Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee Snorlax blocking route. Interactive Overworld Pokemon: Snorlax

Pokemon Interactivity In Sword And Shield Hit An All Time Low

Our first mainline Pokemon titles to launch on Nintendo Switch had their merits. The Wild Area seemed like a Pokemon pipe dream for decades. So, when that dream became a reality the community was ecstatic! Still, the new Wild Area felt a bit rushed. Only one section of the map featured overworld Pokemon. The Wild Area was also pretty small.

The reason it felt this way was because the Wild Area WAS rushed. Development for it didn’t begin until Game Freak saw how popular the concept of free-roaming Pokemon was in their spin-off titles Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee.

Luckily, the Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra DLC package ramped up the concept of the Wild Area significantly. The areas were more fleshed out, and much more scenic. The Crown Tundra featured an abundance of stones to turn and paths to explore.

But it still felt a bit hollow, didn’t it?

Pokemon pranced around in patches of grass, but their behaviors were bland. More importantly, there weren’t any Pokemon that served a purpose. Pokemon have been blocking our paths and stirring up trouble since the early days of Pokemon Red and Green versions. 

Although, that role has been steadily declining since the days of the 3DS.

What Are “Overworld” Pokemon?

These are Pokemon sprites or renders that appear on-screen while the player is traversing the area. Essentially, it’s any Pokemon that doesn’t randomly spawn while walking through tall grass.

Cursed Psyduck blockade in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl
Spoiler Alert: Cynthia had the antidote for these poor Psyduck tucked in her pocket the whole time.

The Overworld Pokemon of The Past:

From the early development stages in Game Freak’s production studios, a handful of Pokemon were designed for the explicit reason of having an in-game purpose. Electrodes posed as ninja sentient Pokeballs – silently awaiting the perfect moment to explode in your unsuspecting face as you attempted to pick up a new item. Our boy Snorlax took a snooze in the middle of an important route to keep us from progressing to areas we weren’t ready for yet.

RBY powerplant electrode hiding in item ball

Sudowoodo was designed to pose as a cuttable tree blocking your path in the Johto region. Pineco was created to fall from headbutted trees and blow up in your face. Honestly, who doesn’t like waking up to the sounds of explosions early in the morning?

While Game Freak started to ease up on the explosive Micheal Bay directing style in later generations, the surprise mechanics didn’t end there. Wild Geodudes emerged from smashed rocks. Kecleon forged invisible walls to barrage a player within an area.

In generation 5, Game Freak was still well aware of the importance these “function-over-fashion” Pokemon held. Despite charging into Black and White with an entirely fresh roster they re-imagined many of our Pokemon that held a mechanical purpose.

Black and White was essentially a reboot, but our Electrodes were replaced with Amoongus. Our Muks were replaced with Garbadors. Our omnipresent Magikarps were replaced with a brand new invasive fish species – Basculin.

We had a few absurd roadblocks, too.

Random flashmob dancer blockade from pokemon Black 2/White 2. Text: "Today, we're dancing for no reason. Someday, we'll disappear for no reason."
You know what, Game Freak? This was pretty dang hilarious. I respect that.

I can’t argue that silly roadblocks were a change in direction, though. The first roadblock we ever encountered in first generation Pokemon was a cranky old drunkard lying on the floor desperate for coffee.

Each title to pass through the hands of Game Freak steadily began to neglect functional Pokemon. In X and Y, Game Freak recycled the sleeping Snorlax story on a bridge blocking the day care. Snorlax was significantly easier to clear, and once he awoke we quickly noticed he’s a petty level 15 ‘mon. 

Meanwhile, the infamous power outage of Lumiose City drove us all bonkers because the county lineman blocked us off every route to the city’s most scenic area while letting NPC’s pass through without batting an eye. Did I mention the lights still came on at night? Long story short, it wasn’t X and Y’s proudest moment.

During the 3DS era, Game Freak came to a silent conclusion: Functional Pokemon were a dated design philosophy. These creatures proved to be an annoyance in a modern gaming world, one favoring quality of life features.

By generation 8, we were only left with a swarm of obnoxious little Greedent packing their cheeks with our hard-earned berries. Our paths were blocked by people repeating arbitrary lines of dialog.

Of all the things we hung on to, how did we get stuck with the tree shaking gimmick? Don’t get me wrong, Skwovet and Greedent have cute designs, but where’s everybody else? 

Removing the functionality of Pokemon made Galar a lifeless region.

The Overworld Pokemon We Can Hope to See In The Future:

Look, seeing a Snorlax blocking a path in 2021 is probably a bit dated. We’re still a bit nostalgic for those types of interactions though, right? Well, the gameplay loop itself is pretty rewarding.

What if we took that old-school principle and pushed it a step further? What if we made these roadblocks more dynamic? What if the wild area was filled to the brim with Pokemon creating temporary barriers in more interactive ways?

What if you walked into a tunnel to find a colony of Diglett were altering the paths you can take each day of the week, perhaps adding new paths as you progress through the game?

What if you decided to sail the ocean and noticed a school of Wishiwashi creating an impassible whirlpool, or a massive Wailord struggling to pass through a channel during a low tide?

What if a school of Gyrados washed you ashore while chasing an annoying little Feebas?

What if a wild Hypno put trainers of a certain route to sleep after a certain amount of time?

Each of these situations could benefit from an interweaving side-quest similar to hunting down the Pokeflute for our old buddy, slumbering Snorlax. Honestly, we could even recycle the Snorlax story in a new region and I doubt Pokemon fans would throw a fit about it.

Although creativity can take blaze trails much more diverse and interesting. The possibilities are endless. A mixture of time-gated and story-driven roadblocks would create a more immersive Pokemon experience. They wouldn’t substantially hinder the player in post-game now that free taxi services fly us around. Instead, we would witness the birth of a more expressive Pokemon region.

Old School Snorlax sprite blocking off path to diglett's cave in GSC era pokemon cartridge
Bruh. You're gonna camp out in front of Diglett's cave, too? Do I need to put you in a nursing home?

Instead of power outages in the Kalos region, we’ll be greeted with robust events that leave the gamer engaged in future regions. Instead of the droll linear routes of Galar, we can experience dynamic routes with Donphan racing downhill to forcibly evacuate us and massive Fearow swooping from the sky to take our apricorns before we can shake the trees at all.

Instead of searching a particular patch of grass for a rare Pikachu, we could schedule a special event to take place at the local power plant. It would make that catch feel exceptionally special.

Wild Tirtouga could have the capability to migrate.

What Pokemon needs right now is an environment. It needs a living, breathing ecosystem. The combat system is infused with robust support moves and the roster is pleasantly extensive. In terms of the overworld, the formula is outpaced by nearly every title in the turn-based genre.

I think Game Freak is aware of that. Legends of Arceus appears to be an ambitious installment willing to test the waters of massive overhauls. Here’s to hoping Game Freak gives Legends of Arceus their best effort.