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

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.

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.

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