I didn’t realize the degree to which Pokemon Red/Blue had been etched in my brain until I started playing Pokemon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! As I visited Misty, the icy path to the “tomboyish mermaid’s” gym arranged in the blocky style of the series’ first entry, I was right back in ninth grade, chatting and playing with my friends in the school cafeteria and gazing enviously at the screens of anyone playing on a Game Boy Color. Now seeing those same scenes presented in rich 3D detail that feels like playing through actual episodes of the Pokemon anime. Let’s Go is a lens magnifying how far handheld gaming and the Pokemon series has come since my freshman year.
Nostalgia is powerful, and Pokemon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! delivers a heaping dose of it by effectively remastering Pokemon Yellow — a followup to Red and Blue that kept the game’s basic plot and structure but gave players Pikachu as their first Pokemon and let them periodically do battle with Jessie and James, bumbling agents of the villainous Team Rocket from the anime. You play a young trainer looking to prove themselves by challenging the best trainers of Kanto, all while building your Pokemon stable and sharing data on them with Professor Oak. Throughout your adventures you’re challenged by Team Rocket and test yourself against your neighbor/rival/friend (another character you get to name yourself), earning the grudging respect and praise of your opponents, and helping plenty of people and Pokemon along the way.
Everything from the haunted Pokemon Tower in Lavender Town to the vexing moving walkways in Team Rocket’s lair has been beautifully animated to make the game feel both deeply familiar and new. Fights shine in particular, with detailed animations for every special move: Seismic Toss launches your opponent into the stratosphere and then sends them crashing back to earth to take a heaping amount of damage while Hyperbeam looks like an energy blast Goku would be proud to execute. Animations were extremely basic in the original games, with smaller attacks and buffs often just manifesting as your pixelated monster wiggling a bit, but Let’s Go manages to nail the feel of each move while being visually impressive.
The biggest change comes from how Pokemon are caught. Rather than having near constant random encounters when wandering dungeons or tall grass, you’ll see specific Pokemon walking around those environments and can choose which you’d like to encounter. Extra large or tiny Pokemon who give bonus XP are helpfully outlined in red or blue, respectively. Unlike in previous versions of the game, where trainers had to battle Pokemon and lower their health before they could be caught, Let’s Go, Pikachu! (and it’s sibling Let’s Go, Eevee!) use a version of the mechanics in the smartphone game Pokemon Go with players tossing a Poke Ball hoping to hit the center of a ring around their target.
Capturing these critters is different based on how you’re physically playing: in handheld mode you have to move your device to center the ring on a Pokemon, which is often bouncing or flying around, and then just press the A button at the right time; if you’re playing on a big screen you have to tilt down your controller to throw the ball, but framing is less of an issue. I found it was overall easier to hit a Pokemon with a ball in handheld mode, but I was more likely to get the precise throws that award bonus XP when playing with the controller. I played the most with handheld, because I still associate Pokemon as being a portable game even if does look great on a big screen. But whichever way I was playing I was relieved that in game currency was plentiful so I could afford to carry around enough Poke Balls to make up for all my bad throws.
Purists might complain, but I think that this change is great. Considering it’s young target audience and cheery aesthetic, the fact that Pokemon is about catching, raising, and training creatures to fight for sport has always been a bit questionable. Making it so that you’re not beating wild Pokemon within an inch of their lives before pressing them into service feels just a bit better. But mostly the shift removes the heavy grinding that the series has traditionally required. Your team of Pokemon gain XP when you catch new ones, even though they’re not actually doing anything, making it easy to level up Pokemon without having to arrange teams with a mix of strong and weak members. While you’ll still want a team with a diverse mix of types and abilities, not needing Pokemon of equivalent level to catch new ones typically means you can just nab some new members if you want to change things up for the next big challenge.
Every aspect of the game has been reconsidered to be more accommodating, making it well suited to young or casual gamers. Puzzles where you have to disable an electric barrier or retrieve a key tossed out of your trainer’s reach are simple, and Let’s Go provides generous hints just in case you’re stuck. Whenever you’ve unlocked something that might let you past a previous blocking point like a tea-craving guard, the game lets you know and in some cases will have an NPC actually walk you to where you need to backtrack. It feels patronizing at times, but I understand the logic behind trying to avoid frustrating novice players.
Let’s Go also fixed issues from the original games. Your signature Pokemon will learn all the special moves needed to explore further like cutting down trees or lighting up dark caves without having them count towards the set of four moves used in combats. If your Pokemon are getting worn down and your recovery item stocks are low, many trainer battles can be avoided by just timing your movement so that they don’t spot you walking past. I took on most contenders anyways since the fights are typically easy, the rewards are generous and the trail of defeated foes helped me navigate dungeons that can be confusing due to their monotonous design.
Many of the pet simulator aspects found in the series’ last entry Pokemon Sun/Moon have been trimmed down here. You no longer need to preen your Pokemon post battle, though you can still interact with Pikachu or Eevee, eliciting a wide range of reactions from disinterest to delight as you dispense belly rubs, head scratches and play with their ears and tails. Your signature Pokemon perches on your shoulder and there’s an extensive collection of outfits for both you and your pet unlocked through both adventuring and various in-game stores. You can also choose a member of your team to accompany you and they each have their own cute animation — Vileplume waddles along in tow while Graveler rolls around in a ball, with both of them disappearing back into their balls at the sight of battle or when the terrain doesn’t fit their bulk. Some Pokemon will even let you ride them around the map.
Check in with your travel companion and the game will tell you what they’re interested in, whether it’s the scenery or your latest catch. It’s not especially clear how much benefit the socializing has, but on occasion the game will let you know that a Pokemon avoided a move in battle because of your bond rather than its stats. But mostly it creates the feeling of really fitting into a world where NPCs are also constantly doting over or strolling along with their favorite Pokemon, building that bond that’s supposed to exist between Pokemon and trainer beyond their time spent battling together.
The game does have bugs and flaws. My version repeatedly crashed when I tried to send a Pokemon to daycare. In one fight my Graveler was poisoned while it was underground, which should have made it invulnerable. I also wish that it had modeled the Pokemon Go update that makes it clear when a Pokemon is under the influence of one of the berries you can use to make it easier to catch. But overall the game is a pleasure to play, a breezy RPG packed with beauty and charm that will bring older players back to the series’ beginning while recruiting a new generation that will ensure Pokemon’s future. So much of my favorite childhood media just doesn’t hold up to my modern tastes and I have no real interest in using some form of emulator to relive the original Pokemon Red/Blue’s archaic gameplay. Let’s Go brings back the warm memories and blends them with a satisfying new experience.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code provided by the publisher.