It's amazing how exciting something familiar can become when seen from a different angle.
Pokemon X and Y is the latest in the long-running Pokemon franchise and is the first to land on the 3DS. In the last few months, Nintendo has unveiled a series of new features--such as mega evolutions, the Nintendogs-like Pokemon Amie feature, new battle types, greater customization, and more--but nothing that seemed like it would truly shake up the tried-and-tested Pokemon formula we've all seen and played before. Gotta catch 'em all. Again.
But Pokemon X and Y will also be the first time the main series has leapt into a full 3D world, which in and of itself is a major step forward for the franchise. And from the one-hour hands-on I had with the full game earlier this week, the visual upgrade alone was enough to put pause to my reservations that this would be just another typical Pokemon experience. It's the same old Pokemon all right, but it feels brand new.
That first hour of play consisted of the typical Pokemon starter experience. Waking up in your house, being summoned by a local professor, running into potential rivals, choosing from one of three starter Pokemon, and heading into some tall grass for your first few attempts at catching a wild creature. The actions were the same, but the new look made it feel more engaging.
From the very start, when the game's camera follows a flying fletchling through your house before landing in your character's bedroom, Pokemon X and Y makes a statement: this game has been built to take advantage of the better visuals the 3DS's technical capabilities allow. It's there in the battles, where fully 3D Pokemon models move and attack like they never have before. It's there when you move around Kalos (the region this game is set in), with the camera changing angles from high above to more cinematic views closer to your Pokemon trainer. It's there in the little details, such as the swaying of tall grass as you push your way through, to how your trainer hunches down when speaking to short non-player characters.
This fully 3D Pokemon experience makes the most routine actions seem exciting again. Consider the Pokeball. Catching a creature in a Pokeball is something anyone who has played a previous Pokemon game has performed hundreds of times. In Pokemon X and Y, the animation has been significantly improved--you now see your trainer throw the Pokeball at the weakened Pokemon, with the camera gradually zooming into the 3D Pokeball as it shudders and vibrates, struggling to keep your new ally trapped. It is, surprisingly, very tense.
When I ask if the updated visuals will be the key reason people will flock to Pokemon X and Y, game director Junicho Masuda demurs. It could be, he says, but there are also plenty of other things Nintendo and developer Game Freak are adding to the Pokemon experience with this latest game.
"Just like there's so many Pokemon, there are so many other elements to the game, so it’s hard to tell what each individual person will latch onto and get excited about. As long as there's something for people to get excited about, then I'm happy," Masuda said.
"In every facet of the game, but particularly with the camera angles, we worked to include what would make people the most excited, what would make them feel something here. With battles, up until now you've just been standing behind the Pokemon and seeing its back. But now the camera moves around a bit and you see the Pokemon from different angles. It's much more dynamic, and probably makes people feel a lot more excited about battles."
Updated visuals isn't the only thing the series' long-awaited move to the 3DS brings. Masuda says the 3DS's capabilities have allowed his team to introduce features that have previously been impossible to do.
"Obviously the 3D models was something we couldn’t do before. That allows for a variety of things, but one of the things it made possible was the new Pokemon Amie mode, which lets you reach out with your Pokemon and interact with them. I feel people probably always wanted to directly interact with their Pokemon, to reach out and pet them, so this is a feature I’ve wanted to do for quite some time," he said.
"Other than just trying to pet the Pokemon there are other interesting ways to interact with them. We use facial recognition tech--if you tilt your head one way they may try and copy that, or play little games where if you close your eyes they'll close their eyes too. When you deepen your relationship with Pokemon in this mode there are also several benefits in battle--they’ll dodge moves more often, or land more critical hits. Considering the vast number of Pokemon there are it was really difficult to make this mode work."
Pokemon Amie and the other new features being touted for Pokemon X and Y (such as mega-evolutions, sky and horde battles, customizable looks for trainers, and improved communication features) may seem like window dressing when you consider that the tried-and-true basics of Pokemon haven't changed since Pokemon Red/Blue. But for Masuda, it's these tried-and-true elements that define Pokemon--specifically, the mechanic of catching a Pokemon and the series' turn-based battles.
"It's a little like fishing, where you throw out your reel and have to battle with the fish before you catch it. So similarly, you have to lower the HP of the Pokemon and then you throw out the Pokeball to try and reel it in. That core gameplay is really something that's central to the Pokemon games," Masuda says.
"For the Pokemon games we always make sure they're less action focused. The gameplay is something where you can take your time, kind of like chess. That's why it's turn-based combat. But it also has quite a lot of depth there as well."
Would Masuda ever consider changing to real-time battles, similar to what PS3 title Ni No Kuni presented in its very Pokemon-like gameplay? Masuda, who has been with the Pokemon series since its inception and has worked in game design, music composition, script writing, and programming, has a simple response to this hypothetical.
"No," he says.
Near the end of my first hour with Pokemon X and Y, a Nintendo rep asked me if I had made it to the game's first gym battle. I was nowhere near, having spent the past hour simply exploring the world, impressed at how something so familiar could feel so fresh. I battled with every trainer I came across. I combed every patch of tall grass to find new creatures. I leveled up my Chespin to level 9. I even caught a Pikachu. With Pokemon X and Y, it looks like I will want to catch them all. Again.