With the recent release of Pokemon: Legends Arceus, as well as the Diamond & Pearl remakes from a few months back, Pokemon has been at the centre of an awful lot of discussion lately — most of it surrounding the troubled development cycles of each new release, the controversial reception of recent entries, and more notably whether or not Legends is the "breath of fresh air" the series needs. However, I've been thinking about Pokemon lately for an entirely different reason. I recently watched a friend finish up her first playthrough of a gamecube game that came out almost twenty years ago, and as far Pokemon games go it has been surprisingly thought provoking. There's really no way of beating around the bush: Pokemon's mechanics have always been at odds with its own themes. Its easy to point at the way the games essentially ask you to dogfight with intelligent creatures while preaching about friendship, but I'm more interested in the way this dissonance is built into the series's most fundamental systems.
Pokemon is a series of collectathon video games designed for merchandising. The in-universe expression of this conceit is the Pokedex: a device for documenting the wildlife of the world. Each game opens with a regional professor asking you to help them discover a whole new set of 60-150 Pokemon that "have never been seen before!". This has never quite meshed with fighting the same beasts for sport, and neither conceit is really in tune with the nominal goal of making lasting friendships with these seemingly sentient creatures. Pokemon games almost never reconcile that contradiction. In fact, the deeper you get into the games the more dramatic that tension becomes: if you want to be the very best like no one ever was, that probably entails getting involved in a competitive scene which by design asks you to engage in a prolonged eugenics program as you carefully assemble a perfect team of genetically engineered warriors. While the series did eventually introduce ways to take your random assortment of best buddies to a ready-for-competitive level, its significantly less accessible than just breeding a new set of so-called 'friends'.
There's a fun recurring conversation in the aforementioned competitive scene: more casual players will bemoan the metagame, snarkily referencing Karen's dialogue from Gold and Silver about winning "with your favourites". I find this immensely funny: I'm not sure the intended meaning of that message was 'you should breed the perfect Furret'.
That said, while the mainline games might not deliver on the promise of the original anime, the spinoffs have done a much better job by zeroing in on specific elements of the franchise. Pokemon Snap contextualizes the collectathon with photography, Pokemon Ranger has humans and Pokemon work together to mutually beneficial ends, and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon in particular has always stood out as the game that really gets the friendship angle right. In an article for fanbyte titled "Pokemon Mystery Dungeon is a Pokemon Game Actually About Friendship" Ben Sledge writes:
"Pokemon is built around promises of friendship and cooperation, but the only games that truly embody this benevolent spirit are the Mystery Dungeon series. The core premise of helping and rescuing other Pokemon is a perspective that, in the main series games, is often lost amongst the constant battles and grinding, and by characterizing Pokemon as sentient and motivated, Mystery Dungeon explores our relationship with Pokemon in a way that no other games can achieve."
This brings me back to that Gamecube game I watched my friend play, a game that I think manages to at least partly get at the same ideas — even while working within the context of the main series mechanics.
If you haven't played Pokemon Colosseum before, the initial setup distinguishes it from the rest of the franchise immediately. You are a member of a villainous group of Pokemon snatching thieves. The game kicks off with you going rogue, taking the machine the gang uses to steal Pokemon for yourself and heading to the one place in the region you can buy Pokeballs. This suggests from the outset that our protagonist does not have good intentions in the slightest. However, before they can act on those intentions, we inadvertently thwart an in-progress kidnapping, rescuing a girl who has the unique ability to perceive a strange phenomena that's making certain Pokemon turn violent and aggressive. It isn't long before it becomes apparent that this is the work of 'Cipher', a much larger criminal organization horrifically modifying, then distributing these (now violent) 'Shadow Pokemon' to trainers throughout the region. Our unlikely duo end up working together to put a stop to their scheme.
The bulk of Colosseum pits the player against other trainers as normal, but in a twist you capture the Shadow Pokemon they own. Unlike in the main series of games there are no wild Pokemon in Colosseum's Orre region, meaning you end up with a surprisingly limited pool of creatures to pick from. There's no "winning with your favourites" here, no carefully engineering that perfect IV Furret with egg moves. You have to take what's available. In that respect Colosseum is wildly distinct from the main series of games: you have limited resources for team building, meaning you're inevitably forced to use Pokemon you aren't as familiar with and likely develop bonds with them as a consequence.
These bonds are what Colosseum is all about. Shadow Pokemon come with one attack that harms themselves, and the only way to cure their affliction is by taking them into your party and fighting alongside them. In essence Colosseum is a game about taking abused animals, teaching them to trust again, and then working together with them to rescue other creatures from the same fate. While this theme is still somewhat undercut by the broader context of a game where you engage in random fights for money and experience, you can at least rationalize the need for strength and resources as part of the fight for the greater good.
All this is further underscored by Colosseum's surprisingly gritty setting. Unlike the fluffier regions of the main series Pokemon games, Orre is a distinctly harsh and largely barren desert where people make their homes in whatever small pockets of respite they can find. As you soon discover, a good chunk of the region isn't just run down: it's actively controlled by the villainous organization you're fighting against. Cipher isn't just creating and distributing Shadow Pokemon, they are the only real industry this region seems to have. The most opulent location in Orre is the Realgam Tower, the centrepiece of Cipher's master plan to distribute their weaponized Pokemon to the world at large by showing their value by televising fights in the colosseum. When you finally defeat the front facing and comically villainous leader of the team, you discover he was only ever a cover for Cipher's true mastermind: the sweet mayor who presides over Phenac City — the one other place in Orre that seems to have any real investment in it.
It is worth remembering that the first place you visit in Colosseum is a run down bar built into a derailed train car: the single place left in the region that still sells Pokeballs. This is immediately juxtaposed against Phenac's radiant oasis, which is presented to the player right before the dilapidated Pyrite Town. Pyrite is overrun with criminal activity, and the only opportunity anyone has is the Pokemon Colosseum that Cipher is using to hand out Shadow Pokemon. Furthermore, Pyrite is literally built on top of another city called The Under: an even more improvished pit of misery which has entirely devolved into fanatical worship of a celebrity idol. This idol, it turns out, is one of the admins of Cipher. Miror B, another admin, runs the local gangs in Pyrite, and the game later reveals that even Team Snagem (the group the player character breaks away from at the start of the game), is supplying Cipher with stolen Pokemon to experiment on.
It would be silly to suggest that Pokemon Colosseum is making any interesting points about the impact of corporate exploitation on impoverished regions, but its depiction of a villainous organization actively investing in places with no infrastructure to further its own agenda at least warrants some acknowledgement — especially since Colosseum was taking an interest in these themes years before the mainline Pokemon games began to gesture at similar ideas. It's this harsh tone that helps sell Colosseum's presentation. While it still exists within the framework of a series ultimately designed around collecting and battling cool monsters, Colosseum manages to give a little weight to those actions in a way the mainline entries have tried (and largely failed) to for years.
Sadly, Colosseum is a footnote in Pokemon history. Many of the things that made it interesting were also targets of popular criticism, and it was followed by a sequel that was "bigger and better" but which as a result misses the point. Gone is the implied redemption arc for a former criminal who uses his talents for good in a corrupt world. Also gone is the much more restrained roster of available Pokemon. The story of Colosseum's sequel Pokemon XD: Gale of Darkness gestures at being more bombastic but renders its villains in a far less interesting way. In Colosseum Cipher operate by integrating into the systems that run the world; in the sequel they have a literal evil lair on a supervillain island. Despite all this, Gale of Darkness at least retains the thematic heart of Colosseum, which is more than can be said for the one other time Shadow Pokemon have come back...
In July 2019 Pokemon GO (of all games!) decided to bring back Shadow Pokemon for the first time in 14 years. Instead of tying purification to the pre-existing Buddy system present in GO — the most obvious and thematically poignant approach — developer Niantic simply made it an in-game purchase. This is (somehow) the least of the problems with Pokemon GO's take on shadows. As it lacked meaningful incentives, the playerbase largely ignored Go's shadow system. A consequent update in 2020 made Shadow Pokemon substantially stronger than regular Pokemon, gamifying the mechanic at Colosseum's thematic heart in the single most tone deaf way possible. Two years on Niantic is now introducing 'Apex' Shadow Pokemon: stronger versions of existing shadows that are locked behind a real money paywall.
I don't know how anyone at Niantic looked at Pokemon Colosseum then decided they wanted to be Cipher. Whatever the case, so long as we're all writing erudite thinkpieces about video games for children, I think the case of Shadow Pokemon potently exemplifies a thematic contradiction at the heart of recent Pokemon games: the anti-corporate themes these products gesture at are being sold to you by the world's highest-grossing media franchise.