Over the past week or so I've been spending a lot of my time playing through Pokémon: Let's Go Pikachu. I enjoy it most as a fleshed-out revisiting of Pokémon Yellow, but one of my issues with the game is how Nintendo's choice to put motion controls front-and-centre has come at the expense of an accessible experience.
Pokémon: Let's Go is a game that, whether played docked or undocked on Switch, has motion controls at the core. When playing on your TV, players have to make a throwing motion with their Joy-Con towards the screen, with the timing and strength of the throw dictating if you successfully capture your target Pokémon. When undocked you are able to use an analogue stick and the A button to aim and throw your ball, but gyro aiming is employed to tweak the exact angle of your shot. It cannot be turned off.
I'm a gamer with no chronic pain conditions, and no major motor control issues, and I personally loved playing Let's Go with these new catching mechanics. Still, there is something about them that's somewhat troubling. Nintendo has clearly made Let's Go a game where aiming and throwing the ball can be done with just an analogue stick and buttons, but does not allow players to make a choice to use only that set of controls, without motion controls being involved.
Now, this might not sound like a big issue – the game controls the way it controls – but the problem arises when you consider gamers who are not able to use this setup. Players with limited mobility in an arm; players with conditions like Parkinson's; and players who have chronic pain conditions exacerbated by repeated movements. For these players, Nintendo has nothing to offer.
In an interview earlier this year with Game Informer, Game Freak director Junichi Masuda was asked why he made motion a mandatory part of Pokémon Let's Go, and his response was clear. He knows there are other options, but he wanted people to try his new idea, so he made it mandatory.
"The primary reason is really just to provide a new experience. There are a lot of people out there, I think, that really do want to throw a Poké Ball and role-play that. And as well as a lot of people out there who maybe haven’t played the main series of Pokémon, but would find that really appealing. By making that the only way to do it, I just wanted people to try this new experience."
However, having now put 80 hours into Let's Go, I can tell you first hand that had these controls been optional, I still would have played the game this way. It was a fun gimmick, it's used well, and I'd have played this way even with if I could've switched to more traditional controls. Increasing options doesn't stop people using a new mechanic, so long as that new mechanic is an enjoyable alternative. Putting in options for people to choose how they play opens the door for more players to engage with the game.
Pokémon Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee are now on sale to the general public, and a number of Kotaku UK readers have ultimately had to backtrack their decisions to purchase copies due to accessibility concerns not present in older Pokémon games. We spoke to a few gamers over email, who each explained why they were not going to be able to play the latest series entry.
"I have very poor coordination whenever I perform certain tasks. While I can deal with some motion controls, whenever I repetitively throw anything (or mime throwing something) my fingers can involuntarily twitch, causing me to drop what I'm holding onto the ground. This concern was heightened when I saw that a core mechanic is to chain multiple catches in order to grab Pokémon with the best IV's/shinys. As gyro/motion controls are mandatory in Pokémon Lets Go I don't think I'll be able to play for long without dropping my switch on the ground and/or throwing a joycon through my TV. It's a shame because everything else I've read suggests I would love the game but the risk of damaging my stuff is too great for me to ignore." — [name withheld at request]
"I have Hypermobility Syndrome (and am trying to seek out a diagnosis of EDS) and I find motion controls incredibly difficult. Whilst I'm able to use motion controls to an extent, I find making accurate and quick movements incredibly painful, and run the risk of subluxing (partially dislocating) my wrist. I have done so multiple times whilst playing the Wii - so many of Nintendo's motion-controlled games have been entirely unplayable for me and I just don't want to risk damaging myself. No Pokemon, not even Mew, is worth my wrist, elbow or shoulder coming out of its socket" — @GameAssistYT
The problem is that, while it's Nintendo's prerogative to try and encourage players towards using a new control scheme, in this case it's done so by simply removing the usual options. This isn't about Let's Go incorporating motion controls, it's about the option to use buttons being removed in order to serve that end and, in so doing, leaving behind a lot of gamers. Several of those we spoke to had been anticipating the game but, on hearing about the forced motion controls, had to back out of purchases.
"I have fibromyalgia and M.E. and I'm autistic, which for gaming means my arms are very fatigued especially with any amount of weight being held. Also, a lot of pain gets caused holding any weight so I shift around a lot to counteract this. I'm usually moving constantly, M.E. and fibromyalgia also cause spasms and twitches which means my hands/fingers and arms and flick when gaming. This wasn't an issue for Mario Kart 8 when I played it, as I could change settings so the controller was guided by buttons and stick, not gyro. Being autistic means I get sensory issues and I quite frequently play games with the controller under several blankets for pressure. I was under the impression before launch that Pokémon Let's Go could be played with just the stick and buttons on the controller instead of motion so didn't think this would be an issue, but it sounds like it may affect my ability to play" — Twitter user @twistthepenguin
"I've been so excited about the new Pokémon game to come out. Finding out motion controls are required makes me really upset because it means I won't be able to play. I have a neuromuscular disability, and use a wheelchair. My son is also a gamer and he's autistic. He has trouble with fine and gross motor skills, and he's pretty upset because Pokémon is one of his greatest interests. He has a huge Pokémon collection with thousands of cards, and it is probably his favorite series. He has decided not to play the game because he doesn't want to be disappointed when he struggles physically." — Dominick Evans
"Pokémon was huge to me and got me through really tough things like homelessness and severe mental health struggles in my late teens-early twenties. I wasn’t able to play Go because of my disabilities (I use a manual wheelchair) and I’m also not able to play Let’s Go because my disease means I’m too fragile and lack consistent co-ordination and strength for motion controls" — Cherry Thompson
Clearly, not every video game released is going to be playable by every gamer. I'm not suggesting that Nintendo or anyone shouldn't make games with motion controls. But what's frustrating in the case of Let's Go is that the series has long used button controls that would work for these gamers, and has removed them.Support for analogue stick aiming and button throws already exists in the Pokemon games, just not this one. It seems so unnecessary to remove the option and, in doing so, cut off every player for whom that might be the only option.
Accessibility in gaming is becoming a more common topic – from software examples like Marvel's Spider-Man allowing button mashing to be replaced with a hold to hardware like Microsoft's Xbox adaptive controller – and some developers are facing the challenge and ensuring as many people as possible get to play their games. Pokémon Let's Go isn't the only game in the world to lock out part of its audience, but it's the latest example of a developer so focused on innovation and change that it doesn't notice how many of the series' disabled fans have been left behind in the process.