Game Review

Pokémon: Let’s Go Pikachu! (2018) [Switch]

Every cure for nostalgia is obsolete.
-Raheel Farooq

 

Even though I can’t remember what I did last week Wednesday, I have lucid memories from twenty years ago.

I can still see the afternoon effulgence piercing the thick, buggy breeze. I can still feel its warmth. I can smell the green in the leafy backyard of the house where this charter school once stood. I can taste the dusty air of the basement where we played Super Nintendo and PlayStation. I can still feel the worn edges of my desk, inscribed with the countless runes of my doodles, stashed full of broken pencils, maths, and Magic the Gathering cards that had been played into frayed oblivion (rainbow Sliver deck!). I can still hear the familiar chime of my Game Boy turning on immediately after class was over, and the antiphonal responses of my classmates’ 8-bit handhelds replying.

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Since that golden time, Pokémon has never really gone away. When Red and Blue hit, everyone in my class trained and traded and collected. I proudly carried my cross and endured the shame of having picked Bulbasaur. Look, I was thirteen but I stand by my starter.

It would be years, decades, before I’d see anything like the original Pokémon: a game that brought almost everyone together, regardless of age, gender, and level of interest in gaming as a whole, accessible to the widest masses yet the scratcher of itches for those that wanted the deeper RPG elements of assembling teams, gaining experience, and debating special moves.

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Fast forward eighteen years and Pokémon Go makes its worldwide debut. Despite the worst launch I personally have ever seen, the game became a massive hit on mobile devices and comparisons with Red and Blue’s impact were inevitable. I’ve seen hundreds of people swarming the boulevard downtown, shops remaining open later, menus changing, mini-kiosks selling entirely new items, roads being closed for the crowds, events collaborated by local communities… it was my schoolyard all over again but this time there were fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, adults with their dogs, and groups of neighborhood kids out together with no teacher to tell us the school bell had rung and it was time to do the maths.

Out of that resurgence of widespread interest in Pokémon (though again the pocket monsters have never truly gone away) comes Pokémon: Let’s Go, Nintendo’s sometimes awkward, nostalgic reverie that boasts to walk the line between handheld, home console, and mobile games. The Switch of course is Nintendo’s hybrid device that can be played either on the TV or detached on the go, and this game seems to be keenly aware of that by design, though it is also essentially a remake of the original generation of Pokémon games, specifically Pokémon Yellow. So what we have here is a remake of a handheld game from 20 years ago on a hybrid device riffing off of a mobile game. Obviously, Pokémon: Let’s Go has a lot to try to juggle!

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Let’s go forward by taking these in order, or, as goes a cliché critic methodology: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Firstly, the Good: there’s the business of remakes. I love remakes, mostly. The promise of revisiting essentially the same game but with modern conveniences is gold, so long as the remake essentially maintains the original game. RedBlue, and Yellow were ripe for a remake, some new perspective to not merely update the graphics (the vanguard concern for most people when discussing remakes) but streamline the menus, limit the grinding, remaster the soundtrack, and introduce some accessibility.

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Things have come a long way.

How does Let’s Go swing the pendulum? Does it resist changing too much about the original, so you’re left with little more than prettier graphics, or does it go to the other extreme of destroying the original game and building upon its bones an entirely new experience? Certainly, if anything can be said about those two ends of a vast spectrum, Let’s Go fits somewhere toward the end of the latter option.

Still, it managed to feel like the original Red and Blue.

Now normally, I don’t have much patience for the use (or overuse) of the word “feel” in a critique. A summary-style review or consumer report, fine, but when we’re talking analytical critique, we’re talking evaluating the game’s merits, and “feel” is pretty difficult to evaluate or even fully describe.

However, “feel” here is integral to what Let’s Go needed to accomplish, at least in part. Let’s Go needed to evoke the sensation of playing the original game(s) without actually being the original(s). It had to capture that same addictive quality, sense of adventure, drive to collect, and ferocity of competition that made Red and Blue the hits that they were. It had to echo so much of what made those games great while at the same time acknowledging that several of their features were cumbersome and dull, and thereby succeed them.

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“Feel”, then, in this context, is the degree to which Let’s Go realizes its purpose as a remake, and indeed it does “feel” like playing RedBlue, and Yellow.

How can I measure that except with my own experiences and memories? All I can say is that I haven’t played the Generation 1 Pokémon games for… well maybe 20 years, minus dabbling a bit with Fire Red and Leaf Green here and there. Not surprisingly, I didn’t remember a whole lot about those games but contrariwise, more than a handful of things I’d forgotten about them came back to me in the form of sepia memories while playing Let’s Go, and that’s not just priceless to recall heretofore lost childhood memories… it’s also a measure of Let’s Go’s success as a remake.

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Secondly, the Bad: there’s the fact that Let’s Go remakes a handheld game for a handheld/console hybrid.

It’s not all that astute of an observance to say that Let’s Go seems more at home in the Switch’s handheld mode then when docked. We could at this point delve into the differences in the game’s display on a TV vs. in handheld mode but honestly the minutia of resolutions and screen sizes don’t much concern me. Instead, you should know that the game is possessed of at least one fundamental difference between playing docked and playing handheld which affects the way the game is handled.

If you’ve seen any marketing for Let’s Go, undoubtedly you’ve clapped eyes on the motion controls, and that maybe filled you with all kinds of sensations of anticipation or dread. Let’s Go even features a Poké Ball controller accessory (accessory and Mew sold separately) which does gimmicky things like let you carry a Pokémon in it and take it for real life walks, as well as better simulate the act of throwing a Poké Ball at your television screen. Without it, you’re left with the Joy Cons, so let’s talk about them.

You may be a little shocked as to how you play Let’s Go with the Joy Cons: in docked mode, you hold a single Joy Con in an upright position… exactly like a Wiimote, sans nunchuck. When that dawned on me, I couldn’t fully express my sense of having been hoodwinked.

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Notice also that this Caterpie has a yellow ring, signifying its medium catch rate difficulty, which is odd and an example of the game’s weird difficulty balancing

Let’s get it out of the way and say that playing with one Joy Con in one hand is awkward at best and the motion controls used to lob Poké Balls over-hand at the TV is about as reliable as it was two console generations ago: the balls can easily fly wildly off target with the slightest intonation of your wrist. Shocking, right? Unless you toss your imaginary ball directly at the screen, sitting right in front of it, and lock your elbow at the end of the throw, you’ll likely miss. That becomes even more aggravating when you see the in-game price tag on Ultra Balls, a mid to late game necessity if you want to keep catching Pokémon.

However, the freedom of docked mode allows a second player to jump into the game. This is an obvious innovation upon the original game and it gives Let’s Go some added playability; you can now make your way through this mid-sized JRPG with a buddy, or in my case, with my 3-year-old. Nintendo wisely designed the two-player functionality to be as non-intrusive as possible, meaning the second player can wander off-screen, walk through Pokémon without triggering a battle, even do nothing in a battle without slowing down the first player. What the second player can do, though, is help out in trainer battles by bringing a second Pokémon to the fore and in catching creatures by tossing a second ball at them. Hit a Pokémon with two balls at the same time for an increased chance at a successful catch.

This fun addition of a casual second player creates a divide, unfortunately.

If you want the second player, then you have to play it in docked mode and put up with the bad motion controls.

If you want to avoid the motion controls, then you have to play it in handheld mode, but then you don’t get the second player.

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I’ve run into a few people who argued (when I asserted that Let’s Go creates this fundamental clash of interests) saying “Well, it’s just for fun with your kids anyways.” When I mentioned the motion controls, they said: “But that’s why I play it on handheld mode.” You can only have it either way, not both, at the same time…

You’re going to have to go through a ton of Poké Balls if playing with your kids or you’re going to have to tell them “sorry but it’s a highly sophisticated, interactive, collectible biosphere system and it’s mommy/daddy’s turn”, though that excuse doesn’t address the curiously poor motion controls.

There is no ideal way to play Let’s Go. You either put up with its archaic wand-waving or you suffer in loneliness and miss out on one of its prime new features. Sorry to let the air out of the Jigglypuff.

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Thirdly and finally, there’s the matter of its adaptation of mobile gaming sensibilities, specifically in reference to Pokémon Go.

Is this the Ugly, or just the Bad? Mobile gaming catches a lot of flak so I guess it’s safe to put this part last. You should know that Let’s Go takes several mechanical cues from Pokémon Go, for better or worse. Gameplay that can sustain off-and-on casual interactivity whenever you pull your phone out of your pocket isn’t necessarily going to translate onto a big screen or a dedicated handheld where that’s all you’ve got to do.

This is clearest when catching Pokémon. For lack of a better term, the Pokémon Go sphincter makes its triumphant return in Let’s Go. This is the shrinking ring over a Pokémon that represents a marker for tossing your Poké Balls; the goal is getting it inside the shrinking ring with higher chances for capturing the Pokémon (as well as bonus experience) awarded to Nice, Great, and Excellent throws as the ring gets smaller.

Gone are the methods of having to battle wild Pokémon into submission, lowering their HP until near depletion, before being able to catch them. Now, you can walk up to any Pokémon roaming their habitat (the creatures are visible on the map now, so there’s no more random battles) and engage with them to catch ’em all.

This obviously cuts a big chunk of the original games’ experience out of the picture, with battles entirely relegated to encountering fellow trainers and gym masters. On the one hand, this eliminates a lot of the grinding of the original games’, though on quite the other it also means this remake is less robust with less to do, bordering on hollowing out the game, though not quite. It’s after all replaced by newly compulsive attention to stats and IVs. You still get experience points from catching but you now only get to test your team’s mettle against trainer battles.

I could see this really being either a selling point or a deal breaker, depending on how you like your RPGs.

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visuals Visuals: 7/10

Maybe the highest praise I could give to Let’s Go’s visuals is that they crystallize exactly what we all saw in our minds when we played the original games on the Game Boy years and years ago. What we got was a static and often awkwardly-shaped sprite we had to pretend was performing Surf or Flamethrower or Solar Beam, whereas now we can actually see those Pokémon making their moves: seen through the eyes of an adult through the memory of the eyes of a child. The accuracy to that lofty ideal is pitch perfect, though of course, Let’s Go doesn’t really have an aspiration for high levels of detail or resolution. It is as unapologetically cartoonish as is appropriate and the first generation of Pokémon will be as you remember them, whether you caught them last year or 20 years ago.

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This simplicity could perhaps be wearying, especially in a longer game, and I got the impression while playing Let’s Go that some of its seams were showing. Encountering Pokémon on the field visibly instead of randomly is a nice gameplay move but it creates an ugly clash of gaminess with wilderness visuals when Pokémon of extra large or extra small encounters are delineated by swirling auras of bright red or blue. What makes these auras distasteful is just how beautiful and brilliant the backgrounds are, from the trees that look as if they’re painted with pastels to the glimmering light on the waves of the sea.

Overall, the vibrancy of the game resembling an illustration, its attention to recreating the originals, and the Pokémon front and center are Let’s Go’s strengths whereas some things like persistent monotony and rigid character models are its flaws, in my view.

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audio Audio: 7/10

The soundtrack for Pokémon Let’s Go is essentially a cover album, or maybe more properly a reunion album. Shota Kageyama takes the place of Junichi Masuda as the composer for the game, adapting the original pieces of music and updated them for the ear of the modern audience. With Masuda serving as director, and with Nintendo’s overall eye of traditionalism, there was no possible way that the soundtrack could have deviated far from the original composition for that good old nostalgic feeling. As with the visuals, the soundtrack is a walk back down memory lane. Maybe we heard chiptunes in our heads two decades ago but what we really interpreted those primitive sounds as was the broader score we’re hearing at last in this game. For a remake, it serves its purpose, though again the ambition or innovation of it all could be found lacking.

Nothing says welcome back to Kanto like:

Remember this is recreation not creation:

gameplay Gameplay: 5/10

I explored a lot of why I decided to give Pokémon Let’s Go an average (just average) score for gameplay, and essentially it boils down to the battle between its mobile sensibilities and its console sensibilities. Without rehashing that entire segment again, I’ll simply say that the Joy Con motion controls are nearly as unreliable as they were two console generations ago. You can solve that with handheld mode but that immediately eliminates playing it with a friend or your own kids (if you used them as an excuse for buying this game). The Pokémon Go features make completing the game more quickly an option but they also make the experience less substantial as an RPG. Let’s Go had a thin line to walk.

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Let’s talk changes from the original. Beyond the admixtures to the core gameplay, there are several. I never completed Pokémon Yellow so seeing Jessie and James (and an un-talking Meowth) from the anime was fun. A bunch of Pokémon locations have been changed, including being able to find the original three starters in the wild, and you can also grab some Alolan and Mega Evolution forms, too. You can also ride Pokémon now, which sounds cooler than in practice as your avatar will go from riding to walking to riding to walking frequently when any object enters arm’s reach including NPCs, fences, boulders, and any other thing imaginable.

I’m on the fence about random battles being changed to field-visible catch opportunities, but two changes I enjoyed included removing the laborious Pokémon PC storage system and removing HMs from having to take up moveset space on your team. Now, as apparently is the case in Pokémon Sun and Moon, the HMs are gone and in their place are secret techs that your buddy, Pikachu or Eevee, can learn and always have at the ready.

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Surf!

Shinies are now a real part of the game. I remember talking about hacks and shinies back in the day at some vague point but you can legitimately catch these in Kanto now. It involves a lot of random number crunching but you can cope with catch combos and special equipment to raise your chance of catching a shiny Pokémon in the wild. I caught a few and it can be pretty time consuming, and without much reward in return other than a color swapped Pokémon with potentially great stats.

These shinies could be useful for the new Master Trainers added to the post-game. There are 151 Master Trainers, each specializing in training one of the 151 Kanto Pokémon, and they want to challenge your Pokémon but it has to be the same exact species. That means a single battle where you pit your Charizard against the best Charizard, your Pikachu against the best Pikachu, your Psyduck against the best Psyduck, and so on.

Now, Pokémon games have occasionally been called too easy but this post-game challenge could possibly be too hard! Imagine training all 151 Pokémon (yes, even stupid ones like Jynx or worthless and boring ones like Tauros) and training them to absolute perfection (meaning you’ll need to catch really good ones in the first place with killer stats). This represents an enormous time sink between harvesting Pokémon with great stats and then leveling them each to 100. Is that all necessary? Yes, because these Master Trainer battles are brutal with Pokémon tweaked to have the perfect moveset to take down yours of the same type. Wow, just wow to anyone who manages to complete this.

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Sadly, the iconic Safari Zone is completely gone from the game, and in its place is the Pokémon Go Park for transferring your creatures from your phone into Let’s Go. Actually, this is the primary reason why I got back into playing Pokémon Go on my phone. I dropped off for a while after being unable to access my account but when Let’s Go was announced, I jumped back in, made a new account, and got hooked on collecting all over again.

See, my thought process was there could be this great two-way conversation between my Pokémon Go and my Pokémon Let’s Go games. I could use the former to fill out my Pokédex in the latter (which does work) and I could use the latter to send over rare shinies to the former (which does not work). I found out upon purchasing the game that Nintendo hadn’t really been clear about transferring between games, or I had just missed the announcement: all transfers from Go to Let’s Go would be permanent, but there would be no transferring from Let’s Go to Go. Any Pokémon with great stats or shiny colorations would be stuck forever on the hybrid console with no use for the mobile game.

I was somewhat disappointed with that design choice, though I admittedly wouldn’t used it to break Pokémon Go with Kanto juggernauts. It is worth noting that trading into Let’s Go unlocks the opportunity to catch the new mythical Pokémon Meltan in Go, for what it’s worth, though I found the attractions at the in-game Pokémon Go Park to be pretty lackluster. You must transfer 25 Pokémon of the same type just to play in one of the Park’s mini-game areas.

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accessibility Accessibility: 9/10

As much as I criticized the use of the single Joy Con as a kind of wand-like motion controller, I’ll also readily admit that the button mapping is simple and easy to grasp. This is, after all, a remade Game Boy game; there were never many buttons to contend with in the first place. I think that some of the game’s menus could be easier to navigate, connecting to the Switch could be more obvious, and there could have absolutely been more shortcuts to essential features like flying on the back of your Charizard or using Pikachu’s warp ability beyond having to sift through multiple layers of menus, but overall, Pokémon Let’s Go remains appropriately simple to learn.

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What I wouldn’t give for a flying mount shortcut option.

challenge Challenge: 3/10

Discounting Master Trainers as they are very much post-game additions not at all essential to the core game or completing the game, Pokémon Let’s Go is easy. My first loss came from fighting Blue (Gary) after beating the Elite Four. You can also fight Red and Green, though I didn’t make it to Red as he has additional requirements to fulfill that I didn’t feel like taking the time to meet.

Many have noticed that, curiously, Pokémon Let’s Go is actually easier than Pokémon Red and Blue. Trainers have less Pokémon, with many of them carrying only a single one up until the later parts of the game, and the addition of a second player isn’t compensated for by the game’s difficulty. Its curve would be a flat line with a spike post-game.

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I have heard some rush to the defense of Let’s Go and its ease by reminding me, a 30-something male who plays Nintendo games and writes about them, that, hey, the game is made for children. Well, remember… so was Red and Blue. So tell me why Nintendo decided that children today needed a larger handicap on the game’s difficulty than children twenty years ago did when they enjoyed the games just fine? Less difficulty may be a modern sensibility to distance Let’s Go from the sheer grind and challenge of the original games, but here it seems they took away a little too much.

As a remake, this is the least accurate thing about Let’s Go. It’s been, forgive me, castrated. It leans toward all the slander of patronizing and hand-holding that modern games are stereotyped for, putting its hardest content all the way after the credits roll, so that not even the Elite Four seem like an event.

The question remains whether kids today would even have the stomach for mildly demanding games like the original Red and Blue, touched up in other places to diminish as much boredom as possible. Given the popularity of other realms of skill-based gameplay, such as in shooters and royales popular with young kids, or with rogues in the indie scene, I don’t think that the hollowing out of Red and Blue was entirely necessary. Using children’s tastes for difficulty is a poor excuse for a game that was simply made too easy and unbalanced.

Which would you say makes a game more boring, generally speaking? Challenges or zero stakes?

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replayability Replayability: 9/10

The Pokémon series thrives because the games are addicting. If they weren’t, the whole show wouldn’t fizzled out like a fad when Doug and Home Improvement were still on TV.

Quite simply, these games grab you and keep you invested because of the premise: collecting and being the best. Once you’re drawn into collecting the cute, little creatures, then you’re sucked into seeing whose creatures are better. There’s that allure of both competition and possessing things, two fundamental human drives at the heart of most things that we do.

So while Pokémon may seem like it’s about fantasy biology, it’s actually more about real anthropology. The fact that anyone at any age from any culture can get hooked on catching ’em all says more about people than it does about lizards that can shoot lasers or electric mouses. And that is Pokémon’s triumph. You’ll likely not replay the whole game over and over again, but you may just find yourself scouring all the corners of Kanto to find every last monster for your collection, or shelling out real-world cash for a novelty controller just to get Mew, or waiting with bated breath for the confrontation with this bad boy:

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uniqueness Uniqueness: 6/10

Pokémon Let’s Go is a remake but it re-arrives with a few interesting changes, some challenging, some not so challenging, or some innovative and some not so much. It’s enough to maintain the fragile balance of preserving the experiences of the original games while still providing a fresh and optimistic facelift, as well as new reasons to play (or re-play).

Let’s Go doesn’t quite escape all the pitfalls inherent in attempting to remake a handheld icon, and attempting to be a hybrid console title with motion controls, and attempting to involve mobile gaming design features. Plenty of that gets muddled and awkward, but at least that combination of aspirations is unique.

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mypersonalgrade My Personal Grade: 6/10

Essentially, this is a supplemental Pokémon game. It’s not the core Pokémon RPG for Switch that you might be hearing about, lest you be led into disappointment. It’s not a pure mobile game and it’s not a pure console game. It’s somewhere in the mystifying middle.

What Let’s Go does best is capturing the sensation of playing the original games, so my assumption is those who will enjoy it most will be those who played the originals all those years ago, and their kids. Sharing that experience is at the heart of what makes gaming so great. You might have to put up with some archaic motion controls, but playing Let’s Go with your children is an exercise in the joy of parenting and sharing in nostalgia while creating new memories.

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Speaking as a fan, the brand new content isn’t really the big draw for me. I loved revisiting Kanto with a fresh set of eyes and having all those memories pulled back into my consciousness again: scuffling with my rival, stopping Team Rocket, reaching the Elite Four, facing down Mewtwo and the legendary birds. As a remake, it’s an appetizer and knowing what I know of it now, I probably would wait on a sale for it.

I am, however, glad that it’s not the coming core Pokémon RPG for the Switch. Maybe it’s just a teaser. I can only hope they keep tossing invisible balls at my television screen far from that future title; hopefully the next game won’t attempt the same balancing act.

Aggregated Score: 6.5

 

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18 replies »

  1. What a wonderful, well thought-out review!

    I play the games more out of nostalgia than anything else, I’ll admit. Pokemon Yellow was my first foray into Pokemon, so playing Let’s Go Pikachu just brings me back twenty years. I miss the challenges of wild battles and, considering I don’t play Pokemon Go, I’m missing out on that aspect entirely, but my sister and I are having fun with the two titles.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well… I can’t disagree with anything you wrote here. For once I fully agree with you! I usually have some sort of disagreement on something with you, but you hit the nail on the head here. We even gave the game the same score! You were spot on with the difficulty of this game. There’s no excuse why it should be so easy. Every Pokemon game is easy and making them easier was not the answer. After taking so much out of the game the least they could have done was give us a hard mode or scale the difficulty up a little bit. As for those master battles I have no interest in them. Why? Because I’m not about to train all of my pokemon up to level 80 just to get a crap reward that I won’t care about.

    I enjoy watching my kids play the game together. I like how they laugh when they win a battle or catch a new Pokemon, but this is, by far, my least favorite Pokemon game of all time. And, honestly, I’m tired of Kanto. We’ve revisited this region enough. Make a new region or remake Diamond/Pearl or Black/White please! I’m actually a little scared if they do go the remake route because they might make it like Let’s Go :(.

    Great review dude!

    Okay… so after glancing at the score again it’s not exactly the same. I went with 60 :).

    Liked by 1 person

    • WHAT?! We agreed? I should’ve tried harder! 😉

      Yeah, the difficulty, the wonky motion controls, the control options, there’s a lot that’s just weird with this game. I’m looking forward to the next Pokemon game but I hope it’s not like this.

      At least 60 and 6.5 aren’t too different of scores, all things considered.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Never thought I would see the day we agreed on a game :).

        And I agree with all of criticisms. If the next Pokemon game is like this I’ll skip it. And our scores aren’t very different at all.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. In some areas, Let’s Go is an improvement, and in some areas, it’s a disappointment. Like having all your Pokemon on you = good. No special abilities or breeding = bad. Hopefully though the next gen games will keep some of Let’s Go user-friendliness though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You said in a precise nutshell exactly how I feel about the game! It’s got some good and some bad, and it doesn’t always nail the balancing act. I’d like to see some things continue from it but not everything, for sure.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have been playing this (well the Eevee version) and enjoying it, but it is also my first Pokémon game, so I don’t have a lot to compare it to. I am disappointed their aren’t more control options for when playing the game docked. More than even the motion controls, I just really dislike the control setup on the single Joy Con. I wish I could just use both like when in handheld mode. I pretty much play exclusively in handheld mode now because of this which is a bummer as I generally prefer playing games on the big screen. It was interesting to read your take as a veteran of the series. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah that’s kind of a weird oversight that there’s no way to really change up the controls. With the fluidity of controls that the Joy Cons seem to promise, it’s a shame that in docked all you can do is play with that weird wand-like layout, or get the Poke Ball controller. More control options would have made this game not trip over its own feet, in my view.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This seems pretty consistent with my expectations for the game. I haven’t gotten to play it yet, but I’m looking forward to the nostalgia trip even if the game does turn out to be a bit simple!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey thanks for reading and commenting. Over-simplified vs simple, and ultimately awkward are what you’ll have to put up with for the nostalgia trip. It’s a double edged sword but man is it heavy on the nostalgia! Which version do you plan to get?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I actually ended up getting Let’s Go Eevee for Christmas over the weekend! I’ve waited to start playing it until I have a chance for my son to try it out – he’s somewhat interested in the concept of Pokemon and since he’s the same age as your little one who played it, I think that’ll be something that will be fun to share with him.

        Liked by 1 person

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