Pokemon started small; a bold, risky idea, leveraging the unproven technology that allowed two Game Boy systems to connect to each other, and would ultimately sink or swim based on whether or not kids wanted to do that in the first place. The technology worked, and since 1996 kids (and adults...) have been lining up around the block to prove it time and time again.
If you're unfamiliar with the franchise, that's OK; it's often associated with "kiddy" videogaming and is therefore commonly overlooked by adult gamers. What is not OK, however, is to allow that status quo (if that's your situation) to continue. Pokemon is just as playable by adults as it is by the younger members of the family, and is every bit as deserving of your time as that next-gen shooter game you're looking forward to.
The premise is simple: you, as a trainer of the titular Pokemon ("pocket" + "monsters"), must go on a coming of age adventure in which you encounter various new species of Pokemon, create and level your own team, battle with them, and travel the world - all the while helping people, and finding out more about what's going on around you.
In order to ensure that the system-link functionality (which has been at the heart of the series since the very first game) motivates play, each iteration of the franchise comes in two variants. Alongside Pokemon Red was Pokemon Blue, Heart Gold had Soul Silver - etc. The variances between each game are slight (although, they are becoming increasingly different with each new game), with the main point of difference being that there are a number of Pokemon that can exclusively be found in one version or the other. Trading, then, is the only way to catch 'em all.
An RPG at its heart, Pokemon games use turn-based combat and that "catching 'em all" idea as their central gameplay hooks, and the series' endurance is testament to just how well that core works.
That said, I've been outspoken in my opinion about the series' need to move forward. Various aspects of the games have stagnated of late, seemingly as a result of developers Game Freak's unwillingness to mess with the basic formula. Games evolve, but - aside from the addition of some new features - the Pokemon series has not.
At least, not in the last couple of games. Come October, it looks like things are about to change in a big way, and very much for the better. October (specifically, the 12th) marks the release of Pokemon X and Pokemon Y. You'll note I didn't clarify the territory the game will be releasing in. That's just the first of the sweeping changes being introduced in this version - it's releasing everywhere, on the same day.
For a series that used to debut in Japan then eventually crawl out to the other territories, this is a big deal. Pokemon Black / White 2 (the last version of the game) released in Japan in June of last year but didn't make it here until October. For a game that's increasingly about online trading and battling, splitting up the worldwide audience across (comparatively) vast gulfs of time is a no-no, which is the main reason Nintendo are addressing it this time around.
Achieving that is no mean feat, either; between them, Pokemon X / Y have some 800,000 Japanese characters, which translate to more than 1.4 million English words. Alone, that would be an impressive translation effort. But it's not just coming out in English and Japanese; it's also releasing simultaneously in French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Korean; if not a first (which it very well could be), it's certainly an impressive and rare achievement.
All that aside, though, what's really of interest to Pokemon gamers (even would-be Pokemon gamers) is what's different at the heart of the experience. It's too early to know just how much impact the changes I saw at an ultra-exclusive, behind-closed-doors briefing at E3 will prove to be, but as a long time fan of the series, I'm not going to lie to you: I'm extremely excited about the potential on display.
For a start, X/Y marks the beginning of a new generation: the sixth in the series' impressive 17 years, and the first since Black / White in 2010. It's also the first to operate natively on Nintendo's 3DS system, which lends the game engine a lot more power than the venerable DS ever could, letting Game Freak realize the game and its characters in 3D for the first time. In action, it looks spectacular:
The way the company has managed to convert the iconic sprites of the earlier games into animated 3D characters in particular is the hallmark of a team with the passion, talent, and budget such an overwhelmingly large task demands. In 1998, there were just 151 Pokemon; as of 2011, there were nearly 650. How many will appear in X/Y has yet to be disclosed (and probably won't be; that's for fans to discover as they play), but creating them all from scratch in 3D is no small undertaking whatever the number turns out to be.
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