It will be 15 years since Pokémon Red and Blue arrived in America by the time X & Y make their debut internationally on 3DS, but I've been reluctant to get excited because it's also been nearly 15 years since I've really cared about a Pokémon game.
Back in 1998, a VHS tape came in the mail and introduced me to the phenomenon that had already swept through Japan, laying out the plans for Pokémon world domination ahead of release. Maybe I should have warned someone. The cartoon, the cards, the game, trading with friends, Pokémon exclusive to one version or another—I couldn't have been more excited. It seemed more like a lifestyle than a piece of software.
And I bought in. I did what I could to catch the fever and spread it to my friends. Soon we had Pokémon Trading Card Game nights, trades made in handshake deals on the school blacktop, and advance tickets to the first movie. I sharpened my gamer teeth on Pokémon, but I haven't felt the same about the series since Red.
The formula, however, grew stale and mundane. Every gym leader, every starter Pokémon, every rival… it never changed enough to keep the "catch, collect, and train" gameplay mechanics entertaining. Moreover, the ever-expanding roster of monsters made the "Collect 'em All" dream more of a nightmare, whether or not you could transfer scores of your monsters into the next game. That said, a recent extended look at Pokémon X & Y has me training to crawl from gym to gym and, well, be the very best… like no one ever was.
It might sound stupid, but true hardcore trainers will understand this better than casual or lapsed fans like me. With past games, trainers in Japan got a jump start on learning and mastering new monsters and systems, encouraging the diehard out there to pirate and emulate the Japanese version. Those nefarious trainers would have to redo all that hard work once the game released in their territory, but they had the know-how to excel at the game from Day 1.
Releasing the game internationally deflates that advantage and evens the trainer landscape all around the world. Japanese players, American players, European players…. Kenyan trainers… everyone! We're all going to head to Karos and explore the world together. We'll all be able to take those first steps, catch those first monsters, and win those first battles at the same time, and with such a huge focus on competition among Pokemaniacs, everyone will get to face off on equal footing.
Player Search System
My favorite part of spreading the infectious disease of Pokémon around my family and friends was battling, trading, and making connections, but that's not so easy over the internet. Moreover, the friend code system on 3DS makes it prohibitively difficult to build a huge list of rival trainers, though it seems like X & Y is trying to address that issue with PSS.
The Player Search System keeps a record of all the trainer acquaintances you've had in the game online or otherwise. Interacting with someone once will make a record of that trainer on your system. One more interaction and you can add them to your 3DS friends list outright. Two trades, two battles, or a battle and a trade… it'll be easier than ever before to form the bonds true Pokémon Masters know they need to excel and grow their teams. Better yet, PSS provides an organized and persistent source of multiplayer interaction, something that always pushed me to progress in past games.
Back in the days of Red and Blue, I think a lot of players hoped and dreamed for a console Pokémon that would put you in a huge 3D world. I know I did. I imagined a home console game that took the deep, involved path of growth as a trainer and collector to my TV screen. Instead we got a game about taking pictures of Pokémon and another that let you battle your Game Boy monsters on TV (and little else). Both were great, but c'mon, it's not what I wanted! Now that Nintendo's 3DS feels like a portable Nintendo 64, X & Y looks to amend that.
In battles, the camera moves dynamically and provides dramatic angles on monsters and attacks, and every Pokémon is fully modeled in 3D, allowing for increased detail, depth, and animation. Battle scenes reflect the environment you're in. Even exploration in the overworld allows for eight-way running through gorgeous environments. This means a ton of work for The Pokémon Company and Game Freak, but in the end I think it'll be worth it. The series has transitioned across handheld space, but X & Y look like true, next-generation games after all this time.
As silly as this might sound, petting and feeding individual Pokémon is a huge step for the series. I think a lot of gamers see the franchise as something outside of the typical RPG, but it hasn't stopped Game Freak from analyzing contemporaries and making changes to face a new decade in the genre. Part of Persona 3 and 4's big draw was that forging bonds with my team made an impact in battle, so Amie's draw from that meaingful interaction and Nintendogs is genius to me.
Taking a break to interact with your Pokémon on the touchscreen will probably feel silly and shallow at first, but over time the connection you make with your monster will eventually yield huge boons in battle. Pokémon Amie will allow trainers to forge the kind of unbreakable bonds Ash Ketchum has made on TV. Your favorite pet will adore the attention and reward you at integral moments in combat, feeding back into the spirit that the monsters you rely on in the field aren't just tools of destruction, but friends. Screw you, Team Rocket!
Brand New Battles
At the E3 Developer Roundtable for Pokémon X & Y, Tsunekazu Ishihara introduced two brand new types of battles we can expect in-game. The first was Horde Encounters which pit scores of wild Pokémon against trainers and their monsters. Ishihara said that in order to ensure your Pokémon doesn't take damage from up to five wild attackers, we'll have to use crowd-clearing moves and effective type-choices. Can you imagine the horror of five attacking Bidoofs waiting in the grass to strike?
Ishihara also showed off Sky Battles which pit two flying-capable monsters against each other. These battles help to show off the next-generation graphics I mentioned earlier, with the camera swooping in and out of the action as much as the monsters themselves. Nintendo's proven that they know how to create true depth in 3D too, so I expect dramatic showdowns will encourage a quick flip of the 3D slider before every match.
Dragon Me Down
Everyone loves the dragon type right? Wrong. Talk about an abuse of power. With nothing to counter-balance this type, many battles have boiled down to whomever's Dragonair is more powerful… but no longer. X & Y tally a brand new class of Pokémon to counteract a dragon's dominance in the form of Fairy-type monsters. This is the first new type of Pokémon in 10 years, with the only other additions since Red and Blue's original 15 types being Dark and Steel monsters in Gold and Silver.
Even established monsters will get reclassified to fairy type if it makes sense. Marill is now a combination Water and Fairy type, while Jigglypuff is now classified as a Normal and Fairy type. It's a small change, but one that will have a huge impact on the nature of competitive battles in the years to come. While many fans love the powerful dragon Pokémon, Game Freak have evened the field without nerfing your beloved dragons.
X & Y already represents a wealth of drastic changes to the formula, but my final point likely won't be confirmed until much closer to release. During the E3 Q&A with Pokémon developers, story elements and themes were largely off limits, but a few pressing questions drew details out of Ishihara and Junichi Masuda, Game Director.
The first was that a focus on beauty will be a theme in X & Y. With trainers able to customize their looks in-game and the transition to full 3D modeling, this shouldn't be a surprise, but nonetheless it's an interesting angle for a Pokémon game to take. Further, there's a mysterious Pokémon that looks a lot like Mewtwo in X & Y, even though the developers aren't saying exactly what's going on there either. If those elements weren't enough for you, it's even more intriguing to know that you will face off against more than one rival in Pokémon X & Y and a new Team will also appear as antagonists.
Pokémon X & Y will be available worldwide on October 12th, 2013 and feature several international languages to choose from, if you still want that "I'm playing the Japanese import" feeling. Even if you've never tried a game in the series, these two will be a great opportunity to catch the fever. Or at least, in my case, relapse.