The worst thing about Pokemon going from 2D to 3D was the sprites. Although it eventually evolved to the point where the boss Pokemon is kaiju and you can run around the battlefield to get the best vantage point, it took a long time to get here and in the meantime I have missed the skillful art of creating an exciting 2D Battle Sprite.
Alright, I admit some of the Gen 1 sprites were a bit scuffed. Golbat is so gruesome he’s become a cult favorite, and Mew looks like a biblically accurate angel or something. But there’s a nostalgia attached to older 2D games, and the technical limitations of the original Game Boy led to some incredibly creative designs. This wasn’t limited to Pokemon sprites, but it was extended to towns as well.
Editor Stacey Henley embarks on her own Pokemon quest to be the best like no one has ever been – sorry, I mean revisit all the towns and villages in Kanto, and it reminded me of something that I love about the Pokemon 2D games: Exploration.
2D Pokemon games had the most three-dimensional towns
We can now freely roam open-world Pokemon games, but somehow the towns feel more one-dimensional than ever. Take Sword & Shield for example, the newest traditional-style mainline Pokemon game. Some of the towns are brilliant ideas: I love the medieval dungeon of Hammerlocke City, and the fairy forest village of Ballonlea is both beautiful and eerie. But for all the creativity channeled into the themes and visual designs of these cities, it’s all just window dressing.
Try exploring one of these towns and, well, you won’t be able to. Hammerlocke is separated into two distinct levels, which is cool. But on each level there is only one straight row of houses. The buildings themselves are of great interest, but apart from a lane with stairs leading down to a canal, you can’t explore further than the main road. It would be like visiting London and going nowhere but the banks of the Thames. Lots of cool stuff here: Shakespeare’s Globe, Hammerlocke Vault, The Tate Modern, Hammerlocke Stadium, Big Ben – you get the picture. But there’s so much more to the city that you can find by following your nose and getting a bit lost.
Take Goldenrod City as a parallel – it is the major central city of the Johto region. Both have main stations and a friendship evaluator, they are virtually identical with the exception of the third dimension that the Switch allows Hammerlocke. But there’s so much more to Goldenrod than its sister city Galar. For starters, you can stray off the main road and find out what’s behind the Pokemon Center and Mart. You can’t get a bike if you don’t do this. There is also an underpass connecting the northern and southern ends of the city. Every house looks the same, and yet there is even more to Goldenrod than to Hammerlocke. Looks aren’t everything.
Ballonlea an even better example, as it is only one road. It’s a windy road that gives some illusion of being a real city, but it’s still a road. You can’t get out of the way no matter how hard you try. Enter the city, heal at the Pokemon Center, challenge the Gym, leave. Go to a house or two if you wish, but there’s no more to Ballonlea than that.
Take Fortree City in Hoenn as a counterpoint: another forest town with a unique design. Despite its 2D constraints, it is on two levels, which gives it additional depth. You can head to the Pokemon Center or Gym on the forest floor, or visit the houses in the canopy. But what makes it even more three-dimensional – and more real – is that certain areas can only be accessed in certain ways. You can’t just walk to the Gym, even if you’ve cleared the Kecleon blocking the door. You have to climb up into the trees and then back down to the forest floor via a certain ladder. Did you take the wrong road to the canopy? No access to the Gym, you will have to go the other way.
I like Hoenn as much as the next person, maybe a little more than most, but I have no particular affiliation with Fortree City. Goldenrod comes with a tsunami of nostalgia, making it an iconic Pokemon town for me, but my point remains: there was more to explore than most 3D Pokemon towns.
Castelia City’s clever camera angles make it an incredibly exciting 3D city to explore for the technology it had, and the Parisian side streets of Lumiose City are the (admittedly identical) exception that proves the rule. But for every clever use of the third dimension, there are five uninspired designs. Coumarin, Hau’oli, Malie, Oreburgh, Canalave. I could go on.
Legends: Arceus City alone arguably changed that, with tight passageways to explore and find Sprites, but it wasn’t enough. I didn’t want towns in the old Hisui region, but if there’s any part of his identity in Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, I hope there’s as much focus on exploring towns in the Spanish-inspired region only on the roads that connect them.
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