Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Pokémon Sword and Shield sell sports star mystique better than any Madden game

Image: The Pokémon Company

There’s no shortage of video games falling all over themselves to tell you how special you are. As a medium built, like no other, on direct audience participation, gaming has a vested interest in making you, the consumer, feel like the Special Chosen One Person Of Destiny, a hybrid of Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Tony Stark—a humble superhero genius who just happens to hold the fate of billions in their hands. There are exceptions, of course, with “Video games that want you to know what a huge piece of shit you are” having been a fairly recent addition to the medium’s artistic repertoire. But for the most part, it’s the rule, even when it descends into absurdity with massively multiplayer games like World Of Warcraft, which constantly reassure you that you’re very special, just like all your thousands of friends.

The Pokémon games have always had a weird relationship with this sort of baked-in power fantasy. It’s the rare franchise that (almost) always starts with the player as an actual child, a direct stand-in for either the person holding the controller, or at least their former, more innocent selves. Under their players’ ball-chucking guidance, these obsessive youths slowly embark on quests that typically culminate in becoming both the savior of the planet, and its most celebrated sporting star. And yet, despite the fact that you typically end each game as tween LeBron Jesus, most of the games in the Pokémon series fail to fully acknowledge your newfound superstar status, even though they exist in a universe where the people who do not mention the ubiquitous magical creatures every time you talk to them could exist on the fingers of one extremely out of touch hand.

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The franchise’s latest installments, Sword and Shield, come equipped with the usual slate of refinements to the series’ well-tested formula, complete with ever-more convenient fast-travel options, numerous quality of life improvements across the board, and even a wilderness zone that slaps a dollop of trendy roguelike mechanics on top of the series’ classic fare. Combined with the usual addition of almost criminally charming new monsters (and adorable, Britished-up versions of some of the classics), it does pretty much exactly what you might want out of a new main series Pokémon game: More of the same—but now on Nintendo’s endlessly convenient Switch.

Image: The Pokémon Company

But the most interesting thing about this latest duology is how it plays into the series’ long-present sports star metaphor, amping it up to the point where it can actually hit you square in the feelings, like a soccer ball aimed directly at the gut. Sword and Shield’s version of Pokémon battle fandom is transparently lifted from British football culture, complete with rowdy hooligans, cheering crowds, and lush green playing fields that somehow remain pristine even as lightning-powered rats and flame-wielding rabbits battle it out on top of them. Your main character’s rival is even the little brother of the Galar region’s absurdly cape-wearing champion, the equivalent of growing up next door to the captain of your favorite football club, playing keepie-uppie with him whenever he’s not out on the road. (The addition of small backyard practice battle arenas in people’s homes around the country is another nice little touch.)

But the extent of the games’ approach to your future sports ascension doesn’t become fully clear until you’ve made the long and winding trip to its brick-covered London equivalent, where you’re asked to suit up in a crisp, numbered uniform and participate in a welcoming ceremony for the annual League competition. The accompanying cutscene has a mundane function in terms of the game’s pacing, introducing you to each of the Gym leaders you’ll spend the next several hours tracking down and beating up to get your all-important badges. But it also emphasizes the celebrity and splendor of the culture you’re opting into, with crowds gamely cheering you the way they might root on a group of prospective Little League champions. The feeling only deepens once the ceremony ends and you emerge back out onto the road—where crowds of well-wishers have gathered to yell encouragement as you set out on your world tour/religious pilgrimage to each of the region’s gyms. It’s emotionally affecting in a way that Pokémon games typically aren’t; not just congratulatory, but also supportive, in a way that acknowledges that while you’re not a star just yet, you could be some day.

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That feeling of rising superstardom is emphasized by another of Sword and Shield’s clever elements: League Cards, which allow players to fulfill their childhood fantasy of having a rectangle of celebratory Topps cardboard of their very own, listing off accomplishments, and redolent with the scent of decades-old dried gum. Past Pokémon games tried to capture these same feelings by letting you cut glorified wrestling promos with your favorite ’mons, but the process was typically tedious, slow, and given to creating amateur horror movies more often than flashy highlight reels. The new system—which allows you to both collect the cards of in-game celebrity NPCs, as well as trade your own with people you play with online—boils the appeal of having a League Card down to its basics; it’s also one more way the game sells its rising-star narrative.

To be fair, this isn’t exactly new territory for gaming. Sports simulators like Madden and NBA 2k have been selling career modes on the backs of this “YOU are the STAR!” treatment for years. But those franchises also inevitably turn into, well, sports games: Team endeavors in which your carefully crafted avatar becomes just another set of stats and number in a play. But even as you swap in and out the monsters doing all the actual work with mercenary disdain, Pokémon never stops being your story, a ground-level account of (forcing others to help you in) overcoming adversity, carving out a reputation, a skill set, and, ultimately a place at the top of the pile. Pokémon has always been powered by the drive to make yourself a champion, to catch them all and reign supreme. Sword and Shield are the first games in the series to realize the potential of making you a star.

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