I think there's a lot wrong with Pokemon's dated gameplay, storytelling, and overall mechanics. However, one thing I think Pokemon does better than anyone else is actually making you feel attached to the pokemon you've caught. There have been plenty of other "monster taming" games, most notably Atlus's games. However, I can't think of any other game where I've felt an emotional attachment to the monsters I've caught. They've always felt like stat blocks, a means to an end. Whereas in Pokemon, there's a deeper emotional attachment–they feel like pets, even though there are hardly any obvious mechanics, especially in the first games, to reinforce this idea. You don't have to take care of them like Tomagochis, they're not really unique (yes, there are different stats and natures, but each Oddish looks exactly the same and learns the same moves at the same levels). And while many monster catching games have improved on Pokemon's various formulae, I don't think any of them have done a better job creating that sense of personal connection with their games' catchable monsters.
This recently came to mind while I've been playing through Ni No Kuni. It's similar to Pokemon in so many ways, even superior to it at times, giving the player full control of its familiars in a 3D environment, allowing them to run/jump around during battle rather than exist as an unmoving 2-D sprite. And yet, in spite of having greater control over my familiars, in spite of their animations being more fully-fleshed out, and in spite of the game's overall pretty-cute character design, I still don't feel the same connection with Ni No Kuni's familiars as I have with the monsters I've caught in the Pokemon games.
What is it about Pokemon that manages to capture this sense of personal connection with its creatures? Why is it emotionally difficult for me to banish one of my Pokemon to Bill's PC, yet I have zero qualms about smashing Atlus monsters together, and only minor guilt about sending away my Ni No Kuni familiars, in spite of Ni No Kuni basically being a graphical and gameplay improvement over Pokemon in almost every way?
I've isolated a few variables: 1) Nostalgia–perhaps I'd feel different if I was playing Ni No Kuni as a child and Pokemon as an adult. I'm sure there's certainly an element of that going on, but I also have a sense that there's something deeper as well. 2) Character Design–I think the skill in Pokemon's character design is heavily underrated, as evidenced by the mobile pokemon ripoff games that try, and fail, to create their own unique Pokemon-like monsters. And while Persona's enemies certainly look great, they don't make me say, "I want that as a pet!" By the same token, Ni No Kuni's enemies look like generic store brand Pokemon. While normally I would assume that game mechanics, not design aesthetics, would be what creates a personal connection with a character, I think there's actually a lot to Pokemon's design that encourages an emotional connection, regardless of game mechanics.
Yet these two factors still feel incomplete. Are there other game design elements that contribute to Pokemon feeling like pets? What game elements go into making a video game character truly feel like a companion or pet, as opposed to merely a character or mechanic?
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