In 2003, Game Freak was forced to effectively hit the reset switch for Pokemon. The transition to the Game Boy Advance made it impossible to transfer old collections across platforms. Those fans that had invested hundreds of hours into their collections were forced to start from the very beginning.
The split opened up a definitive gap between the first two generations and everything that came after. It's only been within the past couple years that Game Freak has found a way to tie the original Game Boy games in with everything else. But just as it seemed like the series was on the verge of being fully unified, Game Freak is introducing another divide.
Earlier this week, Pokemon producer Junichi Masuda confirmed that Pokemon Sword and Shield would only allow a limited number of Pokemon from previous generations to be transferred to the new games. His reasoning touched on a number of practical realities: 800 Pokemon are almost impossible to balance, and even just modeling that many monsters is a gigantic drain on resources. Likewise, Game Freak is putting extra work into the Pokemon that do make it over, with a particular emphasis on animation.
"We knew at some point we weren't going to be able to indefinitely keep supporting all of the Pokemon, and we just found that Sword and Shield would probably be a good point to go back and reevaluate what would be the best selection of Pokemon that appeal to the widest audience while keeping into consideration the balance of the battle system," Masuda told USgamer in an interview at E3 2019. "It isn't just going to be all-new Pokemon in the Galar region Pokedex; there's still going to be a lot of favorites that fans will be able to bring over that they've adventured with previously. But yeah, it was pretty much just balancing and getting this optimal selection of Pokemon for the adventure we wanted to provide."
The split, however limited it might be, has predictably divided the Pokemon community. The hardcore fans, the ones who have been playing for years now, are understandably crushed by the prospect of losing large parts of their collection. Rare monsters will be lost; highly-trained Pokemon will be left behind, and a full "living Pokedex" will no longer be a thing. Casual fans for their part are mostly just shrugging and wondering what all the fuss is about.
As for me, I'm more in the former camp than the latter. I've long treated the main story as a sideshow—an extended tutorial that must be endured to get to the good stuff. The random Pokemon I catch in that time are only a means to an end. When Pokemon Sun and Moon came out a couple years ago, I stubbornly waited until Pokemon Bank was updated before I seriously engaged with the endgame content. That's because I don't see Pokemon as a typical RPG like Final Fantasy. I see it as a persistent world like World of Warcraft.
The reason I'm reluctant to just roll with whatever I'm given is that raising a good Pokemon can take ages. Even with the base stats locked in, the process of hatching dozens of eggs and training up the resulting monster is an involved one. I tend to be quite picky about which Pokemon I raise, and when they're done, I keep them forever.
Some of my Pokemon have been with me since college. My Flareon came from an Eevee found in 2004's Pokemon Fire Red and Leaf Green. My best pal, Infernape, was born in 2010's Pokemon Heart Gold and Soul Silver. I've used them to crank through dozens of hours of content, win online tournaments, and take on dozens of gym leaders. I take way too much pride in my favorite monsters having a ribbon indicating they defeated the Sinnoh Elite 4—a rare achievement given that the series last went to Sinnoh in 2009. I'm at my happiest when I can grab Infernape, Sceptile, and Greninja and venture out to capture a legendary Pokemon, or when I can take on a cool side event like the Pokemon World Tournament. In my headcanon, I'm a wandering Pokemon Master; a grizzled veteran traveling from region to region seeking to capture every legendary monster.
The Connections to the Past are an Important Part of Pokemon's Appeal
Pokemon, ultimately, is a series that strongly encourages long-term investment. In some ways, it's an early example of the dreaded service genre on console, linking each successive game and giving fans reason to stick around long-term. For some, it's about collecting; for others, it's ultra-rare shinies, or competitive battling.
It's these fans who will be hit by the split the hardest. For many, leaving behind a particular favorite will be a dealbreaker. Even now, I get the feeling I will have to leave Infernape on my 3DS, and I kind of hate it. Ridiculous as this sounds, a part of my personal history is tied up in that little bit of data. I was still living in Japan when I first raised that Infernape, and when I take it into battle, I'm brought back to some of the happiest times of my life.
I have no doubt that the decision to leave some Pokemon behind is at least partly technical in nature. Game Freak has tended to struggle with transitions to new platforms, often dropping popular features along the way. The first GBA generation lacked a day/night cycle; the initial DS generation was surpassingly slow, and the debut 3DS generation had framerate issues and a fairly limited feature set. It seems as if the Switch might be going down a similar path.
I also totally believe that Game Freak wants to have a more focused metagame for Sword and Shield. The Pokemon World Tournament has been a big part of the series for many years now, and balancing hundreds of Pokemon really is an impossible task. In effect, Pokemon is taking a page from CCGs like Magic and Hearthstone, retiring some monsters and boosting others.
But Pokemon isn't a CCG, nor is it strictly a competitive battling game. It's many different things to many different people. Most importantly though, it's a shared world with links going back nearly 20 years. And losing some of those links will really hurt, even if it's not a complete split like in Ruby and Sapphire.
For what it's worth, the older monsters will probably be back in some fashion. I wouldn't even be surprised if Game Freak came out in Gen 9 and said, "Good news! All of the Pokemon are in this one!" In the shorter term, I expect popular Pokemon that don't make the cut to get doled out through Mystery Gifts. With the new Pokemon Home app connecting Pokemon Go to Sword and Shield, I likewise expect special giveaways to entice players to jump into the mobile version. Nothing gets a community going quite like regular content drops. If that doesn't come to pass, I suppose I can imagine a scenario similar to when Pokemon Fired Red and Leaf Green came out and brought the original 151 to Ruby and Sapphire.
In the meantime, I'll try to be optimistic and treat this as a new start. Those who have been following me for a long time will know that I tend to get cynical about the grind inherent to Pokemon. I might benefit from truly cutting the cord to the past and starting fresh. I can be like Ash when he leaves all of his Pokemon behind and rides out to Hoenn for the first time, with only Pikachu by his side.
One way or another, it's a new era for the series; one in which some Pokemon will be available and some simply won't. No matter what, there is bound to be some anger and hurt feelings over the monsters that fail to make the jump. But I can at least take solace in the remaining connections to the past, even though they're a little more frayed than before. Pokemon Sword and Shield is out November 15.