I’m currently a few weeks into Pokémon X, some 12 years since I last played a game in the series. I earned five gym badges, have logged over 190 entries in my Pokédex, and have assembled a shaky team of mostly pretty, gothic-looking creatures with which to battle.
I also recently witnessed my Wartortle evolving into Blastoise – the versatile, cannon-shelled turtle who became my favourite Pokémon way back in Pokémon Red. I have a vivid memory of trading two shinies for the shiny Blastoise card at the school gates, back when Pokémon trading cards were all the rage. So, it’s fair to say I have a nostalgic attachment to this series.
What’s surprised me – after a decade and 500 new Pokémon have passed – is how little has changed. Often this is a good thing, but for such a monumental series as this, I’m not so sure.
What hit me most starkly is Pokémon X‘s interface, which hasn’t changed in any reasonable way since Pokémon Red. That’s a 16-year-old UI (I’m going off the Western release rather than the Japanese original in 1996) still forming the backbone of a turn-based RPG. On one level, that’s an impressive feat, however I was expecting more from a game which has already visited the decade-old DS, and now plays in 3D.
I find myself particularly frustrated by the Pokémon storage facility – Cassius’ PC – whose 1990s-style navigation structure makes it impossible to swap creatures in and out of your party from within the same screen. You must deposit a Pokémon in order to free a space in your team, exit to the menu, and then choose ‘withdraw’ – even if both Pokémon reside within the same box. You can at least drag and drop using the stylus, but the clunky menu system makes it more efficient to simply use the D-pad as in days of old. I feel that this and many other frustrations in the PC system could have been avoided, if only Game Freak had utilised a more touch-screen-friendly UI.
More worrying to me are the mechanics of these games, now noticeably burdened by the inclusion of 650 Pokémon. Opportunities to catch them come at a good pace – I tend to capture around 10 new Pokémon in the grass each time I move between cities – but when it comes to trainer and gym battles, there are simply too many to keep proper track.
Battles against NPCs will usually involve more than one Pokémon, and so when one is defeated, the game will announce, “[Trainer] is about to send in [Pokémon]!” Trouble is, the opponent will not always have the same types of Pokémon which you’ve been fighting up to this point – and I’m not even talking about a reasonable injection of peril, such as you might encounter when fighting a single new creature.
Whereas you may have progressed through a few random encounters in order to devise a strategy against the local Skiddos, all this game logic turns to guesswork when coming up against a trainer, with their apparently random assortment of opponents. That is, unless you do as I do, and look the opposing Pokémon up on a fan-run wiki.
Ultimately I find it impossible to retain a mental record of whether Snubbull is a fairy or normal type, or whether ground-type Sandile is capable of dark-type attacks or not, given that it took me the course of Pokémon Red to learn enough about the 151 creatures which inhabited Kanto. Quite how I’m supposed to deal with entirely new Pokémon, having only encountered some 150 of the 650 total before, I have no idea.
Pokémon types have been expanded too, and while it’s much easier to remember 18 elements than hundreds of individual Pokémon, it’s still a system which I feel has been unnecessarily muddied. I’d argue that while the type system has never been simple, there was at least a reasonable amount of logic applied to it back in the first few games: water douses fire burns grass is resistant to water, and so on. It’s also logical to consider that fighting types cannot hit ghosts, that bugs won’t be harmed by grass attacks, and that flying types will be susceptible to electric attacks, since they have no way to earth them.
There have only been three new types added since the basic system was founded, but I’m amazed to realise I still don’t have a clue what a dark, steel or fairy-type attack is going to do at any given time. Like its predecessors, Pokémon X & Y offers a good introduction to these Pokémon types by placing large numbers of them around gym leaders of that same type. This is so you can work out a strategy against those types, and work on the appropriate strategy (or your Pokémon’s experience points) before making a challenge for the gym badge.
This system falls down, however, when the fairy type is introduced without any accompanying game logic. As I said, the game doesn’t even need to broadcast the fact that fire burns grass, but there’s very little logical precedent for pitting a dark-type Pokémon against a fairy. Are fairies a naturally ‘good’ type of Pokémon; a natural counterbalance to dark? Or is this type based on a western ideology, which puts fairies alongside bugs and grass-types, thereby simply rendering those attacks ineffective?
Unfortunately this all became a problem for me, but it looks like Pokémon‘s designers have taken steps to ensure fuddy-duddies like me can still progress through the game. Gym leader battles feel significantly easier, thanks to each apparently only possessing one healing potion. They will also tend only to press one kind of strategy, meaning that for the most part, you can bludgeon your way through with a reasonably-rounded and powerful lead Pokémon – like Blastoise, whose moves I diversify with TMs. Similar steps were taken in Pokémon Yellow, which lessened the learning curve of each each gym leader somewhat compared to Red & Blue.
So, Pokémon X and Y may be woefully familiar in places, and bafflingly illogical in others – but at least the strategies of my 14-year-old trainer self still hold out. Thanks, Blastoise.