they’d occasionally go haywire.
One peculiar aspect about playing in docked mode was the fact that I was locked into playing with a single Joy-Con. This was meant to encourage co-op play (each person using a Joy-Con), but it was irritating that I didn’t have the option to use both Joy-Cons or a Pro Controller. That said, I adapted and even grew to like playing with a single Joy-Con. Since the release of the Wii, I’ve enjoyed the ability to play with separated controllers. Playing in handheld mode eliminated these pros/cons, and in general is more familiar for the series. Motion controls could still be used to catch Pokémon in handheld mode (the gyro controls), although this was optional; a fact that will make this mode the preferred method for most, I imagine.
Although catching many of the same Pokémon has its merits in the core games, it’s a necessity in Pokémon Go. To power up and evolve Pokémon in the mobile game candies are needed, which are only obtained from catching that type of Pokémon. While candies are present, they don’t translate one-to-one in the Let’s Go games, which still rely on the Pokémon’s level as an indicator of strength and evolution. The emphasis on catching many of the same Pokémon is instead bolstered by Catch Combos. By catching more of the same Pokémon in a row, rarer Pokémon appeared in the vicinity, as did Pokémon with better stats. This, along with the new method of catching Pokémon, helped to make this playthrough of a twenty year old game, a game that I play nearly every other year, refreshing.
With patience, Catch Combos yielded the best rates for catching shiny Pokémon in any of the core games. This is of no consequence to me though, as Let’s Go can’t communicate with any of those games, and the integration it has with Pokémon Go is only one-way. This killed my desire to play more after completing the story and catching Mewtwo. Had I been able to transfer caught Pokémon to the core or mobile games, I would’ve abided by the series’ mantra and, indeed, caught them all. I really wanted the ability to transfer shiny Pokémon to the mobile game so I could trade friends for the rarer creatures they had. Oh well.
Conversely, any first generation Pokémon caught in the mobile game could be transferred to Let’s Go. This helped me clean up my storage in that game a little, and I even got a Meltan – the newest Pokémon – for my effort. In fact, having both games allows players to “farm” Meltan candies to get its evolution: Melmetal. Getting a Melmetal is a laborious process that is made slightly less laborious by having both games.
Another aspect that would’ve kept me playing beyond the completion of the story was the Master Trainers. These were individual trainers who were masters at using a single Pokémon. For instance, somewhere in Kanto, there was a trainer who was unrivaled at using Caterpie, a meek bug Pokémon that’s often one of the first wild encounters for new trainers. To prove I was better, I’d have to beat them in battle using a single Caterpie. This was a wild concept that really spoke to me, the type of player who has to have one of each Pokémon. Now I’d have a reason to train each and every one! It turns out that these fights could be easily gamed by using the aforementioned candies, which immediately soured me on the idea.
Besides their level, which was a general indicator of strength, each Pokémon had values in a variety of stats such as attack and speed. These were the barometers of strength that mattered in battles. Well, truly what mattered was a Pokémon’s Individual Values: semi-hidden characteristics indicating how high their stats would go. Going along with the IVs were Effort Values, another semi-hidden attribute that contributed to stat increases. An understanding of IVs and EVs isn’t necessary for enjoyment of any Pokémon game, and are generally only touched upon by competitive players. Heck, in terms of having played these games since their debut in the States, I’ve only “recently” experimented with them. Well, to further complicate matters, the Let’s Go games introduced a new mechanic: Awakening Values.
Awakening Values are supplemental to IVs and EVs, and can be increased through candies. Fed to Pokémon in a gavage-like manner, the result is a low-level Pokémon that can stomp most Pokémon dozens of levels stronger. For me, this approach takes the fun out of training, and eliminates any personal connection I might’ve felt with a Pokémon after hours of training. Especially in this game, when I would’ve spent a decent amount of time racking up a Catch Combo before encountering the Caterpie with great stats. Why bother researching the intricacies of IVs and EVs when I can instead just stuff it full of candy? So disappointing.
While I had feelings of anticipation and apathy during the prerelease cycle, I was elated when I actually got my hands on Let’s Go, Pikachu! This joyous feeling continued throughout the nostalgic romp, all thirty hours of it (which went by quickly considering I didn’t want to put the game down). The visuals brought the game to life like never before, and the elements incorporated from Pokémon Go revitalized the experience, particularly the increased emphasis on catching Pokémon. An inability to transfer Pokémon out of the game, and the way Master Trainers could be gamed were disappointing. Neither had an impact on my enjoyment of the primary game however, which while still lacking in the narrative, stands as one of the best RPGs. Even though this is a game I replay every other year, this time was uniquely refreshing, and undoubtedly the most entertaining.