Today is Mewtwo’s birthday, and a reminder of Pokemon’s exciting lost roots.
In my childhood, Pokemon felt like a game full of mystery. The first few iterations of the now prolific franchise were similar to many other early Nintendo games – they were open-ended and sometimes baffling.
Maybe it was a plot to sell more Nintendo Power subscriptions, but games like The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and yes even Pokemon, rarely led the player by the hand, instead leaving the world open to your own exploration.
And for Pokemon, this less structured approach gave early generations a slightly more mysterious, sometime even creepy ambiance. Now-familiar tropes of the series were still new, and without a guiding hand, players were often forced to draw their own conclusions on the world.
Nowhere else is this more exemplary than the events surrounding one of the game’s most familiar creatures, Mewtwo.
After arriving on Cinnabar Island, players can visit the Pokemon Mansion, a burned down, ruined building filled with poison and fire Pokemon. In here, we find only a few short diary entries detailing the birth of a cloned Pokemon experiment Mewtwo, and its explosive escape from the island.
And for a long while, that’s all we hear about it. It’s cryptic and strangely ominous, and it’s not until entering Cerulean Cave after the very end of the journey that we actually meet Mewtwo face to face.
No fanfare, no explanation, we just find the most powerful foe in the game without warning. All we needed were a couple hints at how scary this thing is, before it surprises us just when we’d forgotten about it.
Conversely, if Mewtwo had been introduced in the latest generation, it would probably be a much different story. Mewtwo would be right on the front of the box and tied directly into the overarching story. Every detail about its history would be uncovered before we finally battle it in a cinematic and well-foretold encounter. Maybe we’d befriend it and defeat it with kindness.
And that’s just one example of this descent into over-explanation and loss of subtlety for the series. Places like the Ruins of Alph in the second generation, or the abstract method of catching the Regi-trio in the third (literally having to read braille in underwater caves) gave the world a sense of mystique. There were secrets to uncover that actually required exploration and thought.
It feels like Pokemon has lost this magic along the way for heavier emphasis on story and linearity. Rather than allowing the player to explore the world, Pokemon Sun & Moon take you on a guided tour of it. Even the end-game Ultra Beasts are devoid of wonder, as you’re told exactly where to find them and have to slog through lengthy boring plot dumps to see them.
But while all of this would have left me worried about Pokemon’s future, this all changed with the launch of the Switch. Now Nintendo has proved they can change trajectories and shakeup tired formulas. Breath of the Wild, and even Mario Odyssey to a surprising degree, have masterfully managed to recapture this childhood feeling of discovery and mystery.
Witnessing a dragon flying on the horizon in Breath of the Wild – without a need for unnecessary context and hand-holding to get to that moment – was exactly the same feeling I had years ago when discovering Mewtwo for the first time. Much like Breath of the Wild was able to emulate the cryptic nature of its own humble beginnings, I believe we can see Pokemon do the same.
Now we know we’re getting Pokemon for the Switch, and with this jump forward I hope Game Freak can take a look back at what made this series special to begin with. Step away from the overdone structure the series has relied on for too long, and do away with the overbearing plot lines. Let us explore a world filled with secrets that actually takes us back to a time when we swapped stories and rumours on the playground.
It’s time we get another Mewtwo.