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For Better or Worse, Pokemon X/Y is Unabashedly Pokemon

The latest installment of Nintendo's cash cow offers some welcome changes, but few surprises.

By Bob Mackey. Published 7 months ago

The adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" best sums up Nintendo's history with the Pokémon franchise over the last 17 years. After an ingenious (if insidious) tidal wave of marketing made this antiquated RPG a worldwide phenomenon in the late '90s, its creators haven't had much incentive to shake their money-boat more than necessary.

And really, it's hard to blame them; while Pokémon will never again see the groundswell it did during the Clinton Era, keeping things dependable has allowed the series to remain extremely profitable and relevant, even while its design remains firmly rooted in the world of 8-bit RPGs. So when yet another installment rolls around, claiming to be the most disruptive Pokémon to date, you can understand my skepticism.

For the sake of disclosure, I'll admit I last took a serious stab at playing Pokémon during the Gold/Silver era. I've purchased my share of sequels after that, but usually end up stalling out after conquering a few gyms gives me a serious sense of deja vu. But that's okay, because Pokémon seems tailor-made for two completely different audiences: the new players, eager to fall under the series' kid-capturing spell, and those EV-obsessed veterans, ready to mine the tiniest changes for all they're worth. An hour-long session with the game indicated X/Y wouldn't be the sequel to shatter my Pokémon ennui, but that doesn't mean the much-welcomed revisions it offers aren't without value.

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The most monumental change for X/Y can be found in its fully 3D world, which seems like a strange bullet point to make in 2013. Regardless, we may have seen polygonal Pokémon in spin-offs before, but their depictions in X/Y stay much truer to their 2D designs, using what the team calls "Sugimori shaders" -- an effect (named after Pokémon designer Ken Sugimori) that retains the texture of the critters' 2D designs in a style reminiscent of the PS3's Valkyria Chronicles. Outside of a graphical makeover, though, the 3D doesn't add much, since the camera won't budge until the game deems it necessary.

The same can be said for the battle scenes, which still lock brawling Pokémon to either side of the screen, rather than using the 3DS's horsepower to create more dynamic-looking fights in the style of the anime series. Of course, it'd be a challenge to generate so much animation for hundreds of characters, but it's not as if The Pokémon Company is lacking in resources.

My time with the beginning sections of X/Y followed the traditional Pokémon introduction to the letter: choose your first monster, learn how to capture more, and how to battle random trainers found in the overworld. After the demo, I asked X/Y director Junichi Masuda if he ever considered making these tutorial-heavy segments of the game optional, seeing as so much of Pokémon's audience consists of returning players comfortable with its straightforward mechanics. He replied, "I've thought about making [this content] optional... but thinking about whether people would choose to skip it or not -- I'm not sure that a lot of people would actually do that. [The tutorial sections] are worked into the scenario of the game, so seeing that Pokémon caught during the initial tutorial section is something a lot of people want. I'm not sure if it's that much of an annoyance for long-term players to just go through that introduction."

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Knowing Pokémon's extremely traditional nature, it shouldn't come as a surprise that random encounters still exist in the world of X/Y, despite the fact that RPGs have been coming up with more elegant approaches to this standard element for nearly 20 years. When asked about whether or not he still feels random encounters are necessary, Mr. Masuda told me, "If we were to take out the element of chance," which he defines as one of the four key elements of play, "which is represented by random encounters, we'd be getting rid of one of these elements of play. And I don't think that's really best for the Pokémon games."

If anything, Pokémon X/Y exists as yet another coat of paint on a very solid and dependable (if a bit conservative) design. Yet, even with its vast amounts of revisions -- including the Player Search System, which makes online play much easier than the middy options of past games -- these superficial improvements don't necessarily make the game more intuitive. It always bothered me that the bottom screen of the goes mostly unused in battle, when important information like move descriptions could easily be displayed without having to dive a few menus deep -- that problem hasn't gone away in X/Y.

Still, even though the game hasn't evolved to keep up with my changing tastes, it has an incredibly solid foundation, and a new look that makes it feel much more modern than past installments. While we outliers who want a total overhaul can always turn to the spin-offs for some alternate takes on highly marketable monster battles, X/Y doesn't aspire to do more than continually perfect the formula first established in 1996. And for most fans, that'll be perfectly fine.

The best community comments so far 3 comments

  • Thusian 7 months ago

    Because Nintendo has been around longer than most any publisher and its franchises have been some of the most enduring, this problem is indicative of their own internal problem. I suspect Nintendo struggles with just how much it can alter its existing franchises while fans will continue to call for the next iteration.

    What I mean by this is while critics and enthusiasts may want to see big shifts, I suspect there is an equally large number of their customer base that could be turned off by that. People who show up to these games because they know what they are getting. For all we know a big shift could be more damaging to their bottom line because we may actually be the vocal minority.

    And this is not even a new problem for them think about how people reacted to Zelda 2. It was a huge departure, but I don't think the public reacted well. Maybe I am way off base though.

  • Kuni-Nino 7 months ago

    After reading this, I demand more Bob Mackey articles! Good job on the preview. X/Y sounds exactly what I expected it to be which is fine. I prefer Pokemon to be the way it is: not only a great competitive game, but also an accessible to classic RPG design.

    All I ask from critics is that they at least acknowledge its sharply tempered foundation. This article did that.

  • CK20XX 7 months ago

    @Thusian This is very much true. When it comes to carrying on their franchises' legacies, Nintendo is perpetually in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" position.

    That said though, Pokemon doesn't necessarily have to "update". It just has to finish polishing off its rough areas. HMs are still intrusive to pokemon trainers; move slots are valuable and having to spend them on puzzle-solving moves is as frustrating as ever.

    I'm not sold on the hype of swarm battles either. Every time a game tries to introduce a new battle style, it ends up being barely implemented because the series' team-building mechanics are so restrictive that individual pokemon and even whole teams often end up becoming cripplingly overspecialized. The games seem to realize this, so they try to be fair by only throwing one-on-one battles at the player most of the time, which quickly become dull and repetitive. If Nintendo only expanded upon the mechanics, such as by allowing more moveslots, more team slots, or allowing every pokemon to learn a different moveset for every different battle type, then the game would suddenly be free to not hold back and throw all kinds of different battles at the player throughout the game. That would be a LOT more fun and interesting.

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