I never gave Pokemon Red/Blue the time of day upon its original release in the 90s. As an overly-conscious teenager, I perceived myself as being too grown up and mature for a kids game. This perception was only amplified by the fact that my little brother was obsessed with Pokemon at the time. I tried his copy of Pokemon Blue for a few hours just to see what the hype was about, but I dismissed it far too soon.
Many years after the fact, Pokemon X would be my gateway to the franchise. From there, Pokemon Go was the game that made me a fan. Though I’ve technically been to Kanto before, Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu/Let’s Go Eevee is the first time I’m visiting the region with an open mind and open heart.
Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu/Let’s Go Eevee is billed as being a quasi-remake of Pokemon Yellow. You take on the role of an aspiring Pokemon trainer living in Kanto region, who aims to be the very best, like no one ever was. You’ll explore the world, collecting new Pokemon, battling other trainers, before eventually testing your chops against the best. This plays out as an RPG, more or less like any other mainline game in the series.
If you’ve played the originals before, there’s a lot of new wrinkles to this particular iteration of the game. No longer tied to ancient hardware, Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu/Let’s Go Eevee brings the action to life with a level of visual fidelity that the franchise has never seen. It’s a step up from the latest iterations of the franchise on the 3DS and light years beyond what was first shown on the Gameboy. Getting to see these Pokemon rendered and animated in this level of detail is a real treat. Additional camera angles that switch during scenes also go a long way towards giving the game an extra level of punch in its presentation. It won’t win any awards for graphics or art direction, but for a franchise that’s largely lived on portable hardware, seeing it brought to life with modern visuals is a treat.
Furthermore, your starter Pokemon plays a larger role in the experience. Unlike in previous iterations, your starter is determined by which copy of the game you own. If you buy the Pikachu version, you start with the electric mouse. Similarly, buying Eevee gets you the shape-shifting fox.
Though being limited in your starter selection may be disappointing to series veterans, the game is designed in such a way to help you develop a closer bond between you and your starter. This time around, Pikachu and Eevee will walk alongside of you throughout the adventure. The cutscenes are tuned to more prominently feature you and your starter together. You can play, pet, and feed them. They learn special abilities that allow you to traverse new areas of the map. You can even dress your Pokemon and your trainer in matching outfits. Having all of this in place brings the experience closer to what Ash and Pikachu have in the cartoon, which is a huge plus.
Other Pokemon get a chance to shine in a different way. You can choose one of the Pokemon in your party to travel outside of their Pokeball with you, which leads to some neat results. Your trainer will sit on the shoulder of Kangaskhan as it stomps about, or sit on Onix’s back as it slides across the map. I like this a lot better than the interaction system in Pokemon Sun and Moon where you were constantly petting and feeding every Pokemon in your party just to keep their stats up.
Once you hit the road, you’ll encounter the biggest change to the game’s structure. While you will still square off against other trainers in traditional turn-based Pokemon battles, you interact with wild Pokemon in a completely different manner. Random encounters have been completely removed, which is a godsend. Instead, the Pokemon roam the world in plain view, allowing you to engage at your leisure. Really hope this becomes standard issue going forward, as it greatly reduces the grind while also making the game world feel more true-to-life.
When you engage with a wild Pokemon, you no longer fight them. Instead, you take part in a catching mini-game where you throw Pokeballs at the critters in hopes of catching them. Yes, this is very similar to how catching works in Pokemon Go. As someone who has played a few of the mainline games, but is a religious Pokemon Go player, I generally enjoy the change. It feels familiar to me, while adding variety to the action.
Where it falters is in its controls. Using a Joy-Con controller, I found the motion controls for throwing the ball to the side to be problematic at best. It’s really difficult to throw to the side, as I never developed an understanding of how the game wants me to move in order to throw to the side. Catching Pokemon is a much more pleasant experience in portable mode, where you tilt the console to aim and press a button to throw.
There are some other gameplay considerations where the new catching mechanic creates new problems. You will find lots of opponents to fight in the world, but they’re a finite resource. If your goal is to simply beat the game, there’s enough competition to battle with. That said, Pokemon battles are now a finite resource. If you’re trying to create a fully-maxed out team, you may run out of opposition before you get there. At that point, all you can do is grind out the catching game, which probably will wear thin more quickly than battling wild Pokemon would have. For my purposes, I still think there’s more good than bad by adding Pokemon Go style catching to the game.
In the heart of battle, Let’s Go Pikachu/Let’s Go Eevee largely take you back to the basics. You get to see the Gen 1 Pokemon clash with graphics that look better than ever. However, I do miss having the much larger roster of Pokemon at the ready, even if this game includes the Alolan forms of Gen 1 Pokemon that made their debut in Sun and Moon. Z-Moves from the newer games are also excluded, but I don’t miss those at all. A minor tidbit that does irk me is that the menus don’t tell you which moves will be super effective or not effective. Sure, they didn’t back then, either, but the newer games did and it was a handy way of assessing the situation without having to memorize all of the strengths and weaknesses. This new game goes out of its way to incorporate new elements into this old template, so it’s odd that this one menu element was omitted.
It’s a pleasant solo experience. It was my first time through Kanto, and while the story is not as involved as the ones found in later games, it felt good to experience some of the major touchstones that I was familiar with from the early days of the cartoon. As a multiplayer experience, it’s a bit shaky.
New to the series is local drop-in-drop-out co-op. Two players can play together, but there are a myriad of gotchas that stop it from being as good as it could have been. The second player only acts as a guest to the main account, meaning that they don’t access to their own Pokemon if they have a separate account. Furthermore, combat and catching aren’t balanced for co-op play. In particular, co-op fights mostly become two-on-one affairs, making everything a pushover. I can see this mode being great for parents playing with kids, but it’s more of a novelty the cooperative dream that it could have been.
Online play is a staple of the franchise, but it’s clunky. There’s no easy way to match up with friends, as you can’t simply connect with one-another. Instead, you have to agree on a three-digit PIN code outside of the game, enter it at the same time, and hope no one else is using the same code. On top of that, can’t build a team once you’ve connected with another opponent. Instead, you get a choice of your current party, or what appears to be six random Pokemon from your box. Having to manage that outside of matchmaking is a huge pain. If I didn’t enjoy battling with friends so much, I probably wouldn’t bother.
To dismiss Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu/Let’s Go Eevee as a rehash of Gen 1 or for not being the true successor to Pokemon Sun and Moon is selling this game short. Granted, there are some quirks in the experience that stop it from being the best it can be, but it does a lot to breathe new life into the original Kanto story and largely succeeds. It’s a pretty good first effort for the franchise on the Switch and I hope to see the franchise really shine with the true sequel set for release next year!