While the nature of Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee was pretty obvious from the chatter around its announcement, I still found myself a little taken aback when I finally went hands-on with this latest, beginner-friendly entry in the Pokemon series. The reason for my surprise? I couldn't quite believe how close to Pokemon Yellow, its inspiration, it is.
If you played Yellow, Red, Blue or even Green back in the day, Pokemon Let's Go should prove to be a real nostalgia trip. This isn't just a 'reimagining' of Yellow with a new plot in a new version of the same world: it is absolutely, definitively in the same world - to the point where in these early areas, at least, it could be mistaken for a high-definition remake.
The brief demo I got to play a few weeks ago at E3 allowed me to trapse through the Viridian Forest area, and boy - this early-game, training wheels dungeon area is more or less identical. Layout, scope and scale, trainer placement, the smattering of wild Pokemon found roaming the area - it is all the same, at least to my aged memory of the game. On reflection this makes a lot of sense: a good chunk of Pokemon Go's success was helped along by 90s kids who hadn't played since the Game Boy being sucked in, so this goes right back to what they know.
It's actually pretty cool: nostalgia is stoked right away, and while Pokemon are now represented in slick-looking high definition 3D models, nods to the past games are all over, like in menu screens that feature the classic mini menu sprites of the Pokemon on your team and many of the same menu sound effects that have been in place since the nineties.
The main difference to those classic Game Boy Pokemon titles is how Pokemon Let's Go handles encountering and catching wild Pokemon. This is actually the most interesting bit of the game in general in terms of what impact it could have on Pokemon at large if deemed successful: random encounters are gone. Yes!
I'm properly pleased about this, as ever since Chrono Trigger presented a cool way of seamlessly jumping into battle or skirting around battle by avoiding getting too close to enemies I've been fairly down on random encounters - and that was a long time ago. Pokemon Let's Go's system is not so nuanced, however, so there's no avoiding lines-of-sight or sticking out of the way to avoid wild encounters - though that logic pleasingly still applies to the ever-eager Bug Trainers who want to test their newly caught Pokemon in battle.
Instead, it's all handled like Pokemon Go. Pokemon spawn out into the world in wild grass and sometimes even a little outside it, and it's up to you to guide your trainer avatar (boy or girl, another modern improvement over Yellow) to that Pokemon to initiate a wild encounter. If your trainer touches them the encounter begins, and then catching Pokemon is handled just like in Go - no fighting, but instead just coaxing the wild Pokemon with berries and other treats before tossing a Pokeball with the correct timing.
There's a fair bit to say about this. First, the encounter mechanic itself: it works! It's good. I actually much prefer it to random encounters, since it allows you to pick-and-choose (no Pikachu pun intended there) which Pokemon you want to catch. Pokemon don't pursue you, so you're free to ignore any you don't want. If you see yet another Weedle out in the grass you can walk past it, but if you see a Pikachu or a Butterfree you can run right to it to catch it - and you'll want to be quick, as rarer Pokemon will flee and despawn quickly. It's generally a nice addition, and seeing something rare spawn on the overworld provides a great little moment of excitement.
A little frustrating, mind, is that in narrow strips of grass you'll sometimes be forced into encounters because there's no easy route around the wild Pokemon. This leads to a worthless battle - you don't need to catch it and you can't fight it for EXP, so all that's left to do is run. That's less ideal.
The battles themselves are fine. If you've played Pokemon Go you know how it works - it's just a matter of timing, complete with the same closing circle UI from that mobile game. Sadly fights don't take place on the field itself, so there's still a full transition in and out of battle complete with animations - the next step I'd like to see would be a seamless segue into battle. If you're using the new Pokeball Plus, as I was (more on that in a moment) or an undocked Joy-con you can toss a Pokeball with a physical movement.
For all the cries of being dumbed down, the rest is a pretty standard, traditional Pokemon experience. Where it's stripped back it is in ways that'll impact the most hardcore. I get the distinct impression Let's Go will have a more tightly controlled difficulty curve thanks to the inability to grind out EXP on wild Pokemon, for instance, and it's clear this isn't going to be a game with much or any support for IVs, EVs and all those in-depth stats competitive players care about. Pokemon still have stats and level up, but this appears the most casual-focused experience on this scale since the original Red and Blue. This is for the mobile players and for younger kids - and that's fair enough.
I want to stress it isn't all Pokemon Go style, however. Pokemon still have four moves rather than the two they have on mobile. Battles have the full strengths and weakness system you've come to expect, and though when I went to open the menu my chaperone for the demo made me immediately close it, it appeared to have all the basic options you'd expect in the early game. So far, so good. The fact everything is still turn-based means that this is essentially a one-handed game - through the stick and clicks it's totally possible to play this entirely left-handed... if you're so inclined. I won't judge.
Finally - what of that little Pokeball accessory? It's a two-in-one deal: it acts as a Joy-con for the Switch complete with motion control but also acts as a Pokemon Go Plus if you want to take it out into the world with you and use it to catch Pokemon in that game too. It vibrates, it lights up, it has a little speaker, and when you catch a creature in Let's Go, you'll hear that Pokemon's cry come from the Pokeball Plus. It's a cute (and when you think about it, slightly macabre) touch. It seems like a great little accessory, though I found the motion control for catching Pokemon a bit of frustration.
So, yes - that's Pokemon Let's Go. It's more like a full remake of Pokemon Yellow than I'd pictured, though it is also quite clearly a Pokemon game for the most casual of players, as Nintendo, The Pokemon Company and Game Freak warned. Even some of the additions speak to that - rather than big mechanical changes they're cute things more casual fans will want to see, like the trainer riding a Pokemon or keeping them outside the Pokeball.
The kid in me remains very excited to journey though Kanto again this November - but playing something so familiar underlines the fact that what I really want is a true next-generation Pokemon experience - and hopefully I get that in the more hardcore-focused 2019 game. Pokemon Let's Go shouldn't be treated as a follow up to Sun and Moon, then - but if you go in knowing what to expect, you're likely to enjoy it all the same.