Pokémon Let’s Desecrate the Past Pikachu and Let’s Make You Feel Old Eevee.
I don’t get Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu for Switch, a remake of 1999’s Pokémon Special Pikachu Edition and follow-up to mobile-hit Pokémon Go.
I’ve been riding the Pokémon train since Red and Blue’s launch. I raced my friends to the end of Sun and Moon and argued with staffers over the series’ direction. I’m currently wearing Pokémon Go-themed college apparel from my relatively unknown school, and at that school, professors harp on the importance of audience. From journalism to marketing classes, “The Target Audience” is at the center of almost every lesson.
I can’t figure out who Pokémon Let’s Go tries to target.
At first, I thought Let’s Go was a love letter to me. I’ve long begged for a return to Kanto before a Gen IV remake and have grown tired after a lifetime of random encounters. How, then, could I find myself bored by yet another traipse through what must be my most well-worn game map, this time with a simplified encounter mechanic and simply stunning art? Let’s start at the beginning.
To review Kanto is like evaluating my relationship with my parents. Sure, the flaws are apparent with some distance, but closeness still swaddles me in warm feelings. This is my home.
This new Kanto is beautiful, debuting the most distinct style of any 3D Pokémon adventure. The world of Pokémon at once feels alive as creatures chirp into existence on the map. Only now, I’m irked by the vagueness of Team Rocket’s goals. The critical path is nowhere near as flexible as I remember and too often obtuse. The limited pool of Gen I Pokémon left massive holes in my team.
Like Special Pikachu Edition, I had all three Kanto starters thrust upon me early on. Venusaur, Charizard, and Blastoise often appear on my end-game teams, but here, their move pools seemed lacking. I had little trouble plowing through battles with Pikachu’s new always-critical, electric Quick Attack, Zippy Zap, but feared I may hit a wall as trainer levels creeped up.
I stumbled around the middle of the map for a while. I may have forgotten the order in which I needed the Silph Scope, the Poké Flute, and a drink for the guards, but NPCs put me back on track. The rival, whom I named David after Let’s Go Eevee reviewer and Canadian David Lloyd, is as overly helpful as one might expect a trainer from the North to be. He popped up at key moments to disappoint with his pathetic team and walk me by the hand toward the story. Blue sometimes showed up at the same time to offer guidance and pep talks. Time made him soft.
I did get stuck a few times in the original. So did my neighbor across the street. In fact, everyone at my elementary school had to band together to find the elusive mall vending machine. I wonder if Let’s Go patronizes with its helpfulness. The lack of overt direction in Red gave me an agency never before afforded to 9-year-old me, perhaps the most formative aspect of what felt like my first real adventure.
Some touches added depth to the plot. I wondered who the protagonist was as Pikachu demanded the spotlight. His (or her, in my case) reactions to gym wins and Rocket battles were way stronger than mine. Team Rocket’s Jessie and James seemed to be everywhere, even if their pushover battles replaced a few memorable moments. The Pokémon Mansion now looked like the birthplace of all-powerful Mewtwo.
Two cameos teased a fuller world: I met Brock at the store and Lorelei on the water. Finally, I thought, these characters live in this world. But no, each was only allowed outside once. They featured in a single story beat before standing in place for all eternity. Once again, only my rivals and I seemed bothered by Kanto’s mobster problem.
But the music took me back. The epic score turned strolls between towns into adventures -- even without random battles. Team Rocket takedowns felt badass. Caves filled with mystery, forests with wonder. Vermillion City still promised the future and cherished the past.
By the time I beat the eighth gym, I remembered why I love Kanto. I felt my heart pound in my throat as I chose each attack. That final battle carried a weight matched only by the leader’s hard-to-counter party; it laughed at the weaknesses in my own. We’d come so far, my Pokémon friends and I, and this fight relied heavily on the raw power accumulated over our time together. Returning to the first town for the last gym still closes this story better than any other Pokémon game. I’d gone on an adventure, simple as it was, but the time spent away didn’t hit until I went back home.
The Go in Let’s Go
Yes, Pokémon is evolving. Wild Pokémon are now visible on the overworld, and encounters are a Pokémon Go-style catch game. Thank. God. Gone are the hordes of wild Zubat begging for the swift death of your first Pokémon’s first move. Instead, players can walk around lame Pokémon and only go after favorites.
Catching Pokémon isn’t just for fun, though, as Pokémon reward candy and experience when caught. There’s a candy to raise each stat and candy specific to each Pokémon. Catch a Pokémon multiple times in a row to increase rewards and spawn rarer, stronger, or even shiny Pokémon.
This massive revamp is a welcome addition; the catch game, however, is not. My years of practice in Pokémon Go don’t translate well to the Switch’s motion controls. The target doesn’t follow the same rules in both games, even though they look and function the same way.
In Pokémon Go, the smaller circle stops shrinking a soon as the player releases the ball. Not here, though. Let’s Go’s menus, button presses, text, and animations slow down the time between Poké Ball throws, turning impatience into frustration. Throws often go the wrong direction. Pokémon can run at any time, not just after escaping a Poké Ball, another change from Go. What should have been a familiar experience to the millions of Go players is instead jarring in its subtle, yet major, differences. Maybe I’m just bad at it.
By the end of my journey, as I snuck past the Golbat swarm guarding Mewtwo’s dungeon, I begged one of them to attack me. I don’t mean attack my Poké Ball midair. While I appreciate Let’s Go’s bold new system, the catch mechanics need a bit more time in the oven.
Forward and Backward
Let’s Go has a lot to teach the mainline series but forgets lessons from its predecessors.
Menus clunk on simple tasks like changing your party, and a tiny stutter after each button press adds up when looking for a specific Pokémon. The experimental candy system adds a ton of depth but only lets you feed one candy at a time. I look back at my 30-plus-hour journey and wonder just how much of it I spent picking up an item, listening to the item jingle, then putting the item in a specific part of my bag. How justified is the 20-second intro to a battle ended by a single Pikachu Zippy Zap? Series veterans are well aware of these issues, but Let’s Go does little to mitigate them.
Sun and Moon introduced two solutions to streamline gameplay, but one is oddly missing from Let’s Go. Hidden Moves are replaced by Secret Techniques for Pikachu. Characters go out of their way to explain that these moves are only for people to learn, then teach them to Pikachu anyway. Again, I think Pikachu is the protagonist. Secret Techniques are buried in yet another menu, but talking to, say, water or a boulder prompts a wordy prompt to use one. Missing is any indication of type effectiveness. In Sun and Moon, the battle screen indicated Super Effective attacks, and the Game Boy games included a type-chart in the box. For what hopes to be an on-ramp to the franchise, this omission feels almost like an oversight.
Speaking of oversights, I don’t know why Meltan is here. The adorable Pokémon Go-exclusive isn’t strong, doesn’t fit into the story, and can’t even evolve in Let’s Go. I discovered these facts only after I built my end-game team around him, so I took every opportunity to stomp on him as he followed me, forcing him back into his Poké Ball momentarily.
I had a few Pokémon follow me during my adventure, and ride Pokémon are seriously awesome. I zipped around on Charizard, high above trainers on the old Cycling Road, but again had to fight menus if I wanted to land. I hope this feature never leaves us, but I need a dedicated “put Pokémon away” button. The menu got so cumbersome that I hardly rode Pokémon at all.
Each Pokémon has a slight redesign. Pikachu is more expressive than ever, with giggle fits and more variations on its name than I thought possible. It likes pets, and you can play with its hair or dress it up. Its tail wags when near a secret item. It’s cute. Golbat has leathery wings, and Parasect has a subtle camouflage pattern. Every Pokémon has a realistic shadow, both in and out of battle.
Let’s Go takes advantage of its detailed new look with a cinematic camera. Forgettable story beats like Bill’s Sea Cottage become epic moments. The camera swoops dramatically during battles. Pokémon sometimes jump out of frame during attacks, but I still appreciate the tension brought to important battles.
Co-op is, perhaps, Let’s Go’s oddest inclusion. All controls are mapped to a single, tiny, hand-cramping Joy-Con, so another player can grab the other Joy-Con to drop in at any time. Player 2 doesn’t get a name and can’t interact with anything, but totes steals your whole aesthetic. All battles turn into 2-on-1 slaughterfests, and coordinated Poké Ball throws net a catch bonus. Though clumsy, I played a big chunk as both players, spamming Pikachu’s Pay Day for extra cash. I played a bit with my brother-in-law, but our conflicting, controlling natures kept that short. Co-op is a brilliant inclusion for younger players, though.
Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu justifies its own existence by trying to please every Pokémon fan. It can’t. What it does do is highlight the disparity among its bases; its fierce and loyal competitive scene, its incredibly friendly world, and its simple-to-grasp, hard-to-master systems. Going forward, the Let’s Go series would do well to let go of me. It’s okay to make a game for new and younger players, but it’s not okay to sell that game to stalwarts nearing 30. Let’s Go’s fresh ideas have me excited for the future of Pokémon, but these changes now mar the very experience that had me fall in love with this world.