Gotta catch at least half or so?
Gamefreak are back for Nintendo with another round of Pokemon games and it’s increasingly tempting to dismiss them out of hand as yet another entry of the same game that can easily be ignored if you’re not invested in the franchise. Like many Nintendo titles, the Pokemon games come out in vaguely differentiated iterations, but if you don’t like one you’re unlikely to be persuaded by later titles in the series. Thankfully Pokemon X and Y shows the kind of leap we saw from Mario Kart to Mario Kart 64, a true leap forwards that understands exactly what fans and newcomers want from the series.
One of the oddities of Pokemon is that it is a long-running series that is aimed at children. The problem that causes is that your original audience grows up and then you’ve got fans of the series that might feel embarrassed or let down by the games not maturing as they do. When we first got Pokemon Red and Blue we were just starting secondary school and were the perfect age to be able to cope with the intricacies of selecting monster types and stats, while still being able to play with little cartoon monsters without being ashamed. We also had the requisite social group of like-minded school children with whom we could trade, using the cumbersome Gameboy link cable to swap Pokemon in our quest to get all 150. Personally, I managed to get all 150, and then didn’t play another Pokemon game until Black and White came out on the DS, I had other things on my mind like school and going out and more ‘grown-up’ videogames – Pokemon seemed babyish. When Black and White hit I had just enough nostalgia for the series and thought I could recapture some of that initial fun. Turns out I was wrong, as Black and White functioned almost identically – the new features didn’t change my personal experience too much – but it had an all new cast of Pokemon I didn’t recognise or care about. One of them was a literal ice-cream.
Pokemon X and Y is immediately differentiated from the rest of the series by finally making the leap to 3D. Rather than using the awkward polygonal models seen in games like Pokemon Stadium and the 3DS Pokedex, X and Y use newly created models for every single pokemon, closely based on their cartoon representations. They look absolutely fantastic with short but careful animations and heaps of character for each one. The new pokemon are for the most part fine, although there’s still a thrill of getting one of the original 150 and you even get to choose one of the original three starters around an hour or two into the game. This is a clear nod to fans who have grown up with the games and it doesn’t stop there.
One of the big annoyances in previous games was the tedium of trying to level up as many Pokemon as possible. You had to send out a weak one, bring him back on the first turn and swap him for something stronger, and then attack as usual. It took ages and in no way was it ever fun or interesting. In X and Y you get an ‘EXP boost’ early on, that it simply switched on through your inventory and then gives all the other pokemon you’re carrying 50% of the XP that you get from each fight. Nearly every battle will see a monster or two gain a level so you still get the joy of new skills and evolutions without anywhere as much of a grind. For those of us who works and have limited time for this kind of tedium, it’s an absolute godsend.
Much of the rest of the game has also been streamlined. You no longer need to visit a pokecenter to engage in a trade or battle over wi-fi, using the second screen you can set up things like that pretty much wherever you are. You get given a pair of rollerblades to speed up your movement almost straight away, the gyms have a sensible amount of trainers with a sensible amount of pokemon so they provide some small challenge but never get dull. Within five hours you’ve got tonnes of new pokemon (in the first patch of grass you see there’s at least five to catch), seen the major city, come up against the main opponents and have a bicycle, the rate or progress is astounding.
The story and the dialogue can get tedious at times, but thankfully everything else has been refined down into what is fun and interesting about Pokemon. All of the series’ high-points are present with daycare centres allowing you to breed your pets and an ongoing challenge present once you beat the main story, so you never feel hard done by.
Despite all of this streamlining, it’s not a perfect game. Many of the series’ flaws remain such as the slow pace of the text-based conversations and the number of confirmation screens needed before you do anything. The fact you can organise most things and train Pokemon using the lower screen is a bonus but if you want to take part of the (pretty fantastic) Pokemon-amie minigames to level up the friendship with your pokemon you’re going to have to sit through another set of screens each time. The whole game is also still taking place on a grid, albeit with diagonal movement added to the mix. This leads to an unnatural and simplistic world map, where you never feel like you’re really sightseeing or exploring, you’re just moving from one area to the next looking for pokemon to catch.
Pokemon X and Y is a huge step forwards for the series, and comes close to perfecting the model without changing it too dramatically. There’s still hope that at some point we’ll see a real revolution fo the series, but for now this is by far the best Pokemon experience available, well worth the money.