Following on from their success with Pokémon Go, we got yet another game from DeNA – an app which is far more RPG driven, where you can play as characters from the previous main series instalments.
This is Pokémon Masters and gives us insight into a direction to Nintendo’s more casual market.
After a week with this freemium game, I wanted to give my thoughts on what this means not only for the biggest franchise in the world, but synergistic storytelling in general.
It’s already a major success, bringing in 10 million downloads in their first week alone!
It truly does feel like a continuation on the 23-year franchise that started off on the Game Boy, made even more clear by the well-produced trailer a month before its release.
The gameplay itself is pretty straightforward. You’re given three characters with their signature Pokémon and you have to beat the other team. There are more technical details such as how Pokémon are classified.
But for the casual crowd, type matchups are simplified and you can clearly see what’s weak to what (to be clear, there are 18 different types of Pokémon with different strengths and weaknesses – a lot to memorise if you’re just a causal gamer passing the time on the commute.)
Interestingly, there’s an “auto” feature, which runs through the moves that the AI thinks are best suited to beat the opposing teams – something that’s pretty useful when just figuring out the mechanics and how things work.
Again, it skirts the line between “casual” and “RPG” game appeal.
To be clear, this is not Pokémon Go. This is something that is designed more to appeal to older fans of the main series games; the ones who grew up with the Game Boy and DS games and are familiar with the characters – or at the very least, character aesthetics.
Even I only had a passing knowledge of some of the featured characters, but they really do focus more on their stories and character development. It’s honestly pretty bizarre.
Characters that were once 8-bit pixels on the monochrome Game Boy are given greater insight and relationships that have never been explored in other media. Instead, it’s on the free-to-download mobile app of all things.
Full-on anime cutscenes elevated this beyond just being a mobile game; it’s something that bridges that gap between Nintendo’s handheld series, and their core franchise – a convergence that will no doubt continue with Pokémon Home tying the Switch, 3DS, and App games together.
Personally, I still prefer Pokémon Go. Not to say that Masters is bad – it certainly delivers. But moving forward, I think it’s more fascinating to implement brands and franchises into everyday activities, rather than schedule activities into the everyday.
With limited releases and deals at launch, it does feel sometimes like you need to schedule time for the game; especially given the coin and gem system.
Essentially, there are different in-game currencies. Gems fulfil their role as stuff that you can exchange real-world money for to gamble on unlocking a new character. Coins are easier to acquire but require A LOT of RPG grinding to get certain items – some of which are required to evolve Pokémon which you’re limited to once a month.
It’s these limits that left a bad taste in my mouth. When I play a game, I like to be able to play it on my terms. I haven’t read any criticism of the limits online for this game specifically; rather it’s a feature of freemium gaming and microtransaction in general.
If you’re a casual gamer who doesn’t want to remind yourself to get daily rewards, this may not be for you. But if you’re stuck on a commute and have time to kill, give it a shot.
Amazingly, it’s the story that really hooked me on this game.
For the most part, I found myself playing as the characters that weren’t the default. The main character you have starts with a Pikachu … and is absolutely dull in every way.
No, the development goes to all the supporting characters across the main series of games, and their stories. You see how they interact with each other, how they’ve developed from their multiple handheld iterations.
Characters who I only kinda remember like Flannery – one of eight gym leaders debuting in Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire (2002) is given a greater character dynamic with a gym leader from the first games and has a kinship with the main rival from Red and Blue (1997). The more animated expressions are also best utilised here to show off some of these character dynamics.
In terms of geography, the marketing plays up the new Pasio region the same way other regions have been sold with other games.
As of now, the story mode isn’t complete. With only 65+ characters revealed so far, they are undoubtedly going to update with newer additions from other games. No doubt there are already talks of getting characters from the upcoming Pokémon Sword and Shield for the Nintendo Switch to crossover at a later point.
As with other mobile games, there are events on as well. These tie into other characters and their personal development in the story – currently the focus is on Blue; the rival from the first games; not a bad start.
In a true multi-platform philosophy, this mobile game has added to the lore, expanded the world, and developed the characters – truly Nintendo knows what they’re doing when it comes to franchise intergration.
A TRANSMEDIA FUTURE
This is one of the more interesting things with mobile apps that producers and creatives should consider; the update. It is easier than ever now to add new content to a game or interactive story.
I feel like Pokémon Masters has just scratched the surface of this potential. Picture how other franchises could make use of this. Big franchises like Star Wars perhaps, could use an interactive game to explore a distant unknown past of the franchise similar to Knights of the Old Republic.
Or better yet, newer franchises can explore other ways to further their narrative worlds through story-based apps. There is potential to create better immersion and flesh out lesser-developed characters for a number of franchises there.
Originally, you could argue that the mobile app was nothing more than a quick “trickle-down transmedia” tie-in; the same bottom-of-the-barrel stuff that was designed to make a quick buck on the Game Boy before it.
But I think there’s immense potential in using this technology as storytelling devices and move beyond taking up time on a morning commute.
Given the response from critics, Pokémon Masters has already succeeded in this regard; developing characters from past instalments on a device where the most successful video games were originally about catapulting Angry Birds.
The way I see it, there is only so much time the consumer has to take in all the media we consume. Between competing SVOD platforms, literature, and video games vying for your attention and money, there is only so much investment we can give.
The mobile market has a unique every-day quality to it where short-form, interactive content can not only thrive but better flesh out a story world.