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Pokémon Sword/Shield: Adorable Starters, Prettier Graphics, Same Gameplay?

The three starter Pokémon for Pokémon Sword and Shield on Nintendo Switch.

This morning, Nintendo hosted a rather short edition of their Nintendo Direct presentations, focused on Pokémon—specifically, the “core” Pokémon titles coming to the Nintendo Switch. It took just over seven minutes to debut the new games, Pokémon Sword and Shield, and even less time for the three predictably adorable starter Pokémon to take over the internet, but underneath it all, the games don’t seem all that new.

As usual, those three include a grass type (Grookey), a fire type (Scorbunny) , and a water type (Sobble), with one of them accompanying you across the game’s new Galar region. (Each of them already has a growing fan club online.) That region looks expansive and detailed like never before, thanks to the fact that this is the first main entry in the franchise to land on a Nintendo home console, albeit still one that doubles as a portable.

The games also feature the return of some Pokémon staples that were missing from the previous Let’s Go spinoff/remake games on the Switch, as well as ones missing from main series games Sun, Moon, Ultra Sun, and Ultra Moon on the 3DS. Pokémon gyms, which were replaced by “trials” in the Sun/Moon generation’s fledgling Pokémon league, are back in Sword/Shield, with the player once again competing to become the champion.

Also returning are random, wild Pokémon battles, which were removed in Let’s Go in favor of finding visible Pokémon wandering the world and catching them without battling, for the most part. For me, this is where the announcement is a bit lacking. We’re entering brand new territory with one of Nintendo’s biggest series finally landing a main entry on a home console, and the only real benefit of that, at this point, appears to be a bit of added graphical detail.

If that’s all you ever wanted from a new Pokémon game, then this is probably great news—not to mention that every few years, there’s a new batch of kids out there who have never played a Pokémon game and won’t care that the series’ gameplay hasn’t changed much in the last 23 years (to the day, since this announcement was made on the series original Japanese release date)—and that’s totally fine. I’m a big fan of the Smash Bros. series, and I certainly look forward to each version without hoping for any kind of revolutionary change to the basic formula. I can’t fault any Pokémon fans who would feel alienated if the gameplay changed more significantly.

But after this much time, I was kind of hoping for something new. The trailer even shows not only the same turn-based battles we’ve been playing for years, but no real change to the presentation of Pokémon in those battles, each standing in their respective corners, with mostly simple animations and graphical effects representing each attack.

Wild Pokémon encounters still involve wading through tall grass without actually seeing any Pokémon until being randomly dragged into a battle. The graphics have gotten an upgrade—particularly in terms of resolution—but the game’s world doesn’t seem to have gotten any more immersive. There’s plenty still to learn about these titles, so there could be some surprises on that front, but if you were hoping for a big leap in the way the world of Pokémon is experienced with the leap from portable to console, it looks like you may be disappointed.

(image: Nintendo)

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