Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Universe for a Generation

Think about the console video game world in 1997. Although fans of Sony’s Playstation enjoyed core releases Final Fantasy VII and Gran Turismo, which ultimately became the system’s bestselling games, Sony was not a major video game entity until the Playstation 2 in 2000. Likewise, Microsoft’s Xbox would not be available for another four years. Sega saw the coming decline of its console career with the Saturn, released one final successful system, the Dreamcast, the following year, and essentially became the software developer we know of today. That left the gaming behemoth, Nintendo.

By far, Nintendo passed the 1990s as the most successful corporation in gaming. Since the mid-1980s, Nintendo had established itself as the most popular family gaming company. In 1997, the Nintendo had three successful platforms selling effectively--the newer, slimmer Super Nintendo, the updated Game Boy Pocket, and the immensely popular Nintendo 64--with arrival of the Game Boy Color in the queue. It is safe to say no other gaming company could compete with Nintendo, especially in handheld systems.

What could Nintendo possibly do to better themselves? The two best-selling franchises for the corporation were, and still are, the Mario series and the Pokemon series. In 2006, games involving Mario had sold over 185 million copies; Pokemon, 106 million copies. Since then, considering the releases of new consoles and new handhelds, these numbers have skyrocketed even higher.

The sheer amount of these games sold deserves a closer look, though. It may first appear that Mario games simply outsold Pokemon games by some 80 million copies. Keep in mind, however, that Pokemon games hit the market in 1996, fifteen years after Mario premiered in Donkey Kong in 1981, ten years after the release of Super Mario Bros. in 1985. At that rate, the Pokemon franchise sold quicker, moving almost one and a half times as many units per year than Mario. Furthermore, the Pokemon series was limited by the fact that it was sold almost solely on handheld games. Mario had the advantage of having hit games on every console--including handhelds. 

It would seem, then, there was one last project that would seal Nintendo as the greatest video game company in history:  create a Pokemon game for a console.

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Before we begin, let me just say that I have no technical understanding of a Nintendo 64 video game. None. It might have been totally impossible to create a game of such scale on a cartridge. Maybe the random encounters would have been too much for the system to handle. It is possible the region of Kanto would have been severely compromised by the technical limitations of the machine. And I can accept that. But I can dream, right?1

Of course, some Pokemon games were released on the N64, although they were “Pokemon” by name only. They were more just scaled down certain aspects of the original games. (Anyone up for some Pokemon Puzzle League?) And Snap was fun for plenty of reasons other than its adherence to the Pokemon universe. Having the sprawling region was probably possible on later consoles, but I’m really only concerned here with the late 1990s.

Another factor that I’m choosing not to take into consideration is the financial possibilities of the project. Maybe it was just not feasible to put a development team on such a massive undertaking. Or perhaps no one could have predicted the popularity of Pokemon at that time that it should have merited a full-scale world, causing publishers to back down. I’m no economics student, but when I look at the numbers retrospectively, I think Pokemon 64 (as I’ve affectionately taken to calling it) would have made a lot of money. That’s my expert opinion.

At any rate, here’s what I would have liked. Imagine Ash Ketchum rolling out of bed late, missing an appointment with one Professor Oak, only to be embarrassed by your mother while you get stuck with an annoyingly cute electric mouse. Sound familiar? As you know, this was the start of the anime series. An effective origin, but one that was lost in the original games for the Game Boy. The beginning to the Red/Blue amounts to little more than being gifted a free Pokemon for wandering into grass. Now imagine yourself playing as this character in a fully colored, three dimensional world.

In my mind, I have an image sort of like the beginning to Ocarina of Time. Even the story is somewhat similar for the first few minutes: lazy boy has to run around Kokiri Forest/Pallet Town equipping the tools necessary to set out on a long and arduous journey. After the opening trials, you, the player, would be off. Remember “That Moment” when you first walk out onto the sprawling Hyrule Field as the music soars? It could have been the same in Kanto.

I realize at this point it just sound like a fanboy’s wishful thinking for the impossible. But it’s true! This hypothetical game has such unbelievable potential, and so far, nothing seems out of the realm of possibility. In this analogy, Pokemon Red/Blue would be the series’ equivalent to Link’s Awakening.2 Assume an alternate universe in which a three-dimensional Zelda game was never made but Pokemon 64 existed. You could just as easily make the argument the opposite direction. And who wants to live in a world without a 3D Zelda game?

Onto the actual gameplay. Specifically: random encounters and turn based battles. Random encounters had been around for several years (Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, etc.), but were still relatively new to 3D games. One reason the random encounters worked so well in Red/Blue was the fact that there were certain areas where you could expect to find encounters and certain areas where they were not possible. This could easily work in a 3D game. I can almost transpose it in my mind. If I close my eyes, I can picture my TV screen displaying Ash running through grass and the screen freezing and flashing, signalling a random encounter. 

Another quality I liked about the Pokemon series was the fact that areas were limited to smaller sizes. It was kind of necessary to account for the handheld devices. The game had the feel of a large world, but not an open world. I would like to think that if ported to a console, the size of the area would increase slightly, though not too much. Sure, it would be exhausting to traverse such a large area without some sort of boundaries, so there could even be a system for fast travel, for when your Pidgeotto learns Fly. Why not?

Finally, there was the turn-based battle system. The core mechanic to every Pokemon game (or any JRPG, for that matter) was the alternating style of attack and defense. Fortunately, this part was already done! Pokemon Stadium, which actually showed up on the Nintendo 64 twice, featured such battle arenas as its main game.3 Long battles--however intense--bordered on tedious in Red/Blue, yet it was enough to make two entire games on the Nintendo 64. Logically, that should prove how profitable the fictional Pokemon 64 could have been.

I don’t know. Maybe the game would have been terrible. Maybe it would have ruined the franchise. I mean, the early 3D Castlevania games weren’t great. But when I think of the list of successes (Super Mario World to Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong Country to Donkey Kong 64, Super Metroid to Metroid Prime, etc.), I can’t help but wonder. If you’re interested enough, you can find mods that effectively run the game I’ve imagined on your computer. They seem to be quite popular, too. But they just can’t recapture the nostalgia.

1 Also noticeably absent is a Metroid game for the Nintendo 64. What happened between Super Metroid and Metroid Prime? Oh well. That’s a different question for a different day.
2 To be clear: many people, myself included, think Link’s Awakening was an excellent game.
3 And some really bitchin’ mini-games!