"Pokémon X & Y" is the first game in Nintendo's beloved series to offer fully-rendered 3D environments.
When it comes to video games, you'd be hard pressed to find a series that attracts the same level of fandom as Pokémon. Second only to Mario in terms of the sheer size of the franchise and overall sales, Nintendo's critter-hunting universe has become a force unto itself in pop culture ever since the first "Pocket Monsters" debuted for the original Game Boy in 1996. But with more compelling game and toy brands on the market than ever before, can the series that first told kids they've "Gotta Catch 'Em All" still capture its same audience?
With "Pokémon X & Y," the first two installments in the sixth generation of the series, Nintendo and longtime "Pokémon" developer Game Freak have responded to this increasing pressure with an evolution of the core handheld game series, if not a revolution. There are a number of standard tweaks to the core "Pokémon" formula: The two games will bring the total number of Pokémon critters to more than 700. A new power-up system known as "Mega Evolution" allows players to supercharge their critters on the fly during battles. And Game Freak has tweaked the multiplayer settings to allow for faster trading and battling with friends.
But the biggest improvement come in how the game looks. "X & Y" brings players into a fully rendered 3D environment for the first time, giving the game a lush texture never seen before in the series.
Junichi Masuda, a veteran "Pokémon" developer and director on "X & Y," told NBC News that the new game was focused on three core themes: bonds — both between different players and between the player and his or her critters, evolution, and beauty.
Thanks to the new 3D graphics, Masuda said, the Pokémon "look more lively, like living creatures." He was inspired by French architecture when building to new setting for "X & Y," saying that the European country was the best place he could think of to fit with the theme of beauty.
The new game will introduce an undisclosed number of new critters such as Tyrantrum, pictured above. Masuda told NBC News that Game Freak and Nintendo are keeping the total number a secret to let players discover the full amount when the game launches and they can start hunting for the creatures amongst themselves.
The French connection has a more pragmatic influence on the game as well. Masuda said that when he travelled there with seven other Game Freak developers, he was struck by how much faster people seemed to be walking, something that helped him realize that he wanted "X &Y" to have a "much brisker pace" than previous Pokémon games.
Playing through the early levels of "X & Y," I could see what he meant Whereas previous installments clogged up their introductions with long blocks of text and repetitive tutorials, within moments of choosing my player character (boy or girl) I was out battling with my first Pokémon.
3D and all, "X & Y" still felt the same Pokémon we all know and love, just with better graphics and clearer voices for all the critters (yes, Pikachu now speaks with the same voice from the anime series). But is that enough to keep Pokémon at the top of its game?
"I think that Pokémon's success as a franchise — in terms of both unit sales and its ranges of merchandise — speaks for itself," Steve Bailey, senior games analyst at IHS Electronics and Media, told NBC News in an email. "In terms of future growth, however, it’s perhaps Nintendo’s best chance for exploring new business models and/or new devices."
In terms of those new business models, however, Bailey said that the company is only making "some very slight inroads" so far. With the exception of "Pokémon TV" on iOS, third party mobile devices have little to no access to the core games — a detail that frustrates many analysts despite Nintendo's repeated insistence that its games only play well on the company's own hardware.
For Bailey, this uncompromising vision might be irritation for some, but it's also what made Pokémon and Nintendo what they are today.
"In general, Nintendo tends to march to the beat of its own drum," Bailey said. "The upside of this is that, when successful, it can lead the agenda on innovations that revitalise the marketplace, with the Wii and DS being key examples. The downside is that it can be slow to respond to any wider-angle trends."
"Nintendo is obviously a phenomenon when it comes to hardware and software design — and synergizing the two — but there's more at play in the modern console landscape."
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.
First published September 19 2013, 11:54 AM