“Let’s Go” for the Pokemon RPG purist: Novelty as a vessel for nostalgia

This is not a video game review; this is a meditation about the nature of our temporal experience. This is about coming to terms with the fact that you can’t enjoy something for the first time more than once, and appreciating the circumstances under which you actually can.

I played Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu recently. I’ll get the mundane out of the way first: I chose Pikachu version over Eevee version because I knew in advance that you couldn’t evolve your starter in these games (I understand this game design choice, but I disagree with it). If I’d known about all the special moves your starter can attain throughout the course of the game, I’d have chosen Eevee. As it was, I ditched my starter Pikachu for an Alolan Raichu mid-game. The inclusion of Alolan forms in this game is representative of what I liked about it. There were enough deviations from the original Yellow version to keep the game from feeling stale, but it was also very, very familiar to me, a person who wore out Pokemon Blue on Game Boy Color and loved Leaf Green on the Game Boy Advance.

I’ve been a Pokemon fan pretty much since the franchise made it to America – but I’ve really only been a fan of the main-series RPGs. I never got deep into the TV show or the spin-off games or the merch – I realized after I’d amassed a respectable card collection that what I loved about Pokemon was the core handheld series gameplay. I’ve enjoyed all the additions and tweaks that each new generation brings, but I’ve also enjoyed the things that stay the same. As the series adds more and more Pokemon, the replay value of each new game increases – more on this in a bit.

As I played through Let’s Go, I was pleasantly surprised by deviations from the originals. But I couldn’t help dwelling on the things that were missing from the game. I found myself comparing my experience of playing this new game with my experience of playing Blue version for the first time. My first night in Blue, I made it all the way to Pewter City in one go – not impressive at all, but that first experience evolved into a ritual for me. With each new Pokemon game, I make a ton of progress the first time I jump in, often staying up late to do it. There’s just something magical about the beginning of the journey with a new squad, it ties back to the way I played Blue the first time. But I didn’t feel compelled to fulfill this ritual in Let’s Go. For all its attempts to recreate the experience of the original Game Boy games, Let’s Go didn’t quite manage it. Why not? Stay tuned.

To be fair, the Let’s Go games are not intended to be main-series installments. But as I said at the top, this is not a video game review, so we don’t care about that. What I find interesting about my own experience with Pokemon games is that I’m constantly comparing new games to older ones and even to particular experiences I had while playing those games. But at the same time, I genuinely enjoy every new main-series game, even if it doesn’t introduce many new concepts or mechanics to the formula. This is unlike the way I experience most other media.

Pokemon games always play familiar enough that memories of the franchise inform your feelings about the game you’re currently playing. But they also have enough novelty to approximate the feeling of playing a game for the first time in the same way that you actually played a previous Pokemon game for the first time. In other words, original Pokemon games actually achieve what every remake tries to do.

In all kinds of media, remakes and reboots fail to realize that part of what we all liked about the original experience of something was the novelty of it. Yes, the content is important, but much of the magic comes from the simple fact that we’re experiencing something for the first time. Generally, this is not something that a remake can capture.

The genius of Pokemon is that, because each game has tons of playable characters, you can replay the exact same story with a new party and get a perfect blend of novelty and nostalgia (I told you earlier that we’d come back to this). Because something about this new playthrough is different, it feels more like the first time, when everything was new and different. It feels more like the first time than an exact replica of the first time ever could. This baked-in replay value is the main reason that remakes of Pokemon games are usually good, and the choice to only include the original 151 monsters in Let’s Go is one of the primary reasons it’s the weakest remake in the series.

This same logic explains why I love Star Wars: The Force Awakens so much. It’s not going to make an appearance in my favorite movie series (currently on hiatus because I’m bad at predicting how long things will take), but A New Hope will, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that the two movies are so closely associated. Watching The Force Awakens for the first time was incredible because it managed to approximate the feeling of watching A New Hope for the first time while also clearly establishing itself as an experience to be emulated in the future.

I don’t think we give enough credit to media that toe the line between nostalgia and originality. Why are there more examples of media that get this wrong than examples of media that get it right? It’s a small target we’re trying to hit – lean too far towards nostalgia and you have Pokemon Let’s Go, and lean too far towards novelty and you have The Last Jedi (assuming your goal is to hit this specific target I’m talking about, which probably was not the case for TLJ – please don’t leave comments about this example).

Of course, novelty as a vessel of nostalgia is not entirely or even mostly relegated to designed media. This is also a powerful force in our analog lives. How many times have you done something again only to have it fall short of the first experience? This post I wrote about returning to Oklahoma chronicles just that.

This concept also came up in my first post about visiting Hawaii, and I think that the quest for novelty specifically to emulate a past experience is a major motivator for travel even if we wouldn’t always use those words.

The reason I’ve dedicated so much space to this seemingly dumb subject is that I believe recognizing originality as a core component of experiences you’ve enjoyed provides a framework for healthy nostalgia. Not nostalgia for its own sake, which leaves you feeling hollow – nostalgia based in understanding of what you actually liked about something, and the realization that often, part of what you liked was novelty. What I’m saying here is that instead of remakes, reboots, and remasters, we need more original core-series Pokemon RPGs. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

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