Pokémon and Portability

During Nintendo’s March 2019 financial briefing, company president Shuntaro Furukawa revealed that Pokémon Sword and Shield versions would be focused on handheld play. Some people have reacted negatively to this news lamenting that the games won’t put more emphasis on home console elements. However, anyone that is familiar with the core game play and design philosophy behind the Pokémon games would have known this from the outset.

Portability has been a fundamental part of the design philosophy of the Pokémon games since Satoshi Tajiri conceived them. The portability and communication features of Nintendo’s original Game Boy inspired Tajiri. It was these features that drew Tajiri to the Game Boy specifically as the perfect platform for his game. The ideas of portability and communication are elements that are driving factors behind most of the design decisions in the game. From having two separate versions of the game to including unique game play elements that can only be achieved with a handheld such as the Pokémon Inkay requiring the system to be turned upside down in order to evolve, or creating and sharing QR codes to gain access to special data. Portability is not just a passive feature, it is a key part of the core of what the main series Pokémon games are.

When it was first revealed that the next entries in the main Pokémon series were coming to Nintendo Switch there was some concern among fans that feared the decision could mark a move away from the standards that have been a part of the series since inception. Moving to Switch meant a might higher barrier of entry for players with the console priced at $300, the games priced at $60, and the online subscription fee required to play multiplayer online priced at $20 per year. With the hybrid nature of the Switch game would need to be docked and functioning as a stationary home console to run at fullest capacity. Of all the concerns the biggest is the one that Pokémon could be moving away from the portable experience that it has always been.

The Pokémon Let’s Go games exemplified this change. The more experimental games were crafted by Game Freak to have a stronger focus on television play. These games were some of the lowest-selling Pokémon games in the Japanese market with Japanese sales only accounting for 18% of global sales. And even though the Let’s Go were designed with a focus on television play most players preferred playing in handheld mode.

Some might question the importance of portability to the concept of Pokémon. These people need look no further than the global phenomenon that exploded out of Pokémon Go for the answer. As this Pokémon renaissance took place in 2016 much of the excitement centered around the very same core feature that inspired the phenom in the late 90s, portability. The fact that the game could be played anywhere with anyone. Game Freak has no doubt taken note of this too, and it reinforces the standard that Pokémon games must always retain the element of portability. At its core Pokémon is a social game it’s about people coming together to trade, battle, and collect. And the portability of the platform is essential in facilitating that social play.

As development for the 3DS has reached its end, and the rumors are circulating about a Switch revision one option that is clearly open to Nintendo is to create a handheld-only revision of the Switch that refines those aspects and is priced as a handheld. This would allow the “Switch Lite” to replace the 3DS as a less expensive entry point for people to get into Nintendo platforms, and it would offer the people that usually buy Nintendo handhelds and buy the Pokémon games. If this turns out to be true, then it makes even more sense for Pokémon Sword and Shield to focus on the handheld elements of the Switch it shows that both Nintendo and Game Freak are aware of the importance of portability to a main series Pokémon game and are keeping that focus to ensure that Pokémon Sword and Shield are poised to be as successful as possible.

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