A skyscraper built on a tarpaper shack’s foundations

I finally beat Pokémon HeartGold this weekend. And by “beat” I mean “the credits rolled and then the game said, oh by the way here is the other half of the adventure that you need to complete.” It’s kind of like the Inverted Castle from Symphony of the Night except that the world assets are copied-and-pasted from some other game. That’s all well and good, but I have to say my enthusiasm for completing the back half of the quest has been severely depleted by the “endgame.” The Elite 4 sequence — the series’ equivalent of a final boss, I guess — isn’t a terrible idea, but it has the unfortunate side effect of throwing into sharp relief just how absolutely awful a lot of the mechanics and underlying concepts of the Pokémon series really are.

The issue is that the Elite 4 tend to use critters that are about 10 levels above every other trainer you’ve faced throughout the game, and their ringleader’s team is almost ten levels higher than that. In theory, that’s totally fine; after all, the point of a final battle is to put your skills to the test and provide a real challenge. The flaw with this, in practice, is that the game doesn’t really offer a reasonable way to level up a team once you get to the end, so if you make it to the final gauntlet with a team that isn’t properly balanced to provide the very specific tactics you need to employ, you’ll be grinding for hours and hours and hours to reach that point. And nothing makes a game more fun than hitting a brick wall that kills your momentum!

Of course, long-time series players are more than happy to dish out advice on which moves and attributes your crew should learn, as if it should be immediately obvious how you should go about acquiring those skills. Except that it’s not; while Pokémon games offer a multitude of combatants that can be trained up, each with a rich and varied skill tree, there’s no way to know in advance which skills a given creature will learn except by referring to outside resources. So, you’re given a choice: You can go it alone and hope to stumble upon something amazing by pure chance through a tremendous investment of time and effort, or you can just give up on mastering the game under your own steam and seek external help by reading a guide or asking for advice. Neither is a satisfying solution.

The prevailing attitude about these shortcomings is that the developers at Game Freak are too lazy to bother updating the underlying 8-bit RPG around which every Pokémon game is built… or worse, too incompetent. I kind of doubt it, though. There’s nothing preventing the creators from adding a small amount of data to the game — something like Etrian Odyssey‘s skill tree preview that allow you to see the nature of and prerequisites for every possible ability you’ll eventually learn — to make the series more self-contained and user-friendly. But to do that would be to undermine the vast revenue stream that is the Pokémon guide business, to say nothing of the horrifyingly unending cartoon series (which I assume serves as a sort of loosely-plotted strategy guide in its own right). Even something like offering higher-level random encounters would be detrimental to the underlying philosophy of the Pokémon series, which is “keep gamers from playing anything besides Pokémon for as long as possible.”

For my part, I eventually just steamrolled the Elite 4 with a bunch of high-level monsters I traded for over the Global Trade Station. It’s really kind of startling what people will part with in return for a version-exclusive creature! But that was an act of annoyed frustration that came only after trying to build up two separate teams to competitive status over 10 days of play. I dunno, I tend to be of the mindset that I shouldn’t have to memorize extensive stats and data from a guide in order to have a fighting chance, but maybe that’s just the cynical part of me that thinks gaming should have outgrown that sort of crap a decade and a half ago speaking.

So, what’s keeping me going? Well, I know I’ll inevitably play Pokémon Black & White, even though it won’t fix a single one of these severe issues. I plan to import a team of ridiculously useless creatures over from HeartGold right at the very outset of my adventure so that I can focus on beating the next-gen (ha) game with a party consisting of a bunch of scrubs. Maybe by then I’ll have sorted out all this deliberately opaque nonsense… though of course I’m sure Game Freak will introduce a few new ill-explained wrinkles to the next games to keep things hostile to the player.

Man, what a stupid hobby videogaming is.

41 thoughts on “A skyscraper built on a tarpaper shack’s foundations

  1. god, i can’t agree with this article hard enough. The only difference is that i got frustrated with pokemon for the reasons you mentioned in the very first area, and never went back.

    (my first pokemon was diamond)

  2. Parish, I hate to tell you this, but I’m afraid Game Freak might be one step ahead of you: The problem with starting a new game using overpowered Pokemon imported from another is that they simply won’t obey you… until you get the right number of badges, that is.

    Be prepared to often read things like, “CHARIZARD

  3. I kind of suspect they’re held back by what you referred to at the end actually: allowing players to port Pokemon from prior games. The games have to be almost entirely the same, and because of the collecting mentality just ditching them is out of the question, and they already blew their one good chance at that with Ruby and Sapphire. I suspect Gen 6 is going to be another generation completely disconnected from prior ones though due to (probably) being on 3DS, and hopefully they take the opportunity to overhaul then.

  4. The Pokemon cartoon gives worse advice than Leafos in Viva Pinata. It once insisted water was weak to fire.

    I bought HeartGold and I’ve basically given up on it after beating the 7th gym. I agree with what you wrote, but the biggest thing I can’t stand about the Pokemon games is the HM system. They’re just there to impede your progress: you need them to get through the dungeons and roads, but the moves are usually terrible in battle, so you need to make two sets of Pokemon – one for fighting, and one that knows HMs.

    On my Pearl game, every time I want to move to a different town, I have to use the clunky computer system to change out one of my actual fighters for a level 5 Starly that knows Fly. It’s a total waste of time that would be called out in any other game. The HMs are such an awful system, and it only somewhat worked in Red/Blue, because there were just 4 HMs that you really needed, and they were actually pretty good for battling. Not anymore.

    And don’t even get me started on the Beauty Contests and poffins! Instead of working on making the battle mechanics more streamlined and sensible, they added a series of increasingly complex mini games I can’t even wrap my head around. It’s amazing how strong the nostalgia pull is with these games that I’ve followed them this far down the rabbit hole.

  5. The game can be easily beaten with a team of two — a water type and something else (fire starter maybe). With that, you should be at an equal or higher level than the champ and have a decent battle. For whatever reason, the main quest was never balanced for party of six.

    To be honest though, I haven’t thought seriously about the main quest since the days of Red/Blue. I generally steamroll it with a starter so I can quickly jump into the endgame, which is where the real meat of the experience is anyway.

    As for a skill tree preview, it would certainly be nice. I think it’s a non-issue in the campaign, but it would at least save me a trip to Smogon/Bulbapedia while building my team.

  6. So you finally beat the Elite Four, eh? Any of those weirdoes I traded you make it in the final team?

    Anyway, I definitely agree about those Elite Four guys and the champion being total bastards in the Pokémon series. Sure they’d be easy if you just stuck with that starter and had it kill everything, but that runs counter to the whole point of the game.

    I also agree with whoever that those HMs should just be replaced with items already. I keep a Bibarel and Tropius onhand in Platinum solely because I can split the HM Whore duties between the two of ’em.

  7. I always found it kind of interesting that in Red/Blue, the enemy AI was so bad that even though the Elite 4 probably outleveled your dudes by 10-20 levels, it was no problem to breeze through and annihilate them.

    The problem is that they improved the enemy movesets and AI in later releases, but didn’t bother to fix the level discrepancy. Much gnashing of teeth ensued.

    As Kat mentioned, the easiest way to go through the game is to just use one or two pokemon. Due to the turn-based system and exponential stat growth that exists in Pokemon, one level 60 Poke is much better than six level 40 Pokes. It kind of goes against the whole “collect ’em all” mindset, and it’s definitely a design flaw, but that’s the way it goes.

  8. Yeah, sad but true. I beat the elite 4 in every game by just bowling over them with my starter, who by then was level 85 or so. All the type balancing in the world really only comes down to +/- 20 effective levels tops, sadly.

  9. I have to echo what the others have said- you sadly can’t really use a full team when playing through the main game. I used a 5-Pokemon team in Sapphire and had to grind a lot once I got to the Elite Four because I was pretty underleveled.

  10. I actually think Gold and Silver are worse in regards to Elite Four preparation for one particular reason – Victory Road. In every other game in the series its filled to the brim with random trainers whereas G/S is just a maze, filled to the brim with Golbats and other crap that the average person would just run away from. Without having all that extra free experience on the way up many trainers fall to Lance and his 3x Dragonites, if not before that.

    Oh, but an alternative strategy to training 1 or 2 monsters would be to just buy a ton of Max Potions / Full Heals / Revives and just cheese your way to victory too. Probably just as unsatisfying as going the way you did with the GTS, though.

  11. I ran into the problem of being completely unprepared for the Elite Four when I first played Red/Blue back in grade school. It was a really frustrating experience, and I ended up just quitting rather than spending the time to level up. Now I always plan out my team and grinding strategy in advance before starting in with a new iteration of the franchise so that it doesn’t all pile up at the end.

    I tend to treat the Elite Four as the end game when it comes to Pokemon; I get the most enjoyment out of building a team of six that can be used effectively throughout all eight gyms and the Elite Four while still having all of the necessary HMs and TMs to move around the world map. That way I never have to bother with switching out team members for different situations. This method definitely makes the main quest much longer than it has to be, especially since I follow the strategically improper practice of keeping my team members at the same level. I have no interest in competitive battling, so the challenge of building a team geared against in-game trainers is what makes the process fun for me.

    I think the opacity of the series stems from the concept of the original games. The design of these titles requires that players interact with each other: to trade, to battle, and to exchange tips and hints. The two versions is a clear example of this idea, but the lack of transparency and explicitly defined rules or skill trees promoted collaboration as well. When I play Pokemon, I’m always using a guide, but I think the creators envision an experience that is tied to the wild rumor mill of “playground talk.”

    But really, beauty contests and berry mixing take this concept too far. I can hardly understand them WITH a guide.

  12. “keep gamers from playing anything besides Pokémon for as long as possible.”

    I don’t know if that’s true. I mean, Nintendo IS in the game business, and they have other stuff to sell you besides Pokemon. At first when I played Pokemon Blue, I enjoyed the thrill of “discovering” what kind of abilities a pokemon would develop or what he’d evolve into. And then later when I’d had enough of that, I bought a game guide so I could make informed decisions about who I wanted in my team. I think it’s an element of the magic of the series, that you need like, “Guide to the Birds of the Kyoto Region” type books and stuff because of the breadth of the world’s ecology.

  13. I remember when I got to the Elite 4 in Yellow. I kicked their butts with my my horribly broken Kadabra, but when I got to the real final fight with Gary I ran out of TP on all my pokemon and couldn’t even attack. I made damn sure I brought some TP replenishing items in Gold.

  14. I remember having to retry to Elite 4 a few times in Red, but then got to my rival and had trouble beating him. Down to my last Pokémon on low HP, and my rival out of TP, the final blow was delivered to his Blastoise.

    The Pokémon cartoon was a very loose guide, at least in the beginning when I watched it, for the game. You learned stuff like not evolving Pikachu right away so he’d learn agility, or that Magikarp is a useless Pokémon that evolves into an awesome Pokémon.

    The guide books are huge. Now that I think about, I probably took advantage of Nintendo Power’s series of Pokémon mini guides for Red and Blue that came with the magazine every month.

  15. Hm. I realize a part of me wants to get SoulSilver if for nothing else than to try and remember what about these games is supposed to be good. I had played Gold, and gotten to the last part were you fight, well “Ash”, but he was over powered, I was under leveled, and didn’t feel like leveling up. Funnily enough though I did not use a guide and got about 80-90 hours of play out of it. It was fun. Than I tried Yellow, and got completely annoyed, or worse bored, with it and haven’t touched a Pokemon game since.

    Quickie question than; is the PokeWalker an actual odometer, as in it keeps track of how many miles you walk, or just a PokeToy?

    Still reading your and Kat Bailey’s adventures in Pokemon has me thinking of getting a game and trying it out. Though first I need to finish DisgaeaDS, FFTA2, and get SMT:Strange Journey.

  16. RPGs in general tend to obfuscate their underlying mechanics, and are not “thinking man’s” games. Grinding is like scraping away at a wall with a spoon, vs. finding a clever way around it. Pokemon epitomizes this — it’s like Chess, only you have to work a minimum wage job at McDonald’s to earn all your pieces. While there is strategy in the game, the bulk of the time spent playing it is little different from sitting in front of a slot machine or huffing glue. Sometimes I crave a good distraction… but I would never turn to Pokemon for competition or mental stimulation.

  17. Just have to totally agree with this article. I’m actually stuck on the 8th gym because I have no monsters of the right type, my most powerful is exactly the wrong type (and is somehow 5 levels too low), and I’m not really willing to expend another 10 hours getting 1/30th of the necessary experience each battle.

    Just need to borrow a friend’s DS and pull over some level 50’s from my Pearl game. :P

  18. “So, you’re given a choice: You can go it alone and hope to stumble upon something amazing by pure chance through a tremendous investment of time and effort, or you can just give up on mastering the game under your own steam and seek external help by reading a guide or asking for advice. Neither is a satisfying solution.”

    I have this problem with most RPGs, actually. Etrian Odyssey’s currently doing this to me; who knew that Patch Up would be so damn worthless?

  19. Or perhaps they’re far more meta then you give them credit for, Parish, and having to look for outside sources of help is an extension of truly becoming a pokémon trainer. I wouldn’t really know, I never played the damn thing, really.

  20. Thanks for the feedback, retard! Please be careful eating that paste, it would be a real loss to the human race if you choked on it and died.

    “The problem with starting a new game using overpowered Pokemon imported from another is that they simply won’t obey you”

    Nah, I want to start a Spindra/Gulpin/Spoink/etc. team from Level 1. Overleveling shouldn’t be an issue.

    “is the PokeWalker an actual odometer, as in it keeps track of how many miles you walk, or just a PokeToy?”

    It’s an actual pedometer that keeps track of how many steps you take. It’s pretty handy for keeping tabs on my exercise efforts.

  21. Given the complexity and opacity of Pokemon’s mechanics, am I the only one that finds myself wondering what a Kawazu-mon would be like? It couldn’t help but be an improvement, could it?

  22. “Even something like offering higher-level random encounters”

    This pisses me off to no end. I’m well into the second half of the game and have yet to find a spot to effectively level up.

  23. You know, while it’s true the game doesn’t provide decent pokemon to level up with to fight the elite four, it’s not very hard to beat trainers who have pokemon of much higher levels than you. As long as your pokemon can take a hit without dying, you should be able to beat the elite four with a bunch of revives and max potions. There’s no denying this can be arduous, but considering the rest of the game is pretty easy, I like having a truly challenging battle at the end.

    Trust me, I’m not a pokefreak who has the stats memorized or who IV or EV trains, and I don’t power level. One does NOT need to level up to beat the Elite Four in any pokemon game.

  24. While I played Diamond/Pearl and enjoyed the monster-collecting, I hated the battling and especially the grinding. The two best grindspots in the game (in my experience, and I’m not going back to it anytime soon) were Iron Island and Victory Road –both of which are nothing but bats bats bats bats oh hey a self-destructing Graveler bats bats bats. With a side of bats and bat for dessert. In the end, I caught a Golem for the specific purpose of Explosion, then gave something else the Exp. Share and blew up everything in my path. Half the experience, yeah, but half the time, too.

    It’s the one and only Pokemon I didn’t take a shine to. Everyone else, I gave a fun name and used diligently. That one Pokemon was nothing but a mindless bomb. And in the end, though I got to the credits roll too, it was because I beat the Champion’s nigh-indestructible Milotic with Perish Song. After uncountable battles of trying to fight fair and seeing the Champion use Full Heals on it like they grew on trees, I feel entitled to my cheap victory.

  25. I used to just give Pokemon a promotion to the main team if they earned it out in the field. But in the last few games I’ve started to plan out in advance what Pokemon I’m going to use and where the HMs will go. I usually just use whatever moves they learn naturally without worrying about breeding. When I go up against the E4 I just cheese it out with items and keep punching at them until I’m leveled up enough to manage to beat them. Not a deep battle strategy at all, but I generally just think about Pokemon as a zoological expedition game. Trainer battles are just to fund my research trips! I have dabbled in EVs and breeding once or twice, and boy is that some involved stuff. That’s what I really wish they would be more forward with in the games. They hint at it in the game, but I don’t know how the heck you are supposed to figure out that stuff without the internet. And the crazy part is that it isn’t even mentioned in the strategy guides! Not a word! I figure you could fill a whole book with this information! So why keep it super vague if you aren’t even going to save it to help sell guides?

    Crazy GTS trades: I’ve gotten some good random stuff there (light ball and Exp egg!), but I go on the assumption that anything extravagant is hacked. But if it nets me that version exclusive legendary I need, I’m going to look the other way. I wish I could search by what people want rather than what they are offering though. I’d like to put up my spares just to see what I would get and where it came from.

  26. These war stories are really interesting, because it’s fascinating to see what lengths we will go to in order to overcome the inherent shoddiness of this series’ core design.

  27. The cartoon never was too faithful to begin with. Made me pine for a more dynamic battle system, really.

    Other than that, Pokemon has always felt like an MMORPG sans fees and persistent online world.

  28. @parish: And I’m sure some overpriced psychologist has come up with a very long, needlessly complicated name for it to. My guess is it starts with Poke- and ends with -disease:).

    Seriously though, I am going to have to pop Yellow into the GameBoyPlayer on my GC, and see if I can find some enjoyment out of this. It does sound like an interesting way to waste time, and that’s all I got these days. Main quest in DisqaeaDS first, than Pokemon Yellar. Hopefully I won’t have to shoot him at the end.

  29. @parish — This is nothing compared to what people go through to try to make competitive Pokemon battling work at all. I’ve never seen another game where knowing PRNG manipulation (to get the Pokemon the way you want them) was actually important outside of a speedrun.

  30. I don’t necessarily agree with the argument that the game mechanics are shoddy and broken, but I do agree that the series is long overdue for an overhaul. Get rid of the HMs, allow diagonal field movement, grant more than four moves per Pokemon and come up with a better plot than “Earn eight (or 16) badges and stop an evil organization!”

  31. Anyone know where that pit that all the old copies of ET for the Atari 2600 is? I’d like to toss Pokemon Yellow in to join them. Ack.

    Tried it for about 20 minutes or so and was ready to claw my eyes out. Mind you this was being played on a TV not a handheld, but still, yeesh.

    Though I am still intrigued to try SoulSilver on the DS. If nothing else I’ll get a pedometer out of it.

  32. @jrc: Yeah, as much as I loved the first generation of Pokémon, its mechanics have aged terribly. I’m reminded of this every time I get locked into a slow, WRAPping demise or get murdered by Psychics when I try playing Pokémon Stadium for something other than the minigames and photography.

    Speaking of Stadium, battling Pokémon in detailed 3D (for N64) actually meant something back when the only alternative was monochrome visuals with terrible pixellated backshots and primitive battle effects.

  33. It’s amusing hearing Jeremy’s and other’s strategies and still seeing folks comment “Oh! I want to try Pokemon now!” Some of you have the blessing of free time, and I’d hate to play a game that makes me *feel* my time is wasted.

  34. The dichotomy of gamespite: We argue games are too easy these days and then we argue that they’re too hard. Call me crazy, but that simply doesn’t make any sense.

    Don’t get me wrong, Pokemon very much does need to evolve. But most of this evolution needs to happen in the realm of presentation and overworld mechanics (don’t ask me if I want to Cut, just do so if I press the A button at a tree!).

    But the battle system? I may have had a lot of time at ten years old, but I was also an idiot. Regardless of this ignorance of mechanics, I was still able to beat the game with an overleveled razor leaf Venusaur and a Zapdos. If I could do it, certainly the old and jaded readership/editors of gamespite can also accomplish this. I mean really, Pokemon was already working with old game mechanics back in 1998. Nothing’s changed between then and now.

    For example, Pokemon is still one of the only japanese role playing game franchises that has the slightest understanding why I play games. Give me monsters innumerable, not pretentious walls of dialogue and j-pop music soundtracks.

  35. I don’t recall ever saying Pokémon needs to be easier, just less tedious. What needs changing is: one, the obfuscatory mechanics that make it impossible to know what skills your party will learn without referring to external resources; two, the terrible imbalance between mandatory plot battles and the random “mobs” you’re expected to grind against; and three, reward people for playing the way the game tells you to (i.e. “use the pokémon you like/use a team!”) rather than railroading them into either using a carefully calculated and tiresomely leveled group of the most powerful species or simply building up one or two party members into gods. As you say, ANYONE can streamroll the game with an overleveled starter. But it’s stupidly boring (not to mention opaque) to work up an effective team that can win through something besides brute force.

    I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation, do you?

  36. I can see balancing some of the leveling issues. There’s no question that there’s a wall between the last portions of any Pokemon game and the final set of battles (elite 4 or whoever it is).

    I haven’t actually played the newest release yet, having most recently played through one of the GBA titles a few years ago. Looking back my initial reply seems overy defensive. But then, Pokemon nerds like myself were never known to weather criticism well.

    Given that I was just defending Monser Hunter on a different forum just recently for the exact same reason, I can see many similarities between the two: Both are full of dozens of impossibly cute creatures with gigantic fanbases that seem inexplicable to everyone else who isn’t a fan. And of course, both see very little evolution from one game to the next and they come under fire for their primitive/opaque battle systems.

    But, monsters!

  37. This feature has always been at its most glaring in the Generation I and II Pokémon titles. This was handled much better in Generations III and IV, where they offer much greater training opportunities so the player is never so grossly under-leveled with no place to train.

    Being remakes, HeartGold and SoulSilver stick closely to the originals, and the price for that is the games lack those training options and force the player into a grindfest the likes of which they haven’t seen since the original Gold and Silver. Of course, there is huge nostalgia factor, so approaching these issues in Gold and Silver (and by extension these remakes) is the proverbial third rail.

    Since Black and White will be brand-new titles, I am sure the pacing will keep with the natural advancement of the series, and not leave the player in the same lurch of being under-leveled and having no place to train.

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