Every Friday, I’ll be looking back at some of the best (or most interesting, at least) video games released on Nintendo’s most misunderstood console, the GameCube. This week, it’s Nintendo’s first real attempt at a console Pokemon RPG, Pokemon Colosseum. For information on this project, take a look at the original post, and feel free to make suggestions in the comments!
Perhaps it’s bad form to start a review with two disclaimers, but alas, I feel it’s necessary with a property as beloved as Pokemon. The first disclaimer is that I have to apologize for the lateness of this article. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but basically Real Life kept getting in the way, and you know what kind of a drag that is.
The second disclaimer is one that’s perhaps a bit more controversial, especially for someone who works for a Nintendo-centric gaming site: I’m not a huge fan of Pokemon. I understand the appeal of finding and collecting all of those cute critters, and there’s no denying that in their JRPG battling fundamentals, the handheld main series has incredibly solid mechanics (and I’ll never allow anyone to besmirch the name of one of my favourite games of all time, Pokemon Snap), but after awhile I find the promise of nothing more than infinite battles and collecting and (what I find to be) substandard storytelling to be somewhat nauseating. I’ve also never quite understood how, despite the environmental messaging and the “treat animals with respect” theme of Pokemon, fighting with your Pokemon isn’t basically a fantasy version of Michael Vick-less dog fighting.
I went into Pokemon Colosseum expecting to dislike it, in other words. And I can’t quite put my finger on why, just yet, but that wasn’t exactly the case.
In a lot of ways, Pokemon Colosseum‘s release was one of the more exciting things to happen in the world of Pokemon back in 2004. It wasn’t just another Pokemon Stadium game - The Pokemon Company was explicitly promising something much deeper than that. In fact, a charitable writer might even go so far as to say that Pokemon Colosseum, and to an even greater extent, its followup XD: Gale of Darkness, were veritable console versions of the popular, and to that point entirely handheld, RPG series.
That wasn’t exactly the case for a number of reasons. Pokemon Colosseum was indeed the closest that the console spinoffs had come to the RPG structures of the main series, but it’s in the game’s absences that it sort of stands as a baffling half-measure. The main series Pokemon games, outside of their battling and collecting systems (which I’ll get to in a moment), were really a kind of digital bildungsroman, as your little avatar comes of age through a series of adventures throughout the world with your cute companions in tow.
Pokemon Colosseum is emphatically not that kind of story, and instead of feeling like a console Pokemon, feels like a console JRPG that happens to feature Pokemon, and that’s a significant difference. Instead of playing as a plucky kid hero with a simple, obtainable task ahead of you (collect Pokemon, defeat gyms), you play as Wes, an anti-hero with a heart of gold, who is coincidentally significantly older than most Pokemon protagonists. The game’s setting, too, eschews the wide variety of topographical areas that were standard in most Pokemon games in favour of the Orre desert region, which is grimy and dusty enough for Pokemon to come close to being a kind of sci-fi western.
The game signals its new affinity for baditude in the first thirty seconds: Wes blows up a Team Snagem hideout, stealing an important piece of technology for them, and riding away on his improbably badass motorbike… thing. It’s not Gears of War or anything, but it’s got a far harder edge than simply choosing your starter Pokemon and setting out for your adventure. The game incorporates kidnapping, biological mutation and abuse into its storyline, and I for one found this kind of weird attempt “pokedystopia” fascinating, even if its sometimes completely asinine translation threatens to completely derail the game.
In some of its downtrodden grandeur, the game even recalls the cyberpunk scenarios of Final Fantasy VII, and that was something I was completely not expecting. This is, despite its Pokemon exterior (sorry if that offends you, by the way - remember, these are simply my opinions), a pretty engaging storyline all told. Unfortunately, the world of Orre is somewhat sullied by some strange design decisions - things they got right in the handheld versions, too, which in my mind seems to suggest that there was a slight bit of cash-in action happening (or at the very least, a desire not to completely dethrone the GBA Pokemon games that had come out around the same time).
By dint of setting the game in the desert, the whole “getting into random encounters to collect new Pokemon” aspect of the main series (which, truth be told, is a pretty addictive mechanic) is gutted. Instead, the game revolves around “shadow Pokemon,” which are Pokemon that have been sort of brainwashed by their evil captors. Your partner, Rui, can sense which Pokemon are Shadow Pokemon, and these “dark Pokemon” are the only ones you can capture, through basically the same process that you’d go about capturing Pokemon regularly, i.e., weakening them enough to capture them in Pokeballs. It takes an element of discovery out of the process, though, making each encounter with shadow Pokemon a “do or die” event. It’s thrilling at first, but quickly becomes too strict for its own good. It makes the game feel even more resolutely linear than it should, especially considering that that other great element of Pokemon games - the large, interconnected overworld - is nowhere to be found in this game, instead replaced by a point and click map. By placing the entirety of the narrative in these towns and other prescribed areas, the game loses that sense of discovery, and that’s ultimately a little unfortunate.
Still, there is a lot of fun to be had with the game, especially in its battle system. For one, it really speaks volumes as to why a true, 3D, console (or very least, 3DS) Pokemon game would rule, because simply seeing those critters in full, glorious 3D is an inherently great thing. They’ve always been (on the whole, anyways) too unflaggingly well-designed to be confined to sub-standard sprite art, and certain Pokemon (like Bayleef, up top there) are too cute for words in this game. As well, Colosseum introduced 2 v. 2 battles for the first time in the series, making the traditional Dragon Warrior-esque battles have an entirely new layer of complexity. For a game pretty much built around the idea of battling, it works wonders, and makes the eventual long-haul slog much more bearable. (I didn’t really have time to check out the Battle mode in any significant detail, but I can see how this system would lend itself well to that kind of focused setting - and it’s also surprising to me that it took up until Black and White to be introduced into the main series)
Obviously, for Poke-fanatics intent on playing a fully 3D Pokemon game, this is a no-brainer. I haven’t actually had the chance to play Gale of Darkness yet, but there’s no question that Pokemon Colosseum represents one of the best attempts at transmuting that seemingly-winning formula to console gaming. And while I did enjoy the game, far more than I expected to at that, it’s still so strange to me that the promise of a true console Pokemon game has yet to be realized, and wasn’t even really attempted with any degree of commitment on the Wii. The trading abilities of portable systems have been well-documented, but with the advent of online play, a Wii U Pokemon game would literally win an entire generation, both of consoles and of kids. In the end, Pokemon Colosseum stands up as a complete game all on its own, but it’s hard not to wish and wonder what could truly be achieved if someone at The Pokemon Company had the chutzpah to break outside their comfort zone.
NEXT WEEK: Metroid Prime 1 and 2