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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Pokemon X & Y Refresh the Franchise

     So, Pokemon is making a comeback huh? Well, it never really went away. This franchise has been going strong since I was born and something like that won't vanish without a lot of effort. No matter how popular it is though, there is no denying that a lot of people have burned out on good ol' Pocket Monsters. I was one of those people until a few months ago.  Looking at this game, I see a lot of my gripes being dispelled. If you loved Pokemon as a kid but feel sick of it now, I think I can teach you something that will let you relive those happy old times again. (At least as far as the games go.)

     I loved Pokemon all the way up to 5th Gen. I played every release, no matter how many times I tried to convince myself hat the third special version of each generation was not worth full price. I would look at for news on the latest games and use bulbapedia & strategy guides to chart out perfect teams. I was into it. This was my first and favorite RPG. Pokemon helped me learn to read more than one or three words at a time. Pokemon was the first time I actually used math outside of the classroom. It was tied so closely with my childhood that it should be what I hold most dear. Yet...

    I got bored. After beating the Elite Four and Champion Cynthia in Pokemon Black I just couldn't carry on. This is normally the part where I level up my team to 100 and max out their stats, but I just didn't care enough. I had all my usual motivators: a cool Pokemon to power up (Volcarona is officially my favorite Pokemon ever!), people to battle (my friends played end I hadn't beaten the endgame yet), and desire to see m unstoppable team in 3D (I was pretty sure another Pokemon Colosseum was on it's way). So what stopped me in my tracks? I just put the game down and never picked it up again. Why was I giving up on my first & favorite RPG? I put on game design goggles and looked at things objectively. 

Why don't I feel like playing anymore?

It's boring. I'm just doing the same things over again just to watch numbers go up.

Don't you want to finish what you started?

Not really. I've got better things to do. There's tons of games out there I've never even heard of. I prefer new experiences over repetition.

What makes it boring and repetitive?

The sprites have been static for more than a decade and now that they finally move a little, they look blocky and pixelated. I prefer my idea of animated sprites that I had for the fan game I was going to make in 10th grade.

Also, repetition can be okay if it's entertaining, but here it's not. There's nothing to look at. I can't train (A.K.A. level grind) my Pokemon unless I'm watching TV at the same time. You have to ask yourself "Why am I doing this?" when you dedicate hours of your life to a video game and you don't enjoy the act of playing it.

And as far as repetition goes, a lack of challenge has a lot to do with that. It's like the game only has about 15 NPCs that put up a good fight and all the others are just easy filler. It's not fun beating trainers who send out an entire team of the weakest thing you can find in a forest. Just the thought of fighting Hiker Joe and his 6 Geodudes is enough to keep me from picking up even the old games again.

But the sprites move now. It's a huge new region with tons of secrets to uncover!

But the world I'm exploring is dull grey and brown. The sprites are too blocky (seriously, ever heard of anti-aliasing?) and it makes me feel like they could have stepped it up. Like if I were a member of Gamefreak I'd take the time to form a team and make gorgeous art to max out the DS's capabilities.

And even if the overworld was fun the core of the game, the combat, bores me to tears. It's only fun when the game fights back and after you beat those few trainers there's nothing left. Sure the game is fine on your first run through since you still have the rush of leveling up your baby team and bringing in new members to the main six, but once you have your titans and crushed all opposition the only thing to keep you going would be worthy opponents. Randomized online battles with Call of Duty style leveling would be incredible, but you know how Nintendo is with keeping kids away from the internet and keeping lawyers away from their wallets.

You think you could do it better?

At the time where I dropped off Pokemon, I did. I was sad to see my favorite RPG dying off on me and my friends and wanted to fix what I thought was wrong. That passion was what made me continue with my fan project and try to make the Pokemon game I wanted to play.

Unfortunately the project was abandoned after prototyping because I soon realized how long it would take me to make all the necessary sprites by myself (a few long years).  Knowing what I do now, I could absolutely pull it off with enough help. I could simply make a demo, put it on YouTube and ask people to make sprite sheets for me. If only I had the time...
I ended up switching to another project that I believed could actually be done. That's when I wanted to start making games for profit so I wouldn't need a part time job. But that's another story for another post.

     So all that brings me up to where I took a look at the box art for Pokemon White 2 and said no thanks. I was done with Pokemon forever. They would remain childhood memories from here on. It was the first (and only) time when a Nintendo franchise seemed like a thing only kids would enjoy.

     About four months ago that all changed I caught a glimpse of Pokemon X & Y. I heard of the titles back in January and rolled my eyes at the obvious 1,2, then 3 formula like most pessimists at the time. But soon, I somehow found the trailer on YouTube and my expectations were shattered.

     Pokemon were finally in 3D! This is the game I wanted since Pokemon Colosseum! I had vague hopes that one day the 3D models from Pokedex 3D would be used in an upcoming game but these models look light-years better with their stylized shading and smooth, vibrant art style.

     Already my main gripes with the last generation were being squashed. X & Y feature a vibrant animated world, meaning no more dull colors and static sprites to stare at as I mash 'a'. That alone helps increase the immersion and spectacle aspects which RPGs thrive on.
    And to make things even better, I'm in college now with tons of new Pokemon crazed friends to play it with. Even if the game's AI gets boring, I have actual competition to fight against. Those two factors alone were enough to start up my old passion and make me slap down money for a pre-order. Then to add wood to the fire, I found out about customizable trainers, Pokemon you can ride, and full-on 3D movement in the overworld! Little did I know it would only get better from there.

     Admittedly, I was upset when I first saw this. If anything I thought light & sound types were coming and would refresh old move types and fill in a few logic gaps here and there but after looking at this with my game design goggles I was in awe at what this extra type inclusion would mean for me. 
     My all powerful dragon types had a weakness now. One that I'm not prepared for. And that got me thinking about how much Pokemon has built up to after all these years. 650+ unique Pokemon, evolutions, and forms. Having a wide variety of opponents in an RPG keeps things fresh so you don't fight the same monsters again. That perfect team you had in mind just got judo-flipped and now you have 100+ new enemies you've never seen before to strategize against.
    Any notion of disliking the addition of new Pokemon was dismissed as soon as I considered that. A giant, rich company like Nintendo can toss out enough money to get as many 3D artists as necessary to bring all their Pokemon to life in a short amount of time so there can never really be too many at the rate the series is going. 
  Also my concern of them not focusing on perfecting and balancing the existing Pokemon is null when you consider all the moveset changes, type changes, evolutions, and now mega-evolutions that the old guys have now.  Gamefreak has been tweaking the old Pokemon the whole time.

     Don't even get me started on a "Pokemon are just lazy designs now" rant. Think of your opinion of the new generations compared to the old and the truth comes down to nostalgia. You like the old because it's familiar and dear to you because it's associated with the happier times of childhood. Back when life was easy and your biggest concerns were catching the latest episode of whatever and beating that level in that hard game you can never beat.

     Let's face it. You only hate the garbage pile because the sludge wad came first and Pokemon haters would have a field day if the pokeball with eyes on it came out today. They really only seem bad because it's not the Pokemon you remember, it's that new thing that sucks because things were only cool when you were young enough to enjoy them.

     Keeping that mind helps me prepare for whatever comes next. If I keep an open mind, there is a lot of fun to be had. If not, I miss out on a fun reboot of a game as old as I am. I tend to choose the positive options in these scenarios. Gamefreak is really putting their all into this. I haven't been this excited for a Pokemon game since Heart Gold & Soul Silver yet the developers keep pulling out new tricks to make it even better.

I flipped out when I saw this.
     The freaking. Kanto. Starters. Early in the game too, so you can enjoy your long journey with them. It's like this game was specifically designed to pull me back into the Pokemon series. New surprises at every turn have me high in solid hopes of this being the best game on the 3DS for years to come.

    Only time will tell if the AI in this game is any better at fighting back and whether their teams will be more varied than a roster of Poke-fodder. Pokemon X & Y are shaping up to be the perfect example of bringing a series into the next generation.

     It's a good thing to keep in mind when making my own series. What do you do to keep it alive 20 years later?

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