Ever since I got my 3DS, I have been thinking about something that I have not thought about at length for a long time: Pokémon. That’s right– amidst medical school, when I have free time, I have been thinking about the creatures that captured my imagination when I was in 3rd grade. See, the truth is that as soon as I obtained my 3DS, I was anxious to try the new Pokémon X and Y games as I had heard many good things about them (and I would be lying if nostalgia wasn’t playing a minor role).
I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with the Pokémon games over the years. I absolutely adored the anime just like every other elementary-schooler in 1998; I had a Pokémon backpack shaped like a Game Boy and my very first console game was Pokémon Stadium. For some reason however, the handheld games never sat well with me. My very first exposure to the Game Boy games was on the morning school bus where my friend Nate would play on the way to school. I remember my first few thoughts were “That isn’t Ash!”, “Where is Pikachu?”, and “Why does everything look like poorly-colored crud?” Sure the game had similar music to what I had heard on the show, but it just never “felt” like Pokémon to me.
I did not dislike the game however, and actually took interest in it when Nate would share the game with me on (what felt like) the long bus rides. Despite the fact that the graphics for Pokémon Red and Blue did not particularly paint the lush imaginative world depicted in the show, there simply was no other more technologically advanced handheld game system at the time so the graphics did not particularly bother me (they were just a little different). I was excited when my dad finally bought me Pokémon Yellow to connect to Pokémon Stadium using the Nintendo 64 Transfer Pak. The fact that the game was intentionally made closer to the show (that is, you actually had Pikachu and faced Team Rocket‘s Jesse/James) certainly helped with my enjoyment of the game, but the simplistic game-play eventually eroded the “sense of adventure” that I was expecting from the game. Mostly due to technical constraints, many of the game’s graphical assets (town tiles, trainer sprites, etc) were too similar to make me feel that I was actually “going places.” In addition, the meager storytelling felt like a poor payoff for the senseless grinding throughout the game; since I did not really have anyone to trade with, “catching them all” was not my primary motivation for playing.
After reaching the Pokémon League and losing the will to continue, I restarted my game with a fresh file after a few months only to repeat the cycle– I ultimately never “beat” Pokémon Yellow. I had similar grievances with subsequent Pokémon games (mostly the part where they felt more like “work” than actually going on a journey) for the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS; I admired the slow-but-sure improvement in graphics, but the entire series would play as the same grindy routine… game-play that became associated with being a “Pokémon” game. Eventually, I did manage to beat Pokémon Emerald in college, but I did so half-heartedly and forced myself to play; I already knew what most of the game would play like because I had pre-ordered Pokémon Sapphire many years back. Shortly after this, I stopped paying attention to the Pokémon franchise.
Isn’t it odd that I would keep gravitating back to these games despite being continually let down? I suppose that a part of me always wanted to enjoy these games– my childhood friends certainly did. I also loved Pokémon while I still watched the show and wanted to feel that innocent feeling of adventure again. Alas, as I moved away from the series and stopped watching the show (shortly before the Hoenn region) the new Pokémon introduced with each subsequent generation began to seem less and less interesting to me, effectively diminishing the remaining interest I had in the series.
When Nintendo released Pokémon Black and White, I was told that the series had begun to place a greater emphasis on the storyline and atmosphere. These additions were what I had always hoped for in a Pokémon game, but by the time they rolled around, I had drifted too far out of the scene to even have an interest in picking the game up.
At the time that I am typing this (2013), Pokémon X and Y were recently released as the flagship titles in the series for the Nintendo 3DS. I came across a story not too long ago mentioning how children these days do not take the avid interest that our generation took in Pokémon games– the largest proportion of sales now go to college students, or those who grew up with the franchise. When the new 3DS games were released and their screenshots began to pop up online, it seemed very clear to me that they were targeted to our generation. My unsubstantiated optimism for the Pokémon series returned and I eagerly finished up my Fall semester, hoping to play a newly acquired copy of Pokémon X.
From the first boot-up, my heart fluttered in a way that I knew that I was going to enjoy it this time. There is something about memorable adventurous games that I am able to sense; a feeling that tells me that I am starting something epic. It was the same feeling I felt the first time I played Chrono Trigger and Persona 4. I was going to enjoy my time in this world.
Nintendo has a habit of recycling a lot of old material and changing game dynamics extremely slowly. Combined with the fact that they were targeting a little bit of an older audience this time and my hiatus from the Pokémon series, I was able to experience a game that had been given an appropriate time to mature before once again capturing my attention. Pokémon X and Y are noticeably more “casual” in terms of game play with some of the more annoying HMs removed, TMs that can be reused, legendary Pokémon that can easily be captured without using tons of Pokéballs, and many other enhancements to better streamline the game play. Since I was never the type to care too much about the battling system (I don’t even know what EVs and IVs are), I welcomed most of these little tweaks.
The presentation of the game was beautiful and did not insult gamers by merely producing a world with graphics only slightly improved from the previous generation. The 3D environments are breathtaking and the new France-inspired Kalos region is a welcome change that takes full advantage of European cultural differences to present the player with new experiences. The music has the familiar “Pokémon feel” from the previous games with some towns even taking some departures from the established style to give a more traditional RPG feel (such as Laverre City). The player can freely move in eight directions with biking finally feeling significantly smoother and speedier than running or skating. The only disappointing factor in the game’s presentation for me had to do with the 3DS’s lack of power in processing the new three-dimensional Pokémon battles. With the console’s “3D mode” on, landscapes with falling leaves, swishing grass, or any other particle effects would cause the Pokémon animations to slow down. Even with “3D mode” off, some Pokémon with elaborate designs or wing-flapping animations would make the experience a little choppy. This issue is not a significant detriment from enjoying the environment a however but it is noticeable.
Regarding some of the games’ newer features, I was excited to find that they served to further immerse the player into the Pokémon world. While implemented in the typical clunky Nintendo fashion, the online features of game are fun in terms of battling and trading, but also project a sense of not being the only real Pokémon trainer in Kalos. Players that are nearby in game constantly show up on the bottom screen from all over the world with their own personalized greetings. To interact with others, you are able to “shout out” a message to everyone, compliment other trainers, give each other “O-Powers” (a system to gift others temporary stat boosts), or even request to watch their PR Video showcasing their fashion and Pokémon (recorded by them Lumiose City… sometimes done in a hilariously poor manner). The online features certainly are not MMO caliber (though in my typical MMO-playing fashion, I did have a few humorous moments with some trainers), but they do a surprisingly good job at making the Kalos region feel a whole lot more populated.
Another new feature that I absolutely adored was Pokémon-Amie. In this mode, you can actually interact with your Pokémon. You can pet them, feed them, play games with them, and even make faces at them and watch them react in their own way– the feature suddenly adds a lot more dimension to your traveling companions, almost to the extent that the Pokémon show was able to breathe personality into the Pokémon depicted on screen. What doubly impressed me about this feature was the fact that interacting with different Pokémon did not elicit a generic “cookie-cutter” response from each one– the reactions always fit the style of the Pokémon. Skitty bounces around happily when you pet it, Espurr gets angry if you touch its ears (as per its Pokédex entry), Charizard’s tail burns you if you try to pet the flame… Each Pokémon had its own little details programmed in, making the experience very real. There were many times when I would just flip open my 3DS to play with my Espurr or Skitty (which had a lonely nature so I felt bad for it) rather than playing the actual game itself.
So how about the adventure itself? After all, this was the primary quality that I was looking for in this Pokémon game.
First off, the shift in the target audience certainly helped a bit– the characters themselves visually looked a bit older than some of the previous protagonists. In addition, many “old” Pokémon were readily present in the game so I was not forced to create a party full of Pokémon that I had never seen in the show. Pokémon-Amie allowed me to boost my favorite Pokémon’s adoration meters so I felt that I was able to actually bond with my Pokémon (as friendliness increases, the battle messages regarding your Pokémon change to things such as “Meowstic really wants some time to play with Nightmaren…”, “Espurr is in a bit of a pinch. It looks like it might cry…”, “Espurr trusts Nightmaren to come up with his best strategy!”, and “Espurr gathered all of its energy to break through the paralysis so Nightmaren wouldn’t worry!”) to the point that for the first time ever, I was actively working to make sure none of my Pokémon to faint because I didn’t want to let them down. In the past, I used to never bother using any healing items on my Pokémon before, simply letting them faint before summoning the next one. At any rate, the pieces were in place for me to enjoy the Pokémon and the beautiful environment around me, but what about the people of Kalos?
I enjoyed mingling with other players passing by, but what sealed the deal for my adoration of this game was the way it handled my relationships with the professor and my neighbor/rival. I was interested to find that you actually do not in fact meet the professor until you travel a few towns over– instead, you meet your friends first. That’s the big key here: plural. You have a group of friends that you see throughout your journey, each traveling Kalos with his or her own Pokémon. What makes this set up even more significant is the fact that they are not all your rivals; each trainer has their own goal. One of your friends was focusing on making a Pokémon dance team, one was focusing on filling up his Pokédex, and one even briefly admitted to you that she was just trying to create as many memories traveling with her Pokémon as she could. At first glance, since we have been ingrained with the idea of “Pokémon battling” for so long, a few of their goals almost seem wastes of time, but truly the message being delivered is a good one– there are many ways to enjoy being with your Pokémon. I would always be happy to run into them here and there to simply enjoy their company instead of constantly battling. Your dynamic with your friends really sends a strong message that “battles are not everything.”
Friends Theme “Reunited”
As for Professor Sycamore, well he is the first professor that I actually felt did a good job of being your mentor. Unlike most other professors, you would actually find him wandering around Kalos or coming out to meet with you outside of this laboratory. Especially at the end of the game, I just got the feeling that he really cared about the kids he decided to give Pokédexes to and looked out for them along the way.
The final product was a game that felt as vast as how I perceived the Pokémon world over 15 years ago. Between traveling to different towns (some of which did not even have gym leaders!), bumping into my friends across Kalos, and actually spending time to get to know my Pokémon, I was able to live the journey that Ash and his friends have come to symbolize. Because of how involved I felt in my adventure, I never once had my party wiped out in game… though I easily could have once I reached the Pokémon League! Since I would never really buy items in the game (I would instead “live off” what I would find on the ground) I knew that I would have to stop for supplies before facing the Elite Four. Naturally I forgot, but for some reason, I thought I would be able to go back outside once I defeated the first opponent; I could not and had to instead press onwards without many useful supplies. While I was able to defeat the Champion, my Pokémon were really just hanging on by slivers of energy from getting completely wiped. Though completely on accident, this surprise turn of events actually ended up leaving me with an impression that my Pokémon gave their all to win the final battle– I couldn’t be happier.
Photos from the adventure (possible spoilers):