Let’s strike the heart of the #BringBackNationalDex controversy.
Like most Pokémon games, Pokémon Sword and Shield looked to be slam dunk success stories from the moment they were announced. But then, during a segment of Nintendo’s E3 Treehouse Live event, fans got news that took the wind out of their sails.
Pokémon producer Junichi Masuda revealed on stage that, unfortunately, they wouldn’t be able to include all previous Pokémon in Pokémon Sword and Shield. For context, past Pokémon games omitted some monsters from their core adventures, but players could still import these Pokémon from previous games after obtaining a “National Dex.” However, without a National Dex, players will be completely unable to import monsters that aren’t catchable in Sword and Shield. We don’t know how many monsters will be included (400-500 is the speculated range), but regardless, fans are furious over the news.
We’re going on a month of the #bringbacknationaldex hashtag flooding every official Pokémon social media outlet. And for every answer that Gamefreak has offered to justify the limited Pokémon count, fans have only become more enraged. This raises the question: how important is the National Dex in Pokémon anyway? And moreover, is Gamefreak justified in cutting it from the newest titles?
In truth, once you cut to the heart of this controversy, the National Dex might not be the reason gamers are outraged. In fact, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
First, a disclaimer.
Let’s get this out of the way: I am bummed that Sword and Shield won’t include a National Dex.
As my Gemr writer’s bio says, Pokémon Red was the game that got me into collecting. And whenever I get a new Pokémon game, I play with the goal of catching ’em all. Getting the National Dex is always a fun moment in Pokémon because it expands the bounds of what Pokémon‘s endgame is to me. I still have fond memories of playing Pokémon Heart Gold and trying to trade my way to Gen 4 Pokémon that were totally unobtainable normally.
By that same token, a lot of my favorite Pokémon aren’t necessarily popular. Breloom is my go-to grass type because I love spamming Spore and Focus Punch. Skarmory is a tank that has gotten me out of more binds than I can count. I even like a lot of Gen 5 Pokémon such as Litwick and Scrafty. There’s a very good chance that some of my favorite Pokémon won’t be in Sword and Shield. Or if they are, they could still be cut from future games. This doesn’t ruin Pokémon for me, but the games won’t feel complete without them.
It’s foolish for anyone to think that the exclusion of the National Dex is a good thing for the player. Sure, you can still fill your Galar dex in the new games, but you can’t “catch ’em all!” for the first time in Pokémon history. Even so, we have to face some harsh realities about the state of Pokémon… and the game industry itself.
So why is there no National Dex?
According to producer Junichi Masuda, the reasoning for the National Dex’s removal is the following:
“There are a couple of different parts to the thinking behind it, but really the biggest reason for it is just the sheer number of Pokemon. We already have well over 800 Pokemon species, and there’s going to be more added in these games. And now that they’re on the Nintendo Switch, we’re creating it with much higher fidelity with higher quality animations. But even more than that, it’s coming down to the battle system. We’re making sure we can keep everything balanced and give all the Pokemon that appear in the games a chance to shine.”
– Junichi Masuda
Ironically, this excuse has provoked way more outrage than the original news ever could. Fans have taken this as an excuse to go over the prerelease footage with a fine-toothed comb, which has revealed many blemishes. Select Pokémon animations are identical to previous games, or the animations are so rudimentary that they shouldn’t be considered “high quality.” Moreover, some of the textures in the game look really rough and aren’t up to modern standards. In particular are the tree textures in the new Wild Area, which fans have joking compared to Ocarina of Time‘s graphics from 1998.
Fans say these rough edges are inexcusable in a series like Pokémon, the highest grossing media franchise in the world. Since these games make so much money, they should be able to afford plenty of staff workers who can create high quality animations and incorporate a complete National Dex. This is actually really important and we’ll come back to this later, but the core of the statement is true. Pokémon should be on par with major Switch titles like Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey.
Let’s be fair about the animations.
Numerous fans fervently believe all of Pokémon animations and models are the same as the 3DS games. This is patently false.
Yes, most animations we’ve seen are recycled. But we can spot new animations from current prerelease footage too. Joe Merrick, webmaster of prolific Pokémon fan site Serebii.net, pointed out examples of these in a Twitter thread responding to the controversy. Even meme’d animations like Wingull’s “T pose” are consistent with past games, even if the Sword and Shield graphics still look a bit funky.
Does this justify the omission of the National Dex? Probably not, unless the finished game is hiding lots of cool new animations. But saying there are “no new animations” is disingenuous and hyperbolic.
It’s also worth noting that memey screenshots can paint a… lopsided picture of the game’s visuals. We’ve seen many areas of the game that look quite good, especially in motion. Meanwhile, the game’s roughest visuals come from the new open Wild Area, which is likely a mix of incompetence and the limited Nintendo Switch hardware. Remember, we aren’t going to get Final Fantasy quality visuals out of a Pokémon game with even the most competent developers. Many native Switch RPGs, like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, suffer from poor resolutions and bad textures at times too. Games like Dragon Quest XI S look fantastic on the Switch regardless, so this does not excuse Pokémon. However, it does put it into context.
But since this controversy has spread like wildfire, the problem isn’t just the National Dex and Pokémon animations either. In fact, even if these issues were addressed, it still wouldn’t heal the wounds in the Pokémon community.
Is Game Freak just lazy?
As tensions surrounding the National Dex and its animations boil over, bottled up criticisms towards Game Freak are finally overflowing from fans. In particular are accusations that Game Freak has become so lazy with Pokémon that they want to cut corners and put the bare minimum effort into them.
In truth, the National Dex wouldn’t be the first cut feature that Pokémon fans wished would be standard. Follower Pokémon have always been a huge hit, which Sword and Shield is canning despite Pokémon Let’s Go having it just last year. Mega Evolutions are also gone, being replaced by Dynamaxing and Gigantamaxing. This is on top of modern features that fans would have hoped to see in Pokémon by now, such as difficulty settings and robust player customization.
These are very valid complaints and I wholeheartedly agree with them. I’m not quite as convinced that cut corners are 100% a result of Game Freak’s laziness. If they’re going the path of least resistance, why bother with new stuff in the games anyway? Why make four player co-op raid battles? Why bother making an open world zone where you can interact with other players? Heck, why even go through the trouble of making Dynamax Pokémon if there’s no desire to switch up the gameplay? I’m not even a huge fan of the Dynamax mechanic so far, but clearly they could have made Mega Evolutions big and called it a day if they wanted.
It’s hard to look at the stuff Sword and Shield changes and assume Game Freak has absolutely no passion or vision for the game. In fact, Game Freak might be actively discouraged from switching up the gameplay beyond these half measures we’ve seen so far.
Who is Pokémon for?
Even if Game Freak develops the Pokémon games, they don’t exclusively own Pokémon. Heck, they aren’t even the majority shareholder. And past the weird amalgamation of companies that comprise The Pokémon Company, you have anime studios, toy manufacturers, and more that all rely on the continued growth of the Pokémon brand.
In a post Pokémon GO! world, mainline Pokémon games aren’t even the franchise’s biggest money makers anymore. But they the backbone of the franchise, which puts Game Freak in a major conundrum.
Yes, Pokémon is the world’s largest multimedia franchise. But when it comes to the mainline games, Pokémon has spent about two decades marketing on its familiarity. Massive swaths of non-gamers buy Nintendo systems just for Pokémon, so it’s no surprise that Game Freak only flirts with meaningful change every generation. After all, with such a massive fanbase comes an infinite amount of visions for a perfect Pokémon game. Fans say they want fun new core mechanics that shake up the gameplay. Yet the franchise has a history of even minor gameplay changes raising controversy before their respective games launched.
In Pokémon Black and White, fans didn’t like that you had to use only new Pokémon until endgame. Fans complained that Mega Evolutions were unnecessary before X and Y launched and looked more like Digimon. Pokémon Let’s Go were even massively controversial for removing wild battles, despite it being abundantly clear that they would return in the Gen 8 games. The last Pokémon games to avoid controversy were probably Heart Gold and Soul Silver back in 2009.
The problem with taking risks is that they are risky. It’s no surprise, then, that Masuda himself has expressed concern over Pokémon becoming too unapproachable by broad audiences. That said, I don’t blame fans for Game Freak perpetually playing it too safe with Pokémon. But I still don’t know if I’d blame Game Freak either.
Is the industry to blame?
Looking at the brisk yearly Pokémon releases we’ve gotten for the past four years, it’s very possible that Sword and Shield are being rushed. Is that Game Freak’s fault, or is it pressure from all the investors in the Pokémon honey pot that want more material for their multimedia empire?
It’s hard to come down exclusively on the developers at Game Freak when tons of stories of abuse in the game industry have come to light this year. Crunch in the industry is grueling to the point of demanding 100 hour work weeks, causing developers to unionize just to survive. It wouldn’t be surprising, then, to discover that Game Freak is under pressure from Nintendo and affiliates of The Pokémon Company to push Pokémon titles at a faster pace than they’re comfortable with. Sure, you can delay Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing to almost no consequence, but Pokémon Sword and Shield are launching in the holiday window to push sales of the new Switch Lite console. Game Freak couldn’t delay Pokémon Sword and Shield even if they wanted to.
Frankly, if Sword and Shield aren’t shipping to consoles fully cooked, I can’t help but pin blame on Nintendo here. Switch hardware sales aside, they should be the ones diverting experienced Switch developers to help optimize the world and the visuals of a flagship Pokemon titles. Let’s not forget that the amazing postgame of Pokémon Gold and Silver was only made possible by the intervention of gaming legend Satoru Iwata. When even Breath of the Wild needed Monolith Soft to “help on graphic design and other artistic elements,” there’s no reason Game Freak should be denied similar resources for the series’ first mainline console game.
But here we are, in a place where Game Freak has seemingly no choice but to cut corners to make deadlines. And judging from translated comments Masuda made to Famitsu, cutting the National Dex was a mid-development decision that he wasn’t happy to make. But objectively speaking, if cuts needed to be made to get the game out on time, then the National Dex is an unfortunately logical choice.
The cold truth about the National Dex.
I won’t mince words: if it weren’t for the controversy surrounding the National Dex in Sword and Shield, the vast majority of players would not care or even notice.
Remember how we said at the top that the National Dex is typically an endgame feature? Studies show that only 10%-20% of gamers actually finish games they purchase. Put another way, 80%-90% of Pokémon players statistically won’t even get to the part of the game where they’d expect to see the National Dex.
Now, even 10% of a game’s playerbase is a big deal, especially when we’re talking the most loyal fans of a mega franchise like Pokémon. But there’s no way this many buyers will boycott the new games over the National Dex. Even if 20% of players boycotted Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, the games would still take the #6 slot of the best selling Switch games list. The social media uproar is a drop in the bucket compared to the overall Pokémon fanbase, and even passionate gamers have a history of buying games they claim to boycott.
Let’s be fair, Sword and Shield will lose sales over this decision. The uproar on social media is damaging the Pokémon brand, and Game Freak will suffer if they don’t fix it. But critics anticipating that the games will lose even 500,000 sales over this are massively overestimating the reach of the outrage here. And as we’ve discussed in thorough detail by now, even restoring the National Dex wouldn’t address the Pokémon community’s grievances.
Fortunately, Game Freak still has the power to make the situation better.
What Game Freak should do to fix things.
With the full severity of the National Dex controversy under our belts – including the many grievances that have nothing to do with the National Dex – what could Game Freak do to make things right?
Above everything else, Game Freak has an image problem right now. Because of the National Dex and the arguably subpar visuals of the game, fans think Game Freak is at best lazy and at worst greedy. When Masuda discussed the reasons for forfeiting the National Dex, he hinted there were “a couple of different parts to the thinking behind it.” If this decision was a result of troubled development, Game Freak isn’t going to say it in an interview.
Game Freak’s biggest crime here is poor communication. During Masuda’s second statement about this controversy on Pokémon.com, he should have reassured fans that their voices were being heard. Even if there are no plans to add extra Pokémon to Sword and Shield post launch, at least acknowledging that fan feedback would be taken into consideration for future titles would go a long way. Heck, imagine if he said “we’re investigating ways to bring all Pokémon into the modern era,” instead of vaguely saying that missing Pokémon could turn up in the future. Even saying how many Pokémon are in Sword and Shield would at least keep fans from spreading baseless speculation as fact.
Even if Game Freak doesn’t currently plan to patch in missing Pokémon, hopefully they’ll listen to the community and add a National Dex to Sword and Shield down the line. In fact, rolling out missing Pokémon over the next year or two would be a great way to keep players engaged with the franchise and keep the Wild Area active. If not that, at least Game Freak could patch in missing Pokémon into Sword and Shield if they do show up in another game later on. Game Freak still has the power to fix this, it’s only a matter of seeing if they’ll do it right.
Where does that leave the fans?
I’ve written 3000 words describing this controversy, yet I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of it. For many Pokémon fans, all of this has been deeply upsetting or just exhausting. And it’s in these times that we should evaluate our responsibility as a community.
Fans can – and should – expect more out of their favorite franchises. Organizing and presenting a constructive push to get the National Dex added back into Sword and Shield is good for everyone. However, this fury has turned to unfettered emotional outrage, which is where the community suffers. Some fans just want to be excited for the new games. Talking about the new trainers and Pokémon before launch is half the fun to Pokémon fans, and derailing all discussions about Sword and Shield into National Dex outrage spoils that joy. Sure, it’s also wrong for fans to argue that Sword and Shield are above reproach. But at the end of the day, the community should be united by a love of Pokémon, not divided by it.
None of the issues listed are any indication that Sword and Shield will be bad games. Heck, I’ve wanted co-op raids for years now, so I’m still crazy excited to play the new games with my friends and family. You should feel free to play and enjoy Sword and Shield if you want to. And conversely, you don’t have to spend money on the new games either. Heck, wait for a sale or buy used if you want to make a statement. As good as it is to fight for better games, these are still games at the end of the day. Games should bring joy to your life, not cause you stress.
And heck, if you want alternative monster collecting games to scratch that Pokémon itch, you’ve got the upcoming Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth, Yokai Watch 4, Shin Megami Tensei 5, and even World of Final Fantasy all on Nintendo Switch. If Pokémon is letting you down, perhaps it’s time to give one of these franchises a shot.
No matter how you feel about Sword and Shield, remember that your fellow fans are people too. The same goes for the developers at Game Freak – the vast majority of whom have nothing to do with the business decision to exclude the National Dex. Hopefully the Pokémon franchise will address this issue in the future, but if not, that’s the way life goes sometimes. Play games that you feel have earned your money, even if the community tells you otherwise. And if we do eventually get the National Dex added back into Pokémon, then hey, that’s a win for all of us.