Cast your mind, if you will, to the distant era of 1998. This was the year that Pocket Monsters finally landed on western shores, and you took the reins of a plucky young trainer for the very first time.
As you wandered the streets of Pallet Town, it became apparent that your ambitions laid elsewhere. The ocean to the south, foreboding walls flanking you to the left and right, and a mere two houses and a mysterious laboratory acting as its only landmarks. Where did everyone else live? Is this really a suitable environment for raising a child?
Eager to leave your monochromatic prison, you would eventually venture up north, into the grassy fields that lay ahead. You’d only set one foot into the underbrush before Professor Oak stopped you in your tracks, warning you that wild Pokemon live in tall grass and it was too dangerous to go further without protection.
Christ, imagine the traumatic existence this 10-year-old has lived. I had pretty bad pollen allergies growing up, but I was at least able to walk more than 11 steps from my front door.
This humble interaction would effectively set the stage for a familiar premise in JRPGs; certain environments would trigger random encounters. It was as true in 1986’s Dragon Quest as it was in 1997’s Final Fantasy VII, and for the most part, it worked perfectly fine in establishing the conditions of hazardous biomes.
Some noteworthy games strayed from this formula, such as Super Mario RPG and EarthBound on the SNES. These titles presented foes as physical presences on the map, allowing you to discern what kind of battle you were in for, and whether you would elect to avoid it altogether. It was an interesting dynamic, because ultimately you were dictating how many experience points you left on the table in your cowardice.
Pokemon also played things slightly differently with the aforementioned tall grass mechanic. Though waterways and caves would trigger wild critters indiscriminately (hello, Zubat!) the conventional routes were free of assailants outside of the overgrown foliage. Sometimes trudging through the tall grass was unavoidable unless you attempted the impractical solution of using Cut every few steps, but the rules were clear: in the grass, there be monsters.
This much remained true until the pair of Let’s Go titles for the Switch in 2018. Though we returned to those familiar plains of Kanto, something alarming was now happening. Every beast you could imagine was now popping up before your very eyes, ambling about with all of the grace of an elderly person trying to find their way to the bathroom at 2am.
Yes, technically tall grass remained the trigger, but the Pokemon would just as gladly trudge all over the place on their aimless sabbatical, allowing you to bob and weave around them as you liked. Didn’t really feel like dealing with a Caterpie in Viridian Forest? Perfectly acceptable, you can ignore it entirely until you spotted a Pikachu that you wanted to throw down on.
A lot had happened in gaming sensibilities in the 20 years since Pokemon’s premiere, and the industry as a whole had shifted away from random encounters. To many players, it had become a tedious series of repetition, impatiently fleeing from every fight until they had finally reached their destination.
Pokemon Sword and Shield continued in this way — though at least offered some surprise battles in the tall grass — before Scarlet and Violet stripped away its utility entirely. Now, you will see no shortage of fauna roaming about as you transit from one stop to the next. Hey, it worked for those SNES titles I mentioned earlier, so it’s probably fine in Pokemon as well, right?
The fundamental difference between Pokemon and most other JRPGs is that the enemy characters dotting the map are potential recruits to your playable party. This isn’t just some anonymous Goomba or Ramblin’ Evil Mushroom we’re talking about here, this is a freakin’ Eevee, with all of its evolutionary options and the chance to become the newfound staple of your roster.
I recall with fondness my anticipation in landing a Vulpix in Pokemon Blue, with its limited distribution and minuscule spawn rate that was as low as 10% in certain areas. After bumping into more Pidgeys than you’d find at a particularly mundane aviary, I finally found my foxy friend. Watching it scroll onto the screen as it unleashed its triumphant cry was a spectacular moment in my youth.
Extrapolate this even further into Pokemon’s second generation, and sometimes that Vulpix would display an impressive golden pelt, for you had happened upon the elusive shiny variant. Throw your balls at it with reckless abandon, and cherish it always!
In Pokemon Scarlet, sometimes a Vulpix is there. Oh, neat. Sometimes it’s shiny. Oh, neater. Let me save my game, because if I screw this up, I can simply reload the file to try again.
That sounds about as rewarding as rolling giant olives into baskets or locating hidden Sunflora with approximately five frames of animation, how silly would it be if they made you do those things?
I jest, of course, but the fact remains that hunting down your desired Pokemon is no longer an experience that requires any semblance of challenge or engagement. The division between overworld searching and subsequent capture is blurred to the point of irrelevancy, I may as well just have rare Pokemon immediately appear in my inventory when I reach their spawn point.
And as far as the Nuzlocke challenge goes, where part of the excitement is not knowing what you’re going to end up with? You just kind of make the rules up, and the results can only be described as desperately contrived.
Sometimes, I worry that I am the problem here; that Pokemon is feeling less special as I grow older and more jaded. In this case and several others, however, I cannot shake the notion that Pokemon feels less special because the games are less special. As its most basic mandates are streamlined to the point of banality, there is little magic remaining in the tank.
About the only thing that’s more needlessly complicated these days is the breeding process, and you’d best believe I will grind my axe on that atrocity before long.