One of the main aspects of the main series Pokémon games are the battles themselves. It’s fair to say that the battle screen is the most seen for the average player. What is puzzling then is that in many aspects, there have been no improvements to various animations used by Pokémon in battles. While there are a lot of neat animations to be found, it can be argued that more improvement or focus should be done on the battles. And after all, in the case of in the upcoming Pokémon title on the Nintendo Switch, Pokémon Sword and Shield (SwSh), Game Freak indicated we can expect better animations. Let’s explore what we’ve already noticed to be different, compare with the previous Switch titles Pokémon Let’s Go, Pikachu and Eevee! (LGPE), and discuss why battles deserve more than just a coat of paint in the visual department.
Animations – named as an improvement
Much has been made about the recent controversy with Pokémon Sword and Shield. Rest easy – we’re not going to discuss that can of worms in this article. Instead, the focus of this article is on one of the stated reasons behind the “Galar Dex only” decision, as given in this interview here.
Junichi Masuda, Producer: There are a couple of different parts to the thinking behind it, but really the biggest reason for it is just the sheer number of Pokémon. We already have well over 800 Pokémon species, and there’s going to be more added in these games. And now that they’re on the Nintendo Switch, we’re creating it with much higher fidelity with higher quality animations.
We’re focusing on the latter part here – higher fidelity, and higher quality animations.
The first of those, the higher fidelity, is perhaps not a convincing point in itself. As explained in the twenty-minute-long video (and sometimes rant) by someone who does 3D animation and modelling regularly, in the case of Pokémon we know the following:
- Models seen since Pokémon X and Y are of high quality and have been reused since, including on the Nintendo Switch titles Pokémon Let’s Go, Pikachu and Eevee! (LGPE).
- Only four new models have been made for LGPE – Meltan, Melmetal, and the partner Pikachu or Eevee – other Pikachu and Eevee had the same models.
- The most noticeable difference between the Switch and 3DS models is not the models themselves, but rather the textures used.
- Textures are relatively easy to make for new Pokémon; certainly easier than making new models.
Granted, again, textures for hundreds of Pokémon isn’t so simple to just knock out. But the models themselves appear the same. Furthermore, differences in lighting may be the main difference in appearance (specifically, fresnel rim lighting) rather than new textures being made.
So what about animations? These are a twofold process. First, the model must be rigged – given a ‘skeleton’ that can be controlled by the computer program using the model. These are then skinned (the 3D model attached to the skeleton). The skeleton is then given the animation commands, which can be done in a variety of ways. Often you’ll see similar parts of skeletons, or animation commands, reused across different models, to limit the work required for the animators. Uniquely animating every single model will eat up time. Repeating animations or using low-effort ones however comes at the cost of things looking, well, worse.
Old animations still evident
From the trailer and E3 gameplay, there are some old animations lingering about. There’s also some new work, but a lot that we’ve seen has been done prior to SwSh.
On battles, there’s the much-cited Double Kick example, which can be seen at the top of the article. We have other instances to consider too, however: for instance, we have Flame Charge. This does look different to the example seen in XY. However, squint a bit closely and you can see some resemblances too – e.g. Yamper’s Volt Tackle with Impidimp’s own Play Rough are similar, just with the added electric effects. And when you look at the sixth generation version of Flame Charge, there is a fair bit similar between these three attacks. While Scorbunny also has an obvious hopping style to its Headbutt attack too, Yamper and Impidimp practically fly at the opponent.
So – some animations are the same since games released six years ago, and some are updated but share the same base movements to each other. Some look more than fine, and others, like Double Kick, frankly “lazy”. There are other areas in which battle animations could be improved, but we’ll get to those a bit later.
Where can the new animations be already?
There are four cases we can consider where any new animation work may have gone into besides battle animations themselves. One is the overworld animations – walking and running (or flying). We’ve seen this for a large amount of Pokémon, especially in the Wild Area. It makes sense to focus work on these parts of the games, right? The Wild Area is a big focal point of advertising the upcoming SwSh games.
The thing is, we’ve seen these in game data as early as Pokémon Sun and Moon. Walking and running (or equivalent) animations have existed in the files for over 800 Pokémon. It had been believed that it may had been used for a cut Follow-Me feature (which we did see used in LGPE) – but the Wild Area turning up now suggests this may have also been an intended purpose for them.
Wingull, on that note, has been seen in previous games to occassionally flap its wings in the overworld, but otherwise it usually glides. While it matches Pokédex entries for Wingull, the issue people have with it is more how it unnaturally floats and turns on the spot, a mere couple feet above the ground. There’s no ‘banking’ when it turns, it isn’t using air currents to keep itself up, and it fails to look good as a result.
The second scenario is that there are more improvements to old animations already made and showcased, but they just haven’t been shown yet. This strikes me as unlikely, however. Why not showcase the best you could have in trailers and previews, including on the big stage (E3) and within half a year before launch? It’s possible, but personally I feel it’s unlikely. Time will tell on that point.
The third case where new animations can go is the new gimmick – Dynamax. Is there anything notably new here? And what about encounter animations? It turns out there are new animations. These aren’t necessarily obvious – for instance, Machoke’s ‘encounter starts’ animation is similar and has his head tilted higher, and Wingull merely adds an opening of a beak to its animation. Weavile in Dynamax form does an angry stomp of the ground. Now, these are okay, but they don’t add very much to the battle. They last a couple seconds at most, and are only effectively one new animation each. It’s an improvement, to be sure – just not a major one. It also seems that not all entry/Dynamax animations are new.
Let’s not forget how some of these encounter, or sent out, animations have looked in older titles too. Consider Girafarig in Pokémon Stadium 2, or any of the others shown in this video. Some of the above are certainly comparable, but they’re not necessarily better either.
Amie – often amazing
The fourth case is that we have yet to see new animations used in other features – either old features not yet fully showcased, or a brand new one that involves a lot of Pokémon. The latter can be highly speculated on, but we do know one feature returning that is animation heavy – the next version of Pokémon Amie (generation six games), or also known as Pokémon Refresh (generation seven games).
There is a lot to like here. It was one of the more popular aspects of Pokémon X and Y, and stuck around in every game since. The highlight of Pokémon games is the Pokémon themselves, and being able to interact with them through petting and feeding was cute and an opportunity to add more personality to each species. However, this is in the end an optional feature. Refresh, for example, was highlighted more in the ability to, for example, heal status effects by using specific items on your Pokémon – and that was it, with even the few minigames in Pokémon Amie removed.
Now, it’s possible the next version will further build upon Amie and Refresh. It’d be nice to see even more animations here of the quality shown above. Nonetheless, Pokémon battles feature more heavily in the series, and make up more of the playtime spent as well. Amie and Refresh are only ever part of the side content – they’re not the main draw of the games. Why wouldn’t you have your new animations in the part of the game people see the most often? Why haven’t we seen improvements to this level in battles specifically? Furthermore, how can the battle animations be improved?
Let’s compare the key areas where battle animations can be improved by comparing the Nintendo Switch titles with examples from older spinoff titles: Pokémon Stadium, Pokémon Stadium 2, Pokémon Colosseum, Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness, and Pokémon Battle Revolution. While these games have significantly less Pokémon available than the Pokédex currently offers, they still had more engaging animations in battles than the main series has offered in the last several years, and there are a few aspects to this.
Reacting to attacks
On initial viewing, the existing battle animations may seem quite serviceable in places. However, one issue that is noticeable is the way Pokémon react to taking damage. Pokémon largely stand still in place with maybe some slight push-back, before slotting back into place. This has been the case since Pokémon X and Y. They also stay still and hardly move in reaction to being hurt. While it is better than, say, having a sprite flash a couple times like in the old days, it is fairly simplistic.
Incidentally, this is also seen in LGPE. A set of examples can be seen in this trailer, focusing on five battling scenarios featuring attack animations. We have Magikarp Splashing about before being sent into outer space by Machamp, a Hyper Beam duel, and the murder of a poor Paras. All also feature the Pokémon standing still in their place. While the animations of the attacks highlighted here are cool, the way the Pokémon react to those attacks is lacking.
There is also a clear delay – or ‘freeze’ – during attacks. Check out the part with the two Tauros. When one charges up Hyper Beam and then fires, it assumes the attack position and essentially freezes with movement. The same applies to the Tauros being attacked – when it is hit, it flinches and stays in its spot. Once the Hyper Beam attack finishes, only then do we see Tauros again, seemingly fine. You can also see it occur in this video with Gyarados attacking a Slowbro. It adds an element of unnaturalness to the whole affair. This is especially grating when considering this is Hyper Beam. A Base 150 Power move should not be followed by such a simple, boring animation!
Another example includes this reaction from Ice Beam. Machop in this video only resumes an animation after the Ice Beam has passed by completely. This is jarring – you would expect that as soon as you are attacked you’ll react instantly.
Consider how other games have dealt with this. The titles worked on by Genius Sonority for the Nintendo Gamecube and Nintendo Wii (Pokémon Colosseum, Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness, and Pokémon Battle Revolution) have unique animations for all Pokémon being hurt. None of these relied on freezing a Pokémon’s movements. Pokémon models from the first two Pokémon Stadium titles were carried over, although attack animations were redone. Observe how Pokémon take damage to Earthquake, as well as following attacks.
Sableye in particular has a striking reaction, recoiling and flailing in pain as it skids backward, before jerking its head forward, grinning, and creeping right back up to battle. It’s a popular example of cool reaction animations that give it personality. It personally stuck out at me when I saw it back in Pokémon Colosseum.
Notice, too, the lack of delay between an attack landing and the Pokémon reacting. As soon as, for example, Ice Beam hits, the Pokémon is falling backwards, rather than being frozen until the attack finishes. This delay has been improved in some cases in LGPE pre-release videos, compared to generation six titles. However, there is more to like about the Genius Sonority animations.
It also extends to fainting animations. For example, a compilation for generation three Pokémon in Pokémon Colosseum can be viewed here. In the newer games, they mostly just shrink down into a Poké Ball. There are two main benefits from the approach taken in the spin-off titles, besides just plain looking better. One – it makes the battle more immersive. It feels like your Pokémon are in an actual battle, and that makes the experience much more enjoyable. You can tell when a Pokémon is really hurt! The second is that it adds unique personality to each Pokémon. Kirlia will bow out as if performing a death scene from a ballet, further enhancing the dancer theme it has behind it. Togepi will try to run away but fall over in the attempt. Vileplume twitches and then deflates. We get none of this in the Game Freak titles.
In Game Freak’s defence, to create these animations for now over 800 unique Pokémon would be a hugely taxing process. Recall that Pokémon Stadium 1 and 2 had only 151 and 251 Pokémon at most. Pokémon Colosseum and XD fell below 400. Pokémon X and Y were the first main series handheld titles to use models, all built to high polygon count and with equal attention, and this would have been a huge step up from previous titles using 2D sprites for battles.
However, the sixth generation games came out six years ago, and yet we are still lacking anything new in this area. And furthermore, we know they have improved and added to animations. The running and walking animations for every Pokémon is an example of just that, as are the new encounter animations. We’ve also seen examples of great animations for 3D models used by Game Freak within Pokémon Refresh and Amie. But Pokémon properly reacting to an attack? We are certainly lacking here.
Shared attack animations
But there’s more to discuss. Let’s look at the battle animations themselves. The first half of the following video calls back to Pokémon Stadium, with two Pokémon executing Mega Kick. They have unique animations that match to the move, making it much more believable they are doing just that – throwing a massive kick at something’s face. Kabutops swings itself, while Snorlax lumbers up and forward. The video follows with Pikachu executing Double Kick. You can see how this attack changed – or rather, how little it has changed, from Pokémon X and Y.
This is, of course, a cherry-picked example, but the gulf is massive. Pikachu turns unnaturally to face the opponent, jumps a minuscule amount to indicate it kicked the opponent, then turns back to stare vacantly in front of it. Then, as if it forgot it was “Double” Kick, it repeats these lazy movements again. A cartoon foot image is placed on top of the Geodude to indicate Pikachu used its feet during this attack.
Look familar? The Double Kick animation seen during the E3 demonstration of the game is identical. Sure, Scorbunny jumping from foot to foot during battle looks fluid and smooth – outright good – but the attack itself is much less flattering. It even ‘hops’ up in the same way Pikachu does when performing the attack.
The issue is that while we get interesting unique animations for certain attacks in the old days, now a Double Kick looks the same regardless of the Pokémon using it. It’s far easier for Game Freak to do it this way – again, cast your mind to the high number of Pokémon out there and the need to do animations for each one – but it is also boring. Each Pokémon should ideally be their own creature or object made alive – they shouldn’t be attacking the same way! A compromise would be nice to see at least down the line – more variation in attacks performed would do wonders. We do see shared animations in Amie too (see for example high fiving Pokémon having the same general behaviour), but because those animations are generally well done, it’s much easier to accept compared to a slight hop and a large 2D foot being planted on the opponent.
Another example involves the move Fly. Tropius, the Grass/Flying dinosaur Pokémon equipped with bananas, has the generic Fly animation in the Game Freak titles. In the Genius Sonority games, it flies up, but not without clear effort exerted and some delay before it achieves liftoff. This gives you a better feeling for how large a Pokémon it is, and how flying isn’t a completely natural movement for it.
If we get the level of care in Amie/Refresh on how each Pokémon acts to different situations, highlighting their personalities or what they are like, you think it’d make sense to have it happen where you see the Pokémon most often – battles.
Unused cannons isn’t canon
One telling example of battle animations seen in LGPE concerns Blastoise. This Pokémon’s popularity is in part due to the two large cannons on its back. Its Mega Evolution, showcased in a recent video for LGPE, adds a third, massive cannon on its back. So when it uses Hydro Cannon in a game as recent as Pokémon Let’s Go, Pikachu and Eevee!, guess which cannon it uses to fire the attack.
Did you guess “none of them”? Because since Pokémon X and Y, all variants of the Hydro Cannon attack look the same for every Pokémon, and that assumes that their mouth is roughly where the attack starts, regardless of whether it makes more sense for a Pokémon like Blastoise to use its cannons. To top it off, in the video Mega Blastoise has its mouth closed!
You certainly don’t have to adjust the animation for a lot of Pokémon, because for most using their mouths would suffice. But Genius Sonority had gone the extra step to make sure Blastoise using Hydro Pump uses the cannons:
Again, these brush-ups on attacks make the battle feel more real, and it adds up when you don’t see any Pokémon receive a little special treatment even in this regard. It is also just plain cooler and more impressive. A more extreme example would be Pokkén Tournament DX. This has a far smaller cast of Pokémon and can afford the higher detail behind the attacks, especially the special attack for each fighter character. Nonetheless, you cannot deny that Blastoise using its special attack here really feels like something terrifyingly strong. Here, its third cannon from Mega Evolution can fire an attack so powerful it has to lock itself down with its two other cannons via an Ice-type attack so it can keep still.
While the older Pokémon games were certainly far from perfect in the battle animation department, it does feel that they had more effort put into this area. And it is all the more confusing that Game Freak has not invested the same level of effort into this part of the game, with a larger total team to boot. Notably, Game Freak even includes former members of Genius Sonority, which now has a far smaller group and left with simpler titles like Pokémon Shuffle. Pokémon battles are one of the main draws and the focal point of gameplay – so it stands to reason that these parts should be one of, if not the most, impressive and convincing areas visually. A typical play-through will involve hundreds of battles, and that’s even when you remove Wild Pokémon battles from the game from the likes of LGPE.
One can only hope that there are more improvements we will see in Pokémon Sword and Shield. The better the battles, the better the game. Taking some pages from the Genius Sonority handbook may be a good starting point. So too would applying the level of focus and effort showcased in Amie and Refresh to battles – because those animations are great! However, we may have to wait for a following title at this rate, at best, to see a return to the quality of battle animations seen from Pokémon Stadium to Pokémon Battle Revolution.
Since this article was published, two new trailers were released. We’ll talk about some new (or old) battle animations briefly from those.
In the good news department, a new animation has been given for Gengar when it is Dynmaxed. It throws a bunch of household items, such as chairs and teapots, at the opponent. A true poltergeist! This is a neat concept, and well executed too.
Seconds after that trailer though, we see Charizard attacking in its Dynamax form. The same issue occurs as with Blastoise using Water-type attacks like Hydro Pump. In fact, Charizard is positioned significantly below where the attack comes from.
In an additional example, Tail Whips stands out as a reused animation. That didn’t stop the official Pokémon Twitter account from posting it.
— Pokémon (@Pokemon) July 9, 2019
Some videos and ideas also covered by u/IAmTheOnlyAndy on Reddit.
Edited by Aldo, Corviknight, ddrox13 and Sheep.