When Pokémon first came to our shores, it was immediately dismissed as a fad. 15 years later, it’s fair to say that it has staying power. Like all skillfully-managed franchises, it must strike a balance between appealing to old fans (like me) and attracting new fans with new monsters and intuitive gameplay.
Pokémon may be unique in how strongly it can attract new and child gamers with a simple concept and cute graphics, and also host a robust and maddeningly complicated competitive scene. Basic kid-friendly concepts such as “be nice to your monsters and they will fight better” and “train your monsters to be faster by fighting fast opponents” translate into precise quantitative advantages in battle that inspire even the most cynical warrior to spend time making their Pokémon feel pretty. I firmly believe that two-sided nature is the key to Pokémon‘s lasting success.
Even in 1998, there were two very different sources of inspiration for the gameplay itself. No doubt it struck like a bolt of lightning because Tamagotchi had prepared the way for cute virtual pet games. But when you delve into the mechanics of the system, it starts to feel like a classic turn-based CRPG, with the innovation that potential party members and enemy monsters are the SAME THING, and there is an infinite number of both. The leveling up, techniques and abilities, villains, the dungeons, and the drive toward victory in battle are more akin to Dungeons and Dragons than to a virtual pet. This, too, is key to the multifaceted appeal of the franchise.
Make no mistake, all Pokémon games are four-star titles in my eyes. But the recent release of X and Y drew me back into the franchise after an absence of some years (since HeartGold) due to a number of exciting innovations and advances.
First, taking full advantage of the new capabilities of handheld hardware, the game is fully 3D. The art style seems more deliberately stylized than ever before, rather than constrained by the limitations of a portable system. The game throws a lot of eye candy at you, in a way only Pokémon‘s rare console games have even attempted before. I can’t evaluate the visual 3D, though, since I saved $80 and bought a 2DS. Thoughtfully, Nintendo timed the release of the 2DS on the same day as Pokémon.
Second, some of the formerly-esoteric ways of raising a competitive team of monsters have been disambiguated and highlighted. Ever since the first game there have been ways to train your Pokémon in desired stats to maximize their potential. I.e. if you have a Charizard and you train it in Attack and Speed, it can hit fast and hard and “sweep” entire teams, but a Venusaur can never be fast enough to compete and so it should be trained in HP and Special Defense, to withstand more blows from the enemy and outlast them. However, the mechanics of this process were totally obscured by the game interface and so they required time, dedication, and a lot of Internet research. This resulted in a high barrier of entry to competitive play.
The mystery has been taken out and the fun added back in with the addition of the “Super Training” minigame. With it, you can accomplish in an hour of arcade-shooter-style gameplay what formerly took many hours of hatching an egg and having the new Pokémon fight only certain other Pokémon while keeping track of it’s growth on a pen and paper. And yet, as always, you can ignore this hardcore training. It’s still totally unnecessary for success in single-player, making it one of the dozens of optional minigames and sub-systems implemented in any Pokémon game. But, the removal of the unreasonable hassle should bring a lot of new blood to online Pokémon battling (like me!)
Third, rather than shoving a batch of new Pokémon to the fore and relegating old favorites to the late-game (this has been done twice), Pokémon X/Y features a balance of Pokémon from all five preceding generations as well as a new batch. There is a relatively small number of new monsters, but they are all very well-designed visually and mechanically (well…maybe except for Slurpuff), which to me is far preferable to a bunch of forgettable ones. Moreover, with so many Pokémon from the past 15 years to choose from the designers made sure that popular favorites from the past were available early in the game, allowing the player to build the team they want rather than whatever they can scrape together. Plus, there are no more Routes with just Rattata and Pidgey, or caves filled only with Zubat. There are never any fewer than five monsters, of various types, available in a given area of the game with little effort.
For instance, before the second gym, the player is given one of the wildly popular “Kanto starters” (Squirtle, Bulbasaur, and Charmander), and can already have access to Pikachu, Lucario, and Marill. And not only do you have more freedom to choose your party from the very start, but you now earn experience by catching Pokémon, instead of just KOing them. “Getting stronger” and “catching them all” can now be done at the same time! No more painful grinding causes a massive leap in the fun factor of day-to-day play.
Fourth is Mega Evolution.
I’m not sure if a more perfect balance of appealing to old-school trainers and introducing something brand new could have been accomplished. Several old favorite Pokémon, usually staples of the battling scene, can eventually gain the ability to evolve temporarily during battle into a different-looking, more powerful form. Introducing a new terminal evolution to Charizard (Chararex or Charradeath or some crap) would have been lame and tacky and stale. But using a new power-up mechanic rewards people who have always loved these monsters with an excuse to use them, and then they can access a new design and new powers that are still closely linked to the form they love. What was tempting to rule junkies like me is the way that some Pokémon, rather than just getting stronger, will take on a new type or ability that changes when and why you’d deploy them. And since only one Mega Evolution can be used per battle, a new dimension is added to competitive strategy. Do I evolve my wounded Aerodactyl and hope he can take his attacker down, or switch to the robust Gardevoir and evolve her instead? To Mega Evolve also requires a held item; these are themselves a staple of play and a big sacrifice to give up. You can bait another team with monsters who could Mega Evolve, but instead have another item. If you are expecting the opponent’s Garchomp to Mega Evolve and instead it has a Choice Band, it could maul your entire team before you realize your mistake.
It’s not all perfect. The game’s main quest, which was always simple enough for a small child to conquer it with a bit of persistence, has been made even easier by the free availability of experience. This, combined with the general failure of most trainers’ AI to improve into something capable of offering a smart challenge, has led to a pretty laughable level of difficulty, with no provision to increase it. It’s always been more about how you win than whether you win, but even so realizing the game was even easier than before is kind of jarring. And while Pokémon supplies tons of stuff to do after you “beat the game,” X/Y has less to do than some of its predecessors. If rushing around to “daily events” and training up lots of alternate teams of Pokémon doesn’t suit you, there’s not much to do except battle and trade with others. At least there is more “Battle Tower” style gameplay, in which you fight a bunch of advanced tactical AIs for prizes. (Where were they in the rest of the game, I wonder…?)
The game has also come into criticism from some quarters for failing to live up to the mature and deconstructive story of Pokémon Black/White, the previous generation. I never played these games but I understand they are kind of like the Deep Space Nine of Pokémon, challenging pre-established notions about the world of the game and the very idea of training creatures to fight one another for fun and profit. If that’s the case, I can understand and approve why they went back to basics for this one. Still, perhaps there has been some influence, because the main plot of the game has some very nasty characters and themes that include death, immortality, weapons, and genocide(!). There is also a side-plot after you beat the game that’s surprisingly thoughtful and poignant, though brief. So don’t fear that Pokémon has regressed…they are certainly keeping older fans in mind and it wouldn’t surprise me to see a sequel to X/Y that is more like Black/White.
To sum up Pokemon X/Y, I’d say “everything old is new again.” Every aspect of the interface has been streamlined, everything you love from the old games is here in some form, and the mechanics and the metagame are deeper and smarter than ever. Pokémon has never been this immersive and accessible. Highly recommended to anyone with the slightest interest in Pokémon, and for anyone looking to pick up their first CRPG.