Tag Archives: Pokémon

Best of 2013 #7: Pokémon X

Pokémon XI’d been disappointed by my returns to Pokémon since what I perceive to be its heyday in the late 90s. It’s a series whose advancements between iterations had been conservative by even Nintendo’s standards, with everything from its templated story to the designs of its new Pokémon exhibiting diminishing returns.

X and Y, though, while still not a reinvention, felt refreshed. Actual 3D graphics, like anyone who’d played Pokémon had wanted since the N64 days, were the banner feature and injected personality into the limited sprite-based characters of yore. Also impressive was the well-integrated networking, which brought social aspects that only a game with the popular clout of Pokémon could pull off – I’m still waiting for my first Fire Emblem StreetPass, but Pokémon was netting me a couple a day. A nice reminder of what a world where the 3DS was an unmitigated hit.

I still say we need a Pokémon game that really mixes things up in the way that past transitions to 3D have done for Nintendo’s popular franchises, but X and Y were at least a step towards that. Kudos for being the first instalment I’ve enjoyed since the GBA.

The Kick Up the Arse That Pokémon Needed

It’s funny what a difference a few tweaks in the right place can make. I wrote back in 2011 about my disappointment in Pokémon White, my first foray into the series since the GBA evidence to me that it was a series in decline. It was a sense of diminishing returns that left my copy of Sapphire abandoned and Blue as my only game with a full Pokédex, and a hardware generation and a couple of instalments in the game series hadn’t done anything to advance things substantially.

As you might have guessed, I’ve recently given it another go with Pokémon X. Fool me once and all that, but my 1998 self would have been so deliriously happy with a fully 3D Pokémon game that I couldn’t resist. And, unsurprisingly, not much has changed between this and Black and White. Nor, indeed, the Game Boy games. Maybe I’m a graphics whore or something, but the little changes here have made all the difference.

Pokémon X/Y Trainer

Graphics aren’t everything, sure, but they are something, and Pokémon X – or Y, but I’m going to talk about the version I own – doesn’t feel as half-arsed as Black/White did. Seeing those monsters in three dimensions, performing flashy attacks beyond bobbing the sprite up and down, adds dramatically to the personality and appeal. It’s like going from a pen-and-paper RPG to, well, a video game.

Another complaint I had about Black/White was that I found Pokémon to be insultingly formulaic. To illustrate:

  • It’s time for you to become a Pokémon trainer! Go and get your starter from the local professor!
  • Your rival picked the opposing element, so fight him/her.
  • Work your way through the gym leaders.
  • Thwart the plot of a criminal gang with a weird uniform, staffed entirely by incompetent henchmen.
  • Head to Victory Road and beat the Elite Four.
  • Uncover some secret of Pokémon mastery that the world’s scientists couldn’t crack a kid could for some reason.
  • Go after a set of one-of-a-kind legendaries.
  • If you’re not bored by now, pour months into building a competitive team.
  • Oh, and catch ’em all™.

Which Pokémon game am I talking about? It basically could be any of them.

X is the same, but by not looking just like it did on the Game Boy and delivering the occasional well-placed hit of nostalgia (see screenshot below) it tickles the urge that the last generation failed to. If I’d drifted away from the series and come back to this instalment, I’d have been perfectly happy with how much things had progressed.

Pokémon X/Y Mega Blastoise

It’s still not the 3D adventure that I would have killed for in 1998 – Monster Hunter looks closer to that ideal, so it’s feasible, though perhaps not from a small team on a release schedule like Game Freak’s – but as a much-needed improvement to a stagnated franchise, Pokémon X delivers. Given that delivering on the series’ potential would require Nintendo to release powerful hardware, show some ambition and overhaul a proven cash cow, I’ll take what I can get.

Pokémon: In Need of Change

Pokémon TrainerLast week I picked up Pokémon White, my first purchase in the series since Sapphire on the GBA. Like anyone whose age was under about 15 circa 1998, I was obsessed with Red/Blue, and although I enjoyed both, Gold/Silver and Ruby/Sapphire represented diminishing returns to me. By the time the enhanced remakes and so on started coming out with some regularity I was happy to leave it alone, but Black and White seemed like a good chance to see what has changed in the better part of a decade.

Not an awful lot, it turns out.

Back in 1998, I can actually remember looking at Pokémon and, having salivated at how gloriously Zelda had recently transformed from top-down 2D adventure to epic 3D quest, my friends and I were giddy at how good it would be when Pokémon did the same thing. Now, several generations later, the series’ latest and greatest is… a top-down 2D adventure. Even the battles have the same largely static, pixellated characters in place of some nice high-res art. They have polygonal buildings these days, though, so that’s something.

I know, I know. The DS never was a powerhouse and couldn’t reasonably be expected to do too much more than this. But the lack of ambition in the design extends to the gameplay as well: all of these games are essentially identical. Your character comes of age and gets his first Pokémon from a choice of three, goes on a quest to defeat the Gym Leaders while fighting off attacks from terrorist groups, and becomes the greatest of all time. Then collect and train your critters until you lose the will to live. Flavour has been added over time through features like the day/night cycle and some impenetrable network connectivity, but the basics are unchanged.

Why haven’t we had a proper Pokémon RPG for one of Nintendo’s consoles? It must be a budget concern or something – lots of monsters to model and animate, most of which, in my opinion, can’t beat the original 151 for personality – because there can’t be concerns over whether or not it would sell.

I can only assume that the fact that these games are ultimately aimed at children is how gameplay that is so painfully repetitive, in an RPG without much of a story to hold the interest, can maintain such popularity. Given the huge amount of innovative, clever stuff on the DS, I just can’t see the appeal any more.

What a shame. I’ll play it into double figures to give it a fair shake and happily retract this if it turns into something brilliant in that time, but sadly, I don’t think it’s going to happen.

GTA: Chinatown Wars

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown WarsThis might seem like a strange thing to say, but playing GTA: Chinatown Wars on the DS has allowed me to understand where people are coming from when they talk about how bad for kids the likes of Pokémon are. After all, it’s essentially drug dealing.

Let’s say you’re at a convention where Nintendo is unlocking Mew for players – you’ll have to excuse the outdated example since I haven’t properly played a Pokémon game since about 2002. Your Mew is near worthless in a trade there because everyone has them, but if you take it back to the school playground – this is 2002, remember; I don’t still hang around playgrounds with Pokémon to trade – it becomes invaluable.

In Chinatown Wars, you can, say, pick up some cheap weed where the Jamaican gangs are prevalent and sell it at a premium to college students. Or you might get an email from someone looking to offload some heroin cheaply, so you can take up the offer and stash it at your safehouse until someone finds themselves short of skag and will pay over the odds for some of your collection. Basic supply and demand, only here your deals will occasionally be raided by the cops. It’s also a nifty method of investment, tying up a chunk of your money in cheap drugs that you can sell for thousands in profit when demand goes up.

I’ll stop talking about that aspect of the game there for fear of scaring off the children – this site had already been blocked as pornography once by a major filtering company, incidentally – and just say that I love Chinatown Wars, and living out fantasies of making millions in a particular brand of Pocket Monster is just one reason why. The odd thing, considering the lengths I’ll go to to defend GTA IV against its detractors, is that I really don’t like the old GTA games. I bought the first when it came out out of some feeling of obligation – the playground rumours that it was imminently to be banned helped – and it was cool while the novelty was there, but I just didn’t find them that much fun. It wasn’t until I could get immersed in the city and Rockstar’s humour in GTA III that the series really became something important to me.

That’s why I’d been wary of this one, but you can’t ignore reviews like these forever and it’s been absolutely ages since I’ve played anything on the DS. In fact, the last two games that I bought, Apollo Justice and Chrono Trigger, haven’t been played at all. My hoarding mentality strikes again…

Pokémon for the less innocent aside, Chinatown Wars is a huge amount of fun. While it may lack the radio stations and the portable version of GTA IV’s Liberty City is more right-angled than you might remember, Rockstar Leeds has done a great job of cramming the experience into a DS cartridge. It looks remarkable considering the usual standard of 3D on the DS, the touch-screen minigames are yet to get annoying, and the slightly bizarre humour has made it intact. I mean, when was the last game on any system, let alone a DS game, that mentioned coked-out midgets and injecting heroin into your eyeball… in the same sentence? Genius.