Since the mid-2000’s, sports video games have largely stayed the same.
The various companies in charge of our AAA sports game franchises issue an annual software release, which usually amounts to updating the rosters, making graphical and in-game engine improvements, and perhaps adds in a new mode (like the ever-popular Ultimate Team modes in Madden and FIFA) or playing feature. (Remember the visual cone of Madden 06 fame?)
This has resulted in a number of largely monolithic franchises over the last decade or so, with major changes usually only occuring when transitioning to new-generation consoles.
It wasn’t always this way, though.
Back in the 90’s and early 00’s, there were multiple versions of games with NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA licenses. It allowed for a lot of experimentation and variations. This all changed in 2006, when EA Sports won exclusivity with the NFL for their license to kill off competitors from making football games (most notably NFL 2k.) From there, the leagues went to exclusivity for the most part, with MLB partnering with Sony and Namco, NHL with EA and the NBA with 2k (though, they would later briefly revive a partnership with EA.)
The EA’s and 2k’s of the world have many parallels then, with Game Freak and Nintendo, the creators of the Pokemon franchise.
Pokemon, at its core, is an adventure RPG which allows a kid to have free reign in his home region (the option for a girl avatar would arrive with 2003’s Crystal), assembling a roster of monsters to battle rivals and other trainers throughout a fleashed-out world which felt extremely expansive, even in the hand-held versions. In the first generation (Red/Yellow/Blue), after taking on the Gym Challenge, trainers then faced the Elite Four, the Kanto Champion Lance, and finally (spoiler alert) their hated rival to be the new champion.
The formula has more-or-less kept up the same basic tenents thorughout the seven iterations and various regions over the better part of 20 years: kid hero trots the world with a Pokedex to fill, rival(s) to beat, badges to win and an evil conglomerate(s) to stop.
Most everyone who has ever played a Pokemon can remember their first time leading a team of pocket monsters to battle; for me, it was Pokemon Stadium in 2000. It wasn’t the most conventional way to start my journey through Kanto, but I fell in love nonetheless.
My journey through Pokemon Yellow using the Game Boy Tower feature in Pokemon Stadium only further deepened my love and appreciation for it. Using the Expansion Pak to take advantage of the emulation feature gave a seven-year-old James a way to harken back to the 8-bit, chip-tune era and experience Pokemon at its barest and most raw.
That’s why the latest version, Pokemon Sword/Shield (shorthanded: Sw/Sh) is such a startling standout.
Yes, the same tenents mentioned above still apply, but there’s such a different application to how Game Freak makes it happen, that one could argue that at its core, Sw/Sh is a sports game.
Nintendo has quite famously never main-lined a recurring sports title on any of its consoles. Their deal with EA to port Madden stopped with 13, as EA focused on the new-gen PS5 and XBox One X. They briefly ended their relationship with NBA 2k in the Wii U generation, only bringing the franchise back with 2k19’s release; the only baseball game available on the Switch is RBI Baseball. The closest thing Nintendo pubishes as a “sports” title is probably Mario Kart 8 and Mario Tennis Aces, which could probably be better classified as party games.
So, what exactly makes Sw/Sh a sports game?
Well, from the start, it’s extremely evident that your journey is about to be very different from previous games.
The game starts with the inherent knowledge of your assignment; the Galar region is unique in the way the Gym Challenge is interwoven with its culture. Unlike other regions, where the gym challenge (or trial challenge in Alola) might be more of a rite of passage or a hobby to pursue, the Galar region is absolutely obsessed with the annual gym challenge, making it the crown jewel festival of the region.
“League cards” emblazoned with the faces and signatures of trainers are freely exchanged between trainers and audience memers to be collected. Sponsors emblazon the kits of leaders and stadiums as part of the game-day atmosphere. Gym leaders who don’t perform up to par are relegated, while those who show exceptional power are promoted (Allister, the Ghost-type leader, is one such case of the latter.)
There are supporter groups in the game who cheer on indiviual trainers, and they’re happy to tell you so. One such group, Team Yell, will even actively get in your way to let their preferred gym challenger win it all.
The pomp and circumstance cannot be understated.
Unlike previous versions of the game, where gym battles or trials are extremely private and intimate affairs, gym battles in Galar are out in open-air stadiums and broadcast live througout the region, attaching stakes to a part of the game which might have been taken for granted before.
You can feel the importance of the event as you try to come up with an optimal strategy, thanks in part to gorgeous cinematography and a dynamic soundtrack which changes as the battle progresses (as can be seen below.)
Along the way, you meet several rivals, all of whom have different motivations for achieving the same goal that you do, and the dynamic can best be compared to wrestling storylines. Hop, your main rival, grows from a naive little brother with no direction to a fully-fledged trainer with purpose. Marnie is a small-town girl who feels the outsized pressure to perform for her friends and family; Bede is an orphaned boy who, at first arrogant and unapproachable, eventually swallows his pride and accepts his role in the world.
The relationships are all dynamic, and feel fairly realtistic. When you have to face off against them in order to advance in the Final Tournament, it’s a bittersweet moment, and the weight of it was far more than I expected to face.
That feeling is amplified as you progress through the game, as your avatar is cheered on and congratulated after winning gym battles, or is recognized on the street in a new town. You even have one dedicated fan who goes to every gym to specifically watch you.
(SPOILERS END HERE)
With the release of Sw/Sh, the dynamic of training your party and how you approach battles is changed on its head.
The Pokemon Box (previously Bill’s PC or Trainer’s PC,) is now readily available wherever the trainer happens to be, cutting out the need to travel to the nearest Pokemon Center to trade out Pokemon. One could look at that as being able to swap out starters and bench players depending on the matchup. Pokemon now share expereince regardless of if they participated in a battle or not, something that is similar in philosophy with a team training session leading up to a game.
(Aside: the party experience share feature was technically introdcued in Sun/Moon, but it was an item to be earned early on, as opposed to an actual feature of the core gameplay. Before Sun/Moon, EXP Share was an item to be held by a single Pokemon.)
The features which make Sw/Sh a sports game isn’t limited to offline play.
You can “Wonder Trade” with players with online access, requesting specific Pokemon or a random one in real-time. There’s also the ability to battle online in casual battles with friends or random trainers (available in previous versions) or in a new, ranked mode (available in the new game.) Let’s not forget the Dynamax den battles either, where you can invite up to four friends or random trainers to fight a giant, all-powerful Pokemon in order to catch it and obtain a variety of goodies.
That isn’t too dissimilar from modes other sports games have to offer; Madden and other EA titles allow for online franchises, Ultimate Team matches, casual matches and competitive matches.The Show allows for Diamond Dynasty online mode, while 2k has “myPlayer” career mode and online myLeagues.
Where Pokemon is set apart in “best sports game” consideration is in a lack of microtransactions.
Whereas the games mentioned above have recently made microtransactions nearly a requirement in order to remain competitive, Game Freak and Nintendo didn’t fall for the temptation of easy money. Instead, they made it easier for players to transfer their Pokemon attained in other games into Sw/Sh, and give the player plenty of ways to field a competitive team in-game by default.
They took this one step further; in a Nintendo Direct on Thursday afternoon, Game Freak announced they would allow for over 200+ new character models to be accessible through a free update via the Wonder Trade, allowing those who don’t purchase the latest DLC to have a chance to catch an exclusive Pokemon.
The DLC, available for $29.99 per pack, will have the new character models, as well as two entirely new maps to explore– a karate dojo island and a Tibet-like mountain area– and missions to complete, without having to purchase new software or start over with a new save file. It promises a truly seamless experience, and is something other sporting titles simply don’t offer at the moment.
Nintendo found a way to perfectly meld an adventure fantasy with the intensity of casual sporting titles in a way that simply cannot be repeated– at least, not with the current mentality of AAA publishers. They also went progressive with their content additions, eschewing the traditional $60 tertiary game (think: annual release of Madden), instead making it an add-on to the current game.
The same cannot be said for games like Madden, or NBA 2k, which have all more-or-less been deridded as microtransaction-heavy, soulless games filled with in-play bugs and a lack of meaninful gameplay changes. There are no available add-on modes which offer different aspects of play (which can be expected, but is nonetheless lacking ambition) or if there is such a mode, it heavily re-enforces the need to pay-to-win. (FIFA, for what it’s worth, recently introduced VOLTA mode as a launch feature, which is pretty good!) As someone who’s played both Madden and 2k recently, I can’t help but to find a lot of the criticism valid.
Nintendo didn’t make Sw/Sh perfect by any means; many fans were extremely angry at the selection of Pokemon being cut for brevity’s sake, and the game can feel like it’s holidng your hand at times, especially early on. It’s also arguable that developers can be restricted by the leagues they operate with in terms of what they can do with the games themselves due to concerns about protecting the brand (looking at YOU, NFL), or that turnaround times require developers to push change in increments.
All that said, it’s still apparent that Sw/Sh, a sports-adjacent game, was crafted with the most love, care and polish a game in the genre has seen in recent years, and should be considered the best sports game of 2019– and 2020.