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Top Ten Reasons why I can't get into Pokemon X

5:30 PM on 10.20.2013 // Jonathan Holmes


It's been a week, and I think I'm about 6 hours into Pokemon X. I want to want to play it, but I just can't. Over the the past seven days, I've replayed Metroid Fusion in its entirety, worked on my high score in Summer Carnival '92: Recca, played through some Wind Waker HD, and maintained my regular Animal Crossing: New Leaf routine. I even went back into Pokemon White to get a shiny Giratina and engage in a few exhibition battles with it.

Each time I'd pick up one of these games, I'd be keenly aware that I wasn't playing Pokemon X. It's doesn't make any sense that I'm not enjoying the game more. I love Pokemon, so much so that I played through both Pokemon Black and White in their entirety (White in Japanese, Black in English). Earlier this year, I caught all 649 Gen 1-5 Pokemon. I labored for weeks over creating a Pokemon fan cartoon series, giving all of the budget to the animator and artists, all for the love of Pokemon. 

So why is it that I can't get into Pokemon X? It's not because it's a bad game. It's a pretty great game. It would be just as easy for me to make a top ten list of great things about it (with the new experience share, the new Pokemon, and all the amazing online features being near the top of that list) as it is for me to make this list of reasons why I'm not getting into it .

Sadly, it's not my place to detail all the good things about Pokemon X. Instead, I get to be the killjoy that points out all the poopers.

10) Pikachu gets voice acting

I love Pikachu's voice acting. It's adorable. Still, giving Pikachu a voice while leaving the rest of the games creatures the customary growls and hoots leads to an inconsistency that does more harm than good. The Pokemon games have long been more democratic than the Pokemon anime. Other than in Pokemon Yellow, Pikachu has never been given preferential treatment.

Pokemon X/Y breaks that tradition in order to better pander to the cult of Pikachu. It's a choice that is sure to please many, but left me feeling detached from the game world, keenly aware that Nintendo and Gamefreak were willing to break immersion in order to insert more fan service.

9) Bad camera angles

Before I played Pokemon X/Y, I was pretty vocal over my disappointment with the game's polygon-based visuals. Pokemon was one of the last big Nintendo series that maintained 2D sprite-based artwork, and as a fan of that artform, I was sad to see that change. When I actually played the game at PAX 2013, I was happy to see that the game's visuals were technically pretty impressive. Sadly, even the most expensive graphics can fall victim to bad camera angles. 

The number one reason I play Pokemon games is to discover and capture new Pokemon (more on that later). However, that experience is ruined when the camera is pointed at Pokemon from an angle that prevents you from seeing what the hell it is. Sometimes it'd be because the Pokemon is too far away to see the details (like with Flabebe). Sometimes it's because the Pokemon is facing the camera at an angle that makes it hard to tell what it is (like Furfrou). Then the camera will suddenly zoom in close on a character, just for a second, sometimes revealing that the polygon model has clear seams and chunks. To be fair, it's not all the camera's fault. It's also the character models. They are way less detailed and easy to read than those found in the beautifully rendered Pokemon 3D Pro. It's not realistic to expect the 3DS to be able to display more than one of those character models at a time though, unlike the camera, which has no excuse. 

Oh whatever you do, don't play with the 3D on. The frame rate will suddenly drop to what looks like 15 FPS during some camera changes, even in battles with relatively low detail characters (like Pansage Vs. Panpour).

The 2D Sprites in Pokemon Black/White have their problems, but for better or worse, you could always clearly see the art assets in those games. The camera also gets weird in the game's overworld, suddenly swinging to a behind the back angle (making it hard to navigate) or suddenly switching to a waaaay overhead shot (making it easy to navigate but hard to see what anything is). I get that the developers wanted to try to keep things visually lively with a bunch of "cinematic" new camera moves, but they end up shooting themselves in the foot more often than not.  

8) Uninspired animations

One of the big advantages to using polygon based graphics is that you don't have to worry about the labor intensive, memory hogging process of frame-by-frame animation. It would be fair to hope that going polygon would allow the team at Gamefreak to do wonderful new things with Pokemon idle animations. Sometimes they do, particularly with flying characters. Fletching and Ledyba's hovering animations are very nicely put together.

Sadly, land-based Pokemon often look like they just got out of bed, slowly bobbing up down, looking a bit disinterested. The animations for characters like Scraggy, Victini, and Emolga were so packed with personality. The fact that Gamefreak and Nintendo spent all that time and energy creating Mega Evolutions when the could have been working to make each normal Pokemon encounter more visually interesting feels like misplaced priorities. 

7) Horde battles are awful

Speaking of Scraggy, one of the first horde battles you'll encounter in Pokemon X is with a group of these baggy legged Pokemon. It's a five against one battle, with the Scraggy set at a substantially lower level than your Pokemon to keep things balanced. That's the idea anyway. In practice, it's still a horridly lopsided experience. 

If you want to catch one of the Scraggy, you'll have to kill the other four, so that means abstaining from any attacks that work against groups. That slows things down considerably. Scraggy will often use moves that lower your accuracy, making it so even your more powerful Pokemon miss most of the time, slowing things down even more. Then God forbid if you kill off all but one of the Scraggy, then accidentally murder the last one before you can catch it, forcing you to grind for another random encounter with the group. 

Horde battles are pretty infrequent, and if you have a group clearing move like Vivillon's Struggle Bug, you can get through them as quickly as you would a normal battle, but they have the potentially to be extremely limiting and annoying. Knowing that you may have to deal with one the next time that you hunt for new Pokemon can really take the wind out of your sails.

6) Inconsistent art direction

Since the very first games in the series, Pokemon has relied on two different but compatible visual languages. The overworld has simple icons and chibi characters that work on a map divided into a grid. It's nothing fancy, but it's clear what and where everything is, making it effortless to navigate. They also make battle scenes seem more literal and exciting by comparison, where characters are seen in more detail and with more "realistic proportions".

With Pokemon X/Y, the visual language is all over the place. Pokemon in the overworld have the exact same character models as they have in battle, while opposing trainers have big heads and little bodies until they enter a battle where they become... motionless 2D artwork? That is unless you're battling a friend of yours, who are shown in more detailed, lanky-limbed 3D models. Maybe. 

I understand that technnological limitations may have prevented Gamefreak and Nintendo from giving every NPC in the game their own long-limbed character model. There is no excuse for being inconsistent though. Like with Pikachu's sudden voice acting, these reaches into different art styles only worked to take me out of the game.

5) Music is completely bland

I have loved the soundtrack to just about every Pokemon game since Red and Blue, but so far, every song in Pokemon X/Y has been a mediocre snoozer. It may be in part because a lot of the instrumentation sits in that synthetic, uninspiring space between chip tunes and real sounding instruments. 

Maybe the music will get better, but as of yet, it lacks the spark and the surprises I'm used to in a Pokemon soundtrack. It was the music that often kept me from getting bored during more time consuming battles in past games. A game can get away with being pretty simple and repetitive as long as it has a detailed and varied soundtrack. So far, Pokemon X is on the wrong side of that equation. 

4) Tries to feel physically real, often fails

It's no secret that Pokemon X/Y has already pulled in a lot of lapsed fans of the series that "grew out" of Pokemon ten-or-so years ago. Part of the way it does that is by working hard to make the Pokemon feel more physically real than the "moving drawings" found in prior games. Now you can rub Pokemon, ride Pokemon, and stick fruit right in their faces.

Most of the appeal here is lost on me. I started playing Pokemon at age 24. I've never imagined what it would be like if Pokemon were real, just like I've never imagined what it would be like if Mario was my actual plumber, or if Kirby was an actual chef. These are characters that have always existed in the realm of the abstract for me, which is big part of their appeal. That said, I can see how to a kid, or someone who wants to feel like a kid again, could get excited about the idea of knowing a real life Bulbasaur. 

Like with the art direction and Pikachu's voice acting, it's the inconsistency that ends up being the problem here, not the degree of ambition. The Pokemon in Pokemon X/Y often feel like real things, but so many other things do not. You'll turn your player character to talk to a companion, and accidentally walk right through them. You'll run off to explore the wide new polygon based world, only to be stopped by an invisible wall or arbitrary NPC conversation. You'll try to take advantage of the newly added ability to walk on a diagonal angle, only to find that you're still stuck on the same step-by-step grid. It makes for an experience that feels like the opposite of Animal Crossing, which for all of it's ridiculousness, has a lot of convincing and satisfying tactile moments.

Older Pokemon games barely even tried to convince the player that they existed in a physical reality. Gamefreak and Nintendo strove for a higher level of believability with this entry in their "capture giant monsters in balls that you put in your pocket" series. When they reach those heights, it's fine. When they fall, they fall pretty hard.

3) Hanging out with kids is not fun

It's no secret that the creator of Pokemon was something of a loner as a child, and that the Pokemon games drew upon his two biggest obsessions -- playing videogames and catching bugs. They were largely solitary practices for him. Likewise, other than the occasional check in with a rival or conversation with a Pokemon-obsessed NPC, the Pokemon games are about being alone, doing what you want when you want. 

In a bizarre pro-social twist, Pokemon X/Y has you spending time with not one, not two, but four other kids on a regular basis. Their dialogue is often trite and unconvincing. Worse, they often want to talk about something other than Pokemon, which is a cardinal sin in my Poke-book. 

[Super-mild Spoilers] Pretty early in the game, you're tasked to go find a Poke-flute to wake up Snorlax. It's annoying enough that we don't get a new Pokemon to wake up and catch in our new Pokemon game, but on top of that, the fetch quest for the flute involves many, many minutes of not talking about Pokemon, catching Pokemon, or doing anything Pokemon related. Instead, you go to a castle with one of your new friends, look for a man, chase his dog (a dog that, admittedly, is a Pokemon, though that's more of a technicality), and then watch fireworks. It feels like all this was to help you bond with your friend, as during the fireworks, you have a weird heart to heart talk about how she hopes that you'll be friends for a long time. 

I don't want to be friends with this kid for a long time. I don't want to be friends with her at all. I just want to catch some goddamn Pokemon. 

2) Way too much time spent not catching Pokemon

The forced friendships, fetch quests, and Pokemon rubbing aren't the end of the not-Pokemon catching action you'll experience in the first six hours of Pokemon X/Y. You'll also suddenly be forced to plant berries, or make a Vine-like "selfie" video, or be encouraged to buy new pants. Not pants for your Pokemon mind you. Pants for yourself. [Edit: I was just informed by Dtoid reader Ckarasu that you are not forced to make a "selfie" video. That's not how I remember it, but I trust his recollection. Either way, I felt forced to make one, and it was a turn off. As for the berries, I was forced, and it was traumatizing.]

It seems like an easy target, but it all reminds me of how Michael Bay's Transformers is about human being running around, shooting guns, and being sweaty. Oh, and these people also happen to know some giant alien robots. Fans of the Transformers animated series were pretty annoyed by that, but in terms of appealing to a broader audience, focusing on the human beings worked to make Transformers easier to relate with and believe in. 

From the looks of my twitter feed, the same is likely working for Pokemon X/Y. A lot of my friends there are shocked and amused with themselves for spending more time and money on dressing their avatar than on catching Pokemon. I'm glad they're having fun, but those are the exact kind of speedbumps that slow my Poke-momentum. 

1) Not enough new Pokemon

The space between #1 and the rest of the entries on this list is really wide. If Pokemon X/Y had all new Pokemon like Black/White did, chances are I'd already be 50 hours into it. Instead, the game feels more like a polygon-based reboot/remake of Pokemon generations 1-5, with a few new Pokemon thrown in to occasionally keep you awake. 

If you skipped Pokemon Silver/Gold, Sapphire/Ruby, Diamond/Pearl,. and/or Black/White, this will be much less of a problem for you. So many more of these Pokemon will be new and exciting in your eyes. For me, all the repeat Pokemon make me feel like I'm being asked to pay for stuff I already own. Sure, there are the Mega evolutions to look forward to, but seeing an old Pokemon in a new wig is not much to get excited about. I don't want rebooted Pokemon. I want new Pokemon.

Pokemon Black/White had 156 new Pokemon. That feeling of hitting the jackpot that comes from catching a new Pokemon was always just around every corner. Pokemon X/Y only has 69 new Pokemon. I think I've caught about 20 of them already, despite being just six hours into the game. Despite the fact that many of those hours were spent having conversations with virtual children, or being told I should shoot more selfies, or talking to an actress about how she's getting older, or some other thing that is definitely not discovering and catching an awesome new Pokemon. It doesn't feel like there are a lot of jackpots to look forward to here.


My idea Pokemon game would go something like this. You start in a town. You get a new Pokemon. You leave town. In the grass by the road, you may see 4-6 types of new Pokemon. You work hard to try and catch them all. Then you head to a town, fight some other trainers along the way (who are all obsessed with Pokemon, and come at you with mostly new Pokemon). In town, you heal your Pokemon, buy supplies, then head to the Gym. The Gym leader there has a bunch of awesome new Pokemon. You might lose against them, which only makes the idea of catching them for yourself more exciting. Your Pokemon may evolve along the way, which makes you feel pretty great.

After you get through the Gym, you leave town. In the grass by the road, you may see 4-6 types of new Pokemon. You work hard to try and catch them all. Then you head to a town, fight some other trainers, etc.

You follow that pattern about 8 times, then catch some really rare Pokemon, then fight five Gym-style battles in a row. That's the end of the game. After that, you can go back and catch some more new Pokemon, and trade up your Pokemon from old games to your new game. Just as a good new 2D Mario game is merely a delivery method for new Mario levels and power-ups, a new Pokemon game should be a delivery method for new Pokemon to catch and battle. Anything that gets in the way of delivering that content just gets in the way and should be cut.

That's pretty much exactly what Pokemon Black/White was, which why it's my favorite game in the series. As well as that game sold, Pokemon X/Y is selling better thus far, likely because it appeals to people that like the idea of Pokemon, but don't actually like playing it anymore. These people want Pokemon to grow up along with them. They want what J.J. Abrams Star Trek did for Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek. 

I'm happy that they got what they wanted. If that what it takes to keep Pokemon relevant and financially solvent, then so be it. In fact, I hope they go even farther with it next time. They should get Miley Cirus a Gym leader in the next game. They should have even fancier polygon-based graphics, and work even harder to make the world feel real. Pokemon X/Y feels like a floundering step in those directions. I'm all for seeing those ideas more firmly realized in the future. If I don't like it, I can always replay Pokemon Black again. Going forward doesn't erase the past.

That said, if the next Pokemon game features great music, clear, simple, expressive graphics, and puts its focus on at least 150 new Pokemon designs, you can bet that I'll playing it from start to finish without looking back.

Jonathan Holmes, Bad Joke Uncle
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