Ask anyone between the ages of 25 to 30 to recite the entire theme song to the Pokémon anime, or list all of the original 151 creatures, and there’s a good chance they’ll pass with flying colours. Ask that same person what the last Pokémon game they played was though, and you’d probably find they haven’t touched the mainline series in years or even decades. If anything, the most common response you’ll get is 2016’s mobile phenomenon Pokémon GO. It’s this exact audience that Nintendo and Game Freak are hoping to capture with Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Pokémon Let’s Go Eevee – lapsed or casual fans that still carry a torch for the original Game Boy games but couldn’t tell you what the fuck a Greninja is. And what better way to bring those people back into the fold than to reimagine one of the most cherished Pokémon games of old, Pokémon Yellow, with some of the most recognisable parts of Pokémon GO?
Now, full disclosure — I am one of these people. I’ve dabbled in most of the core series games and even a few of the spin-offs (notably the awesome Pokémon Conquest), but the last time I was seriously devoted to Pokémon was way back in the Ruby/Sapphire era. My first experience was with Yellow too, so starting up Let’s Go (in my case, Pikachu) for the first time brought memories of primary school flooding back into my mind. While more than a simple ‘remaster’ or re-release, there’s no denying that the very framework of Let’s Go is the same as it was all those years ago. This is Kanto as you remember it, with its gym leaders like Brock and Misty to best, the meddling Team Rocket to contend with and eventually the Elite Four to conquer. It’s a familiar story, and one that has been iterated on and expanded many times in the greater Pokémon universe, but it feels warm and welcoming to see it again in its original form through fresh eyes. Impressively though, Pokemon Let’s Go manages to retell this tale almost beat-for-beat while changing the fundamentals of the gameplay that runs through it.
Say Danny DeVito should play me one more time!
The most obvious change in Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee is in the way you’ll be catching Pokémon. For starters, random encounters are out. Now, Pokémon appear on the field, where they can be selectively engaged with or avoided entirely. Making contact with one will still initiate a transition to a separate screen, and this is where the biggest difference is made apparent. Previously, and in the vast majority of Pokémon games, wild Pokémon had to be weakened enough in battle to then be trapped inside a Poké Ball (kinda harsh when you put it in writing), but this time around you won’t be doing battle. In a mechanic lifted directly from Pokémon GO, the ‘mons will move around the screen while a ring displays over top of them, signifying the optimal time to throw a Poké Ball. The more powerful or rare a Pokémon is, the tougher it’ll be to catch, and so it becomes necessary to increase chances by offering the wild creatures various berries to calm them down, and use increasingly better Poké Balls to trap them in.
Throwing skill is also an important factor in catching Pokémon, and it’s currently one of the game’s most hotly-debated mechanics. See, Let’s Go might look like a traditional Pokémon game, but (in most cases) it doesn’t control like one. When playing on TV or in tabletop mode, the game is controlled completely with just a single Joy-Con or the optional Poké Ball Plus controller. The reason for this is that it relies solely on motion control when it comes time to catch Pokémon. Throwing a Poké Ball in game is done by mimicking the action with either type of controller, which is a surprisingly fun gimmick that doesn’t get too old too quickly. What does get old is being forced into using said mechanic. I explain it in more detail in this article about the various control methods, but the crux of the matter is that in handheld mode the game does offer traditional control with no forced motion. It’s certainly not the deal-breaker that the community at large seems to be making it into currently, but it’s frustrating that the first ‘proper’ Pokémon game on the big screen feels much more like a ‘proper’ Pokémon game away from it. Additionally, cool as the Poké Ball Plus is, a viable long-term method of control it is not.
Probably not an inside pet, I reckon
Traditional, turn-based Pokémon battles still make up the bones of the game of course, and it’s here that Let’s Go feels most like its heritage. Though random wild Pokémon battles are gone, NPC trainers still litter the game world, in much the same locations and configurations as in the original game. Fights are largely the same too, though two-on-two battles make a welcome appearance, mostly when playing with another person. That’s right, at any time in the game a second player can jump in and help out. It’s truly a drop-in-drop-out affair, as the second player doesn’t have their own progress or Pokémon team, but they can help the main player out in catching Pokémon or team up with them in battle. It’s a great way to get younger kids or complete newbies involved and learning the ropes without dropping them into their own game. The help perhaps isn’t particularly necessary though, as Let’s Go is (or at least feels) decidedly easier than the core Pokémon titles. Part of this is that the titular cover characters Pikachu and Eevee, who take up the role of ‘partner’ Pokémon in game, are like supercharged versions of themselves with new, unique moves that can really wreck shop.
These few changes to the formula add up to much faster and more accessible Pokémon game overall, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that means that hardcore fans won’t be satisfied with this stop-gap between core series titles. Luckily, Let’s Go still offers some added depth and scope for customisation. Chasing shiny Pokémon and/or Pokémon with perfect ‘IVs’ is still a thing, although this time around the method for finding these is simply to keep catching the same breed of Pokémon over and over in a chain to increase the chances of landing a hot one. You’ll also earn a steady stream of candies when sending duplicate monsters to Professor Oak with which to further enhance and manage your team’s stats. Even the Poké Ball Plus adds some cool wrinkles to gameplay; it’s got a step counter and a speaker, so you’re able to store one chosen Pokémon in it at any given time that earns experience for your movements, and even more rewards if you respond promptly to its occasional cries. Be prepared for strange looks from co-workers when Pikachu starts yelling in the middle of a serious meeting, though. Pokémon GO integration extends beyond just inspiring some of the game systems too, as it’s possible (after clearing a majority of the story) to send Pokémon caught in GO to the GO Park where you can catch and add them to your team in-game.
Jim Rash has a surprise cameo in this game as Dean Pelton from Community
Veteran players will also no doubt appreciate some of the quality-of-life improvements in Let’s Go. Things that were a staple part of older games but would feel out of date now are smartly revised, for example the PC mechanic that had you hoofing it to a Pokémon centre to manage your stable of creatures is gone. Now, you can access all of your caught ‘mons at any time through the menu, a godsend considering how many you’ll be catching and how often you’ll want to send duplicates off to Oak. HMs have been axed too, much like in more recent games, in favour of just granting your partner Pokémon the abilities need to traverse certain areas. Annoyingly though, a few too many holdovers from older games are still present, like the excessive text box feedback about every little thing that happens in battle, or the way you’re forced to watch the same animation every time you cut down a path-blocking bush, only for them to respawn as soon as you leave the area.
Really, it feels at times like Game Freak got caught between making something modern and accessible for casual fans and something that would satisfy purists. A good example of this is the fact that every Pokémon cries with the same 8-bit sounds of the Game Boy versions, which is cute and all, but feels out of place in a full-on HD entry where they all look and animate the best that they ever have. Let’s Go is a nice-looking game overall, still rocking the overhead view and simplistic environments but with some incredible animations in battle and beautiful Pokémon models. The music has definitely aged well, but that’s not hard when some of those old themes have been kicking around in people’s heads for the last 20-odd years. The only major sore spot in the game’s presentation is the occasional bout of slowdown in certain pockets of the world and the frequently sluggish menus, but hopefully those are things that can be ironed out in any potential future updates.
Oh, and you can virtually pet your partner Pikachu or Eevee and give them hairstyles and dress them and your character up in matching outfits. So that about makes up for any of the game’s shortcomings in an instant. <3
Let’s Go is Pokémon brought back to its roots, compartmentalised and not overstuffed, with an accessible meta and a charming, visually exciting hook. It might crib a little too hard from its forebears with its rigid save system and wearisome menus, but it’s a decidedly relaxed and nostalgic experience that should pull both lapsed Yellow-era players and Pokémon GO fanatics back into the core fanbase ahead of the next mainline game. Now, if only Nintendo could ease up on those motion controls a little.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch | Review code supplied by publisher