When Pokemon Gold & Silver got a European release in the year 2000, the GameCube was just around the corner. Nintendo’s next-generation, CD-based effort had been announced under the codename Dolphin with much fanfare – and all I could think about was what Pokemon might be like on the machine.
I wasn’t alone, either; I remember the gaming magazines I’d pore over wildly speculating about a 3D Pokemon that’d have elements in common with Ocarina of Time and the PS1 Final Fantasy games, both of which I loved. It was a theoretical match made in heaven.
That wouldn’t come to pass, of course. Franchise owner The Pokemon Company, developer Game Freak and parent Nintendo had no intention of moving the core Pokemon series off Nintendo handhelds. In fact, for a brief period Gold & Silver were intended as the end of the series – but continued explosive sales meant all involved changed their minds.
A winning formula had been found and it wasn’t going to change. While there were the Stadium games and a couple of spin-off RPGs, none of these had the style or scope of the main series.
Fast forward the better part of two decades and here we are with Pokemon Sword & Shield, the first entry in the main franchise developed for a console. Except, of course, this was a forced decision: this is now the only Nintendo machine, and it’s a handheld as well. Perhaps this is why Sword & Shield was such a mixed experience. In places it felt like the revolutionary, console-based, online-driven Pokemon game I’d been dreaming of for years, while in others it looked worryingly like a franchise spinning its wheels, trapped by its own legacy.
While it had been announced fully much earlier, this month marked the proper launch of Pokemon-alike Temtem into early access. Now, let’s be clear – Temtem gingerly toes the very fine line between inspiration and knock-off. But part of why that doesn’t matter to players is that it’s offering many of the ideas Pokemon fans have craved for years.
Temtem is a fully-fledged MMO; you see other players walking around right throughout the game, not just in one unique area. You can battle cooperatively or competitively with other players at the drop of a hat. These multiplayer features are currently limited due to the game’s early access nature – and yet they’re still more deeply intertwined with the main experience than most of what Pokemon has offered online.
Battles are very similar to Pokemon albeit with different type strengths and weaknesses and the like, but the key difference is that battles are typically two-on-two affairs. Being two-on-two adds an important wrinkle as you work through the complicated rock-paper-scissors combat. In competitive Pokemon, doubles matches with two creatures on each side have generally been recognized as the more interesting format because of this; Temtem has acknowledged this and made these sorts of battles the backbone of its combat rather than an occasional feature.
The inclusion of a stamina bar offers a shade of what other turn-based RPGs might accomplish with stuff like move cast times, again adding a significant layer of challenge to combat. You can’t just flick in the right type and knock everything dead with a super-effective repeated powerhouse move.
Basically, Temtem is good. Like any early access game, it’s uneven, occasionally buggy and missing content, with gateways to interesting areas marked with coming soon signage – but what is there is a very strong start indeed.
Temtem developer Crema has obviously looked to Game Freak and Pokemon a great deal. Temtem owes that series and studio its life and much of its success. But what is clear is that as well as analysing what Pokemon has done right and well, the developer of Temtem has examined what Game Freak has failed to do in order to try to offer a fully featured alternative.
None of this is to say that Temtem is straight-up better than Sword & Shield – there are things that both games do better than the other – but Temtem is a solid run at the critter-capturing subgenre with unique and exciting ideas. It’s probably the first decent Pokemon rival with some positive buzz around it in over a decade – so hopefully that series’ stewards are forced to sit up, take notice and even consider making changes.
Competition is good. Temtem is an early access release that looks as though it’ll shape up to be excellent in its own right – but hopefully seeing another ape its formula so well can be the kick up the backside a complacent Pokemon has needed for a while now.