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Detective Pikachu, Pokémon Cinematic Universe, and the future of videogame films

And that’s really the secret to Detective Pikachu’s success: treating its source material with respect and using the fact that it’s a movie to do something with it that the games never do. This is most obviously achieved through the excellent character designs, with Pikachu himself being not only utterly adorable but animated in such a way that he seems like a real, living creature.

There’s a far greater range of pokémon designs in the film than we ever imagined, and almost no duds (we didn’t really like the plasticky-looking Loudred, but that was about it). Everything from Charizard to Mr. Mine to Psyduck and Bulbasaur are fantastic. Although we won’t spoil some of the other cameos because spotting your favourite in amongst the crowd is one of the real joys of the movie.

The whole film is a dream come true for Pokémon fans, and with almost every new scene you could hear the audiences squealing with delight at each unexpected appearance. We also happened to be sat next to an ultra-fan who pointed out that one seemingly trivial line of dialogue even ensured the movie didn’t contradict the storylines of the animated movies. A tiny detail, but one that will please hardcore fans, not only because it maintains the canon but because it shows that everyone involved in the film really did care about what they were making.

Speaking to non-fans afterwards it was obvious that, while they didn’t get all the references, their interest had been piqued. Something which Nintendo will no doubt be keen to take advantage of with the very newbie-friendly Pokémon: Let’s Go games.

The comparison to the recent Sonic The Hedgehog trailer couldn’t be more profound. The successful CGI interpretations of the bizarre world of Pokémon seemed to inspire newcomers to want to know more about the universe and the games. The horrific abomination that is CGI Sonic makes you want to stay away as far as possible and could potentially put people off even if future Sonic games are good.

Put while the new movie will no doubt help Pokémon video game sales that’s not exactly something they’ve had trouble with in the past. The real achievement of Detective Pikachu is creating a film world that you want to see more of. Since it barely touches on the concepts of training and battling there’s over 20 years of video game lore still waiting to be plundered for subsequent movies.

One of the big problems for previous video game movies is that there’s almost nothing to be gained by adapting things like Tomb Raider, Uncharted, Doom, and all the rest because the original games were already heavily influenced by existing films. A talented director could maybe make a version of Doom that played out like Aliens, but with demons instead of xenomorphs, but it’d still just be a riff on something that already exists. Something that Rockstar and Activision clearly realise, with their refusal to sully their brands’ name with adaptations of Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty.

Horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill are already far scarier than most movies and their plots are better left vague and ambiguous, rather than being pushed out into the cold light of day by a film adaptation. Narrative driven games like Life Is Strange and What Remains Of Edith Finch work precisely because they’re interactive and turning them into films would either be impossible or make them seem disappointingly mundane.

Adaptations of movies into video games have the reverse problem, in that it’s very hard to turn a two-hour movie into a 30+ hour game. The only ones that ever work are those where the fictional universe of the film as a whole is adapted, rather than an existing story within it. Which is why there’s so many Star Wars games but very few that are a direct adaptation of a specific film.

What Detective Pikachu movie proves is that the reverse is true as well. Movie companies shouldn’t be looking to make films of Bioshock or The Last Of Us (both have been mooted) because they already tell their stories perfectly well and there’s almost nothing a film can do to make them better. But Pokémon and other open-ended universes have much more to work with.

It’s not the games with the most involved stories that are the prime candidates for adaptation but the ones with the deepest lore and most expensive worlds.

Assuming that launching so soon after Avengers: Endgame doesn’t hurt its box office success Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is certain to kickstart a whole new wave of video game movies. The potential for more Pokémon films is obvious but whatever else tries to ride its coattails needs to understand that the secret to its success is respecting not just the source material but the medium of video games itself.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu opens across the UK from Friday, 10 May – rated PG

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