Roughly four years ago, I sat down with Pokemon producer Junichi Masuda to talk about the then-upcoming Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. One of the key issues that arose was random encounters. Was the Pokemon team planning to stick with them despite being seen as outdated in many quarters?
Masuda was adamant that they would. "Random encounters go back to the idea that different kinds of play exist. I think there's these core categories of play: you have competition, imitation, and the element of surprise or excitement. I think Pokémon lets you choose between competition and the element of chance, and with the random encounters it's a kind of lottery as you enter the tall grass and you don't know what's going to appear. We think that by removing that, we'd be removing one of the big categories of play from the game, and we don't think that's a good idea."
In other words, Masuda saw random encounters as a core part of Pokemon-maybe even the secret to its success. It made me wonder if I was wrong to question the presence of such a successful mechanic. Random encounters certainly haven't stopped Pokemon from selling millions of copies over the years.
But after getting a chance to play Pokemon Let's Go at E3 last week, I'm now more convinced than ever that there's a better way. And maybe Game Freak itself is starting to see it as well.
Pokemon Let's Go, if you haven't been paying attention, is a hybrid remake of the original Pokemon and the mobile megahit Pokemon Go. It puts even more emphasis on the accessibility that defines the mainline RPGs, adding in a co-op component and a friendly one-button Pokeball controller (which will run you a cool $50 on Amazon if you decide to get it separately from the game). Even compared to the famously friendly Pokemon it feels simple in the extreme, but it's nevertheless close enough to the core games that it doesn't feel like a total departure.
The area that I got to see was the Viridian Forest-one of the first real "dungeons" in the game. As in Pokemon Red and Blue, it's a relatively small area populated by a handful of bug catchers, Weedles, Caterpies, and the odd Pikachu. But compared to its forebears, Pokemon Let's Go's version is positively teeming with life. Bug Pokemon of all different shapes and sizes can be seen running around in the grass, mixed in with the occasional Pikachu and even the odd Butterfree. It's a similar feeling to opening up your phone and seeing that there are new and interesting monsters nearby in Pokemon Go. It's immediately enticing.
I've written in the past about how Pokemon feels oddly lifeless compared to the likes of Monster Hunter. For a series with such a massive menagerie, the monsters themselves don't feature nearly as much as they should. This even goes for the recent Pokemon Sun and Moon. I blame the random encounters, which hide the monsters in the grass and out of sight.
It's totally the opposite in Pokemon Let's Go-Pokemon are everywhere. Stepping into the grass to chase after them, I found myself flinching in expectation of the familiar flash of the battle screen. But then I remembered where I was, and I felt a weight I didn't even know I had slip off my shoulders. It wasn't just that stepping into the tall grass was no longer annoying—it was exciting.
In the space of a few moments I caught a Caterpie and a Weedle, then spotted a Pikachu and gave chase. In the original game, catching a Pikachu in Viridian Forest was a pain because they were relatively rare, and you had to go in and out of battles waiting for them to appear. Pokemon Let's Go instead has you going, "Oh man! A Pikachu! I need one of those!"
It's a feeling that suddenly has me wanting to complete the Pokedex, which is something I haven't done since Ruby and Sapphire. At some point the simple act of collecting Pokemon became too much of a hassle, and trying to catch 700 of them felt ludicrous. I opted instead to focus my efforts on catching legendary monsters instead.
By contrast, filling out the Pokedex feels much more doable in Pokemon Let's Go. Just seeing them hopping around in the grass makes me naturally want to start capturing them and adding them to my collection. It's the freshest and most energetic Pokemon has felt in ages.
Even the surprise element that Masuda and company value so much remains intact. Often you will see a monster spawn right at the edge of the screen, which is surprising and exciting. If you're not fast enough, it may exit the area just as quickly. But even if you miss out, there are more to be found elsewhere with a bit of patience.
Frustratingly, though, the actual act of catching a monster isn't actually that fun in Pokemon Let's Go. As in Pokemon Go, you have to try and time a Pokeball throw with a ring that opens and closes. The intuitive swiping motion makes capturing monsters easy and satisfying in Pokemon Go, but I find the throwing motion in Pokemon Let's Go awkward to say the least. I wound up wasting a ton of Pokeballs on an obstinate Butterfree as it drifted lazily back and forth, screwing up my timing. Ideally the next "proper" Pokemon RPG for the Switch-which will purportedly be geared toward hardcore fans-will combine the more traditional capture mechanics with Pokemon Let's Go's lively ecosystem.
But no matter what approach Game Freak takes, I think Pokemon Let's Go is proof that it's time for the old ways to change. It is in fact possible to retain the magic of Pokemon while eliminating one of its hoariest mechanics. It might well be the single best thing to come out of what is otherwise a simplistic take on the series.
I suppose we'll see which direction Game Freak opts to go when Pokemon's eighth generation lands next year. But in the meantime, Pokemon Let's Go offers an intriguing glimpse of what's possible. It'll be out on November 16.