In the course of discussing Detective Pikachu, the forthcoming Pokemon adventure game featuring a cranky Pikachu, I found that veteran producer Hiroyuki Jinnai inadvertently hit upon a certain truth about the series.
In explaining why they reimagined Pikachu, he said, "The TV animated series has been going on for more than 20 years now, and I think that's the Pikachu most fans are familiar with."
The animated series is, of course, iconic. Ash is probably better-known than the games themselves. That's because for a long time it was the only "real" glimpse into the world of Pokemon that we had. The games themselves were mostly static, bound by the limitations of Nintendo's handheld platforms. That allowed the cartoon to largely define the look of Pokemon as we know it.
It hasn't been until recently that the games have started to turn the tide. Pokemon Sun and Moon, directed by artist Shigeru Ohmori, was perhaps the liveliest Pokemon ever, with monsters constantly interacting with the protagonist and each other. The next generation will be on the Nintendo Switch, which should push the boundaries of the series even further.
And then there's Detective Pikachu. Originally released as a Japanese-exclusive game in 2016, it followed the gruff-sounding detective and his friend (trainer? minion?) Tim Goodman through three chapters. Its success has led to an expanded version with nine chapters, as well as a film version starring Ryan Reynolds as the eponymous yellow rat.
Jinnai hopes to use Detective Pikachu to partially redefine the popular view of Pikachu. "[I]n Pokemon, each one represents a species, and not an individual character necessarily. So Ash's Pikachu is just one of many Pikachu, and in creating Tim's Pikachu, we wanted to come up with something totally different. So we came up with this middle-aged man personality that's also kind of charming."
In effect, Jinnai is saying that the games are now on equal footing with the anime. We're a long way from the motionless sprites and generic icons of the original Pokemon. Game Freak's world is finally able to be experienced the way it was always meant to be.
In Detective Pikachu, Aipoms will jump in and steal necklaces; Noiverns will swoop between buildings, and the odd Trubbish will beg for garbage in the subway. And that's just the opening cutscene. It's a game that's meant to serve as an introduction to the richness of the world of Pokemon.
Both Pokemon Sun and Moon and Detective Pikachu would seem to indicate bigger things for the series going forward. The forthcoming Switch version of Pokemon will likely retain many of the trappings of the previous games—the turn-based combat, the random encounters, and so forth—but it will do so in the context of a console game. All those fans who have been pining for a full-blown console experience since 1998 will soon be getting their wish.
It's a major transition for the series. Pokemon Sun and Moon was as close as the series has ever gotten to a traditional "console experience," but it was still limited to the Nintendo 3DS. The Nintendo Switch will offer a much broader canvass.
Detective Pikachu offers a glimpse of one path forward for Pokemon's next generation. Despite also being a 3DS game, Detective Pikachu is one of the most ambitious Pokemon games to date. Jinnai clearly saw it as such.
"This kind of project, where we used voice recording and facial capture, was really kind of a first for us. Seeing whether we could combine it into a game was compelling was a test for us," Jinna said. "So we decided we wanted to release this smaller piece in Japan first to see if it would become a compelling product. It was kind of a trial for us."
Detective Pikachu's main strength is that it feels livelier than perhaps any Pokemon game before it. The monsters are everywhere, and they're often integral to solving the mystery. Pokemon like Garbodor will be hanging out doing their thing; and when they eat a bit of garbage and release a toxic cloud, they're suddenly much more than a Pokedex entry. It makes me hope the the next Pokemon lets us see whether Magcargo is in fact hotter than the surface of the sun.
Pikachu, of course, is the star of the show in Detective Pikachu. Tim Goodman is merely a cipher—a kid who randomly meets an extraordinarily cranky Pokemon in a deerstalker cap and proceeds to follow him around. When you get a clue, you'll get a little cutscene of Detective Pikachu striding back and forth speaking in his incongruous (but cute!) Danny DeVito-like growl. He and the rest of the Pokemon own Detective Pikachu. The humans are just window dressing.
Detective Pikachu is ultimately a game for young kids. It serves as an introduction to the series for those who find the RPG intimidating, or just want to experience the world of Pokemon in a different way. Its puzzles can easily be solved simply by talking to every character you can. Its less about being challenged and more about watching the Pokemon be... well... Pokemon.
But that's compelling. As Detective Pikachu shows, the world of Pokemon is still extraordinarily fun to visit. I don't want the core Pokemon games to eschew their complexity, but I would like them to build on what Pokemon Sun/Moon and Detective Pikachu have accomplished. In their heart of hearts, I think everyone would like an experience like Pokemon Snap, but without the rails. Or maybe something akin to Monster Hunter World—a game that goes out of its way to make its fictional ecosystem feel as real as possible.
Detective Pikachu and Pokemon Sun/Moon would seem to indicate that the series is slowly moving toward that experience, but we'll see. Game Freak is notoriously conservative with their technical advances, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if the forthcoming Switch games turned out to be a slightly enhanced variant of the 3DS games. I just hope that Game Freak sees this opportunity for what it is and really goes out of its way to bring the world of Pokemon to life.
In the meantime, Detective Pikachu is a simple but fun glimpse of what the everyday world of Pokemon is like for those who aren't trainers. With more than 800 monsters to draw from, Pokemon's ecosystem is richer than ever. And with the Switch, Game Freak finally has the power to really bring it to life. Detective Pikachu is our taste of it on the 3DS.