Revisiting Pokémon Colosseum: the console RPG that inspired Sword and Shield
Pokémon Sword and Shield are not the first Pokémon games on a home console, as GameCentral looks at the forgotten history of Pokémon RPGs.
Pokémon Sword and Shield may have had a mixed reception so far but, but it is by no means the first Pokémon game on a home console – or even the first to resemble the mainline games. The franchise’s journey towards Sword and Shield has consisted of numerous stepping stones and oddities, and Pokémon Coliseum is one of the most important.
Ever since Pokémon Red and Blue was released in 1996 (or 1998 outside Japan), fans have imagined their ideal 3D Pokémon adventure, a game that would transform the series from a portable-only experience into a big budget home console role-player. While it’s easy to envisage for anyone who has dabbled in the series, the journey towards that goal has been a surprisingly long sequence of half-steps and spin-offs – veering between entertaining distractions like Pokémon Snap to frustrating glimpses of what could have been.
The first step arrived in 2000 with Pokémon Stadium on the Nintendo 64 (preceded by a Japanese-only release that only featured a third of all available pokémon at the time). This became the first ever 3D Pokémon title, although it primarily functioned as a home console expansion for the original Game Boy games. Using a Transfer Pak accessory you could bring over your Pokémon roster from Red, Blue, and Yellow and place them in a 3D fighting arena. It was essentially a graphical showcase for those tired of 2D sprites and cuddling bedside lamps to see Game Boy screens and wasn’t really a standalone game.
After a sequel in 2001, released to coincide with Pokémon Gold and Silver, a new developer was funded by Nintendo primarily to make Pokémon console titles. Genius Sonority, consisting of programmers who had worked on the Dragon Quest series, made the first Pokémon console role-playing game in 2004’s Pokémon Colosseum for Nintendo GameCube. On paper it seemed to be the game fans had always wanted, but it soon became clear that this was, purposefully, very different from the mainline games.
Reviews of Pokémon Colosseum were mixed upon release, scoring 73 on review aggregate site Metacritic – and it isn’t hard to see why. Colosseum placed numerous caveats and restrictions on the traditional Pokémon adventure; it wasn’t truly open-world, instead letting you explore different locations through a quick travel menu; the catch ‘em all mantra was limited to 48 shadow pokémon, there was no wild pokémon, and you’re locked into double battles throughout the entire 25-hour story mode.
In terms of presentation, Pokémon Colosseum felt like a knock-off adventure. Instead of playing a young trainer at the start of their ascent to Pokémon Master, you control Wes; a former member of Team Snagem who turns against the group after discovering they have allied with Cipher, a criminal organisation who plan to rule the world using shadow pokémon. The aim of the game is to ‘snag’ these shadow pokémon from trainers and return them to normal by purifying them – a bizarre deviation from the usual formula that nobody really asked for. There’s also a companion character called Rui who is an obvious riff on Misty from the animated series.
The mainline series has rigidly stuck to its formula across eight generations now, which makes Pokémon Colosseum’s irregularities look more distinctive and fresh in hindsight. The ‘snagging’ mechanic to capture shadow pokémon from trainers, which only worked in battles, might’ve functioned like capturing pokémon in the traditional games, but the purification process added incentive to play with new monsters. In order to purify shadow pokémon you have to walk with them in your party, send them into battle, or apply scents using a cologne case item – encouraging you to try out new monsters beyond those you want to level up.
There was also an interesting gamble with hyper mode, which saw shadow pokémon enter a heightened, more powerful state at the risk of disobedience and unpredictable behaviour. It perhaps inspired the idea of mega evolutions and dynamax introduced later in the series, but it had an arguably more interesting and balanced risk/reward system. The influence of Colosseum has also extended to Pokémon Go, which features shadow pokémon and adopts its own system of purification to bolster a monster’s power.
The aesthetic of Colosseum is remarkably different to any other Pokémon title though. You start in a vast desert landscape, which Wes navigates using a bulky hovercycle, a far cry from the comforting greenery found in Pallet Town. Locations in the Orre region, like Pyrite Town and Agate Village, are also bleak and unusual in their design, blending natural and futuristic technology in a dour, almost uninviting way compared to the traditionally bright-eyed Pokémon worlds we’re used to. They can come off as barren and lifeless, but it’s fascinating to see a world occupied by pokémon which looks closer to a primitive dystopia than a cuddly dream space.
Instead of opening with the customary decision of choosing your starter pokémon, Colosseum hands you Eevee evolutions Umbreon and Espeon at the outset. The mainline Pokémon series is oddly rigid in having you choose between a fire, grass, or water type in every new generation, so having the chance to start out with a dark and psychic type further separates it from the pack. In hindsight, it’s surprising a similar deviation hasn’t happened since, considering a spotlight on more obscure types could shake the feeling of familiarity which has loomed over recent titles.
Despite not possessing the longevity of a core Pokémon title, Colosseum had a punishing side to keep the dedicated busy. Instead of a hunt to complete the pokédex, you could compete in 100 trainer matches back-to-back on Mount Battle. It’s far more achievable than catching them all and surprisingly never became a reoccurring feature in the series – only appearing again in 2005 Colosseum sequel Pokémon XD: Gale Of Darkness.
Pokémon Colosseum might have stood out as a half-step towards the 3D dream upon release, but its weirder, unusual qualities now present a compelling alternative to traditions the franchise has become a bit too attached too. But as some fans cry foul over Dexit, Colosseum is an important reminder that compromise can often be the secret to welcome innovation.
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