If Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are an example of too much corporate meddling to make Pokémon games as good as we know they can be, then Pokémon Stadium‘s re-release for Nintendo Switch Online shows the absence of oversight to stop an incomplete release.
It might be easy to forget what the state of the world was like at the turn of the millennium when Pokémon Stadium (also called Pokémon Stadium 2 in Japan) was released internationally. The absolutely ravenous hold of “Pokémania,” (as it has now been dubbed) on the public consciousness and the hearts of children around the world can’t be overstated, with the games, cards and anime pushing their way into news broadcasts due to their popularity. With Red and Blue being such breakout hits, other Pokémon games were slowly churned out, like Pokémon Snap and Pokémon Pinball the year before, to sate to the demand.
But Pokémon Stadium is when, arguably, the “world” of Pokémon really starts to come into shape. This was accomplished through the bundled Nintendo 64 Transfer Pak accessory, which let players connect certain Game Boy cartridges with accompanying Nintendo 64 games to unlock rewards in both games. While the Pokémon Stadium series certainly made the best use of the Transfer Pak, 17 other games including Mario Tennis, Mario Golf and Perfect Dark also took advantage of this functionality to provide unlockable features like extra characters, maps, etc. It feels worth pointing out that the Nintendo Switch re-releases of some of these games are, like Pokémon Stadium, missing functionality that would otherwise be locked behind the Transfer Pak, but we’ll get more into that shortly.
As for what the Transfer Pak meant for Pokémon Stadium, it essentially provided a postgame for the Game Boy Pokémon games at a time where the idea of such a huge endeavor across platforms was unheard of. The game offers a series of hand-crafted battles that rely on unique team strategies that really push you to master those original Pokémon mechanics. By slotting your Game Boy cartridge into the Transfer Pak, you could take those same creatures you’d been training from your Red or Blue save to a 3D battling space, catch Pokémon you might not otherwise be able to without trading, and experience the same degree of excitement the Pokémon anime brought to battling for your team! Needless to say, a huge amount of the appeal for Pokémon Stadium was being able to use your own Pokémon for all of the game’s challenges.
This is why it’s especially baffling to learn that Pokémon Stadium‘s re-release on the Nintendo Switch—as part of Nintendo Switch Online—has no accompanying transfer compatibility to make use of this core mechanic. While the game is technically playable, as players can choose from a pool of rental Pokémon instead, these are fundamentally flawed team choices with lackluster movesets and lower stat totals than what you’d get from a transferred team. When your rental Alakazam has Confusion instead of Psychic and Ninetails has Fire Spin instead of Flamethrower, it really leaves a lot to be desired.
This makes the core gameplay experience, which is entirely centered around battling and challenging players to devise new strategies as they progress. The limitations of the rental Pokémon make for a grueling nightmare where your best hope is that your CPU opponents miss enough for you to land sufficient small hits to make some forward momentum into another battle, only to repeat that process. The later Gym Leader Castle fights against the Elite Four, and the Stadium Cups leading to Mewtwo, are outright impossible using a team of rental Pokémon without some near-perfect odds and are not worth the extra challenge for such a task.
Especially considering that the reward for completing these missions—the special Pokémon like the additional starters, fossils, Hitmonchan/lee and Eevee that you would get from beating the Stadium Cups or the Elite Four—are just as unobtainable as the Pokémon you would transfer in to get them! It might seem trivial now to complain about not being able to get a Squirtle or Charmander when modern Pokémon games can trade online and make this a non-issue, but the original Game Boy games don’t have this luxury. With the mechanic to hatch duplicate Pokémon not available until the next generation of games in Pokémon Gold and Silver, players looking to get another of these one-time choices (unless you were rich and owned two Game Boys to trade between) needed to use Pokémon Stadium to 100% their Pokédex.
Of course, in 2023, there’s certainly no shortage of 3D experiences available to Pokémon fans but that’s not to say that Stadium still isn’t a worthwhile experience in itself. The unique 3D animations crafted specifically for your original 151 team choices still make this writer feel excited about how much effort has been put into each entrance, attack, recovery and fainting pose. And it can’t be overlooked that the minigames in the Kid’s Club section, like Clefairy Says and Sushi-Go-Round, are arguably the most memorable portion of the game for their variety and cute environments. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t speak fondly of the minigames in Pokémon Stadium, gathering a bunch of friends around to see if you could spin the analogue stick fast enough to get a high score on Ekans Hoop Hurl before your palm wore out.
Preserving this piece of gaming history in a meaningful way and allowing folks to experience it again without jumping through an obstacle course’s worth of hurdles (as is often the case with older Nintendo titles) is ultimately a good thing, despite all the other faults with Pokémon Stadium‘s re-release. And yet, it is this writer’s opinion that not only is this version of Pokémon Stadium incomplete without any Transfer Pak equivalent, it is effectively useless without that functionality and speaks to a larger apathy about Pokémon from the corporations that oversee it.
There have never been more ways to play and experience Pokémon than there are at the time of writing, with multiple Switch titles, mobile games, a thriving competitive scene, and so much more to choose from. The Pokémon games are also arguably the most scattered they’ve been since the original Pokémania rush, with endless conversation around the most recent Pokémon Scarlet/Violet‘s subpar state on release alongside the praise. Many have been quick to point out how there is a running pattern of Pokémon games releasing in a rushed state to make it in time for the holidays. And while it’s impossible to know the exact circumstances going on behind the scenes between developers Game Freak and the brand’s corporate overseers, The Pokémon Company and Nintendo, it is hard to argue with the timing of Pokémon Stadium‘s re-release as another example of treating the games themselves as an afterthought. All of this could easily have been avoided had there been a means to transfer Pokémon to Stadium from a service that already exists for this such as Pokémon HOME, an application that allows for storage and transfer of Pokémon across multiple mainline Pokémon games released on the Switch. If only there was a way to have the original Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow re-released on a current console where you could share that data right away…
At the end of the day, Pokémon Stadium laid the foundation for the Pokémon series as a whole for decades, asking players to master the mechanics given to them with a team raised by hand through their original journey—an investment that carries over across games as you’re able to bring your favorite Pokémon with you for new adventures as well. Yet, entire portions of the original Stadium such as the Game Boy Tower and Pokémon Lab are simply unavailable without access to Pokémon Red, Blue and Yellow. Even taking aside the fact that Game Boy games are now also available on the Nintendo Switch, enabling these games to exist on the same modern platform, we already had a Virtual Console release of these games on the 3DS which had transfer functionality to bridge the gaps between software!
The only way to access the full functionality of Pokémon Stadium in 2023 is still to jump through all the hurdles the re-release is meant to avoid: prospective players must own an original Nintendo 64 and cartridge, alongside a working Game Boy and copy of Pokémon Red, Blue or Yellow. Even if someone manages to own a copy of the Virtual Console release of the Game Boy games, transfer those Pokémon over to the original storage service on the 3DS, Pokémon Bank, then migrate those Pokémon to the new storage service on the Switch so they can be accessed by other Switch titles which connect to Pokémon HOME, they’ll still be trapped between different software on the same console that can’t connect to each other. Transferring Pokémon between games has always been complicated, but it’s never been as outright game-breaking as it is here.
There’s a particular quote that this writer likes to think about from a 2018 interview with co-founder of Game Freak and then series director, Junichi Masuda, for Famitsu magazine. In it, Masuda makes a comment about not wanting to repeat the mistake of being unable to transfer Pokémon between games—this occurred in the shift from Game Boy to Game Boy Advance, and Masuda calls it (loosely translated) a “bad memory.” Critics of the recent direction of the Pokémon series often take this quote as an example of the way the series has been “ruined” by Game Freak, citing the lack of a full Pokédex and other concerns with the quality of recent titles as exclusively the fault of the developers and, by extension, Masuda himself. And while in a vacuum there might be some merit to saying the quality of Pokémon games recently has not been on par with previous entries, it also ignores the role that The Pokémon Company and Nintendo have to play here, both exerting a significant amount of control over the series as the brand manager and publisher respectively.
For quite some time now, Game Freak has been bound to a yearly cycle to churn out new games which, if Scarlet and Violet are any indication, no longer exist as a driving force by themselves but as a way to keep momentum going for the larger franchise. A game has to be on the schedule to make room for new trading cards, TV shows, toys, manga and, most importantly, merchandise, which eclipses the sales of any other category on this list, including video games! It’s impossible to know exactly what decisions are being made behind the scenes but indicators would suggest that Game Freak is not entirely in control of the decisions that get made around their work. Moreover, Junichi Masuda, the man often blamed for ruining the franchise, is more than likely acting with whatever power he and the rest of the team have in an extremely difficult situation to make sure the games release in as good a state as possible given the time constraints.
Which brings us back to Pokémon Stadium. Nintendo and The Pokémon Company’s justification for releasing a game every year does not exist for this re-release, and the title could be added at any time alongside a way to fully access everything the game can offer. Whether that’s connectivity with Pokémon HOME, coinciding with the Game Boy Pokémon re-releases on the Switch, or something else entirely, it feels fair to say that the sense of urgency for this particular Nintendo 64 game is relatively small. As it stands, Pokémon Stadium on the Nintendo Switch is an incomplete game and it begs the question: why even re-release it at all?
Joan Zahra Dark is a writer, organizer, and interdisciplinary artist. They love talking about queer comics, stories that can only be told through interactive mediums, worker cooperatives and gay robots. They’re based in Queens, NYC.