Caves have been a staple of Pokemon since the very start. There are several caves in Pokemon Red & Blue, and there they serve a purpose. While the rest of the game is bright and vibrant – as bright and vibrant as handheld games could be in 1996 – the caves are dark and mysterious. They introduce a new biome to the game, with lots of Rock and Ground Pokemon, as well as creatures you’d expect to dwell in the shadows, like Zubat. They also help add a greater depth to the narrative – you’re not just strolling from town to town being good at Pokemon and stuff, you’re a serious adventurer on a dangerous quest. In Red & Blue, caves rule.
You meet Team Rocket in Mt Moon (it’s Jessie & James in Yellow), you solve puzzles, you get a cool fossil Pokemon, and you even encounter Articuno, Moltres, and Mewtwo in three separate caves. The only problem is, these caves are a little too good, because now Pokemon games are stuck in a rut, and they need an Escape Rope to get out of it.
Let’s look at the cave in Sword & Shield. I don’t even want to call it a cave, it feels more like one of those plastic grottos you see in town squares at Christmas. Just a lumpy, soulless grey structure with some shadows. There are no puzzles in Sword & Shield’s cave – there’s nothing of note at all. There are a few desperately uninteresting Pokemon (plus Shellos, I guess) that will intrude upon your short and boring linear journey from one side to the other. You’ll have a generic Team Yell encounter, and you’ll clash with Bede, but there’s not much going on. The mine shaft is a tad more exciting, but even then, it’s hardly groundbreaking.
The caves in Sword & Shield look better than ever, I suppose, but that’s because it’s the first time the mainline games have been on the Switch – it’s a given that the graphics are going to be better. And to be honest, that works against the caves. Originally, they were the most visually distinct areas in Pokemon, offering a substantial difference from the grassy routes or the urbanised cities. On the Switch, each area comes alive. There’s the colour and 3D space and memory capacity to make every location visually distinct. Even just within the Wild Area, there are huge aesthetic changes between biomes. The cave though is still just a cave – and that’s no longer enough.
This is where New Pokemon Snap comes into it. As much as I love the game, I don’t think the locations are that inspired. A snowy level, a jungle level, a forest level – it’s pretty standard nature photography stuff. Even though the settings are predictable though, the game wrings every last drop out of them. In regular Pokemon games, the creatures in each area are there because they’re vaguely related to the theme, or because their stats make them suitable to this stage in your fairly linear journey. New Pokemon Snap is much more thoughtful, and that’s why we see Pokemon actually participating in the world. We see Arbok sleeping in a tree, Pinsir and Heracross fighting, and Gardevoir frolicking in the snow. Each Pokemon reacts to the world and to each other, and even though the settings alone don’t seem all that interesting, they become some of the most entertaining and fascinating areas Pokemon has ever played host to.
That’s why Outaway Cave should be the new benchmark. It’s just a cave, and without the Pokemon in it, there’s nothing that separates it from the other caves in Pokemon history. It’s dark, there are a few linear routes, you choose which way you want to head, and you come out the other side. No puzzles, no mythos, nothing that makes Outaway particularly visually spectacular. It’s the Pokemon that make it special, and that’s what the mainline games need to understand.
We see Gengar popping out of portals to frighten unwitting Pokemon, and Croagunk angrily hurling a rock at it. Some Clefairy float by in a carefree breeze, and Mawile won’t settle enough to let you pass until you summon Diancie. The Pokemon actively participate in the world, and that’s what makes the cave spectacular. The same could be said of every route in New Pokemon Snap, but the series has had a cave issue for a while now, so moving forward, Outaway seems like the most important. New Pokemon Snap feels like a shot in the arm for a franchise that has long been accused of complacency – hopefully the series will learn from it.
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