They hit you over the head with everything pretty fast. In less than no time at all you are shuttled off to the nearest town to select your starter and begin your adventure anew. Everything is new and exciting and surprisingly European—the nearby cities are built on the backs of majestic architecture, hole-in-the-wall cafes and alfresco seating. Game Freak sets the channel very early on: you’re a long way from Pallet Town. Eight elusive badges and a pocket full of monsters, that’s all you’ll ever start with. But the more things change, the more they stay the same.
For a long time Pokémon has coasted by on its unparalleled popularity—even my immigrant grandmother knows what Pikachu looks like. Ironically enough it has been this same swaggering lovability that had long halted the evolution of the games, which are arguably the driving force behind the franchise. We’d see a change of scenery and a triple-digit slew of new pocket monsters with each new installment. Each track change had its own unique addition or flair of course, but none of the tack-ons ever truly enriched the game in a meaningful way. Each installment felt like a hint towards something greater that lay just out of reach on the faraway horizon.
After roping up the first badge and meeting Professor Sycamore you are presented with the ultimate trifecta: Bulbasaur, Charmander or Squirtle? Suddenly the new realm of Kalos doesn’t seem nearly as scary and unknown. Shortly after that, you are given the ever-crucial EXP Share, now a key item that redistributes battle experience amongst all active party Pokémon. With two starters, EXP that spreads like margarine and all the pretty new critters you can shake a stick at, it’s clear that Pokémon X and Y aim to baptize you headfirst.
In Pokémon Gold and Silver, after defeating Karen of the Elite Four she says: “Strong Pokémon. Weak Pokémon. That is only the selfish perception of people. Truly skilled Trainers should try to win with the Pokémon they love best.” I always thought it to be a beautiful, insightfully profound comment. It seems the folks at Game Freak finally came around and thought so too because at every crick and turn you see this sentiment bolstered and highlighted in new and exciting ways.
For starters, all Pokémon get experience now as long as the EXP Share is switched on, period. In past games the EXP share only aided one benched monster and without it you were forced to saddle an inexperienced creature up front before immediately switching to a stronger back up, thus splitting the workload; shit was tedious. By spreading the EXP amongst all party members, you can swap out old Pokémon for those freshly caught without the worry of having to grind them out several hours for them to finally be ‘battle-ready’.
Constantly cycling through newly caught Pokemon is fun and has never been easier. Even training has been streamlined, in more ways than one. Super Training, for example, allows competitive players to juice out their EVs without the masturbatory process of killing hundreds of Zubats in some god-forsaken cave on the outskirts of civilization like a crazy person (now you pop balloons, don’t worry its fun). Game Freak has subtly combined the competitive with the casual and magically given everyone exactly what they wanted; setting up a solid squad is simpler and EV training is easier and (slightly) less time consuming.
Probably the most telling retailoring is the inclusion of EXP rewards for catching Pokémon. Now that you gain experience for catching creatures, you don’t have to pick between your EXP and your Pokédex completion.
Impressively enough, the physical and visual improvements of the game stand out as series benchmarks rather than just forced graphical updates. You can now run in any direction, not just the 4-way motion of the old generations. This lets the game truly attain the look and feel of ‘RPG-status’. The environment, built to resemble France both artistically and physically, looks and feels pure. People are sitting in cafés, you’ll see cars parked, and cities sprawl out and stand tall like they should.
There’s a sense of solidarity that the backdrop imprints onto you as you roam the tall grass and pound the cobbled pavement. That same feeling of solidarity really hits you in the chest after you connect to the Internet. You can perform a Wondertrade—exchanging a Pokémon with that of a total stranger—all in a matter of seconds. You can send temporary buffs like extra attack power or improved capture rates to your friends, via O-Power, all on the fly.The game also allows you to sit down with your creatures and virtually hug it out in Pokémon-Amie mode (think back to Tamagotchi). Battling is now easier than ever with a healthy array of competitive settings. You can trick yourself out with new jackets, hats, and skinny jeans so you look good in your PR Video: a ten second vine of your in-game avatar flaunting and showboating for the world.
Pokémon X and Y have finally begun to understand their international phenomenon. Pokémon is a way of life, it’s a fashion statement, it’s a venue to prove yourself and, ultimately, it’s a way to connect with family and friends.
Truly remarkable cultural artifacts are able to satisfy a variety of needs and connect people from all walks of life while still allowing for individualism. Never before has Pokémon presented itself with such a seamless connectivity between the social and the single. X and Y allow you to self-isolate, to compete and collect by your own standards just as much as it allows you to be a social Butterfree and truly align yourself with people from all over the world. The depth and variety present throughout the franchise, re-presented here, is a testament to cultural legacy. Kalos and all its new inhabitants feel warm and fuzzy and new like you were a child. The lore of the universe has expanded to a near mythological existence.
This sixth handheld installment is a genetic tapestry of revitalization and literal reanimation. Pokémon X and Y is a love letter to everything that makes Pokémon special and significant. We’ve grown up, and Pokémon has finally grown with us.