Pokemon – does it still have the X factor?

Back in 1998, a small Japanese game was released in America for the Nintendo Game Boy based on the creator’s hobby of insect collecting.

The game was called Pokemon (short for “pocket monsters” which are collected instead of insects), and thanks to it, "Pokemania" would soon explode across the country in a full-blown craze encompassing toys, a TV show, trading cards, multiple video games and even movies. Even if you have never played a Pokemon game, you have probably heard of loveable yellow fuzzball Pikachu.

After 17 years, the Pokemon toys and trading card have fizzled -- but the video games are as strong as ever.

Nintendo has just launched two new titles in the franchise called “Pokemon X” and “Pokemon Y.” Concerned parents need not worry -- the two are essentially the same game, but each one has a handful of exclusive Pokemon in order to encourage trading. To “catch ‘em all” as the slogan goes, you must trade with others.

The fundamentals of Pokemon remain the same. A young trainer sets out on an adventure to become a Pokemon master by catching, raising and battling the little monsters that are found in the wild against those of other trainers. The goals are two-fold: catch all the hundreds of Pokemon, and beat the best trainers in the region.

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On the face of it, Pokemon battles are little more than games of rock-paper-scissors. Fire Pokemon are strong against grass Pokemon, who are strong against water Pokemon, who in turn are strong against fire Pokemon. Yet, scratch the surface, and the game’s complexities reveal themselves with a multitude of different other types such as psychic, ghost, fairy, dragon and steel. Trying to collect and organize the perfect team of six and outwit opponents is as tricky as a chess match, and one that has hooked in many a gamer.

Based on such a solid foundation, X/Y wisely doesn’t make major changes, but instead seeks to improve on the already established franchise. However, this means that fans looking for a radical overhaul will be disappointed, as Pokemon X/Y are evolutions not revolutions. A breath of fresh air perhaps, but hardly the wind of change.

The game is set in the fictional region of Kalos, based on real life France. It is a pretty world indeed, with the new 3D environments vibrant and dripping with color. X/Y uses the 3DS’s graphical capabilities to full effect, even within battles where monsters now jump and dive at each other, making the fights come alive.

Kalos consists of varied towns and cities, meaning you will be chatting about trading in a trendy French café one moment, before exploring a quiet little rural village the next. Between each area are forests, caves and dungeons where the much sought after monsters can be found, battled and collected, along with a multitude of trainers seeking to test your mettle. Unfortunately the A.I. on these trainers is still fairly weak, and once you pull together a varied team, you’ll steamroll through most of the competition without a hitch. It acts as a constant reminder to adult players that Pokemon is, at its core, aimed at kids.

One of the major plot and gameplay developments that X/Y brings is the quest to discover the secret of “Mega Evolution” – a mysterious phenomenon that allows Pokemon to unlock newer abilities. This adds an interesting new layer to the plot, and yet the story is still Pokemon’s weak spot. Although it is stronger this time round, the story and characters remain two-dimension and won’t be rivaling Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy anytime soon.

The protagonist is now also much more customizable. In addition to being able to choose to be a male or female trainer, you now have the the ability to personalize your trainer via the many clothing stores littered around Kalos. It sounds like a small feature, but it adds a great deal of personality and immersion to the game, and helps instill the idea that you are the trainer.

Multiplayer has also been made cleaner. It is now easier than ever to trade and battle with strangers as well as with friends, and even help other players you encounter with healing and stat bonuses. Pokemon finally feels like a living, breathing worldwide community.

Ultimately, if you were never sold on Pokemon, X/Y will probably not change your mind, for it is at its heart the same game that shook the world in 1998. Pokemon X/Y doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but to continue to do what it does so well, and to do it better. And in that Pokemon X/Y is a huge success.

Pokemon X/Y is available now on the Nintendo 3DS. The Entertainment Software Rating Board rating is E – Everyone.

Rating: 9/10