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By Thomas Levett and K.A. Wilks
In the first three parts of our essay, we covered the first five generations and all their contributions to the series, for better or worse. Now, we move on to the sixth generation, and it’s a bit of a stretch; this is where the fatigue shows the most, with the possible exception of Diamond and Pearl.
Generation VI is more than a reboot of the Pokémon franchise; it takes place in a world where a weapon powered by the collective life force of Pokémon was fired in order to end a war in Kalos around 3,000 years ago. The past five Generations take place in a world where that didn’t happen. In other words, the Hoenn that Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire take place in is the same as the one in the original R/S, only taking place in a parallel universe. This is further confirmed by Pokémon Origins effectively replacing another remake of the original Red/Green; everything is the same except for Mega Evolution, even Red’s first Technical Machine being the awful move “Bide.” Gen VI is literally an alternate version of the same Pokémon world we know and love.
Let’s be honest: isn’t that a little bit of a cop-out? It feels like there’s more that they could do aside from applying such a drastic reboot button. A while back, there were ideas bouncing around about playing games that went into the past – think a younger Professor Oak and Elite Four Agatha. What if some events of the R/G games were caused by things another player did in the past? Pretty trippy. We could get into things that they could have done, but that’s not what GameFreak went with.
Drastic reboot aside, the Gen VI games look pretty good on the surface. The Kalos games certainly look beautiful and the series’ transition into 3D is, from a technical perspective, quite impressive. There are minor hiccups here and there, but they do not impact significantly on the game’s specifications. The move to 3D was certainly welcome, as was the ability to customize your trainer. What is there to be critical about?
For starters, there is a surprisingly small number of new Pokémon. Kalos introduced only 69 Pokémon, if we do not count the event-only Diancie, Hoopa and Volcanion, the latter of which is currently unreleased. The sheer number of new Pokémon introduced in the Unova games lent credence to the belief that there would be even more to come in Kalos.
Of course, Pokémon design is a process fraught with difficulty. One cannot fault the efforts of long-time series designer and artist Ken Sugimori, who has put in an exceptional effort to create the designs for the 721 Pokémon so far. A possible solution could be to take one of the better leaves from Digimon’s book and start accepting fan designs.
As if in spite of that, fans still ridicule many aspects of Pokémon appearances, new and old. Some Pokémon from the early generations have very simple designs: Exeggcute is a bunch of seeds/eggs; Hitmonlee is a blob with small arms and big legs; Oddish is a ball with feet and leaves on top; and Diglett is an upside down U-shape with eyes and a nose, barely resembling a mole. Furthermore, other Gen I designs are along the lines of “need to evolve this? Just make three of it!”
These seem positively uninspired compared to the more complex designs of newer Pokémon such as the golem/ghost/mecha shout-out Golurk, hermit crab/geological strata Crustle, and the Amargasaurus-inspired Aurorus, which in a nice touch has its sails change colour in battle akin to the Northern Lights (although you’ll probably see its sails go “blue” a lot – it’s a fragile Pokémon with a questionable type combo).
There has been equal mockery available for the newer Pokémon, even though concepts like ‘inanimate objects as Pokémon’ are not new. We have the likes of Vanillite, which is effectively a sentient ice cream; Litwick and its evolutions, based on a candle, a lamp and a chandelier respectively; Klefki, a sentient keyring; and starter Pokémon Chespin, which looks cute in its base form but gains a more awkward design on evolving. I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure what Chesnaught is. Delphox also has a few questionable aspects; can we not have a game without a furry-baiting canine on two legs, now?
Alternatively, the limited number of Pokémon designs can be considered less of an issue from a different angle, namely that it was a concession to a major change in the series – Mega Evolution. Though it has anchored itself well within the overall Pokémon franchise, Mega Evolution is in itself a highly divisive element.
Its first major flaw is that the process for giving a Mega Evolution to a Pokémon is largely based on popularity. Shigeru Ohmori of GameFreak cites a few elements as deciding factors: fan popularity, staff popularity, relevance to story (so of course every Starter will get it), and use in competitive battling. Employing these, especially all at once, can generate significant balance issues.
In this writer’s opinion, basing the process on popularity does ruin what could have been a well-executed method of bringing balance to battles, and it’s one of the major flaws with the game. A decent amount of popular Pokémon are either overpowered (Mewtwo) and don’t need a Mega Evolution at all, or massively overrated for various reasons (Pidgeot and every starter ever) that Mega Evolution may or may not fix. For a prime example of popularity power gone horribly wrong, let’s look at one of the best-known Kanto Pokémon: Charizard.
Thanks to the anime, everyone knows Charizard; many fans in the R/B/Y era looked upon it as the most awesome Pokémon ever, and that reputation has continued to this day. Ash’s Charizard keeps making a return just in time to tackle an immensely powerful foe and pound it into the dirt – its battle with Iris’ Dragonite is a perfect example. After all, a fire-breathing dragon couldn’t be anything but awesome, right?
Sadly, when we look at the facts, Charizard does not measure up. It stands 5’7, or around 170cm, tall; this is actually a bit shorter than the average human male, and it’s nowhere near as big as the anime shows it. Additionally, it’s a rather lacklustre battler: its stats don’t particularly stand out and it was mainly used in a niche role before Stealth Rock ruined any of its limited effectiveness. In a video by noted YouTube presenter and Pokémon fan TamashiiHiroka, Charizard was adjudged the most overrated Pokémon; her reasons focused on issues such as its perceived power being greater than its actual strength, and its excessive popularity, among others.
Charizard needed a Mega Evolution for a new lease on life. However, it was given far too much simply because it’s a fan favourite. We expect it to be badass and cannot deal with the possibility a fire-breathing dragon could ever be underwhelming; GameFreak listened, and changed things for the worse. Mega Charizard X is shoved down our throats like Lucario was, dominating the recent Mega Evolution specials and Pokémon Origins on top of being so overpowered. It causes a notable imbalance competitively, where its major counter is itself.
Mega Charizard Y is a dragon of a different colour. It gained the weather-changing Drought ability, completely destroying the niche role Ninetales occupied with the same ability. While it struggled in the competitive metagame without these Mega Evolutions, with them it is a potentially game-changing force. It is as if the developers and marketing staff could not handle the concept of such a popular Pokémon being far less than hype suggested; while it needed one Mega Evolution, Charizard hitting new heights for excessive power and promotion is only due to popularity.
The only other Pokémon to gain two Mega Evolutions, Mewtwo, didn’t really need them due to its immense might; perhaps more so than Charizard, its popularity earned it that distinction.
When you think of a Legendary Pokémon, Mewtwo is often the first to come to mind. It was the first Pokémon to be deliberately overpowered, living up to its title of ‘The World’s Most Powerful Pokémon’. Its role in Pokémon: The First Movie, Mewtwo Returns and other anime appearances only cemented its fan appeal.
Even after Gen 2 addressed the issues which made Psychic types so overpowered, Mewtwo still proved a force to be reckoned with. Its first rivals in might were Ho-Oh and Lugia from Gold and Silver; the three Pokémon were powerful, and that was it. They were Legendary Pokémon because they were rarely seen and little was known of them – in other words, they were believed to be actual legends, much like a unicorn or dragon in our world. Even when Legendary Pokémon embodying aspects of our world were introduced, such as Groudon, Dialga, and Xerneas, Mewtwo stood toe-to-toe with them, and even with Arceus.
In a way, these examples reflect the cruelties of real life. The ‘beautiful’ and ‘popular’ are often given all the breaks, while those who may need the support the most, or have potential but need one little helping hand, are still forced to struggle because they lack a certain something. As far as the Pokémon games go, I can cite two Hoenn-era examples; my choice is Cacturne, and my project partner’s is Seviper.
Both Pokémon experienced some prominence in the Advanced Generation anime seasons. Cacturne appeared in Pokémon Contests under Harley’s ownership and its prior form, Cacnea, was James’s main Hoenn Pokémon. Likewise, Seviper was Jessie’s, and the serpent also appeared under the ownership of Lucy, the Pike Queen in the Battle Frontier.
Both Pokémon also share very similar stat distributions. They can hit hard with both physical and special attacks, and have solid movepools to support either one. Sadly, both of them are lacklustre when it comes to Defence and Speed, which is a notable hindrance. A Mega Evolution could easily fix their lower stats, and an attacking stat could have base points redistributed to give them a clear role. In addition, new Abilities could further improve viability or at least open up a niche for them.
Unfortunately, neither of these Pokémon, and many of their fellows in need of assistance, are exactly what one would call popular Pokémon despite their exposure in the anime’s Advanced Generation. When you get down to it, they’re a cactus and a snake; that’s never going to be as big a sell as a dragon, Mewtwo, or anthropomorphic anything.
Ultimately, the best way to execute the mechanic would have been to allow Pokémon which have lower base stats, or significant flaws otherwise, to match it with other Pokémon which are normally powerful. For a rare example of this done right, one must cite Mega Beedrill, which goes from a weak early-game Pokémon, to a ferociously strong and lightning-quick bruiser. It is a rare shining light, demonstrating the viability of what Mega Evolution could and should have been.
Even then, this possibility was actually mucked up in a few cases. Mega Banette is the poster child for this problem. Half its base stat total boost was invested in its Attack, which was already high, rather than properly fixing its poor defensive stats or assisting its low Speed. While its new Ability, Prankster, assists it greatly in theory, in practice it is hindered by turn order being decided before Mega Evolution is factored in. Mega Banette’s Ability will not work the turn it Mega Evolves. This means it’s open to attack unless it scores a revenge KO with Shadow Sneak; otherwise, you kind of wasted your Mega Evolution. Others still, such as Mega Pidgeot, Mega Ampharos and Mega Abomasnow, fail to make significant impact despite having a Mega Evolution, making gamers wonder why the developers bothered in the first place.
As another insult to all the Pokémon crying out for assistance, a small selection of Mega Evolutions outright ruin competitive balance, such as Mega Gengar and Mega Kangaskhan. By far the worst is Mega Rayquaza, which appears to have been developed with absolutely no understanding of the word ‘balance’, but rather a place in ORAS’s revised plot. It is even too overpowered by the standards of Mega Evolving Legendary Pokémon. Granted, it is supposed to be the saviour of Hoenn; we’ll get into ORAS and whether you should get it or not later.
A final nail in the coffin of Mega Evolution is that it was trumpeted as largely new and revolutionary. Form changes, in one way or another, have existed long before in the Pokémon games, and were even pre-dated in the TCG of all things by the Lv.X Pokémon. This is, in a sense, akin to Nintendo showing off anti-gravity in Mario Kart 8 as if it were new despite their own F-Zero series doing anti-gravity racing a) earlier and b) possibly better.
Deoxys was the forerunner, since it had three forms on its release and gained a new one when Emerald came out. How it is used varies depending on its form, much like several Pokémon and their Mega Evolutions; Garchomp, for example, plays completely differently depending on whether it is regular or Mega. Darmanitan and its Zen Mode ability is another example.
One could also level a number of other accusations at Mega Evolution, such as it not really equating to character development as in other franchises, but I have devoted too much time to it already and wish to move on to the next issue. The message, however, is this: what is Mega Evolution preaching, and is it practicing that at all? Was this worth axing entirely new Pokémon for?
Stay tuned for the last part of this Pokémon essay! Still here? You’re amazing. Here, have a cookie!