Pokemon Channel was an elusive game when I was a kid. When it came to expensive games (like Nintendo games that stayed full price forever) my chances of owning them basically came down to whether I had a special occasion coming up. So Channel always fell through the gaps because it looked nice but also not nice enough to get it over any number of other games releasing that year. And besides, a friend with the game already let me get Jirachi from his copy and that was the real reason people wanted the game anyway, let’s be honest. Then before you know it, we were into a new console generation and there was a whole new batch of games to get instead and Channel became a distant memory. But now I’m an adult playing through his Pokemon games again which means I can use my own money to buy whatever I want, and if that means tracking down an old Gamecube game on eBay then so be it! I finally got to experience the game for myself and… yeah, look, Channel’s critical reception is totally justified, and yet there’s the foundation of something great here that could be built upon for a new game.
The premise of Pokemon Channel is that you’ve been selected by Professor Oak to help with focus testing a series of new TV shows. A wild Pikachu sees what you’re doing and becomes fascinated by your TV so you take it under your wing and it becomes your pet. Each day for about a week there’ll be new TV channels for you to watch together, ranging from channels that show snippets of a Pokemon anime short to a fitness channel to various game shows that you can participate in. New channels are added at 6am every morning, which made me think back to my primary school days of waking up before school to watch Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z and Beyblade on CheezTV. It would have been a nostalgic reliving of that experience except life’s a lot different nowadays - I’m rushing out the door in the mornings to get to work, or sleeping in and playing the game later in the afternoon, so it wasn’t quite the same thing. The content rollouts last about a week, and then you’ll have to make do with what’s there.
There’s not really an actual ‘game’ inside Pokemon Channel; most of your time is spent watching short skits on the various TV channels, which are cute but begin repeating themselves before too long and lose their lustre. Some of the channels provide games to play, like a quiz show that’s a lot like the old “Who’s That Pokemon?” segments from the anime and one where you have to guess the amount of Pokemon on-screen during a march. They’re a bit of fun for a while but, again, they get old fast. The contest programs provide coins which you can use to buy furniture for your house, bus tickets to new locations, or even games for the Pokemon Mini. Remember those things? No? Well you can play the games that were released for them as well as a special Mini-style game made specially for Pokemon Channel. These games are definitely better suited to a portable device because they’re meant to be played in short bursts and aren’t worth booting up a console for. But nonetheless it’s nice to see the Pokemon Mini preserved in some form rather than discarded and forgotten.
If you step away from the TV then there’s a little more you can do in the game. Not much, but there’s something. There’s several locations you can ‘explore’ with a few things for Pikachu to interact with. At first you can only look around your house and head into the backyard. There’s a few cute interactions between Pikachu and objects in the environment, but for the most part there’s not a lot going on. Over time you can afford to buy bus passes that take you to new locations like Viridian Forest and a snowy mountain. These locations offer more cute interactions, like being able to find the news reporter Magnemite who’ll record you and broadcast you on the news channel later that day, but again - the kind of thing you’ll do one or twice, it’s a limited experience. If you find any Pokemon on your travels you can speak to them to be given a trivia question relating to them, and if you get it right you get a collectible card featuring that character. These have a simulated lenticular animation effect and reminded me of the Pokemon Tazos I used to collect back in the day and got me all nostalgic again. These quizzes and cards are a great idea from a branding perspective (god that felt dirty to type) because you’ll be introduced to, and learn about, Pokemon you might not have encountered otherwise. Especially considering that Channel is much simpler than the main games, so kids who struggle with those might fall in love with something like this instead. The Pokemon Company are very clever in the ways they manage the exposure of Pokemon across games and mediums, they know all the different avenues they can take to get Pokemon in your face.
At times these environmental interactions start to resemble a point-and-click adventure game. For example, if you go out into your backyard you’ll find a garden with some seeds nearby. Pikachu can plant them and water them, causing them to sprout. Water your plants for a few days in a row and they’ll flower, luring in a different Pokemon to play with each time you grow a full plant. Much like everything in the game it’s cute… but there’s no depth to the interaction at all. The only time things really ramp up is on the second last day of new content, when the last portion of the anime short is lost during delivery and you have to go find it. This involves a short quest where you need to find a way into some ancient ruins. The ruins are blocked by a Gengar who won’t budge, so you need a way to get rid of it. If you head back to your backyard, you’ll find a Duskull who needs help finding its lost ball. Give it back the ball and you’ll get a lantern, which you can then take back to the ruins and scare Gengar away with. Once inside the ruins you’ll need to solve a few simple puzzles that will lead to the lost anime disc, which you can return in order to watch the last piece of the show. This sequence took me by surprise a bit because the game finally got gamey right towards the end, and if there were more things like this it would have been a much more engaging experience.
So my problems with Channel come down to the fact that the fluffy bits are too repetitive and the game-y elements it could fall back on are too sparse and simple. I’m not sure how to make the actual TV part of the game more fulfilling other than just pumping it full of content; more shorts, more skits, more games, just more everything. There’s gotta be enough to last more than a couple of hours over the course of a week. In a game about watching TV the TV channels get old really fast. Improving the ‘game’ parts would be much easier though. First up, some Tamagotchi-style mechanics for Pikachu would go a long way. It needs to watch TV to be entertained, but watching TV all day would be unhealthy so you’ll need to take it for walks out into the world and find food for it to eat as well. This would alleviate the content demands a bit because you can’t constantly watch the TV. Out in the world there’d be Pokemon to find just like in Channel, and in addition to basic cutesy interactions they could also give you quests. These would lead you through adventure game-style puzzles in the world with funny interactions between Pokemon and the environment, and reward you with new furniture or items that open up new interactions (like a fishing rod perhaps).
It would still be a more breezy, passive experience but there’d be some things to actually do, y’know? I’d want to emphasise exploration and experimentation, which is already present in the game to a minor extent. In order to unlock the Pokemon Mini you have to look around your house and get Pikachu to investigate under the bed, where it turns out your Pokemon Mini had been lost a while back. It’s cute seeing how Pikachu will interact with everything around it, so turning this into a mechanic you can get things out of would make the game feel much more rewarding.
The game component of Pokemon Channel ‘ends’ the day after you unlock the last snippet of the anime short. Professor Oak rewards you for completing his research by setting up a projector that will shine the full episode up onto the night sky. The mythical Pokemon Jirachi appears out of nowhere after never being mentioned previously in the game to escort you to the forest where you, Pikachu and all your Pokemon friends watch the completed short together. It’s nice and all, but… that’s it, that’s the game. You can continue watching any of the channels in the game and collecting items, but you’re going through the motions running through things you’ve already seen and it’s disappointing that there isn’t more variety in the shows you can watch. If you’re in a PAL region then you can now transfer Jirachi to your copy of Pokemon Ruby or Sapphire (not Emerald; frustrating as that’s the Gen 3 game I’m replaying) which is the only real reason this game was on anyone’s radar I imagine. If you live somewhere else, then… yeah, that’s it. I hope you like watching Smoochum exercise.
Pokemon Channel’s certainly not great but it’s a concept I think could be done really well if revisited. It would be perfectly suited to tablets; imagine waking up each morning and opening the app to find something new to do with your Pikachu just like in the CheezTV days. It would also mean you could pop in when you’ve got a few minutes spare and watch a short skit or two to cheer you up, or see what new items are for sale. It would be a nice little companion experience to add some Pokemon into your day rather than something you’d dedicate your time to, and I think people would really like it. In any case though, I’m glad I got to make Kid Josh proud by finally tracking down Pokemon Channel and playing it.