One of the most interesting things about entertainment in 2018 is the evolution of the reboot. So many movies, TV shows and other forms of entertainment have been revived almost exclusively for nostalgia’s sake. Every television show that gained even a hint of a cult following in the 90s feels like it’s coming back to network television. But as Halloween (2018) showed, not every one of these properties have to directly follow the original, and some of them can even be good.
In a very strange sense, Let’s Go Pikachu is the Halloween version a video game reboot in 2018. The Nintendo Switch title dropped alongside Let’s Go Eevee in mid-November and brings the iconic Game Freak RPG onto Nintendo’s hybrid console. While it’s not an altogether new journey, it does have some interesting quirks that make it something unique.
But first, let’s make this clear: If you’ve played Pokemon Red or Blue, you’ve played this game before. The first 151 Pokemon are there. You walk through Saffron City and need the Sliph Scope to see ghosts in Pokemon Tower. The same general arc of the RPG you fell in love with alongside Dominik Hasek and the 1999 Buffalo Sabres is back. OK, so maybe that last part was just me.
Still, it’s not a port. This is Pokemon Red if it were made in 2018, which includes modern graphics and animation and a much different feel than when the game first arrived stateside in 1998. Nintendo has done this before with FireRed and LeafGreen — which were essentially remakes of Red and Blue with some updates and minor tweaks. But the mood is different and, quite frankly, the game is more fun to play on the Nintendo Switch.
There are some callbacks to the original Red and Blue — a Youngster trainer still talks about how much he likes wearing shorts, the Lass trainers all have cute Pokemon, and yes, you have a rival you can name after your best frenemy. But your rival is, gasp, nice to you. You work together to take down Team Rocket, they’ll give you potions and, oh, while you’re here let’s battle to see how you’ve been treating your Pokemon friends. My Eevee evolved into a Jolteon. That’s cool, right?
“What happened to Blue?” you might wonder, but then he actually shows up, an adult talking like the jerk you remember from back in the day and you realize that this is a story taking place a few decades after you first saved your Master Ball to catch MewTwo. Sometimes things are the same, sometimes Team Rocket double teams you and you get to use two Pokemon at once. Sometimes you have to pet your Pikachu a few times and shake the Switch controller so he provides a boost to your other party members in a key battle. Life is weird in 2018, but we’re all trying our best.
It’s far from perfect. The fixed camera means wandering behind things you can’t pivot your view around and buildings that don’t become semi transparent. The catching system — which except in rare circumstances eschews weakening wild Pokemon through battles for the Pokemon Go-style of using berries and tossing a ball at a glowing circle — simply isn’t as satisfying from an RPG standpoint. Using a single Switch remote, you can actually throw the ball and follow the Pokemon on the screen, which is a fun use of the technology and a sacrifice of strategy in a number of ways. Clicking down on the joystick to press A can lead to accidental move selections when you somehow press down and click all at once.
But the option to put your Switch in the dock, remove one controller and play on your TV while laying on a couch or in bed is extremely appealing. The controls are simple enough that you can basically multitask while you battle pocket monsters, if you wanted to, and the mobility that made Pokemon wildly popular on every Game Boy ever produced is still basically there. Pokemon looks good on the Switch. It feels right at home, with or without the bonus peripherals.
On the other hand, some of the weird quirks of the original RPG are cleaned up here, too. Your Pikachu (or, presumably, Eevee) is resourceful enough to learn all the techniques like Cut and Swim you need to get around, which means HMs are a thing of the past. Players can learn a lot more information about the moves Pokemon try to learn as they level up so you don’t get stuck with a bunch of fun-sounding but not very useful support moves. Your bag is organized with different pockets for medicine and so on, and not needing a computer at a Pokemon Center to switch members of your party is a welcome change from the long trudge back to a city when the Pokemon you thought would be strong gets immediately shelled.
Overall, the game seems a bit too easy, especially in the beginning. But Pokemon has always been a game of strengths and weaknesses, and maybe I just have a good memory for what beats ghosts after a few decades. Battle animations are fun and unique for different Pokemon, and there’s real care taken there to make spamming the same attacks at least visually intriguing. Trust me, the first time you see a Machop do a seismic toss and throw a Pokemon so far into the air you can see Earth in the background is laugh-out-loud hilarious. That alone might be worth teaching someone in your party the TM you get for beating the Ace Trainer.
It could be argued that all of this is essentially window dressing for the story you’ve almost certainly paid to play at one point in your life. Put it all together, though, and it certainly seems worth playing again, plus there’s an entire generation of gamers who will get one of the Let’s Go games as a first foray into Pokemon, and they’ll be getting a worthy title to start with. As I stunk hours into Let’s Go Pikachu to get to Saffron City to explore the Pokemon Go connectivity (it’s fine, but feels tacked on more than a distinct portion of the game at first blush) I think I realized what was truly enjoyable about the game.
So many of the Big Games in 2018 are incredibly serious titles. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a revelation in modern gaming, and it will keep you occupied for hours as you grapple with morality in the dying Wild West. Fallout 76 explores retro-futurism in the apocalypse that seems increasingly more likely as our longest year on record trudges on. Let’s Go Pikachu, meanwhile, is so far away from those things in a very good way. It’s adorable, first and foremost, and a return trip to a simpler world many of us first experienced when the real world also felt similarly uncomplicated.
There are surprising moments of joy in this trip through Kanto that can’t be found in the original, and many show up when your character’s dialogue expressly roots for and encourages your Pokemon. It’s all fairly basic stuff, but with Pikachu, there’s a bit more going on. At one point my Pikachu was fighting against a Tangela, who attempted to use Sleep Powder. Because I had recently “played” with Pikachu, my “yell” made him get out of the way in time. A heart formed above Pikachu’s head and, for a moment, I melted. Later, when Pikachu decimates a Squirtle with Zippy Zap, your trainer says he “knew” that Pikachu could do it. Pikachu turns back to the camera ever so slightly and gives a brief, satisfied smile in response to the encouragement. Even behind ridiculous 80s sunglasses or a Team Rocket outfit, Pikachu looking back and giving that smile always seemed to make me smile in return.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, there’s bonding with a horse with extremely realistic anatomy that you can name “Jeff” or, uh, literally anything you want. In Let’s Go Pikachu, though, there’s a virtual Pikachu, your Pikachu, appreciating that you’ve always believed in them, even after all these years.