Pokémon Sword and Shield bad user experience

Pokémon Sword and Shield are upon us, but the eighth Pokémon generation has had to weather an overblown campaign of fan outrage to get here. Game Freak’s decision to scale back the sheer number of in-game critters to focus on overall polish has been picked apart by self-appointed internet sleuths, who are scrutinizing individual trees and walls for evidence of the series’s stagnation. But they’re looking in the wrong place. Pokémon is a series of many joys, but it’s also a series of many decades-entrenched, uncorrected frustrations. This series doesn’t need 800 monsters — it needs a total user experience overhaul.

When Pokémon Red and Blue came out in 1996, they were miracles of technology and design. The first generation games crammed 30 hours of adventure and 151 recruitable creatures into a single megabyte, and it made that odyssey perfectly legible on a screen that was just 2.6 inches from corner to corner. To ensure maximum clarity, text boxes did a lot of heavy lifting in Red and Blue. Battles took place between motionless cardboard cutouts, with plain text used to describe each monster’s actions and their consequences. Players were left to imagine the epic duels unfolding in their hands, with an assist perhaps from the more visually bombastic tie-in anime.

total user experience required Pokémon Sword and Shield

Nintendo’s handheld systems, the traditional homes of the Pokémon games, advanced a lot over the next 23 years, but Pokémon was always reluctant to advance with them. Successive entries in the series typically meant little more than the same plot and structure transplanted into a new location, with a few extra critters and gimmicks sprinkled in. This is fine — in fact, that decades-spanning consistency has been a major strength for the series. But in 2013, X and Y came to the comparatively powerful Nintendo 3DS. Around this time, many of the series’s recurring conventions stopped being necessary compromises to ensure maximum clarity and started being needlessly irritating holdovers from a more primitive era.

Plain text is still relied on to deliver a huge amount of information in the latter Pokémon titles, despite their increased visual fidelity and computational resources. Combat is still resolved action by action, each morsel of information demonstrated and re-demonstrated in redundant ways, at the sort of deliberate pace you would adopt to teach somebody how to play a tabletop game for the first time. The difference is that a tabletop session will become partly automated and more rapid as the game’s rhythms are internalized, while Pokémon never removes its one-step-at-a-time training wheels. For a series with such information-dense battles, this is a massive strain on the games’ momentum.

You begin a round of combat by selecting your desired move. If your monster is fast enough to take the first action, you are immediately re-told in plain text which move you just selected. Then the move’s corresponding animation plays. If the move inflicts damage multiple times, each hit gets an individual animation, then a text box summarizes how many times the move just hit. If the move has a type advantage or disadvantage against its target, this is communicated first with a sound cue, then with a discrete text box. Critical hits, if they occur, get their own text box as well. If your move inflicts a status condition, this is demonstrated first with an animation, then with a text box, every time the effect is triggered — usually once per round. The entire process then repeats for your opponent’s move, over and over again until the battle is over, for every battle in the game.

user interface is poor

In most Pokémon games you can cut the battle time in half by disabling the animations. This is the opposite of the ideal solution. The text should not play the central role in combat: There is no reason that the series’s iconic “It’s super effective!” indicator still needs to halt the flow of combat with a text box — the phrase could simply pop up on screen when an attack connects. Status ailments no longer need to be re-introduced every time they trigger; their associated particle effects could just persist on the character models. Weather effects don’t need to be announced every single turn that they’re active; they’re already communicated by visual changes to the battlefield. In strategically complex battles, where multiple weather conditions and status effects are resolving every turn, single exchanges can take several minutes to complete.

Once you begin to be annoyed by these sorts of legacy time sinks, you start seeing them everywhere. Getting your team healed at a Pokémon Center — an extremely common occurrence — requires two text boxes, the insertion of all six of your Poké Balls into a device one at a time, then another two text boxes. Battles begin with a swooping camera to introduce your opponent and the dramatic deployment of your first critter. This creates a thrilling atmosphere the first few times, but it carves precious seconds out of your life when you’re 15 hours deep into the game, finished with the latest route, and just want to get to the next town already without contending with any more random battles.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me in Pokémon Moon was the menus. Pokémon have small health pools and deal lots of damage to one another, so if you’re not over-leveled you’re probably healing up after every scrap or two. Restoring your team’s health requires opening the menu, opening the item sub-menu, selecting a potion, selecting a chap to use it on from the sub-sub-menu depicting all your chaps, then confirming that you want to use the potion on the selected chap. The menu cannot be closed all at once — there is no way to go from the chaps sub-sub-menu straight back to playing the game. You must reverse out of every geological stratum you’ve drilled through one at a time by hammering the B button, after every major battle, for the entire duration of the game. After about 20 hours, I just couldn’t do it anymore.

Pokémon Sword and Shield bad user experience

Pictured: Me.

Pokémon is slow to change, when it deigns to change at all, but the series has made meaningful strides towards improving its quality of life. Move-teaching TMs are no longer destroyed after a single use. As of Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee, Pokémon can now be swapped in and out of your active party without having to visit a PC. Most importantly, the series has finally phased out HMs, the special moves that granted your critters new movement options in the overworld but were a logistical nightmare to keep organized.

And at its best, the series easily transcends its crummy user experience. Pokémon Shield has addressed none of these problems, but it might be my favorite in the series purely on the strength of its strong art direction and flavorful script. But these petty niggles can add up, smothering otherwise charming adventures with no-longer-necessary Game Boy-era workarounds.

Pokémon Sword and Shield didn’t cut too much. If anything, they didn’t cut enough. There are two decades’ worth of cobwebs hanging off this series that badly need to be blown away. That’s more important to Pokémon‘s long-term health than whether or not Tangela made the cut.

Patrick Lee
Patrick Lee is a writer, illustrator, photographer, designer, and serial arsonist from Toronto. He has written for The AV Club, and for his personal website, About Face.

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    16 Comments

    1. Yeeeeah. Its not so bad when you’re playing it portable on the go… but when you’re in front of a big screen you reeeeally feel that they haven’t chipped up the pacing at all.

      History and legacy is good but literally no one would care if they just fixed all the things you mentioned to streamline the battles that you have approxmately 50000 times.

    2. That honestly sounds par for the course when Nintendo is concerned. Though I agree, if Zelda can have whatever happened to it have had happen to it, why not all the other ones.

      Point to note that Pokken and Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee exists, so it’s clearly not as easy as it might seem.

      1. A lot of Nintendo’s franchises are basically a lot of the same games being virtually remade even if it’s called something else. Even though I am a Zelda fan, the series was becoming one of their most formulaic and stagnant. Until BOTW, while not perfect, had some creative confidence to actually do something different with the formula. Something that should have happened sooner tbh, but is appreciated.

    3. ehhh….say what you want about streamlining some of the stuff (please do, as I’m not opposed), but….I do NEED all 890 pokemon. If I can’t have the potential to have them all, it’s not worth it to me.

    4. I want all 890+ pokemon. I want all of them in. I want all the move, all the shiny, all of it. I want all past gym leaders, champions, elite 4, kahuna, and trial captain too. Also rivals, definitely need all past rivals.

    5. I think part of Pokemon’s charm is that it does have the tone of a much more complex game. Explicitly resolving everything does lend it tightness that watching for particle physics doesn’t convey. It also doesn’t bias the player towards discarding status effects or weather as only relevant in early gameplay by shaving off the attention they receive later on.

      But you’re still right it doesn’t have to waste the players time. Overworld healing doesn’t have to have nested menus and I’m certain the developers are capable of coding forms like “Squirtle uses Bubble, it’s super effective, and Charmander takes poison damage,” that take up one text box. If they scrape out all the text then there can still be a running chess like notation in whatever equivalent of Pokegear they put in.

      I think the ability of anyone to grasp a battle at any point in the game is valuable. Time saving is okay, but I never want even someone picking up the game for the first time during a late gym battle to miss something because they had to be told an animation isn’t just ambient. Pokemon isn’t that kind of game.

    6. Just yesterday I told my bf “Catching Pokemon in this game is the worst” as I played Shield, he’s like “Isn’t that the point of the game?” Because I’m so over all the extra unneeded text boxes after a failed catch. I’m gonna throw another ball, I don’t wanna know that “Rillaboom is waiting for your directions!” unnecessarily every single time

    7. Had they just cut all gen 5 Pokemon, no one would had complained… /jk

      1. How dare you. I love Klink and need him in my life at all times.

        No you don’t get an /s.

    8. I’d be fine with them not including all of the pokemon, IF they hadn’t spend the past decades continually building the brand on the premise of having ALL the pokemon… It’s not even about catching them all, it’s about having access to your favorites. Never mind the people who paid for the pokebank for the PROMISE of being able to bring THEIR pokemon to new games. I’m not bothered that they didn’t include it at launch, I’m bothered that they haven’t announced plans to carry it through at a later date.
      As far as the interface, yeah, there’s a lot they could do to tighten things up, really don’t need all that reminder text when there is ALSO an icon next to the field/pokemon indicating the same thing.

      1. But isn’t it kinda obvious this would reach that point eventually? The list of Pokemon just keeps growing, and that’s a lot of extra heavy lifting that continues to serve only a minority of players.

        1. The old pokemon already existed in Sun and Moon, which means that they’ve already done a lot of the hard work like creating 3D models for those Pokemon and statting them out. Obviously you can’t create 800 monsters from scratch in one go, but it seems like the work is three-quarters done already.

    9. It’s kinda wild that “laziness” is the term tossed around the most when complaining about Gamefreak cutting Pokemon (even though there’s still over 400 of em). Because as this article also goes into, people have been buying and playing virtually the same game for years. If you wanted to start calling them lazy, why did you start now?

      They only lost their minds when it came to the Pokemon Thanos snap. Which is the thing I always expected would happen as the list kept growing, and all this extra work was just to satisfy this minority of crazy completionist Pokeplayers who never once took a break from a kids RPG franchise.

      I feel this whole thing is extremely overblown so I don’t really feel bad throwing shade at those who still can’t get over themselves.

      1. It’s not just the people who never took a break since Gen 1. It’s anyone who played *any* version prior to this and cares enough to bring their old Pokemon forwards. Sure, there’s not too many people who brought their Blastoise along through 8 different games, but I bet there’s quite a few more who want to bring, say, their Greninja from just 2 games ago.

    10. I agree that there are lots of QoL improvements that could still be made to the series, but by saying that Pokemon Sword/Shield doesn’t address QoL issues, it seems that the author hasn’t played the games very much, if at all. The animations for trading, evolving and egg hatching have all been shortened significantly. You can also now choose in settings that you prefer not to nickname your Pokemon and the game will no longer ask you *after every successful catch or hatch*. There are other similar streamlined improvements in these games, like being able to transport to previously visited locations just by selecting it on the town map, with no additional animation. Bikes can now traverse water, seamlessly transforming without any additional animation. I’m sure there are more, but to say QoL changes weren’t included in this game is just not correct.

    11. A single megabyte?! Woah! I had no idea. That is crazy impressive.

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