10 Pokémon Games That Defied the Classic Turn-based RPG Formula

10 Pokémon Games That Defied the Classic Turn-based RPG Formula
Gotta catch all of these (Image: Nintendo / Kotaku)

Who’s ready for the latest game starring Pokémon that’s not quite a traditional turn-based RPG? Pokémon Legends: Arceus arrives this week, the latest in a long line of side-stories and spinoffs that let us play with our pocket monsters in new and different ways.Pokémon Legends: Arceus, for example, mixes elements of Capcom’s Monster Hunter series with action RPG elements never before seen in a Pokémon game.

So as we prepare to embark on this all-new adventure, let’s take a look back at 10 other Pokémon games that have mixed up the monster-collecting formula.

Pokémon Snap

Let’s kick things off with one of the series’ earliest spin-offs, Hal Laboratory’s Let’s Watch Pocket Monsters Do Stuff While We Take Pictures. Pokémon Snap on-rails voyeurism game is a very far cry from wandering the pixelated pastures of Pokémon Red and Blue, but the basic idea — catching them all — remains the same.

Pokémon Snap made its debut on the Nintendo 64 back in 1999, only a year after the original Game Boy RPGs began taking North America by storm. It was early days, but Nintendo and Game Freak already had plans to take Pokémon far beyond the confines of players’ pockets. Snap was a taste of things to come, and it tasted pretty good.

Pokémon Stadium

Hey kids, do you want to play a full console version of your Game Boy Pokémon RPGs on your TV? Well, too effing bad. Released to Western audiences in 2000, Pokémon Stadium gave fans a tantalising taste of what a 3D console Pokémon game could be without actually delivering anything close to the adventures of Red and Blue. Being able to trade your pocket monsters with your Game Boy games using the transfer pack was neat, but all battles with no plot made Stadium a dull boy.

Still, the game had promise. Perhaps those gorgeous 3D Pokémon would finally get a real RPG on Nintendo’s next home console.

Pokémon Colosseum

Well hey, what do you know, a real Pokémon RPG on a Nintendo console, just not quite the one fans wanted. Instead of taking one of the Game Boy titles and updating it with 3D graphics, Nintendo tapped Genius Sonority, a Japanese studio consisting of former Dragon Quest devs, to craft an all-new adventure.

Pokémon Colosseum and its sequel, Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness, took the series in a darker direction. The Orre region, where the games are set, is a sparse land that generally lacks roaming pocket monsters. As the protagonist you are tasked with wandering from town to town, purifying pocket monsters corrupted by darkness. Instead of collecting wild Pokémon, you steal them from the trainers you battle against. Both games have this whole creepy/cool vibe going on that’s won them a place in fans’ hearts. They might not be the console RPGs we wanted, but they sure were something else.

Pokémon Ranger

Remember the early days of the Nintendo DS, when Nintendo was really into games that used the stylus and touchscreen in cool and inventive ways? It was in that heady era that Hal Labs brought us 2006’s Pokémon Ranger, a game in which you draw circles around pocket monsters to capture them. There’s really only so much you can do with a stylus.

Instead of healing your Pokémon at a Pokémon centre, you recharge your stylus’ capture power. Teaming up with different monster types gives your stylus different powers, which makes rapidly drawing circles slightly more fun and dynamic than simply doing it on a piece of paper.

Not only is Pokémon Ranger much more fun than it sounds, it actually spawned a pair of sequels, Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia and Pokémon Ranger: Guardian Signs, making it one of the more prolific handheld Pokémon spinoffs.

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Blue Rescue Team and Red Rescue Team

Yes I named my Mudkip Carol, so what? (Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku)

Speaking of prolific handheld Pokémon spinoffs, here’s the most prolific of them all. Japanese developer Chunsoft, developers of the first five Dragon Quest games (sensing a pattern here), have been importing pocket monsters into its roguelike series since 2005. Rather than showing off the pixel graphics of the original pair of Game Boy/DS games, here we present the charming hand-drawn visuals of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX, the recent remake for the Switch.

Instead of catching Pokémon, the Mystery Dungeon series casts you as a human transformed into a pocket monster, teaming up with another Pokémon in a Pokémon-populated world to solve Pokémon crimes. It’s a fun twist on the formula, even if the roguelike grid-based battles aren’t for everybody.

Pokémon Masters EX

Gotta catch all of the trainers, I suppose (Illustration: Nintendo)

Pokémon Masters is Nintendo’s attempt to take advantage of the mobile gasha craze in the weirdest way possible. Instead of spending in-game currency on Pokémon, players use their hard-earned (or bought) gems to purchase trainers from throughout series history. Characters from the various handheld RPGs join players’ teams with their signature Pokémon, going on turn-based battles through a whole new region.

It’s a beautiful mobile game that ran out of steam far too quickly.

Pokkén Tournament

Look at this majestic monster fighter right here (Screenshot: Nintendo)

Bandai Namco had us at “Pokémon fighting game.” Spawned in Japanese arcades before making the jump to Wii U and Switch, Pokkén Tournament transforms those charming turn-based battles into a full-on fighting game. It’s a little free-roaming 3D, a little side-stepping 2D, and all excellent.

The only downside is that the game does not include every single one of the hundreds of Pokémon. There are only 23 fighters in the Switch version, including two Pikachu and two Mewtwos. I’m still hoping the other hundreds will be added in future DLC.

PokéPark Wii: Pikachu’s Adventure

Aha, forgot all about PokéPark, didn’t you? How could you forget Pikachu’s action-adventure game, in which the electric mouse wanders about a Pokémon theme park hunting for pieces of the Sky Prism? It’s the one where Mew sends you on a quest. It was for the Wii? Ringing any bells?

One of the coolest features of PokéPark Wii: Pikachu’s Adventure was the ability to take screenshots of your adventures and share them to either an SD card or post them on the Wii Message Board. Developer Creatures Inc. was truly ahead of its time.

Pokémon Smile

If only brushing were always this fun (Screenshot: Nintendo)

This is a game about brushing your teeth where you can collect hats and win prizes for prolonged and thorough brushing. According to our reviewer, Luke Plunkett, there is “at least one Pokémon in your mouth at all times.” I told myself I would try and stick to games that had some similarities to the standard RPGs for this list, but there are Pokémon in your mouth. That makes your mouth a pocket. Mind blown.

Pokémon Channel

They say if you tune into the Pokémon Channel exactly at midnight you will see one of the creaturesr on the screen and that Pokémon is your soulmate. Or is that Persona 4? Why not both?

Pokémon Channel strays about as far from the original Pokémon RPG format as possible. It’s a game about watching television with your Pikachu while Professor Oak watches you in turn. It’s part digital pet sim, part adventure game, and mostly boring. It’s a GameCube game that exists mainly so people making lists of Pokémon spin-offs and side games can point and laugh. Consider my obligation fulfilled.