Pokémon on Dual Screens: The End of an Era
Celebrating the highs and lows of the decade
The Pokémon franchise is about to make its big debut on the Switch, and as it does so, a major change is taking place in its interaction design. The past four generations of Pokémon games, spanning back to Pokémon Diamond and Pearl that came out in 2006, were played on the Nintendo DS and 3DS, both dual screen devices. Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee are the first mainline titles in the series (at least since Pokémon Emerald for Game Boy Advance) to be released for a single-screen Nintendo handheld device: in this case, the Nintendo Switch.
So, let’s take a moment to appreciate the era that was dual-screen Pokémon. It feels so natural today, but when the Nintendo DS first made its debut, it was unclear how games would utilize that second, touch-enabled screen. The Pokémon games mostly used it as a massive touchpad for UI elements, with the support for occasional mini-games and even some pretty robust live game systems. There was some neat stuff down there, so let’s take a deeper look.
Pokémon “generations” refer to an entire set of Pokémon games. A single release is usually a pair of individual games (typically alternate versions of each other) that are released simultaneously. We’re focusing on four generations here, with each generation containing at least two sets of games:
- Gen IV: Pokémon Diamond & Pearl (2006), Pokémon Platinum (2008), Pokémon HeartGold & SoulSilver (2009)
- Gen V: Pokémon Black & White (2010), Pokémon Black 2 & White 2 (2012)
- Gen VI: Pokémon X & Y (2013), Pokémon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire (2014)
- Gen VII: Pokémon Sun & Moon (2016), Pokémon Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon (2017)
That’s a total of seventeen games across the Nintendo DS and 3DS spanning over eleven years. Whew! Let’s dig into their interfaces and how they made use of both screens on these devices.
The Battle UIs
Evolution of the combat menus
Let’s begin by discussing the battle UIs, which are by far the most recognizable differentiator between all the generations. The battle system remained largely unchanged across all the games, so these screens offer a good starting point for the comparisons. Players saw these screens every time they encountered a wild pokémon or started a trainer battle, so the calls to action had to be immediately obvious and extremely prominent. They all followed the same pattern with some minor stylistic and visual overhauls across all the games, with Gen VII introducing the most drastic layout changes.
With the advent of the Nintendo 3DS, the shape of the screens changed a little. The “game” screen on top became more widescreen, while the lower touchscreen got squarer. This didn’t have a huge impact on the UI but certainly forced everything into more symmetrical and square aspect ratio. Gen VII was the first time that the series moved the “Fight” button to the right side in order to keep parity with the list of moves, which was also moved to the right in the same generation.
Once you actually tapped “Fight”, you were always presented with a list of four moves to choose from. New Pokémon moves and types were being introduced with every generation, so color started becoming a very strong visual differentiator on this screen. This allowed players to parse the move type quickly without having to read a single word of text on the screen.
Gen VII had a very good reason to swap the moves grid to a list layout. In addition to the Mega Evolution mechanic from Gen VI, it introduced Z-Powers and Ultra Bursts. These were even more single-use actions during a battle, so the interface made them feel extra special by devoting the entire left side of the screen to them and giving them tons of particle effects, which made it feel far more impactful during a battle.
Overall, the battle UIs grew organically over the games, with players constantly feeling that there were significant visual and usability improvements being made with each iteration. For more on the battle UI, check out this detailed breakdown of its evolution across all the Pokémon games by Carly Karas.
The Good Stuff
Memorable moments and highlights of the era
When you aren’t battling, you’re mostly wandering around in the game world looking to catch pokémon, trying other players to trade or battle with online, or simply immersing yourself deeper into the world and Pokémon around you. The Pokémon games like to introduce new game systems with every new generation, and there were a few standout features that quickly became fan favorites and deserve special shoutouts.
The DexNav (Gen VI)
Pokémon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire debuted the DexNav. When out and about in the overworld, the entire lower touchscreen would transform to a real-time map of the area with silhouettes of the Pokémon hiding in the environment. You would then have to slowly sneak up on them and catch the them to get that species to show up on the DexNav. The silhouettes would update with the actual sprite of the Pokémon you encountered, encouraging you to “fill in” the entire map by finding all the different species of wild pokémon in the area before moving on.
This was simply brilliant. It tied in directly to the “gotta catch ’em all” narrative of Pokémon and made the player feel like a true hunter on a quest to reveal all the hidden Pokémon in the Pokédex. Best of all, it used both screens of the Nintendo 3DS to do exactly what the system promised by offering a unique gameplay experience that you couldn’t get on a single-screen device. Fans absolutely loved this and wanted it in every future game. Unfortunately, Game Freak did away with the feature after the game’s release and it hasn’t made a comeback in any Pokémon game since (yet).
The Player Search System (Gen VI)
Pokémon’s online networking systems had always been a hit-or-miss, but Pokémon X & Y hit it out of the park with the introduction of the Player Search System (PSS for short). It didn’t matter what you were doing in the game screen above — the lower touchscreen always displayed a live queue of trainers ready to battle or trade Pokémon right now. Having the PSS accessible on the bottom screen without needing to open up a cumbersome online play menu was a game changer. Players could see which of their friends were online right now or what players were around them, allowing for spontaneous pokémon battles to break out at a mall or subway station.
The PSS really hit home with the inclusion of O-Powers, temporary power-ups that players could share with each other. These were timesaving and luck-boosting mechanisms that made tedious tasks or chance encounters feel better and faster. For the first time in a Pokémon game, players could truly engage with each other in a way other than battling or trading that meaningfully impacted their solo-play experience. This really boosted the usage and staying power of the PSS as a fan-favorite game feature. Game Freak carried this system over to Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire the following year after positive feedback on its ease of use and accessibility.
Pokétch (Gen IV)
In many ways, Pokémon Diamond & Pearl had the highest risk for introducing systems that would use the lower touchscreen, because they were the very first Pokémon games to come out on the Nintendo DS. Nobody knew how a Pokémon game would play on two screens, and it was up to these games to set that standard. The Pokétch was Game Freak’s first attempt at supplementing gameplay by exposing commonly used features on the lower touchscreen as opposed to having them buried away in a menu. Its emphasis on simplicity and focusing on only one function at any given time worked wonders.
The Pokétch was loaded with functions. In addition to functions that made pokémon management easier like checking their state, friendship, compatibility, and daycare status, it had a ton of utility functions including clocks, calculators, drawing pads, radars, timers, and so much more. It strived to kill menus forever and convert everything to a visual representation, which it came very close to doing. It was playful, engaging, and immersive. Accomplishing all of this in such a low-fidelity pixel density was also a remarkable technical achievement. The Pokétch showed what a Pokémon game with two screens could do, and passed on many of its learnings to the games of the future Pokémon generations.
C-Gear (Gen V)
While Gen V didn’t introduce anything that radically changed gameplay mechanics, it went above and beyond than any of the games in terms of personalization. Pokémon Black and White’s C-Gear was the online communications hub that players typically had open on the lower screen for long periods of time. Allowing players to swap its look and feel to their favorite pokémon’s theme was a nice touch in making players feel a sense of connection and ownership towards an otherwise bland utility screen.
The customization carried over to Pokémon Black 2 & White 2 as well, offering more options and changing the visual look of the screen even more dramatically. These skins became popular enough that they were given out as rewards for winning Pokémon tournaments or attending the screening of a new Pokémon movie. The exclusivity of these downloadable skins offered a great incentive for players to engage with the greater Pokémon community.
Pokémon Amie (Gen VI)
Debuting in Pokémon X & Y, Pokémon Amie was a minigame that allowed you to play with your pokémon on the lower touchscreen to increase its affection stat. The interaction was simple but just varied enough, where you pet your Pokémon by rubbing them in specific areas with the Nintendo 3DS stylus. You could even feed them berries or other edible items in order to make them happier. This required you to actually pick up the item and “feed” your pokémon by holding it in front of their mouth until they nibbled on it.
This was a full-on game within a game that was pushed hard in Pokémon X & Y’s marketing as a way for players to develop deeper bonds with their pokémon. Players could permanently swap the lower touchscreen to check on their Pokémon, and instantly access their stats to see which Pokémon in their party needed attention. Lots of players responded positively to how deep yet lightweight the whole system felt.
To take it even further, there were minigames within Pokémon Amie that players could partake in. These were short and sweet, and were fun enough to engage with once in a while. The mini-games also raised your Pokémon’s stats, tying in well to Pokémon Amie and to the overall game itself. As a whole, Pokémon Amie was popular enough that it made it into Pokémon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire, and even got an upgrade for the next generation of pokémon games.
Pokémon Refresh (Gen VII)
Carrying right over from the last generation, Pokémon Amie got a new name and even more features in Gen VII’s Pokémon Sun & Moon. Now called Pokémon Refresh, it allowed players to cure status conditions like paralysis, burns, poisons, and sleep on their Pokémon through this system. This was huge! Now, this wasn’t something that players occasionally dabbled in from time-to-time, but instead was something they were frequently doing, since pokémon tended to get afflicted with status conditions quite often during battle. This also saved players money, because why buy items to cure status conditions when you could just quickly rub off the status condition through Pokémon Refresh?
Pokémon Refresh is a great example of a beloved feature from a previous pokémon game that was modified and tied in better to fit the gameplay. The petting and feeding mechanic still stayed in Pokémon Refresh, with the added twist of cooking special themed items for bonus stats. Curing status conditions gave players a fantastic reason to go into Pokémon Refresh post-battle nearly every time to clean up and play with their Pokémon, making the bond between player and Pokémon stronger than it had ever been.
The Not So Good
The controversial and bizarre additions
As mentioned earlier, the introduction of new features into dual screens was always a hit-or-miss. While there was a lot of good stuff, there were also a few strange features or ones that didn’t quite nail it in terms of execution and capitalizing on what the dual screens offered. Let’s take a look at a couple.
Rotom Dex (Gen VII)
By Gen VII, players knew exactly what the dual screens do in these games. Pokémon Sun & Moon were at the tail end of the dual screen era. There were thirteen pokémon games before them on dual screens, so clearly, these games should’ve been the pinnacle of the era. They should’ve mastered all the learnings from the previous ones and delivered the best-in-class experience on dual screens, right? Enter Rotom Dex.
JRPGs have always had a thing for virtual assistants and the Pokémon games had always been on the heavier side in terms of handholding. Combine the two and you get a pesky sidekick that no-one asked for permanently stuck to the lower touschreen. Rotom Dex provided contextual information and promised to offer a more interactive Pokédex experience, but it was far from that. It frequently blocked the map to pester the player with pointless and repetitive questions, offered helpful “tips” which were actually just explanations of basic game features, and had a very annoying and over-the-top tone in its delivery. Worst of all, there was no way to turn it off.
Rotom Dex didn’t die in the next Pokémon game. It made a return in Pokémon Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon and got even more irritating. It would occasionally get sad and the player would have to play with it by tapping on its eyes, and it would provide even more useless tips. It wasn’t all bad though — it did do some new things like allowing you to use a Z-Power twice in the same battle (which was typically a one-time consumable) or allowing you to play a lottery game that provided Roto Powers, this game’s version of O-Powers. Overall, the player reception to RotomDex was less than favorable. A niche few liked its quirky personality but the majority of the playerbase wanted an option to turn off its more obnoxious behaviors to focus on the gameplay itself.
Super Training (Gen VI)
Amongst all the various new dual-screen features that Pokémon X & Y introduced, the strangest and most offbeat one was Super Training. This was a mini-game on the lower screen that allowed the party pokémon to punch a bag and level up its stats. It was a strange incorporation of the literal gym training metaphor, and the interaction ended up being repetitive in that it was simply punching the bag over and over again (by tapping it) to increase a stat.
Even stranger, bags didn’t just show up on the lower screen. They had to be won through yet another wackier minigame. Your Pokémon was taken to a stadium where it was placed on a floating pedestal. Your objective was to dodge gigantic soccer balls being hurled at you while also trying to destroy a giant inflated balloon version of a Pokémon. Not making this up.
It was neat in that it offered players an alternative method to EV train their Pokémon, an advanced levelling method that had been a largely hidden game mechanic until it was exposed by Super Training. However, the completely unrelated soccer ball minigame and bag punching felt very out of place. They had no connection to anything else in the game and overall ended up feeling very disjointed from the core gameplay. Perhaps most significantly, this method was more time-consuming and cumbersome than the traditional method of EV training. Super Training made a re-appearance in Pokémon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire before being shelved for good.
The End of an Era
A decade of dual screen dazzle
So there we have it. Seventeen games across eleven years, with tons of major and minor changes across the systems that sometimes drastically changed how you played, and sometimes got in the way of the core game experience. Pokémon was one of the biggest franchises on the Nintendo handheld devices, and they set the bar for how dual screens should be used.
A big criticism players have is that Game Freak didn’t quite carry over all the good game systems to the next games. While Pokémon Amie became Pokémon Refresh and achieved some staying power, the beloved Player Search System was replaced with a complicated hub world type amusement park called Festival Plaza in Gen VII. Players were frustrated that they had to put up with that kind of bloat after being exposed to the simplicity of the PSS. On the other hand, no-one was too upset with Game Freak choosing to not carry over unorthodox minigames like Super Training on to the next generation.
The Pokétch in Gen IV showed the promise of single-use utility functions on the lower touchscreen, which Gen V perfected it with making better use of the bottom screen as well as offering C-Gear customizability. Gen VI introduced many interactive minigames and systems that made their way into Gen VII. The DexNav might never make a comeback, but it will forever be remembered as a defining feature of Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. Despite the controversial omissions and some arguably unnecessary inclusions in the latest generation (like Rotom Dex), it’s been fascinating to watch this evolution unfold across the dual screen era.
Switching to the Future
Now that the dual screen era is over, what’s in store for Pokémon’s future? What will Pokémon look like on the Nintendo Switch’s single screen?
Pokémon Emerald (Gen III) was the last Pokémon game to come out on a single screen device, and that was back in 2004. Technology has changed quite a bit since then. The Switch is capable of rendering high fidelity visuals and has a lot more processing power, so it’s an exciting time to fantasize about the potential of the next several generations of Pokémon games on the Switch and what new things they’ll bring to the table.
So far, what we’ve seen from Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee seems less than promising. The games are clearly catered towards the Pokémon Go crowd, with an overly cheery aesthetic and minimal information display. The battle menu and the stats display screen in particular leave a lot to be desired from a hardcore player perspective. There’s certainly room here for a more robust and dynamic UI, but it seems like the developers are only lightly treading the waters with this game.
That said, we’re in the early days here. Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu & Let’s go Eevee’s attempt at an overlaid interface is what Pokémon Diamond & Pearl’s Pokétch system was when the Nintendo DS debuted for the first time. No one knew then how dual screens would be used, and people don’t quite know yet how the Switch will handle features for the new Pokémon games. After all, the big difference in the Switch is not the fact that it’s a single screen, but that it can be played in multiple orientations (docked, handheld, or tabletop) and with or without motion controls.
It’s going to be an exciting time seeing what comes next.
Nintendo’s Mario and Zelda franchises saw landmark titles on the Switch to universal acclaim. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate also promises to be big. Now it’s Pokémon’s turn to shine. After having delighted fans for years through dual screens on the Nintendo DS and 3DS, Pokémon is ready to make its big splash on the Switch. While Pokémon Lets Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee is largely aimed at Pokémon Go players, there is a mainline Pokémon RPG slated for release in 2019, which will officially kickstart Gen VIII of Pokémon on brand new hardware. That’s the real deal, and it’s going to set a high bar for all future Pokémon games.
The dual screen era delivered some incredible highs and some not-so-great lows. It’s important to document their successes and failures so that we can learn from their triumphs and shortcomings. The changes might have seemed minuscule as the games came out, but zooming out to a macro level after we have a full scope of the games gives us a great lens to analyze them from. The end of this era is sure to live on in the minds and hearts of many gamers who will look back at them as nostalgic reminders of the 2006–2017 era of Pokémon games on the famed dual screen Nintendo handhelds.