I remember the first time I played Pokemon as a kid — the sense of awe that came with being able to set off on an adventure with cool monsters at my side. It's just the kind of childish fantasy that seems destined to grow less enchanting as we grow older.
Sure enough, despite being a Pokemon fan, and despite playing many of the Pokemon games since Red and Blue, I've never really felt that way again. In fact, after playing devotedly for a few generations, the engine seemed to sputter and then die out: I played a little bit of Black and White, only to drop the games entirely after a couple of hours. Didn't even touch Black and White 2: why bother? It's more of the same, isn't it? I hate to be cynical, and I know the intricacies of the metagame change enough that to the hardcore, Pokemon constantly changes in significant ways, but still. That's kind of how it felt, like more of the same.
I recount this because I think there are many ex-Pokemon fans who are in the same boat — fans who, at one point, got hooked on the game when they were younger, but now look at the franchise and its continued success with the sense of alienation that comes with knowing that a game you once liked no longer sees you as a target demographic.
Maybe that hasn't changed exactly, but you know what? Earlier this month, I got a chance to play Pokemon X & Y, and also had a chance to talk about the franchise a little bit with Junichi Masuda, a founding member of Game Freak who is Pokemon X & Y's director. And for once, that stuff I felt in 1998 — the year that Pokemon Red & Blue came out — didn't feel like a distant memory.
Maybe it's that, from the onset, things are different. Are you a boy or girl, the game asks? And more importantly...what do you want to look like? Pick a skin colour? Woah! Never mind that later the game gives you a whole bunch of options for attire. You don't expect this much level of customisation in a Pokemon game, and it's not limited to you, either. Some Pokemon will be customisable too! Some signature things stay the same, of course; you're still going to wake up at home at the start, your mum will still wait for you downstairs, and there's still a Nintendo console hooked up to your TV (a Wii U, of course). In a way, these similarities feel comfortable.
But then you go outside and...is that a Rhyhorn on your front yard? What's it doing there? Could it be — you have a pet Rhyhorn? I had to examine it, as I recalled how the new Pokemon games are supposed to let me ride Pokemon, and I kind of thought to myself — naw. The game isn't going to let me ride this thing so soon, is it?
Oh, but it does. Well, kind of — the Rhyhorn doesn't want to go very far, it's sleepy, but just having a taste of that is enough to spark a giddiness that I haven't associated with Pokemon for a while. Like being able to ride Clifford The Big Red Dog or something, you know? Thankfully, the game's pace accommodates that rush of excitement; this time, you don't need to equip running shoes to move at a faster pace. You just...run. Later, you can skate, too.
Another change which feels significant: there's a (weirdly handsome) professor who gives you a mission, but he's not the person that gives you your initial Pokemon. That'd be your friends. These friends all have different reasons for setting out on an adventure with Pokemon. You've got the studious one — this one wants to study Pokemon. You've got the power-hungry one, who wants to get good at battles. As you go along on your own adventure to find out about Mega Pokemon, you bump into different folk from this group — and while I only played the opening hour, I'm excited to see how interactions with this cast differ from simply meeting and challenging a rival who wants to achieve the same goal you do.
I didn't get very far, story-wise, but I can tell you that the time between starting the game and actually going out in the world, battling other fellow trainers, was minimal. Hypothetically it could take you just a couple of minutes, but I suspect that it'll take longer than that anyway. I found myself examining things I'd taken for granted in previous Pokemon games, like shops and Pokemon centres — which look like they could be small shops in France. It's really neat. Then there's the visuals: yes, Pokemon is now in 3D, but more curiously, its art direction seems to take some notes from pointillism. The world seems painted, but don't take that to mean it's static: you'll notice small details like grass swaying in the wind. This might be the first game I've played on the 3DS that actually looks best with the slider turned all the way up, too.
The world seems painted, and you'll notice small details like grass swaying in the wind
Then we have new additions meant to supplement the basic turn-based battles between your criters, like Super Training — which allows you to beef up your Pokemon's stats (EVs, to be specific) via a soccer minigame that felt a tad out of place. Basically, you use the stylus to flick soccer balls at inflatable Pokemon, and these Pokemon can...shoot soccer balls back at you? Uh, sure. It's definitely a change of pace, though it seemed like the mini game was too easy. Pokemon can also train their stats out of battles by equipping weight bags, and these can train your Pokemon while you walk around. These options are appreciated, given that before, training EVs was much more difficult. Also appreciated: you gain XP from catching Pokemon now, too.
We also have the ability to directly interact with your Pokemon in a special mode — to pet it, feed it — which made it feel like Nintendogs got dragged into Pokemon. I was hesitant to pet my Pokemon, to be honest — but mostly because I couldn't help but feel it would make it harder for me to pick Pokemon based on how useful they are and instead start sticking to Pokemon I found cute and endearing. Pokemon I'd want to pet. I know that's a good thing, but gah! There also came a moment where Chespin, my starter Pokemon, started making faces at me while in this mode — and I was kind of startled to find it was expecting me to make the faces back at it! Apparently, the camera can tell if you're making the right facial expressions. Wow.
During my meeting with Nintendo earlier this month, I also had the opportunity to speak to Junichi Masuda, Pokemon X & Y's director. Naturally, I had to ask him some of the burning questions that many diehard Pokemon fans are curious about, like...
What does Masuda think about the idea that Pokemon designs are getting less creative as the gens go by, given how many designs Game Freak has had to come up with? There are over 700 Pokemon now!
So, with the Pokemon designs, one thing our art director, Ken Sugimori is always telling us, is to always be inventing, always be inventing new things — and we get inspiration from a wide variety of things. We're always trying to invent for new ways to express things, the eyes for example, or the various parts of the pokemon. One of the things that I think really makes the Pokemon designs appealing is that we try to not use a lot of hard lines, make it so that the designs can be drawn by children fairly easily. We're always paying attention to make sure that our character don't overlap with previous generations.
One of the strengths of Pokemon is the versatility...one thing that I say is that, as long as a fan has at least Pokemon they like, I'm happy. What would make me sad is if they couldn't find a single Pokemon design they liked.
With Black and White we focused on covering a wide variety of kinds of Pokemon, to fill in gaps on Pokemon that we didn't have before. With X & Y we're focused on creating Pokemon with unique characteristics, and I really think that'll come across with the art design.
Later, I was told that they didn't actually test out how easily kids could draw the designs, but they did change some Pokemon with that idea in mind. Chespin, for example, used to have way more spikes — but they took some away, and made the spikes less sharp, hoping that kids would be able to draw him with more ease.
What about Pokemon's Legendary Problem? With so many all-powerful legendaries, it seems like it might be impossible to keep making more Legendary Pokemon.
"It's definitely increasingly more difficult with each game to come up with the Pokemon that appear on the packaging," Masuda admitted. "This time we had the theme of 'eternalness' with Xerneas and 'destruction' with Yveltal. We had these two themes, and coming with designs that really worked to represent these themes was really difficult," he said.
It took them a year and a half to finalise the latest legendaries' design, but most Pokemon take about six months to a year to design.
Is there any chance we'd ever get starters that aren't grass, water or fire type?
"The reason that we have fire, grass and water as the three types every time is because we feel that they're the easiest to understand. Having three types is like rock, paper scissors...water extinguishes fire, for example," Masuda said.
Why are so many fire/fighting starters? Some people are dreading we could have another one of those this gen.
"When it comes to the type, sometimes...we design [the Pokemon] first and them come up with their types later, to make sure they're balanced in battle...most players are going to have [these Pokemon] in their party the entire game, we always try to focus on making sure that their types are going to be balanced within the larger scheme of the battle system, making sure that [players] have Pokemon that are fairly powerful. Every time, we're thinking of the balance when coming up with the types," Masuda said.
Best Pokemon to ride?
"Rhyhorn, number 111th. The number 111 has significance here, because it was November 11th, 2011 when someone on Twitter asked me, 'So what's the 111th Pokemon?" I looked up and said, oh hey, it's Rhyhorn! And when looking at that Pokemon I thought, this should be a Pokemon that people should be able to ride...and that's when we came up with the idea having Pokemon be rideable. And that's why Rhyhorn is the best," Masuda explained.
I've played Pokemon before. Maybe you have, too. And sure, Pokemon X & Y will be familiar at its core for many of us — it still involves turn-based battles between monsters — but at times, it seems to go places that we could only dream of as kids. This is the game I would fantasise about back when I was younger — a more intimate game which let me treat my Pokemon like the companions I love — but I'm happy to get to play it now as an adult just the same.