It seems like a lifetime since summer 2016, when legions of people staring at smartphones wandered around parks and city streets hoping to catch and battle colorful Pokémon monsters.
The game, Pokémon Go, became the top mobile gaming app — and a cultural phenomenon that led to news headlines worldwide. While interest in it has since ebbed, the app still ranks among the top 10 mobile games.
Two years later, Game Freak, the Pokémon franchise’s primary developer, hopes to recapture the buzz on a larger scale — and a larger screen. On Nov. 16, the company plans to debut Pokémon: Let’s Go Pikachu! and Eevee! on the Nintendo Switch game console.
The new game is a big risk for Game Freak, which created the first Pokémon installment, Pokémon Red and Blue, in 1996. Unlike Pokémon Go, which exploded in popularity on smartphones, the company’s new game will be played on TV screens.
The shift to a bigger screen size is part of Game Freak’s effort to appeal to new fans. But it must avoid alienating existing fans who have been playing Pokémon long before the app caught on.
Mat Piscatella, an analyst with market research company NPD Group, noted that another stumbling block could be the new game’s $60 price tag (or $100 for players who also buy the Poké Ball Plus accessory that can be used in the game). The Switch alone is $300. In contrast, Pokémon Go players can pay nothing, creating a huge pool of potential players.
“That’s the huge question because the price of entry is not small,” Piscatella says. “A Switch and Pokémon: Let’s Go—that’s a pretty serious investment. That’s a big ask, we’ll have to wait and see.”
How Pokémon Go inspired this latest installment is easy to spot. In Pokémon Go, players swiped forward to throw pokéballs, devices that catch and store the virtual creatures, at a pokémon. In Let’s Go, players make a throwing motion with their controller or Poké Ball Plus to throw the pokéball. It’s not exactly the same, but close.
Some of the game playing style also harkens back to Pokémon Go. For instance, players in both games can only catch pokémon found in the wild rather than fighting them.
Junichi Masuda, one of Game Freak’s founders and director of Pokémon: Let’s Go, confirmed that the similar titles of Pokémon Go and Pokémon: Let’s Go are intentional as a way signal the connection between the two games. What’s less obvious are how developers designed Let’s Go for larger HD televisions and to appeal to new players by making the game’s controls as simple as possible.
“I think the biggest standard that we impose on ourselves is whether or not the feature or function is really intuitive or easy to understand,” explained Masuda, who recently announced that this is likely the last main Pokémon title that he’ll direct.
Fans are most attached to the original lineup of 151 pokémon — there are now seven generations — that appeared in early games Red, Blue, and Yellow. The hardware limitations of the era forced his team to keep the designs and names simple, which he now says helped make the pokémon recognizable and memorable.
“It was kind of four-tone monochrome graphics,” Masuda says. “You could use about four colors and the pixels were very big, so you couldn’t do a whole lot with each individual sprite. They were forced to really keep it very simple.”
Despite the developers’ hopes for Let’s Go, many of the franchise’s fans were skeptical when details about it were announced in May. Some complained that it was too similar to Pokémon Go, too different from the games the company is known for, and too easy.
Despite the complaints, Let’s Go is challenging to play, Masuda insisted.
The team leaders at Game Freak who developed Let’s Go are longtime fans of the original Pokémon games, says Kensaku Nabana, lead environment designer for Pokémon: Let’s Go. He recalled their shared childhood memories and love of Pikachu and Eevee, pokémon who were introduced in the first games and that are featured in the new installment.
“So we poured all of that into these games, and I think other fans of the series will really find that very appealing,” Nabana said.
It could be easy to write Let’s Go off as merely a side game in a massive lineup of dozens stretching back to 1996, but it provides a look at where the future of Pokémon lies.
Masuda noted that his company will continue to add new features like augmented reality and motion controls. The hope is that younger fans who play Let’s Go will buy future and still undeveloped titles.
“There’s no question that Pokémon is one of the biggest brands in entertainment,” Piscatella, the analyst, says. “I’m sure they’ll continue to be a very successful franchise, but it’s going to be interesting to watch how the two-pronged strategy [appealing to both new and old fans] works.”