I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
The recent release of Pokémon Masters is yet another attempt by Nintendo in their ongoing exploration of the mobile games market. The Pokémon franchise has been treated as Nintendo’s experimental zone for a while now, likely because of its timeless quality and international recognition. The IP has been often remixed and retooled, straying from the formula of the role-playing adventure genre where it first solidified its presence. This has continued to be evident with the upcoming Sword and Shield and Pokémon Sleep, where the series’ direction and certain development choices have become divisive amongst the community.
Over the years, The Pokémon Company has licensed the Pokémon IP to numerous third-party developers solely for the production of mobile games. Starting back in 2011 with Pokémon TCG Online, a digital recreation of the eponymous trading card game, Pokémon has had several titles translated to mobile. While a majority of the Pokémon mobile titles haven’t sustained, Pokémon Go is still making relatively decent strides with its own player base. (It was thanks to Pokémon Go that Nintendo’s monetary value skyrocketed.)
Regardless, Go is a very different beast compared to other Pokémon games, even different than previous Pokémon mobile titles. It is much more limited in scope, and uses mechanics that are more representative of its developer, Niantic, than what defines Pokémon itself. For that reason, it is understandable that Go has established most of its base with those who are more distant from or new to the franchise. While there remains a division between the typical, hardcore Pokémon fan and casual players, Pokémon Masters may be able to bridge that gap.
Pokémon Masters takes place on Pasio, an island artificially developed to host a tournament called the Pokémon Masters League. The PML is structured entirely around 3-on-3 battles. Masters’ chosen gimmick is the concept of “sync pairs”, a combo formed in which one Pokémon Trainer is limited to working with one Pokémon. For instance, Misty, “The Tomboyish Mermaid” of Cerulean City’s Gym based in Kanto, is paired with a Starmie. After grouping three of these pairs up, players will battle to collect the badges of the League’s various Gym Leaders, each from one of the known Pokémon regions, to be able to compete in a final tournament.
The game throws what most Pokémon players know about combat completely out the window, with battles reduced to strategizing around elemental types and optimizing the roles of attacking, buffing, and healing. Like the core series of games, battles are turn-based. However, an added twist to this system is that timing has to be considered: taking action depends on a power gauge at the bottom of the screen, in which some moves demand more time than others to use. An example of this in action in another IP is the Active Time Battle (ATB) system in the Final Fantasy series. In Masters, this is literally quantified in units: for example, the move Rock Throw needs only one bar from the gauge to be filled versus Rock Tomb, a stronger move, which needs two. Enemies have their own power gauge to consider that invisible to the player, and they will certainly not be kind and wait—so best start thinking quickly on what to do!
On top of this, Pokémon also have passive skills, which are the equivalent to Abilities in the core games. For example, Misty’s Starmie with Healing Hand will occasionally remove all negative stat conditions of its team after it uses a move. After a certain number of turns pass in battle, Trainers can also unleash their Pokémon’s Sync Move, a powerful move that can do significant damage. Versus the back and forth nature of typical turn-based combat, the waiting cycles can add a hectic rush to combat. You might rush to sweet victory by timing a Sync Move just right, or screw your team over by using an item a little too late.
Story mode is structured around chapters, and each stage per chapter is either a series of battles or a scene. There is no open-exploration in the game, and this is essentially the players’ means of navigating the island of Pasio. Other modes include a training mode, a challenge mode that features battles where you must meet specific goals and tackle harder difficulties, and an exploration mode to find more items. Co-op is also a feature of the game, where players can team up with friends to form their own teams. Whenever players obtain a new sync pair, another mode is dedicated to have a one-on-one, semi-interactive story scene. This mode doesn’t really exist for any other reason but to have some idle time with your favorite character. To be frank, they’re basically dates.
At the end of each mode, players return to a hub where they can shop for items and organize their teams. Through items collected, players can boost their sync pairs’ levels quicker and get more abilities for their Pokémon. In Masters, Pokémon can only gain new skills and move slots through the use of items such as Level-Up Manuals, which are similar to the core Pokémon games’, Rare Candy. The game is generous about giving items, but players who are willing to spend a pretty penny can get them faster in the shop. Unlike a lot of mobile games, Masters has no daily stamina or any sort of playing counter limit. Without those, it is very possible to run through and complete the current story mode of the game without any obstacle of time.
Pokémon always revolved around building a party of its titular creatures, but Pokémon Masters makes the creatures secondary as you’re basically collecting Trainers instead. Let’s be real: you’re basically building up an army or a harem depending on how you look at it. While the party will naturally expand by progressing through the story, one can try their luck in the game’s gacha feature. Like items, either in-game currency or real money can be spent in drawing new sync pairs. In the style of most games with a gacha feature, players go over to the hub and can draw a single sync pair or a bundle (for a higher price!) as easy as one touch. These sync pairs have different base ratings which seem to be determined by a number of factors: as IVs are non-existent in this game, it’s not exactly clear. These base ratings don’t carry much of a significance in gameplay, besides possible clout which is similar to a standard rarity level in other gacha. For instance, the sync pair consisting of Brendan (the male player character for Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald, and its respective remakes) and Treecko have a 5-star rating. Meanwhile, Whitney, who is nonetheless a Gym Leader in Johto, and her Miltank are rated lower as a 4-star pair. (And perhaps I have not been using her thoughtfully, but Whitney and her Miltank do kind of suck!)
One of Pokémon’s best assets is the charm and humor that comes out of the game’s writing, and this surely shines in Masters. Even with the introduction of several new characters, it is hard not to like everyone. Masters has added more dimensionality and flavor to its cast that even the core games have no time to linger on. For instance Rosa, the female player character from Pokemon Black and White 2, has been given an aloof, but enthusiastic and cheerful personality. When prodded for dialogue during downtime in the hub, she’ll incite the idea that her hairstyle looks like a pair of meatballs, and how she’s caught her Snivy biting on them before. There are also new original characters, like the flamboyantly dressed trio of Lear, Sawyer, and Rachel, who suffer from delusions of grandeur, occasionally popping in just to size up the player. Though their specific intentions are initially unclear, they seem to hold a deeper connection to the island of Pasio as the game progresses.
Masters is also an outright beautifully stylized game. Backgrounds are rendered panoramically, creating a careful, but still false suggestion of depth during the few times players can pan through them. Characters look reminiscent of the house style established of the latest Pokémon games, but with a bit more complexity closer to official artwork. Idle animations keep scenes active, adding a lot of insight into the characters’ personalities. There is also some voice acting (a very different English-language cast from the anime series’ English dub, which may be jarring to some, at first) enhancing interactions with Trainers and breathing life into their already vibrant and varied characters. Touches of gorgeously 2D animated special effects also pepper the action sequences in battle. With these visual elements and sound design, it is very easy to get immersed in this small, portable world that is distinctly Pokémon.
Inevitably though, Pokémon Masters faced a myriad of problems on launch. Technically released a day earlier than expected, numerous players experienced server issues that ranged from kick-outs to connectivity drops (since the game heavily relies on data). In addition, the marketing around the game was unfortunately not clear up front that the game is only compatible with newer devices and operating systems. Masters currently only works on 64-bit Android devices, and it is unclear if a version of the game will be available for 32-bit devices later on. The game also still faces a number of issues when it comes to optimization and smooth play, riddled with numerous loading screens and frame rate lag between scenes and stages.
The game is developed by DeNA, a major provider of mobile portal and e-commerce websites based in Japan. To consider DeNA’s significance, they are likely to have been responsible in coining the term mobage (“mobile game”), owning and managing a portal and social network catered to mobile game players of the same name. DeNA has numerous apps and properties under their belt. They had also established a previous relationship with Nintendo by playing a huge part in the service infrastructure of titles like Miitomo and Fire Emblem Heroes.
Pokémon Masters calls itself a “free-to-start” game, a term that Nintendo likes to boast about. Although the term implies an inevitable paywall, Nintendo coined the term wanting to liken themselves more closely to producing “free-to-play” games. Nintendo’s past mobile titles like Super Mario Run and their mobile reboot of Dr. Mario turned out to be not so kind when it comes to this practice. Masters, on the other hand, feels closer to this sentiment. Its microtransactions feel very out of the way, and it is currently possible to complete the story mode without spending a single, real cent. The “premium” features aren’t exclusive to real money purchases, and they can eventually be bought with earned in-game currency and the virtue of patience and grinding. That said, is it ethical to have gacha mechanic this accessible, when considering Pokémon’s large, younger demographic?
Although Pokémon Masters had a worldwide release, it is important to note that the game has not launched in Belgium and the Netherlands specifically. It is currently unknown if it ever will, but such is now a world where the video game industry must face the debate around microtransactions with every new release. Several other countries have also been delegating legislation over what is considered gambling in video games, including China (although the latter’s case may be inherently political).
Ultimately, Pokémon Masters is the most “complete” and emblematic mobile title of the Pokémon gaming experience so far. It simplifies the mechanics of the core games in a way that remains both accessible to casuals and isn’t dismissive or too infantilized for regular players. It very keenly knows how to ring in and hook older fans with stunning, brightly animated effects and characters that they love. Masters truly feels more like a stronger love letter to hardcore players compared to previous Pokémon mobile titles. Nintendo wants to so badly crack into the mobile games market after finding their potential in Pokémon Go, but with lingering bugs, technical issues bundled with the persistent controversy over the ethics of gacha mechanics, this is not a perfect game—and in a lot of ways, actually pretty shameless!—but it’s definitely something that can keep Pokémon fans pleased. For the time being.