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.