When taking stock of a long-running video game franchise like Pokémon, it’s easy to overlook some of the weirder, more experimental games that exist on the fringes. Which is why I ask: Please never forget the wonderfully odd Pokémon Conquest.
There are a great number of Pokémon games on the market that don’t come with a color, mineral or letter after their name. Given that the franchise has been around for 20 years, it should come as no surprise that they’ve explored pretty much every genre combination out there. The idea, of course, being that anything’s made marketable with the addition of the Pokémon brand.
There’s Pokémon Snap, where the player’s tasked with capturing sweet photos of pocket monsters for some reason and the last level’s a psychedelic light show with the legendary Pokémon Mew floating to and fro. Also, Hey You, Pikachu! for the Nintendo 64 has players talk with a - you guessed it - Pikachu to make it their buddy. There’s even a typing game for the Nintendo DS that sadly never came to North America.
But 2012’s Pokémon Conquest for the Nintendo DS takes the cake when it comes to the various Pokémon experiments. In the game, players take on the role of a warlord looking to conquer an entire region with the help of their very own Pokémon - with which they can link. Typically speaking, most Pokémon games don’t have people fighting alongside the pocket monsters, but Conquest makes a slight exception.
See, Conquest is technically a crossover with the Nobunaga's Ambition series of turn-based strategy role-playing games by Tecmo Koei. (Nintendo and Tecmo Koei would later work together on a similarly smashed-together video game hybrid with Hyrule Warriors on the Wii U.) The franchise basically tasks the player with unifying Japan. Conquest takes all those mechanics and inserts Pokémon for units with warlords providing certain skills during battles that can help turn the tide as the player works to bring together 17 different portions of the Ransei region.
The game allows players to recruit new warlords and warriors after defeating them, and the linked Pokémon grow in power as their corresponding partner gets used more and more. For the most part, that’s how they eventually evolve. That's more or less the extent of things. An easier and perhaps more familiar comparison would be to say that Conquest is essentially Pokémon meets Fire Emblem.
And ultimately, the game received pretty positive coverage at the time. It’s kind of fallen off folks’ radar since release with no reason to really promote it on Nintendo's part. By the time it had launched, the Nintendo 3DS was already out and replacing the Nintendo DS. It’s not like it was thrown to the wolves, exactly, but it certainly wasn’t given every opportunity to succeed.
But it marked a weird, experimental direction for Pokémon, and that’s something I think we’ll see more of as time goes on and it becomes more and more difficult to just keep adding new monsters to the main iterations. At some point, there just comes a saturation point beyond which more is not necessarily better. There’s still juice to the Pokémon brand, and now’s as good as ever to try new things. Just look at the reaction to Detective Pikachu!