How The Grand Underground (Almost) Saved Shining Pearl

Pokemon Platinum was the game that got me back into the franchise after a decade’s long hiatus. It was a gift from a friend along with a DS Lite and I was immediately sucked into the Sinnoh region and its Pokémon. I was able to take on Giratina with a Piplup and turned said devourer of worlds and chaos entity into a spoiled pet that liked walks in Amity Square and lots of poffins. 

When Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl was announced around the same time as Legends: Arceus, I had a bit more faith in the Sinnoh remake than I did about the open world survival horror game where Pokemon are actively trying to kill you and a murderous blonde is causing mayhem. But from the start there was something…off about BDSP. A different studio was in place that changed the art direction and style. Many of the quality of life changes that had become practically canon in Pokémon games were either ignored or severely limited. The game overall just felt lacking in comparison to its Sinnoh cousin and its Sinnoh elder. For many, Sinnoh was their home in the same way that Hoenn and Johto were mine (I did play Red, Blue and Yellow as a kid but I don’t really think I formed a strong connection to the franchise till Crystal and for sure cemented in Ruby/Sapphire). 

In my friend group, Carlos skipped BDSP because Sinnoh wasn’t even a region he played in and that left Ricky and I to try and get through it, emphasis on try. Both of us immediately noticed that this was not the Sinnoh our nostalgia remembered from the very deformed (chibi) style of character model to the running mechanics to how Pokemon interacted with you and the world. There was just nothing about BDSP that felt like it held a candle to the Sinnoh I came to love so much. So much like Legends Arceus, I stopped playing the game. To be fair, my issues with Arceus are much different to BDSP. While Arceus was a game I fundamentally didn’t feel attached to save for the malewife (Adaman), Volo being the literal worst and a brief mental crisis over Ingo; BDSP had me practically written all over it much like Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire.  

You may know where I’m going with this.

I got to the 7th out of 8 gyms in about 18 hours, having caught only a handful of Pokemon and having a team with stats so high that if I could only solve the puzzle to reach the Ice Gym leader, I’d destroy her. 

I put the game down and didn’t pick it back up. 

That was months ago. 

After finishing the main game in Scarlet/Violet and realizing Pokémon has no plans to actually ever finish a game again since they can just release DLCs and we’ll eat it up like the abused children we are, I decided to go back to Shining Pearl almost on a whim. I was confronted with a team I barely recognized. Sure, it was a team I would have built; an over-powered Empoleon, a Staravia that could fight God, a Luxray with Crunch and a few smatterings of legendaries and other Pokemon that I suppose I captured in a fugue state. I didn’t recognize this team but I was confronted with the 7th gym puzzle and decided to take a step back and get back to my roots. I had an incredibly sparse list of Pokémon in my Pokedex. I clearly had barely captured anything or spoken to anyone in my haste to just finish this chore of the game. So I went back to basics, returned to the start of the map and decided to retrace my steps. The game still isn’t good so when that became tedious, I remembered the Grand Underground. 

The Grand Underground is a series of tunnels built under Sinnoh and connect to various caverns and caves. In the Grand Underground, you can hunt for treasure, catch Pokemon, build a secret base and find new environments. And turns out, it was exactly what I needed. 

If you’ve heard my thoughts on Sword/Shield or Legends: Arceus, some of my favorite parts of those games were the parts I could explore, mostly on my own, get loot and be off to myself. 

I set out to hoard statues, find shards and gather fossils and stones. And I did that for 20 or so hours. I made a Secret Base in my favorite city, full of my favorite Pokémon. I traded shards and sold stones and changed clothes. I explored caves and caverns and even caught some Pokémon to round out my team including a Garchomp that is also ready to take on God and a Rapidash that is the most majestic murderer I’ve ever seen. 

I spent time making my Pokeball capsules absolutely perfect and connected Pokémon Home to the game so I could fill out the Pokedex and start finding Pokémon that I actually was willing to bond to. I saved the world from Cyrus’ stupid plan and tamed a god and any time the game got a little too hard or a little too boring, I’d return to the mines. 

I’m still in the mines; frankly annoyed and flustered at my inability to solve a puzzle meant for children and still focusing on making my Secret Base perfect. I still can’t say I like this game, it is still a failure in every way for one of the most iconic regions in Pokémon history. But for a brief and wonderful moment, I’m content in the mines. 


My First 12 Hours in Galar

I was so on the fence about the game. From the start, the marketing for Pokemon Sword/Shield did so much for me but also, there was this tinge of anxiety. I remembered all the feelings I had towards Pokemon Sun/Moon and Ultra Sun/Moon and I felt a knot in my stomach. I was afraid to love again.

That changed of course when we saw more of Galar (a UK inspired region) and the fashion that would come with it.

Those that know me, know that Pokemon X/Y is one of my favorite games because of how unique Kalos looked and felt. They wanted France and we got France. I also loved being able to have a character that looked, and ergo, dressed like me.

The information we got about Sword/Shield felt so sparse; we’d get a new release or a new form (which greatly preyed on nostalgia mostly or just the shock factor of how this Pokemon looks) and when the starters were really shown off: I felt mostly nothing. It wasn’t like Sun/Moon when I looked at Rowlet and immediately bonded with what is my best Poke-Son. I looked at the starters and felt something but not a special something. I wanted this game to make me feel like a child again. To make me feel like I was going on a grand journey with my friends even though we’re all adults with full-time jobs and we’re all pushing 30.

Then the backlash started. I won’t go into all of it but people got angry with this game. Some of it, I do feel, is deserved (but need I remind you all again that being angry with a thing is never an excuse to be utter rubbish). A lot of it, though, did feel like this game was going to be a nightmare. From the level caps to the making sure that you had a type advantage Pokemon before entering a gym: it all felt like this was going to be a disaster.

I didn’t even pre-order this game. I just walked in and purchased on day one. I waited until nearly the end to pick a starter (I chose Sobble because Carlos pointed out that its middle evo looked a lot like my son: Kuji Toi) and I came home and booted up the game hoping and praying I would like this game.

That was 12 hours ago.

Two fateful things happened that have dramatically changed how I view and see this game. First one may be obvious but changed a lot for me which is I’m playing this game on my television. I usually use my Switch as a handheld but I had let my system lose charge as I waited for this game to come out. My joycons had died, too, so I simply had to dock my Switch and let the poor thing charge. Playing this game on the big screen was absolutely how this game is meant to be played. Not that it can’t be enjoyed at all in handheld, but it shines on a bigger screen. Second is that I had zero expectations. I let Carlos spoil some things and in the places where this game feels dumb to others: it reminds me of another beloved franchise favorite Black/White. Many claim Unova was a terrible region for its dumb Pokemon like a literal pile of trash but I quite love my Trubbish. I went in with an expectation that this may be a trash fire but it was going to be a trash fire I liked.

Galar has changed a few things in the lore and canon. Firstly is that the gym challenge feels more like a soccer challenge. There are jerseys and teams and crowds: really how you’d image a Pokemon Gym Battle is. And there’s also Dynamax, a dumber version of Mega Evolution. I was initially resistant to Dynamax but I calmed down when I realized it was just my lizard brain hating change.

I started the game when I got home from work and immediately from the musical design to the story, I was hooked. Galar is calming, beautiful and wondrous. I think playing it on the big screen really gives you a chance to take it all in. I’m not very far into the story, but this is already a more compelling and curious tale and Alola ever had to offer. The character design is just amazing and having a mom that finally matches my skin tone is brilliant. Representation does matter and to see a world full of characters with skin tones like mine and even darker does really make this feel like the most fleshed out of all the main franchise games.

Some of the new game features are really something. The ability to camp in various areas and cook a delicious meal of curry for your team is something that reminds me of Poffin making in earlier games (something I excelled in). The ability to visit other people’s camps is also fun and play games with your Pokemon (the next step up from playing with your Pokemon in Let’s Go Eevee/Pikachu). The wild areas are like a safari zone with more danger. Large Pokemon do chase you (a fear I didn’t know I had) and you can find all kinds of Pokemon in the wild areas including the Dynamax raids that encourage you to work together with others (much like the raids in Pokemon Go). The Pokedex was a point of contention for many as the Dex was not released much before game and many of the now over 1,000 Pokemon we know and love were excluded from Galar. I’ll say this, sure it sucks that some of my favorites are missing but I am not feeling too much loss here. I’m having fun with the team I’m building and enjoying catching new Pokemon.

I did learn something about myself playing this game. I have been accused (rightfully) blitzing these games. I get so goal oriented and as these games increasingly hold your hand, I lose a lot of curiosity. I don’t explore houses or caves like I used to. I am focused on the goal and the linear story. The wild area seems to be made for me because I absolutely could just pitch my tent, make curry and vanish into the woods. I had to force myself to get back into the main game.

I got back on my journey and the badges began to become easier and easier to get. I started to ignore some of the wild areas only because as mentioned, I would stay there forever. Each new town I visit, new city I see, new gym leader I meet: it all just makes me feel, more so than most, that I am truly in this marvelous world.

Galar is a stunning region, the story is one of the strongest since Black and White and each Pokemon I find is a charming mix of fun with lots of thought put into each name and ability. Sure, there are some stupid ones, but they’re my kind of stupid: I find them quite charming.

This game is not perfect. Nothing is. But for what I wanted, to feel like a kid again, this game wins. It helps that I have my squad playing with me, and we’re all enjoying this game rather than us complaining as we did with Sun/Moon.

We’re working on getting our League Cards just right. We talk about what we’re wearing, what gyms we’re in, what Pokemon we need or are missing. It honestly makes it feel like we’re all on this journey together, just visiting each other’s camps and talking. Galar became another sandbox for us all to play in despite us being separated by hundreds of miles.

And that’s where I believe Pokemon has always been as its best. As one of the most popular game franchises of all time, its ability to connect people regardless of age and race and nationality.

I’m still getting some light ribbing from the lads over my ability to blitz a game. I am working on slowing down and taking in the scenery. But Pokemon Sword/Shield has been a charming, stunning jaunt into a mythological and fictional not-England-England that makes me feel more connected to Pokemon than I’ve felt in nearly a decade.

I’m going to take more time to play this game. I want to stay lost in this world a little longer. I want to keep playing this game. I’ll let you all know what the next 12 hours looks like and what the rest of my gameplay looks like, if you want.

Thanks for reading.