Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are slowly approaching, and while the game looks exciting with online multiplayer and a fully-open world, it’s the detailed art style that has me thinking about the series’ progress. In the beginning, Pokémon Red and Blue provided us with 8-bit graphics of the original 151 Pokémon, and our imaginations filled in the rest. With each new installment since, character sprites, move animations, and Pokémon designs became more alive within the 2D setting. However, it wasn’t until the 3DS’ Pokémon X and Y that we saw a traditional adventure with 3D graphics. Since moving to 3D, we’ve seen many variations of art styles; some better, some worse. With Scarlet and Violet coming soon, let’s take some time and reflect on the evolution of Pokémon‘s 3D graphics, and determine which games had the best art style.
Pokémon X and Y, as well as Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, were the first 3D Pokémon games for 3DS, and they were. . . good enough. The lack of Pokémon sprites took some getting used to, and a lot of the move animations felt hollow. While the characters and backgrounds were rendered well, only a small handful of characters had 3D models outside of the overworld. Most NPCs were simply a 2D picture laid out over a 3D background when approached for battle. These games were the Pokémon Company’s first foray into the 3D world, and I think they made the landing. They just stumbled a bit.
I was less impressed by the next few entries. Pokémon Sun and Moon seemed to be trying to squish too much onto the 3DS’ screen. Pokémon Sword and Shield was a bit better, mainly due to the horsepower of the Nintendo Switch. However, even though the Switch allowed for better character designs and combat animations, the backgrounds of Sword and Shield are paltry. It felt strange only being able to interact with six or seven buildings in what were supposed to be huge locales.
Deeper into the Switch generation, Pokémon Legends: Arceus took a more “realistic” approach, but the animation is stilted and showed little improvement over previous games. Major cutscenes had characters just standing around, staring blankly forward. Plus — though the game is beautiful, and I definitely want the art-style to return — I missed the cartoony heart that beats at the center of most Pokémon games.
All this and we still need to talk about Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl! Seeing these fun, 2D characters rendered in a 3D chibi aesthetic definitely turned many fans off. The spirit of the style worked well back in the days of 2D, largely because it was a look native to old hardware. Now that we have had decades to adjust to 3D game worlds, even cartoonish ones, this “return to form” left a lot of fans feeling creeped out. It was jarring to realize that the uncanny valley isn’t just a place for attempts at realistic human characters.
It may sound shocking, especially since the games themselves weren’t received very well, but the art style of Pokémon Let’s Go: Pikachu and Eevee really hooked me. Seeing character designs in-line with their classic models drew me in. Combined with the addition of adorable facial expressions and beautifully animated moves, I think the Let’s Go games can be quite special to new and returning fans. And despite my issues with Sword and Shield‘s background environments, Let’s Go‘s overworld reminded me that it’s not about how intricate your backgrounds look if game designers work lovingly within the limitations set on them. Seeing the polished Pokémon Gyms perfectly updated from the original Red and Blue was a bigger flex than the gigantic, half-rendered stadiums of Sword and Shield.
In conclusion, graphical preferences are as personal as any subjective opinion on art. For me though, the art teams behind Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee and Legends: Arceus displayed the best versions of what 3D Pokémon can be.
What do you think? Which 3D Pokémon has the best visuals? Should any of the art styles — or aspects of them — return? Let us know below, or join the conversation over at the Boss Rush Discord.
Featured Image: The Pokémon Company
Brad Melville is a junior writer for Boss Rush Network. Brad is a huge fan of video games, especially Pokémon, and loves relaxing with some TV or a nice movie when he can. Some of his favorite video games are Pokémon Platinum, Banjo-Kazooie, and Breath of the Wild. You can follow him on Twitter, where you can find him ranting about superheroes, complaining about TV shows, or giving his hot takes about Nintendo.