In 2014, I confidently predicted that Battle Frontier DLC was on the way to Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. My evidence? An easter egg proclaiming, "The Battle Frontier Project Has Started!" Surely the 3DS could support DLC, I thought. There was no way that Nintendo would going to re-release the third generation without its most popular feature, right?
As it turned out, it really was just an easter egg. No DLC was forthcoming.
It was a rough blow for Pokemon fans, but also pretty much par for the course for the series going back to the original games. When Game Freak has had something to add—new moves, balance updates, new areas—it has traditionally relied on so-called "third versions" like Pokemon Emerald and Pokemon Platinum. Patches have typically been rare; online events have been limited. As recently as 2017, Nintendo released Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, which in another world might have served perfectly well as expansion DLC.
Thankfully, today's Pokemon Sword and Shield expansion pass announcement shows that times have changed. In the next couple months, Game Freak will be releasing a brand new area featuring new characters, environments, and Pokemon. It's also bringing back a host of Pokemon who went missing in the National Pokedex break, all of which will be accessible through trades or Pokemon Home transfers.
It's a positive sign for the overall longevity of Pokemon Sword and Shield. It suggests that Game Freak means to nurture and support this version over the next couple years, much as Sora Ltd. has done with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Even better, it means that I won't have to play all the way through the story again just to access new content, thank god.
The newly-announced expansion pass moves the series into previously uncharted waters. In the past, each Pokemon entry has been treated as its own discrete release comprising a larger generation. This has been exemplified by the various regions, all of which lend their games a distinct personality. Pokemon would come and go with each entry, as would unique features like Contests and the Battle Frontier. Remakes and third versions would provide the updates to keep it all fresh.
It was remniscent of the approach taken by Capcom with the Monster Hunter series. In past years, Capcom would release entries like Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate for Switch—expanded entries with new monsters. It's perhaps no coincidence that Capcom broke tradition last year with the release of Monster Hunter World: Iceborne, a large-scale expansion that ties directly into Monster Hunter: World for PS4 and Xbox One.
Pokemon Sword and Shield's Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra may not be on the level of Iceborne, but they are certainly meaty updates in their own right. And like with Monster Hunter: World, it neatly coincides with Pokemon's transition to console. Slowly, painfully, Pokemon is evolving into the kind of dynamic, constantly-updated RPG that people look for in 2020.
It opens the door for all sorts of interesting content going forward. This year's expansions will include new co-op Dynamax battles, new legendary monsters, and what appears to be a new questline. Future updates may include popular modes. Dare I hope for the return of the Pokemon World Tournament? Or even the appearance of a classic region like Sinnoh?
It could also have big implications for Pokemon's overall release schedule. In recent years, Game Freak has been releasing a new game pretty much every holiday season, with the sole break being in 2015. There are signs that 2020 won't have a new Pokemon game though, which suggets that Game Freak is content to let Pokemon Sword and Shield ride for a little while.
If Game Freak is diligent with both its free and paid upgrades for Pokemon Sword and Shield, it will go a long way toward ameliorating the dissatisfaction around its handling of the National Dex issue and other problems. Communities crave attention and communication, and Pokemon hasn't always been great about providing that attention on a game to game basis. New content, returning monsters, heck, even frame rate improvements would be a good step forward in that regard.
Pokemon has always been a curious mix of innovative and conservative—brilliant ideas like the Pokewalker mixed with static sprites and frustratingly murky mechanics. It's only been within the past couple years that Game Freak has been willing to bend on the issue of random battles, which has largely fallen to the wayside in other RPGs. Like it or not, Game Freak does what it wants, and its legions of fans just have to deal with it.
But while its progress often moves at roughly the pace of a Shuckle, Pokemon is occasionally willing to embrace modern ideas, and the expansion pass is proof of that. Pokemon's presence on a major console is apt to accelerate that trend, as increased processing power brings with it increased expectations. Whether it wants to or not, Pokemon is now competing directly with the likes of Destiny. It can no longer take shelter in the diminished expectations endemic to handheld platforms like the Nintendo 3DS.
Before this generation began, I worried that Game Freak wouldn't be able to rise to the occasion, and that the series would feel small on the Switch. The transition has indeed had its rough spots, but thus far Pokemon has proven up to the task, and that bodes well for the future of the series as a whole.
Pokemon Sword and Shield's first expansion will be out in June.