NOTE: this is an opinion article. Thanks to Nantendo, Push DustIn, and Soma for edits, and Soma for translation.
Today marks the twentieth year of the Pokémon franchise. It’s been wonderful experiencing Game Freak’s series about “catching ‘em all” go from quirky personal project to oppressive, world-spanning fad to respected staple of the industry. But while Pocket Monsters’ emerald anniversary is being celebrated with Super Bowl commercials and video game tie-ins, I’m more interested in looking into one of the series’ less reputable entries.
When discussing Pokémon’s success, it can be easy to forget how tied it is to Nintendo’s portable gaming devices. The ease of use, the friendly, unassuming design of the Game Boy, the ability to take your ‘Mons anywhere with you and trade with friends all contributed to how the series just exploded. Game Freak has been open that they view it as a primarily portable series because of that accessibility, but they still let Genius Sonority, a studio partially funded by Nintendo and the Pokémon Company that mostly makes Pokémon spinoffs, take a crack at the idea of a Pokémon game made for home consoles. The result was Pokémon Colosseum (European spelling used for all versions), a 2003 GameCube title.
On paper, Colosseum was a slam dunk for longtime fans. It was a big home console release, not a complete spinoff like the delightful Pokémon Snap but a fully-fledged adventure whose Pokémon could even be transferred to players’ Game Boy Advance games. It was in an all-new region, the wasteland of Orre whose vast desert and closed-off cities felt incredibly unique. And more than anything else, it was dark – well, “dark” in a fairly sanitized fashion, not something with which GameCube owners would be unfamiliar. In sharp contrast to the rosy-cheeked kids of prior games, hero Wes is a trenchcoat-clad “badass” on a comically oversized bike roaming the region and righting wrongs. He’s also a deserter of Team Snagem, a gang of thieves operating as mercenaries for the enigmatic syndicate Cipher. Overall, it’s less a monster-catching RPG than a traditional RPG with the monster-catching mechanics of Pokémon.
Colosseum is the kind of game that justifies the first part of this series’ title: while neither purely removed from fans’ memories nor a symbol of ire, it was a creative dead-end that had minimal impact on the franchise. Even when Game Freak finally went into full 3D a decade later for Pokémon X & Y, it was in a clean, pastel style based on the work of classic series artist Ken Sugimori. Their plots have gotten more epic and involved as well, but in a different direction than what Sonority did – more about broad philosophical or scientific questions than an emphasis on plot or tone.
Like most heroes in the series, Wes is a blank, with his criminal past being noticeably unexamined. It’s hard to ignore since the central mechanic in the game was that he, um, steals his entire team. Outside of his starters Espeon and Umbreon, almost all the monsters you can catch are limited to a pool of forty-eight Shadow Pokémon, abducted and brainwashed by Cipher’s agents into heartless engines of destruction, and which you steal in return via a special tool. These ideas – machines that dictate ownership of Pokémon, psychic and technological abuse – are concepts with incredible implications for the logistics and morality of the series, but they’re surprisingly left undiscussed.
After the intro – where Wes announces his defection by blowing up the Snagem headquarters and stealing the Snag Machine – our hero rescues a young girl, Rui, as she’s being kidnapped by two toughs. It seems she can see an aura infecting certain Pokémon, and together the two investigate crimes related to this horrifying condition. Eventually, they uncover a plot to control the region on a number of levels, all involving the proliferation of Shadow Pokémon. Between the Arizona-inspired dessert, washed-out grit, and hard-boiled mysteries about corruption in high places, the game has a slight noirish sensibility; think Ace in the Hole meets the Big Sleep with giant, fire breathing dragons. This was likely not accidental; according to Genius Sonority:
“I wanted to create a world that was a little different, a little more grown up than the Pokémon world we’ve known up until now. That’s why the protagonist is around 17 years old, why his clothing is darker, why he’s more mature. We’re also incorporating the concept of the “Snag Machine,” so it might be a little different from the image we have of the Pokémon universe you have now.” [Translation by Soma]
Considering the wealth of biology and real world cultures from which this series draws, there’s something fun about its odd mishmash of broad American cultural idioms. The soundtrack is full of harmonica (as well as Pyrite Town’s jazzy strains), the long stretches of sand and sartorial styles of many NPCs give it a western feel, and the piles of refuse that act as invisible walls do make the environments feel more “grounded” than those of contemporary Japanese RPGs.
However, the story is…well, it’s not really terrible, but it’s rough even by the sometimes scattershot style of the mainline Pokémon titles. Aside from Wes being a blank and Rui a plot device, the supporting characters feel no more than functional for the plot to keep moving. The villains aren’t much better, mostly generic clichés. While the lone exception, the Ludicolo training disco king Miror B., would be iconic in any game, there’s too vast a gulf of quality between him and the rest of the cast.
This line of criticism might be unfair; the game certainly sold more on the appeal of seeing 385 (Deoxys hadn’t been revealed yet) Pokémon with GameCube-level graphics than on its plot; it even heavily advertises Kyogre and Groudon, who don’t actually appear without connecting to the GBA games. Still, engaging in Colosseum via its story is like engaging with later Call of Duty games via their stories, because while narrative elements are certainly less central to their commercial success, they are still more interesting, unique, and distinctive. There’s simply more to unpack, especially since the game mechanics are almost exactly that of Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire.
I mean, the gameplay is still Pokémon; it’s always clear and engaging. The very limited cast may be disappointing from a franchise perspective, but it does give the game an edge; you’re never putting together a perfect team so much as one that can get the job done as efficiently as reasonably possible. It’s a feeling helped by Shadow Pokémon falling into violent fits and being unable to level up, learn new moves, or evolve before being “purified” to normal. Similarly, bosses use high-level strategies and difficult teams; once I had to bring in an Ariados, a painfully weak ‘Mon I’ve never used, because only its attack Sludge Bomb could halt Miror B. in a late game fight. It’s in those moments of limited resources that the game really hits this darker tone in its mechanics, and Colosseum has real purpose. It’s not Dishonored or Rogue Legacy, but feeling the pressure is exciting in a tense, crime game style that most Pokémon games can’t do by design. It’s the one time where Wes’ backstory feels more than incidental.
Similarly, it’s most interesting as a story when it’s able to go off the beaten track just a little bit and dive into that tone. Orre’s a world apart, with a sense of notable economic and social decay as Cipher seems to pound every town and denizen into the dirt. Citizens in the picturesque, waterlogged oasis Phenac City complain about people from faraway slums, while teenage vigilantes struggle to uncover criminal plots in a corrupt, underground city. It’s odd, isn’t it? Pokémon is supposed to take place in a world free from the crises and social ills of today; as series creative figure and composer Junichi Masuda explained in a 2012 interview with Game Informer,
It’s the type of place, the Pokémon world, where problems we face on Earth just wouldn’t happen. There wouldn’t be global warming, water shortages, or anything like that. It’s a world where the people in it really want to work together with each other. Their value system is such where they would prefer to work together and eliminate these problems rather than feud.
While part of the series’ appeal comes from how uplifting and friendly its world is, there’s just something enticing about a side story where where the picturesque utopia has given way to base desires, if only for a bit. It’s kind of why the Shadow Pokémon are disappointing; they should be indestructible terrors you struggles to control. Maybe purifying them could mean sacrificing immediate power, adding an understated moral choice element. As it is, they’re merely a hassle – not a bad hassle, but not even near the game-changer they should be. Sonority might even agree, as Colosseum’s sequel goes in that direction.
While its graphics – particularly its human subjects, who are really poorly rendered – never move past that early 2000s space, it has strong environmental art direction. Ruby & Sapphire were good at making the towns of Hoenn distinct, but the lack of spatial continuity between Orre’s locales makes each one – like the neon-lit sleaze of the Under – feel truly like it’s own little society. The lack of narrative thrust the game has is mitigated partially by the space the game provides for player interpretation, as well as gameplay touches like how every fight uses the format of Ruby & Sapphire’s new, underused Double Battles.
There’s nothing outwardly wrong about Colosseum, but there’s also a constant sense that it’s less invested in engaging with itself or this grander epic. It was made during the third generation of Pokémon, where dramatic but arguably needed changes to its data architecture made Ruby & Sapphire unable to receive ‘Mons from older games, and having almost all of the available Pokémon be otherwise unobtainable residents of Gold & Silver’s Johto region feels at times like custodial needs. Similarly, the existence of many “colosseums” suggests a stronger focus on multiplayer over anything else. It’s not necessarily bad to do so; the game feels like a spiritual sequel to HAL Laboratories’ Pokémon Stadium, and that was successful just by showing Pokémon battles in 3D. But it is a bit of a missed opportunity.
Despite a tepid critical response, over 2.5 million sales justified a 2005 sequel, Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness. The silly title belies its being a mostly lighter affair, one more confident with the concept of Shadow Pokémon and a coat of polish. I found it stronger on the whole, but it got a worse critical reception and only half of Colosseum’s sales; perhaps the interest in a 3D game had been answered well enough? Except for stylized Mewtwo costumes in Smash Bros. and Pokkén Tournament that might be based on XD’s Shadow Lugia, this sub-series’ influence on future games has been nonexistent. Genius Sonority continues to make Pokémon titles, but nothing nearly as ambitious, and the series’ home console affairs since have been limited to spinoffs and crossovers.
And yet, it’s not fair to suggest that this title has remained entirely forgotten; a small subset of fans from that period have reclaimed it and XD as strong, worthwhile interpretations of the series. Certainly, the desire for a 3D, HD Pokémon adventure for a home console still exists, as does the interest in seeing the series move away from its roots more often.
Over the past couple years of Pocket Monsters, there has been a noticeable tension over the possibility of what’s next for the commercial behemoth. The series has been experimenting with new genres and distribution methods; free-to-play Picross games, mysteries starring a surly, lecherous Pikachu, and the tantalizing Pokémon Go! would have been shocking from the perspective of 2003. Plus, there’s the just announced Sun & Moon, the specter of Zygarde’s “complete” form…it’s hard to quantify, but a sense of excitement abounds. I’m not sure if Pokémon Colosseum will ever influence the franchise going forth, but for all their many faults it and XD did suggest a possible avenue for the series. I can definitely see some studio, whether Sonority or not, exploiting that idea for further, greater ends. I’d certainly like to see it.