Pokemon producer Masuda looking to hook new players with ‘Let’s Go’ games


TORONTO — With its simplified but addictive gameplay and impressive install base, 2016 smartphone sensation “Pokemon Go” became an ideal gateway for new fans to get into the popular monster hunting franchise. “Go” producer Junichi Masuda says the next games in the long-running series will use the same philosophy to try to expand the brand’s appeal even further.

“Pokemon: Let’s Go, Pikachu!” and “Pokemon: Let’s Go! Eevee,” also produced by Masuda, will be released Nov. 16 on the Nintendo Switch. The new titles will combine the simple throw-and-catch monster hunting mechanics of “Go” with the more traditional role-playing game elements of the core Pokemon series.

Masuda created a new method for catching creatures for “Go.” Flicking one’s finger over a smartphone’s touchscreen throws a capture device, known as a Pokeball, at a wild Pokemon. That method will be built upon in the “Pokemon: Let’s Go” games, with players throwing Pokeballs by using the motion controls of the Switch’s joy-con peripherals.

“At the time I didn’t necessarily think that was going to lead to a success, but as time went on and more and more people started playing the game, I realized that simplicity was core to making (‘Go’) have such a wide appeal,” Masuda said through an interpreter in a recent phone interview with The Canadian Press. “So I really wanted to try to take that philosophy and see what it would look like implemented in one of the main series’ RPG games, which is the beginning of the ‘Lets’ Go: Pikachu!’ and ‘Lets’ Go: Eevee!’ design.”

In the core series, players need to use some of their trained Pokemon to weaken monsters in the wild before attempting a capture. This allows for a deeper gameplay experience for series veterans, but is a potential barrier for newcomers and younger players unfamiliar with the battle mechanics.

The “Pokemon: Let’s Go” games are designed to introduce new players and players used to the gameplay of “Go” into the wider Pokemon world. While catching Pokemon will remain simplified, the games have a full RPG plot and will include battles with rival Pokemon trainers.

Ideally, players introduced to Pokemon RPGs through the “Let’s Go” titles will be hooked when the next core game in the series comes to Switch next year.

“One way to look at it, is kind of a bridge from ‘Go’ to the main series and vice-versa,” Masuda said. “There are some elements that are closer to ‘Go,’ but at the same time it’s also quite different. For example, a lot of the ‘Pokemon Go’ players will play the game and they’re not familiar with the idea of battling against trainer NPCs and levelling them up to train their Pokemon. So it is kind of my desire that it will introduce the main ‘Pokemon’ RPGs to the ‘Go’ audience.”

The new titles will also be relying on the star power Pikachu, the lightning-powered rodent who has evolved into a mainstream star. Long the face of the Pokemon franchise, Pikachu has emerged into a big player in Nintendo’s overall roster of characters and a pop culture icon in its own right.

While Pikachu was a lock to star in one of the games, the choice to head up the companion title was not as clear-cut. While Eevee is well-known to fans of the series, the adorable vulpine critter with the saucer-shaped brown eyes lacks Pikachu’s cross-over appeal.

Masuda said Psyduck, his favourite Pokemon, was in consideration to head up the second title.

“But Psyduck looks like kind of a dummy and I’m not sure everyone out there would want to adventure alongside it,” Masuda said. “I think really the (protagonist) Pokemon and trainer would have to be intelligent and understand each other fairly well, so that sort of limits the Pokemon that could fulfil that role. That was one of the reasons Eevee felt like a good candidate.”

Aside from the protagonists, the two versions of the “Pokemon: Let’s Go” games will also have different Pokemon available to catch. “Pokemon” titles are traditionally released in pairs, with the idea that players who “gotta catch ’em all” will need to interact with those who have the other version of the game.

“That’s always been kind of the main reason we’ve done two versions, is that we want to encourage people to trade,” Masuda said. “You can’t compete your Pokedex in a single game, you need to go out and find people with the other versions, communicate with them and trade with Pokemon they can only catch in their games.”

The “Pokemon: Let’s Go” titles are developed by Tokyo-based Game Freak, which has been with the Pokemon series since its inception. Masuda has been with the company since its founding in 1989 as a composer, programmer, director and producer.

The total Pokemon roster boasts over 800 entries, either unique monsters or variations, and the “Pokemon: Let’s Go” titles will introduce new additions. But Masuda says despite having seen the creation of hundreds of Pokemon under his watch, even he can’t always see which ones will be embraced by players.

“I like bird Pokemon quite a bit so I thought Piplup and Torchic were super cute and everybody was going to love them. And of course they have their fans, but they’re probably not quite to the level of popularity that I expected.

“On the other side of things, I never really understood what made Oshawott cute. But when that Pokemon came out it really got a huge following, and it kind of exploded on the internet and everyone loved it.

“So it was definitely a lesson to me that you never turn down a Pokemon design just because you don’t personally like it. At the same time, don’t push one through just because you like it. You really need a balance as everyone kind of has their favourites.”

Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press