It wants to be the very best

I still vividly remember the Pokémon phenomenon first reaching American shores in 1998 in the form of Red and Blue—and how it absolutely took over much of the free time my middle-school friends and I had. We traded, we battled, and we went to events set up at malls in the middle of nowhere. We downright obsessed for a couple of years.

Then Gold and Silver came out in 2000, but we’d gotten a little older. And while we’d grown out of the arguments that would ensue if someone evolved their Eevee before consulting the group, the game was still enjoyable and exciting to play on its own.

But then more time passed, and the excitement and anticipation that came with each subsequent game continued to lessen. Had I simply outgrown something that dominated my early teen years? Or had the game become stagnant and the formula worn thin?

I can tell you now that it was the latter, because a lot of those great memories I had as a kid returned during the 25-plus hours I put into Pokémon X and Y.

Now, this isn’t because I’m in some quarter-life crisis and I’m feeling nostalgic or something. It’s because Pokémon X and Y succeed in adding just enough new elements to make this classic game feel fresh, while leaving its RPG core perfectly intact.

As usual in the series, you’ll start out as a trainer—this time in the brand-new Kalos region—and just like in previous Pokémon games, you set out on a quest to explore the world around you, develop special relationships with the Pokémon you carry, and collect eight Gym Badges in the hopes of proving yourself as the best trainer around. At the very start, you get to choose from one of three new Pokémon: Froakie, a Water type that looks like a frog, Fennekin, a Fire type that looks like a fox, and Chespin, a Grass type that looks like a…um, well, er…a grassy mole thing.

After this, it’s business as usual for Pokémon old-timers. Go out and level up your Pokémon of choice and collect others to set up a balanced team. Players who’ve been with the series from the beginning will be pleasantly surprised that, right from the get-go, you’ll bump into just as many Generation I Pokémon as the new Generation VI ones on your journey. For example, by the time I’d reached the first gym, I had both a Pidgey and a Fletchling in my party. In previous entries, you’d often see a lot more of the new-generation Pokémon so that the game had a chance to show them off; the balance is much better here.

While on the subject of Generation I—and all previous generations, for that matter—Pokémon X and Y does the best job of any game in the series to establish a bit of continuity in the Pokémon world. In every town I went, there were people who spoke of family in the Unova region or had traveled to Kalos on vacation from Sinnoh. Trading for a Farfetch’d and fishing for Magikarp brought me back to my Game Boy days—and there are a lot of nice little nods to the games that came before X and Y that series veterans will particularly enjoy.

But enough living in the past. By the time you get to that first gym, you’ll notice some subtle changes in X and Y that really change how you play a Pokémon game. The most obvious? The visuals. The lowered camera and 3D effect may seem like minor things, but after playing for a while, you realize just how much more immersive the game feels thanks to this slight tweak. Plus, the new roller skates allow for full 360-degree movement and break that traditional grid-based system of the past, which helps your character actually feel and behave like a human would.

And speaking of avatars, that’s another addition you’ll notice very early on: the customization. I didn’t think I’d get into it as much as I did, but making my trainer look like I wanted took up a decent chunk of my time—and my hard-earned money. By the time I was done with the game, I’d bought a half dozen new outfits and gotten a couple of haircuts along the way before settling on a particular look.

Another new element that’s immediately evident comes from leveling up your Pokémon. In previous games, it was a grind to try to level up a weaker Pokémon. You’d have to have the weaker Pokémon at the head of your party, go into a battle or random encounter, and then immediately switch out to a stronger Pokémon and have them split the experience points. Or, later on, you’d have to waste the “Hold Item” spot for one of your Pokémon in your party to carry around an Experience Share.

Pokémon X and Y streamlines the process immensely. First, if you switch Pokémon out—as long as they don’t faint—every Pokémon that participates in the battle gets full XP. And now you don’t need to have a Pokémon hold the Experience Share. Simply carrying it in your items bag will grant all Pokémon who don’t appear in a conflict half the experience points earned in a battle, making it so much easier to get a new Pokémon up to the level of the party without having to sacrifice time.

Admittedly, some purists may find problems with this. Personally, the less grinding I have to do in an RPG, the better. But if you want the “authentic” Pokémon experience, I suppose you could always sell your Experience Share at a Pokémon Center.

For all the love I’m showering on this game, I don’t feel that all the new features in Pokémon X and Y are for the best. Easily the most glaring problem is the highly touted Mega Evolution feature. The idea here is that certain Pokémon who reach their final stage of evolution—or don’t evolve at all—can take on a new form, mid-battle, to change their stats and sometimes even change their Pokémon types. In theory, it’s a fun idea that might add a hint of unpredictability to battles—but in execution, it falls flat in several ways.

The problems start with you having to sacrifice your Hold Item spot if you should happen to have the right rock that causes Mega Evolution. Aesthetically, it’s pretty cool to see familiar Pokémon like Charizard or Mewtwo take on awesome new forms. But aside from the look, the game does a horrible job of informing the player of what the changes actually do. It doesn’t show stat or type changes—and for the Pokémon whose types do change, this can really mess up strategy if your Pokémon knows moves that lose attack bonuses due to the shift. The only way to see if a type change actually occurs is to go into the Pokémon menu and look at the summary of your Pokémon as if you were going to switch them out. And even then, I still didn’t know if I’d gained strength, lost speed, or if anything else with my stats had actually happened. For a strategy-driven game like Pokémon, Mega Evolution throws an unnecessary amount of randomness into the battles.

If you can put Mega Evolutions aside, though, combat is just as fun as ever. New battles with Sky Trainers put your Flying Pokémon to the test, and Horde Battles against wild Pokémon can get intense; your Pokémon will need to withstand multiple attacks in a row if you don’t have an area-of-effect attack like Fire Blast or Surf.

Also, players no longer need to cower in fear at the sight of a Dragon type in battle. The new Fairy type—marking the introduction of many new Pokémon as well retconning several others like Clefairy and Mr. Mime—means that every Pokémon is weak against something, finally giving the game the balance it’s noticeably lacked since the Gold and Silver days.

The real innovation with battling, however, comes through multiplayer. While I wasn’t able to test the full reach of challenging passersby or putting Pokémon out into the ether randomly through Wonder Trade, I was able to get a couple of decent rounds under my belt locally with fellow EGMer Chris Holzworth, who was playing Pokémon Y while I was using X. As soon as he started playing the game on his 3DS, a picture of his avatar appeared on my lower screen. By tapping it and selecting a few options in regards to how the battle would go, I was fighting him in seconds. For competitive Pokémon players, this will make organizing events a breeze compared to years past.

Even if you aren’t competitive, this is still one of the most worthwhile purchases you’re likely to make for your 3DS. Even though I beat the game in 25 hours, if you take your time and explore all the side content—like making PR vids for your trainers, becoming a fanatical Pokémon Daycare user, or face every trainer on the routes—you could easily clock another 10 hours in single-player. This is, by far, the most impressive Pokémon game we’ve gotten in years, and it presents itself beautifully for newcomers and longtime trainers alike. It’s finally fun to try to catch ’em all again.

Developer: Game Freak • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 10.12.13
The best main Pokémon series entry in years, X and Y sees several new features breathe life into a process that had grown stale and stagnant. Newcomers and longtime trainers alike should be able to find the joy in catching ’em all once again.
The Good New look, new Pokémon, and finally some new life for the series.
The Bad Unclear benefits to Mega Evolutions.
The Ugly Scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to inspiration for new Pokémon.
Pokémon X and Y are exclusive to the Nintendo 3DS. Primary version reviewed was Pokémon X.