I didn’t expect much from the online modes in Pokémon X and Y. Between Nintendo’s historically reserved approach to the Internet and the rather stagnant single-player campaign in Pokémon X & Y Versions, I anticipated little more than the same basic trading and battling options we’ve had since Diamond & Pearl released more than five years ago.
Just imagine my surprise when, upon connecting to the internet with my copy of Pokémon Y for the first time, dozens of friends and total strangers literally greeted me as they populated the bottom screen of my 3DS. Not only were they writing out passive messages à la Twitter or the Miiverse, they were also boosting my stats remotely, offering trades, and challenging me to battles on the spot.
Previous games in the series had online modes that, by comparison, come off as weirdly segregated from the rest of the experience. To initiate a network battle in Pokémon Black or White, for instance, you’d have to travel to a Pokémon Center, talk with the NPCs on the second floor to select either a trade or battle, choose the type of match from singles, doubles, triples, or rotation battles, and, finally, connect to the Internet and enter either ranked or unranked matchmaking. With X & Y, the entire online component is available on the lower screen at all times. It makes a huge difference.
Voice chat is another unexpected addition that vastly improves the multiplayer experience in Pokémon X and Y. Online trades in particular benefit from this feature, finally allowing real-time negotiations between distant players. Unfortunately, the games restrict chat to people on your 3DS friends list, and the quality isn’t so hot. Worse yet, there doesn’t appear to be any way to disable the in-game audio without simultaneously muting voice communications, so you might find your smack talk drowned out by the blaring soundtrack. And, strangely, while you can activate voice chat with any one friend whenever you like, it pauses gameplay for the duration of the session unless you’re currently engaged in a battle or trade with that player.
Online battles are more flexible this time around. You can customize several aspects of the rule set when challenging friends, including restrictions on the level of Pokémon, whether or not you can equip more than one of the same item per team, as well as limits on certain legendary and event-only Pokémon. On top of the standard ranked and unranked variants of each battle style, matchmaking also includes a new format of ranked matches with unusual rules designed to change every season. For example, when the Special category opens in December, only the 68 Pokémon introduced in X and Y will be able to participate. There’s a lot of potential here, and I love the idea of an evolving competitive playlist that lives outside the conventional metagame.
Previous generations of Pokémon had issues with players powering down their consoles whenever defeat seemed imminent. Not only would this prevent them from accumulating a loss on their own profile, but it also denied the other player the victory they would have earned. I’m pleased to report that this is no longer a problem with X and Y -- now any sudden disconnection counts as a loss for the offending player. Rage quit at your own peril.
Trading hasn’t changed too much, though the convenient access to online trades and voice chat should encourage more people to participate. The Global Trade Station, a kind of worldwide database for asynchronously swapping Pokémon, is back once again, but it still lacks any filters for sorting Pokémon by specific abilities, natures, moves, or alternate forms. So long as it’s missing that functionality, the GTS will continue to have limited usefulness for hardcore players.
The new Wonder Trade system adds a fun option for exchanging Pokémon with people the world over. These blind trades match users up at random, instantly switching their pre-chosen Pokémon -- all with no advance knowledge of what they’ll receive in return. In theory, you could offload a useless Caterpie and score a level 73 Charizard in the process. Of course, you’re far more likely to inherit something from the other player’s reject pile, but the unpredictability makes Wonder Trades super addictive.
O Powers, the other big online feature added with X and Y, let you grant temporary boosts to yourself or others. You can use them to improve the odds of capturing Pokémon, increase the rate of experience gain, heal injured monsters, raise stats, and even lower the price of goods in stores. These abilities draw from an energy pool that recharges over time, but because they level up with use and require less energy when applied to other players, O Powers naturally foster charitable behavior. They’re a clever way to directly impact someone else’s experience without actually entering their game.
Overall, I’m really impressed with X and Y’s multiplayer implementation. While the franchise’s single-player content remains largely frozen in 1998, Nintendo has built something far more modern with X and Y’s online components.