Ever since Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were announced back in the spring, a lot of Pokémon fans have been asking the same question: "Is trainer customization back? Well, is it?" It seems like such a no-brainer given the nature of the series, but Pokémon fans have learned to take nothing for granted.
As it turns out, they were right to be skeptical. During an event last week, Game Freak's Junichi Masuda confirmed that trainer customization had been removed from the upcoming remakes: "In terms of the customization of the trainer, that was really kind of a special thing for the Kalos region, which featured this kind of motif of France and really focused on this beauty and fashion aspect, which is why it was a prominent feature in that game. For this game, we're focusing on adventuring elements, so we don't have the actual free customization of the trainer, but you'll see the items you use throughout the game visually represented; for example, when you're underwater, you'll have this little mouthpiece that lets you breathe. So there's some cool stuff for how your trainer changes clothes and puts on accessories throughout the game."
The removal of the trainer customization comes just one year after it was finally introduced in Pokémon X and Y, where it was possible to dress up the avatar in a variety of hats, boots, dresses, and other items. True, it wasn't everyone's cup of tea; but for a lot of people, trainer customization lent an additional degree of ownership to the fantasy. When battling someone online, it was fun to see what outfit they had selected for their trainer, whether it was a plain t-shirt and jeans or a more esoteric lolita outfit (of which there were a few).
Disappointing as it might be, however, the decision to remove trainer customization also serves to shed a degree of light on Game Freak's approach to game design: namely, that every region should have its own identity.
"It's really meant to give unique traits of personalities to the different regions. So with the secret bases, for example, they're really popular in the Hoenn region," Masuda says. "Everything we come up with always tie back into the themes of the games we're working on, so with the original Ruby and Sapphire we had the theme of richness or abundance, which is in the name of the region: The 'Ho' part means richness or abundance in Japanese, and 'enn' means bonds, like the bonds between people and their Pokémon, for example. So it's just reflecting the theme of the individual regions."
Of course, Hoenn has its own odd history among Pokémon fans. The original Ruby and Sapphire were somewhat controversial as far as Pokémon games go, making it impossible to transfer monsters from the original Game Boy games as well as locking out 186 monsters, which Masuda says was due to the desire to get people to complete the Pokedex by playing Pokémon Fire Red and Leaf Green. The region itself wasn't exactly popular, either. Fans complained about its focus on surfing and its superfluous Dive HM, not to mention the abundance of Pokémon like Beautifly—weak clones of monsters that had appeared in previous games.
Nostalgia has a way of curing all ills, though, especially when it comes to a popular series like Pokémon. The kids who grew up with Ruby and Sapphire are in college now, and they no doubt have warm, fuzzy memories of capturing Kyogre with their Swampert. Nostalgia also has a bit to do with why trainer customization is out, and secret bases and contests—first introduced in Ruby and Sapphire—are back in. As far as I can tell, it's part of a far-reaching effort to make each entry in the series seem unique and irreplaceable, making them a part of a puzzle rather than a product to be disposed of when a sequel arrives. It's a philosophy that has seeped into every level of the art and design, occasionally helping to elevate the series in unexpected ways.
For Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, one such element is the new DexNav feature. Conceived by Shigeru Ohmori, who was a game planner for the original game and is now directing Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, the DexNav expands on the Pokedex's location functionality, hinting at which Pokémon can be found in a particular area by showing their silouhette on the 3DS' bottom screen. After a Pokémon is captured, it's possible to set the DexNav to target more monsters of that type, thus locking in the encounters and removing the random element. From time to time, a tail will also pop out of the grass to indicate that a monster is near; and in true Pokémon fashion, you have to tiptoe by gently nudging the left analog stick in order to sneak up and surprise it.
The new feature comes as part of Ohmori's desire to build on some of the themes of the original, which centered around richness and abundance: "One of the ways I wanted to express [the themes of abundance and richness] in the various environments [of the original Ruby and Sapphire] was to make it feel as if Pokémon were constantly surrounding you, so we had a Pokémon cry sound effect that you could recognize. This time we have greater technological capabilities, so I wanted to take this theme of abundance to another level, and I came up with this idea of co-existence with Pokémon all living together in harmony. With that in mind, I wanted to use the graphical capabilities of the 3DS to show the Pokémon in the field, such as the tail waving in the tall grass or the Pokémon silhouette, so that way you can sneak up on the Pokémon you want. "
True to Ohmori's word, abundance is constantly apparent in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. He cites the occasional glimpse of a Pokémon in the tall grass, but there are other examples as well. As Brendan/May enter Hoenn for the first time in the opening cutscene, they look out the window to see multitudes of Pokémon frolicking by the roadside. When they enter Petalburg Woods, the camera pans up and a handful of Wingulls swoop past.
Interestingly, despite the nods toward a livelier world, Game Freak is not prepared to abandon random encounters anytime soon: "[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," says Masuda. "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."
From these decisions, an image gradually begins to emerge of a development team that has a very particular approach to design, which is backed by an almost uninterrupted record of growth and success. No one element of Pokémon can be called a "secret ingredient," but taken together, the series has managed to tap deep into the primal center of the pop culture consciousness, where it resides to this day. On occasion, it can result in baffling decisions like the removal of trainer customization; but ultimately, the positives may outweigh the negatives. After all, every Pokémon fan has a favorite region and a favorite generation—the sort of fan tribalism that is only possible if a series is particularly memorable and well-developed.
Of course, it's also easy to make the case that Pokémon is too set in its ways, which is a charge that the latest remake does little to refute. Yeah, I felt a burst of nostalgia moving into Hoenn, visiting Norman at the Petalburg Gym, and helping Wally to catch his first Pokémon (so that he can ambush me at the end of Victory Road... little jerk), but it also helped to drive home just how little has changed since 2002. Game Freak's dogmatic approach to design makes the pace of change almost glacial, even if the series is remarkably forward-thinking in other respects, such as the way that it fosters communication and community building.
Ultimately, trainer customization isn't hugely important, though it will certainly be missed. It's just that I can't think of many series that consciously remove a popular feature and file it away for later use. Even when sports games cut features, it's usually because they either don't work or the development team simply didn't have to implement them. It's worked for Pokémon, though. No doubt fans will soon be clamoring for a remake of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl so they can not only return to the Sinnoh region (my personal favorite), but so they can revisit the Sinnoh Underground.
It's an approach continue to fascinate me, if only because it seems to work so well. More than a decade after the original, somewhat controversial release of Ruby and Sapphire, Pokémon is as idiosyncratic as ever. And in the end, that might be just how Game Freak likes it.