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Bulbagraphic:Is Pokémon Best left to our Imaginations?

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Is Pokémon Best left to our Imaginations?
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  • Wednesday, October 19, 2011

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If you've been anywhere near the Pokémon fandom, you've more than likely run into a certain type of fan. This type of fan loves Pokémon so much, so completely, so entirely, that they could talk your ear off about Pokémon. But wait, they only love the first Generation. And maybe the second. They don't care much for anything after that; all you Johnny-come-latelies who like the other three generations that masquerade as Pokémon are simply ignorant of the greatness the franchise used to have. Over 600 Pokémon? With 3D graphics? And WiFi? Screw that! Real Pokémon is enjoyed with 151/251 Pokémon, a link cable, and pixels the size of small children!

The best Pokémon game?

This perception is (mostly) a caricature, of course, but it doesn't help the case for Gen I/II in the "Which Generation is the Best?" debate. It arguably leads a the other parts of the fandom to assert that the only people who like Generations I and II are complacent brats who can't get over their own nostalgia-fueled bias. Surely, if these people had any sense, they would see that, given the clear technical superiority of the later generations, the first two generations hold up about as well as a generic '50s sci-fi movie. There is clearly no reason to extract substantial enjoyment from these games for any reason other than a quick nostalgia hit.

This supposition, on an objective level, makes sense. The first two Generations are indeed archaic when compared to their successors, and are laced with a good number of technical issues (especially Gen I). However, on a subjective level, the supposition is completely false, and not just because opinions vary from person to person. There is exactly one thing that Gens I and II will always do better than their successors (assuming the games keep progressing in the way that they have been), and they will do this better to such a degree that they will continually make their successors look increasingly pathetic.

That one thing? Impressionism.

When I say this, I am not specifically referring to the style of painting; I am referring to a style that gives an impression (that is, a vague concept open to interpretation), rather than an explicit picture. This style tends to create a much more intimate, personal experience for the consumer, as they are free to assign whatever interpretation they choose to their art of choice.

In 2006, GamePro magazine ran one of those workmanlike “"Top 50 X EVER!" lists, titled “"The 55 Greatest Moments in Gaming". This list had all the moments you might expect: the revelation of Samus' true gender, the first time getting a fatality in Mortal Kombat, the death of Aerith/Aeris in FFVII, etc. The majority of the console games covered were from the NES era onward, which made sense; it was only during and after that era that games consistently possessed the capacity to be more than a collection of moving pixels on a screen. There were three Atari 2600 games featured in the list, however: Adventure (which predictably warranted inclusion for the legendary "“Hidden Credits Room"), Pitfall, and, much more surprisingly, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Their reasoning behind this choice?

Should we sneer at these graphics?

“While most of today's gamers will sneer at the ancient graphics, they were part of the game's abstract charm. Finding the Ark of the Covenant in the pixelated dunes took place more in the imagination of the player than it did onscreen, making the experience of winning all the more potent and memorable."

When I first read this, I could understand the reasoning, but didn't feel as though I could relate to it. Years later, I realized that this was why, even though I thoroughly enjoyed FRLG and HGSS, they didn't seem fun in the same way that the originals were. Sure, there was some potent nostalgia involved, but that didn't make me like the games any more than I already did; if anything, the nostalgia made them seem emptier.

Is there more than meets the eye?

What made the remakes relatively unsatisfactory was, ironically, one of the biggest reasons for remaking them: the improved graphics. Ever since RSE, the Pokémon series has featured trees that look like trees, water that looks like water, and sprites that actually resemble the Pokémon they are supposed to represent. This is a good thing for the series as a whole. But part of the reason the first two generations were enjoyable was because the crude graphics forced the player to create their own images of the Pokémon world. The game couldn't offer a satisfactory image of your Charizard Fire Spinning the snot out of Lorelei's Jynx, so you were forced to - intentionally or not, consciously or not - imagine what that might look like. The lack of detail in the NPCs and environments provided numerous canvases onto which the player could project their ideas of what the Pokémon world should be. It also didn't hurt that the anime and manga had provided much more detailed illustrations of the world, giving the player an idea of what the Pokémon world probably was like (again, ending sentences in prepositions). What happened when Brock's Onix went down at the hands of your Squirtle, and it appeared to simply sink into the ether? Did it flail as it fell to the ground? Did it fly apart, as it did in Adventures/Special? Was Erika's Gym a dense jungle, or a tranquil meadow? Pallet Town was surely more than two houses and Oak's Lab, but was it a self-contained, secluded village, or closer to the spacious, rural community shown in the anime? The possibilities within the player's mind were endless.

The reason every generation from III onward couldn't compete in this department was that the graphics were too good. They provided just enough detail to severely cripple the player's ability to weave their imagination through them. Forests became loose collectives of trees, towns became buildings, etc. Granted, this gives them the advantage of being more expressionistic, meaning that they can create a greater degree of specificity; the towns of Unova are a superb example of this. If Game Freak can create environments this beautiful and detailed, I see no reason for them to go back to making 8-bit games. But there's a reason Bill Watterson never told us what the Noodle Incident was: it would always seem better in our heads.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to visit Cerulean Cave. I imagine it's very creepy.