I recently got my hands on Pokemon Legends Arceus after a busy start to the year and I was immediately amazed at how we didn’t get this game 10 years ago. Pokemon, since its inception as a franchise in 1996, has primarily been a top down turn-based RPG that rarely allowed players to stray beyond a predetermined linear path as they journeyed through the region defeating gym leaders on their path to challenge the elite four and become Pokemon champion. In the 90s, this premise was novel. And even in subsequent games decades later, it’s still somewhat fun. But even without being completely open world, Legends Arceus gives us a taste of the massive potential of open world Pokemon.
Legends Arceus makes only small steps forward as a franchise, but even these small departures are frankly revolutionary compared to what we would see changed from sequel to sequel. Catching pokemon is actually fun now. Who would’ve thought that it’s actually more engaging to aim and throw a pokeball yourself rather than simply pressing a button on a static screen? But most importantly, being able to explore in 3D open areas is the franchise’s best attempt at capturing what it should feel like to go off on your own Pokemon adventure.
While Legends Arceus isn't completely open world, each of the seven regions give players a ton to explore
What this got me thinking about, is Nintendo’s recent trends as a gaming company. Zelda began on the NES as one of the first “open world games”, handing players a sword and then providing practically no direction. You were in charge of figuring out your own fun. But with each subsequent release, linearity was prioritized, culminating in Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, both of which take linear design to the extreme. But then came Breath of the Wild. This gave us a massive open world to explore with no guardrails. While this was a departure for the series, any future sequel not following in its footsteps would feel like a serious disappointment and step backwards for the series. Breath of the Wild recaptured what made Zelda great in 1986, and I think Pokemon Legends Arceus is a good step in the right direction in bottling what all made us excited about the property decades ago.
Skyward Sword was the most linear Zelda to date, a trend that was reversed in 2017 by Breath of the Wild
What concerns me is whether or not GameFreak feels incentivized to commit to this. “Breath of the Wild but with Pokemon” is easy to talk about, but in reality is an incredibly ambitious undertaking. Pokemon is the biggest video game brand on the market, and while of course a huge open world Pokemon game would sell like hot cakes, so would basically any title released with the Pokemon branding. Looking at this from a sales perspective, Legends Arcues sold 6.5 million in its first month, compared to 6 million sales for Pokemon Sword and Shield. I’m not sure if Nintendo will feel like this difference warrants a permanent change from the safe, established formula, and this isn’t even counting the even greater effort that would be necessary to create a similar game with graphics befitting the current year and console generation. I like Arceus, but honestly the visuals and level design are woefully lacking considering this the biggest video game property in the world. Hopefully Nintendo will commit to this vision, because there’s real potential here.
Nintendo has shown throughout the years that it can deliver on industry shifting experiences, but with every established IP, playing it safe is often more lucrative and less likely to upset the core fanbase. Here’s hoping that Pokemon Legends Arceus is the beginning of a new chapter for the series, and will soon realize the potential that we all dreamed about years ago in delivering a worthwhile Pokemon adventure.