Pokémon makes an intimidating genre approachable

Roleplaying games represent some of the most beloved titles ever created. Series like Final Fantasy or The Elder Scrolls are filled with huge, immersive worlds and deep lore to be explored. Yet, that scale and complexity can also make the genre seem overwhelming. What makes Pokémon stand out is its ability to attract a wide audience. It’s a perfect entry point for an otherwise intimidating genre.

As the series turns 25 years old this year, the charm found in the first installments has been preserved and retained throughout the eight generations of the franchise. The format has stayed consistent; unlike typical RPGs with their elaborate and grandiose narratives, Pokémon maintains a very relaxed pace with a clear goal in mind.

Each Pokémon game starts the same: you’re a child looking to begin your adventure as a pokémon trainer. Immediately, developer Game Freak makes it clear that you are about to begin an epic adventure, and you have some freedom on how you proceed — from the starter pokémon you select at the beginning to the type of creatures you choose to have on your team as you make your way through the region. The ultimate goal in each game is typically to become the Pokémon League champion. But how you go about it is entirely up to you.

Even 25 years later, Pokémon Red and Blue are still good entry points to the RPG genre.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Cheatselsword

The combat in the game takes all of the core elements from turn-based RPGs like Final Fantasy and streamlines it into “types.” Each pokémon has at least one type filled with strengths and weaknesses. The strategy is to figure out which pokémon is affected by certain types and use it to become victorious in your battle.

RPGs can be intimidating for two reasons: one they’re long, typically spanning dozens of hours. The core Pokémon adventures are comparatively brisk. But games in this genre also tend to have complicated systems, in terms of how the combat mechanics work as well as the characters that aid you on your journey. Pokémon gets around this not only by streamlining many of the systems, but also by giving players clear directions. From type advantages to the differences in the level of your team, players will learn most of the key concepts in the early moments of your game just by talking to characters. One of the series’s most important features — the pokédex — is a clever tool that teaches players about the game while also encouraging them to explore the world further.

What makes Pokémon so great is you can also learn about it outside of the game. For the multiplayer aspects of the game, you can learn things by talking with friends, which plays into how Pokémon is cleverly disguised as a single-player game, emphasizing multiplayer through socialization. Pokémon has also expanded into other forms of media, most notably the anime series, which does a superb job of explaining the core concepts of the game, while also maintaining its own identity and quirks that keep it from being a carbon copy of the game.

Pokémon is often criticized for how slowly it evolves from one game to the next, but this relative simplicity remains one of its biggest strengths in the series. As the franchise has continued to spawn new entries, it continues to add on to its already accessible gameplay mechanics while still managing to retain the straightforward and easy approach to turn-based RPG gameplay. Within this accessible framework, there are so many ways to master the experience. It’s this freedom to choose how you play that makes it so beloved by different types of players.

Over the last 25 years, roleplaying games have expanded in all sorts of ways, with new subgenres and features like online play, but Pokémon has yet to lose that sense of relevancy because of its approachable nature. That’s what lured me to the series as a five-year-old girl playing on the Game Boy — and I haven’t stopped playing RPGs since.

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