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Adventures in Gaming: Pokemon X

In which the author realizes that he's been carrying around a Marshtomp for 11 years.

Evan Shimizu, Blogger

March 6, 2014

6 Min Read

I've decided to give my critical thought a bit of excercise, and will be writing some thoughts on games after I've played them. Not as reviews, but as little pieces of criticism. In practice it'll probably end up way more informal than that.

This time it's Pokemon X, developed by Game Freak et. al. and released for the 3DS in 2013. And I guess the Pokemon series as a whole, because while playing this iteration, I've relized that I've never really known a world without Pokemon. And that was a strange thought for some reason.

Minor spoiler warning too. The narrative for Pokemon X/Y is mostly nonsense but there are some interesting threads in it that will be brought up, including the ending.

It occured to me while playing this most recent entry in the Pokemon franchise, that pretty much the same design team have been making games in the series since 1996. It really shows in this particular iteration. They've polished this formula so much that even almost 18 years later, it still remains instantly accessible to newcomers, and deep enough for competitive play. But since nothing much really changed in the past 18 years, new type and mega evolustions are minor adjustments, it leaves a gameplay analysis with not much new to talk about.

But after playing this series since its inception on the GameBoy all the way back in 1996, there's one thing I think Pokemon does better than pretty much every other game (or game series): building a community. Communication and community have been driving factors in Pokemon's game design since the beginning, and have evolved in some interesting non-standard ways over the years. So after 18 years, what's changed?

To answer that question we should probably start back with the design decisions made with Blue (/Green) and Red. Blue and Red were functionally identical games, with the major distinction being a small selection of version-exclusive Pokemon. So what, right? Well, remember Pokemon's original catch-phrase? "Gotta Catch em all." The main goal of Pokemon was to catch every single Pokemon listed in the Pokedex, which because of the different versions, was only possible if you traded between versions. Battles were part of the story, but really rather secondary to the original goal, used primarily as a means to evolve Pokemon into new Pokemon and add their entries to your Dex. This of course means that you need to find someone else with the other version willing to trade with you. (Or you got yourself two GameBoys and traded with youself...). You also at the beginning of the game had to choose one of three Pokemon that could be obtained in no other way. These decisions immediately create points of conversation between Pokemon players, and creates a community with a very low barrier to entry. You can just start the game, pick a Pokemon, and immediately get into a conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of that particular Pokemon.

Red and Blue were pretty much an instant success. In subsequent generations, Pokemon continued to evolve its community features. Breeding was introduced in Gold and Silver (JP 1999/NA 2000), allowing players to receive new "baby" Pokemon and create additional offspring to trade with their friends. It also allowed for the more battle-oriented players to breed Pokemon with superior stats. Ruby and Sapphire (JP 2002/NA 2003) experimented with new Double Battles, allowing four people to participate in a battle at once, and communication between R/S and Pokemon Colosseum and Pokemon XD for the GameCube. Throughout this era, communication was limited by the necessity of physical link cables between systems and limited the size of local communities.

With the DS came Pokemon Diamond and Pearl (JP 2006/NA 2007). These games introduced the largest change in the communication features since the introduction of the original games. Diamond and Pearl allowed players to trade and battle with each other around the world through the Internet. Because of this, Diamond and Pearl remain the only Pokemon games where I actually manged to complete the regional Pokedex (the National Dex is still way out of my reach). Around this time, the advent of YouTube and the growth of social medias sites like Facebook made it even easier to share game experiences with friends and strangers around the world. Later, Black and White (JP 2010/NA 2011) introduced an early form of the 3DS's StreetPass system, allowing users to find other people playing the same game just by playing Black/White with the wireless on.

Now admittedly I didn't find B/W's wireless features to be all that useful, as I never actually ran in to anyone playing Black at the same time I was. But it's interesting to see that with X and Y, GameFreak essentially took those features limited to local networks in Black and White, and put them online. Now when playing Pokemon online, there is no shortage of people "walking" past for you to trade or battle with. It feels like playing an MMO as a single person. In this generation, you feel like you're part of a much larger community right from the start. It's great. I don't even interact with people that much, but sometimes, you use the Wonder Trade and get a legendary Pokemon for a Bagon (best trade I've ever made).

All of these features have created a pretty amazing community, spawning everything from 100,000 people coming together to play a single game of Pokemon Red, to a vibrant competitive battling scene, to brining together friends with common interests for 18 years. And through all of this comes a legacy. Everyone has stories about their old Pokemon, a battle they had, where they caught it, or how their Ratatta is in the top percentage of Ratatta (hi Joey), and since Ruby and Sapphire, can transfer those Pokemon into the current games.

With the addition of Pokemon Bank, I now walk around with a Marshtomp named Gilthanas (because Dragonlance is really awesome ok) I originally obtained in Ruby, back in 2003. He's been through Pearl, SoulSilver, Black, Black 2 and finally into Pokemon X, sorry about the constant moves buddy. And it's kind of amazing that 11 years later, there's still a bit of emotional attachment to this specific combination of 0s and 1s (that's all it is really). It reminds me of where I was 11 years ago, what my goals were, and what my hopes were at the time. A remnant of a distant past. And maybe one day, assuming Pokemon lives on many years from now, I'll pass on this particular data to my children, and tell them about a time where an 11 year old set out on a journey with this very Pokemon...

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