Is Pokémon Legends: Arceus the Future of the Franchise?

Is Pokémon Legends: Arceus just a spin-off or a preview of something much bigger?

Photo: Nintendo

On a day designed to celebrate everything that the Pokémon series has given us in the franchise’s 25-year history, few people expected Nintendo to reveal something quite so bold as Pokémon Legends: Arceus.

Billed as an open-world action-RPG, Arceus promises to take us back to the very early days of the Sinnoh region. According to a description shared by the game’s developers, Arceus will let us “catch wild pokémon” after studying their behaviors and waiting for the right moment. Furthermore, the game will let us “battle wild pokémon with our ally pokémon” as part of a new combat system that lets us “seamlessly enter battle” in a way that wasn’t always possible in the more turn-based combat systems of previous Pokémon titles.

The game’s official description and debut trailer leave me with the distinct impression that Arceus will essentially be a blend of Breath of the Wild and Monster Hunter that still retains the core elements of the Pokemon experience: catching pokémon, building a roster, exploring the region, and growing your pokémon and trainer over time.

And yet, there’s a feeling that Pokémon Legends: Arceus could be so much more than that. Actually, there’s a fair chance that this game could be a first draft for the future of the Pokémon franchise.

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I know that sounds crazy, but let me explain. Ever since the Switch debuted (and certainly since it proved to be a tremendous success), fans have wondered what the console meant for the Nintendo’s handheld devices. Specifically, we all wondered how Nintendo would balance releases for the Switch and 3DS when the Switch offered handheld functionality along with processing power that the 3DS could never match.

We got some answers to those questions in 2019 when Nintendo released the handheld only Nintendo Switch Lite and in late 2020 when Nintendo officially discontinued the 3DS without revealing a new standalone handheld platform separate from the Switch brand. While it’s possible that Nintendo could always decide to release a standalone handheld device down the line, everything we’ve seen so far suggests that the Switch is at the center of Nintendo’s handheld and console universes.

Unfortunately, we still don’t know what that means for the future of certain Nintendo franchises. For instance, you used to be able to rely on 2D (or spiritually “top-down”) Zelda games being released on handheld Nintendo games and 3D Zelda games being released on Nintendo consoles. Now, it’s not entirely clear whether Nintendo will continue to greenlight entirely new handheld-style Zelda games for the Switch (even if the Link’s Awakening remake suggests that they might). A similar question looms large over the future of the Metroid franchise which was also divided into two fairly distinct design styles following the release of the Metroid Prime series.

Pokémon Sword and Shield looked to offer a pretty clear picture for the near future of Pokemon games on Nintendo consoles, but that’s not necessarily what we actually got. Yes, it was a fairly traditional Pokémon title on a Nintendo console (something fans had always asked for), but it was also heavily criticized by long-time Pokémon fans for not advancing the handheld games enough and, in some cases, actually featuring less content than recent handheld Pokémon games.

Some fans suggested that the developers simply took the path of least resistance, but others gave them the benefit of the doubt by arguing that they were simply still figuring out the Switch hardware and were working through some growing pains. The point is that Sword and Shield raised serious questions regarding whether those titles were an early example of bigger and better things to come or roughly what we should expect from future major Switch Pokémon titles.

With Pokémon Legends: Arceus, though, we now have a third option to consider. What if Game Freak is also unsure what the future of the Pokemon franchise is? What if Sword and Shield was one possible path forward and Arceus is another?

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After all, part of the appeal of a mainline Pokémon game on consoles was the idea that consoles could convey certain ideas and visuals that even more powerful handheld consoles could not. What if you could truly wander around a vast region filled with pokémon instead of following routes from town to town? What if catching a pokémon was as much about the thrill of finding it in the wild as it was the battle against it? What if those battles were these epic encounters that recalled the best of the Pokémon anime series and films? Recent Pokémon handheld games have gotten closer to realizing those visions, but it always felt like some barriers remained.

In its own way, Arceus already feels closer to the vision for those dream Pokémon games. At the very least, it feels like the Pokémon game that Game Freak never could have made on handheld devices. Yes, Game Freak could certainly do a better job of converting the core experience of Pokémon handheld titles to Switch than they did with Sword and Shield, but there’s a degree to which such future titles will still be held to the conventions (and the standards) of the handheld Pokémon titles.

If Game Freak feels that the best path forward isn’t to continue chasing the best possible handheld-style Pokémon games for consoles but to focus on using the Switch to discover what the future of console-style Pokémon games looks like, then Arceus could indeed be a glimpse into the future of the franchise. It combines some of the elements that we’ve seen from both modern Pokémon titles and modern console titles (open-world design, more active gameplay, accessible design, and fully-realized 3D visuals) while also challenging a sometimes popular narrative that Game Freak relies too much on a formula and doesn’t take enough chances.

We still don’t know a lot about Arceus, but I do know is that if you were debuting the Pokémon franchise for consoles today and were trying to explore the potential of the Switch hardware while honoring the most popular modern console game design concepts, the game you would make would probably end up looking a little more like Arceus and a little less like Sword and Shield.

What does that mean for the future of more “traditional” Pokémon games? Well, the recently announced remakes of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl at least seem to suggest that there will always be a home for them. It’s also nearly impossible to imagine a world in which Nintendo chooses to abandon core design principles that have remained popular, genuinely engaging, and (it must be said) absurdly successful for the last 25 years.

Yet, in the same way that we don’t quite know if and when we’ll get another original top-down Zelda title for Switch or another Metroid game in the style of Super Metroid or Zero Mission for the console, we’re starting to see how the future major Pokémon titles could easily be split into two. We want to believe that there is enough room for both given that each offers such a potentially unique and worthwhile experience, but at a time when making such games for consoles requires previously unheard of monetary and time investments, will Nintendo choose to continually invest in the kind of experiences that we used to be able to turn to rely on their handheld devices for or will they advance that narrative that what most people are looking for is “console-quality” games on the go?

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Right now, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is just a promising spin-off that looks to offer a new kind of Pokémon experience that still adheres to certain essential elements of the core franchise. If Arceus proves to be a tremendous success, though, then it could very well be the start of much more than that.