With so many rumours circulating about the first Pokemon game for the Nintendo Switch its become one of E3’s most anticipated titles. Pokemon has an uncertain history when it comes to spin-offs, which is why everyone was much relieved when GameFreak announced that this would be an RPG. Or rather, they were relieved, until a title of of Pokemon Let’s Go: Pikachu/Eevee edition was ‘leaked’ and details like Pokemon Go integration resulted in a knee-jerk reaction that can be read in comments sections across the internet. Even if Pokemon Switch is a huge departure from previous handheld entries, there’s still no reason to despair. The Gamecube saw the release of two unconventional Pokemon RPGs, Pokemon Colosseum and Pokemon XD: Gale of Darkness, which have merits even the main series sometimes lacks.
Both of these Gamecube Pokemon titles share a lot of common. They are both set in the Orre region, with many of the same locations revisited (or recycled) in the sequel. Graphics and gameplay wise there is no real difference between them. The limitations of the games replay value are impacted by this: they’re slow. The chief novelty of both games were ‘3D’ Pokemon battles during a time when the main series was still using 2D sprites. While the Pokemon models are by no means bad, they no longer justify the price of admission. With Pokemon Go being very popular but with a very basic combat system there seems huge possibilities for a game like Pokemon Let’s Go to interact with ‘mon in new ways. Pokemon Colosseum does actually have a lot more to offer.
The Gamecube Pokemon RPGs have a much more serious tone. The Orre region itself is largely desert-like landscape and, mostly, devoid of wild Pokemon. There are wild Pokemon ‘hot spots’ in Gale of Darkness, but this was a cumbersome and unnecessary addition. Instead, most Pokemon you capture are stolen from other trainers. The first game does a better job of setting this up. You control Wes, who looks substantially older than most Pokemon protagonists. Wes is a former member of Team Snagem, a group of Pokemon snatchers, who has seemingly reformed. Wes teams up with Rui to identify and capture ‘shadow Pokemon’ from their trainers: Pokemon who have had their hearts closed in an effort to make them stronger. Michael, the lead character in Gale of Darkness, is a return to the boy-heroes of the handhelds, and primarily rescues shadow Pokemon from the villainous Cipher. The game’s failure to recreate the series’ usual open worlds and capturing mechanics was a major disappointment to many at the time, but in hindsight this is what sets the games apart and makes them worth revisiting. If Pokemon Switch does turn out to be Pokemon Let’s Go and if that turns out to be something unusual or even baffling its sure to have unique features and charms.
Pokemon XD: Gale of Darkness is hard. Not brutally: like any Pokemon game leveling and training can help you overcome any obstacle, but the game’s different approach severely limits your options in ways that make it reminiscent of a Nuzlocke run. Firstly, as there are no wild Pokemon or routes to travel down you have a vastly reduced amount of Pokemon to capture. Add in to this the fact you can only capture specific ‘shadow’ Pokemon and you’re left comprising a team of whatever you come across and making the best of it. The lack of wild Pokemon is also a contributing factor to the game’s experience curve. You’ll find yourself progressing through areas battling every trainer only to find the strength of your opponents growing faster than your own team. There are places to train, Mt. Battle is a gauntlet of 100 trainers of increasing strength you can dip in and out of or repeat as needed, but this is feels far more like grinding than backtracking down a route to catch more Pokemon or getting lost in a cave. This is where you’ll also be irritated by just how slow moving the battling can feel. Combine this with the fact you need to capture Pokemon mid-battle and you’ll realise why these games are so satisfying: they offer up a challenge that the more recent 3DS entries have not come close to. Trying to lower the HP of strong Pokemon during a boss encounter makes capturing many of the later-game shadow Pokemon feel like capturing a legendary: you’ll be crossing your fingers hoping that ultraball stays closed before the foe’s Primeape knocks you unconscious.
While neither Pokemon Colosseum or Pokemon XD: Gale of Darkness delivered the full Pokemon experience or acted as a huge leap forward for the series, they showcased a great variation on the theme, and compelling roleplaying games in their own right. Whatever Pokemon Let’s Go turns out to be, whether its turns out to just be a rumour, a strange spin-off, or a huge leap forward for the series, its best to keep an open mind even past E3.