I’ve said this a thousand times before, but any non-mainline Pokemon game is an experiment. It’s an experiment in form, in presentation, and usually in fundamental structure, and it’s designed to inform whatever generation is due to launch after it. The most recent example of this was the way in which Let’s Go Eevee & Pikachu had a clear influence on the production of Sword & Shield, introducing overworld sprites, non-exhaustive Legendary encounters, and loads more besides. With New Pokemon Snap and Pokemon Legends Arceus on the horizon, as well as the entirety of Sword & Shield’s expansion content behind us, it’s a pretty good time to start speculating on how Gen 9 is going to shape up.
If we’re to go off Pokemon’s traditional release structure, it would seem pretty reasonable to anticipate a November 2022 release date for Gen 9, although the pandemic will inevitably have had an impact on that. Unless Game Freak is already well ahead on the next mainline Pokemon game, I reckon we should primarily focus on a launch tentatively scheduled for 2023. This means that Gen 9 will launch potentially two years after New Pokemon Snap, and at least a year after Pokemon Legends Arceus – that’s a lot of dev time.
Game Freak generally launches a mainline game once every three years. There are two exceptions to this: Diamond & Pearl and Black & White, both of which launched four years after their respective previous entries. It’s worth noting that Gen 3 saw the first remakes in the series – FireRed & LeafGreen – while HeartGold & SoulSilver launched prior to Gen 5, meaning that the two longer gaps are mostly attributable to growing pains from expanding operations. So yeah, November 2022 was originally the safest Gen 9 launch window, and now that’s probably going to change.
Legends Arceus’ experimentation is pretty obvious. It’s an open world, right? Similarly to how the Crown Tundra paved the way for a bonafide open-world Pokemon game, Legends Arceus is yet another step in the right direction for people who want an entire Pokemon experience with the freedom of the Wild Area. Not just some wild ‘mons and nice scenery, but a controllable camera in cities, seamless connectivity between towns and routes, and the ability to genuinely survive and thrive in this wonderful world. My impression is that Legends Arceus will test out new catching systems, new story progression milestones, and new ways of traversing the world and interacting with individual parts of it – anything that isn’t relegated to the cutting floor can probably be easily reimplemented into Gen 9.
That’s what everyone is talking about, right? That we’re en route to our first ever proper open-world mainline experience? But there’s more to it than that. New Pokemon Snap is ostensibly a photography game, but I’m not trying to argue that it means we’re going to get a photo mode in Gen 9 (that would be lovely, though). What I’m curious about is the fact that it appears to have added complete voice-acted cutscenes, which is wild. If Gen 9 is open world and fully-voiced, four-year-old Cian is probably going to betray 25-year-old Cian and burst out into tears of joy about pixelated monsters on a little screen. For what it’s worth, I’m not even embarrassed – this series has been with me since before I knew how to use a toilet properly.
Obviously we have yet to see how these voiced cutscenes pan out, but if Nintendo is forking over enough cash to hire voice actors for a Pokemon spin-off… well, it’s reasonable to assume that the same budget is being afforded to Gen 9, right? So we’ve got Legends Arceus ostensibly informing the world design of whatever comes next in mainline Pokemon, but we’ve also got New Pokemon Snap experimenting in other departments that could attach massive weight to how the game’s narrative is delivered.
I think it will be a weird adjustment – open-world Pokemon with voiced cutscenes might not feel like the last two and half decades of the series. However, with rumors of a Switch Pro circulating like wildfire and the success of Nintendo exclusives on the Switch, now seems like the perfect time for Game Freak to finally catapult Pokemon to the next level. Sword & Shield didn’t quite live up to the expectations of people who had their own vision of what the first ever mainline home console game would look like, so Gen 9 is going to be a watershed moment for the series. After all, it’s had an extra three years with the Switch dev kit, meaning there are probably going to be elements that are drastically superior to similar ones in Gen 8. Hell, maybe we’ll finally even get a rescripted battle code. I’d cry all over again if that happened.
Honestly, if my hunch for what Game Freak is doing with its pair of spin-offs releasing over the next year or so, I’m probably going to spend all of 2022 going around asking random people at the bar whether they prefer overworld sprites or random encounters. “Don’t worry, mate,” I’ll say, sobbing into my beer. “Game Freak is going to do it right. Keep the head up.”
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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