How X/Y Kickstarted the Pokémon Revolution
By Pat Lunn
It’s no secret that Pokémon is back and bigger than ever lately. Between the never-ending throng of Poké-tubers, and Pokémon Go changing the way people walk their dogs, it’s easy to see why. But what if I told you that’s all a lie? What if I told you that the true secret behind Pokémon’s second coming arrived 3 years before Niantic had us all swiping for Snorlax? It all started with a Pokémon Professor and a text box.
A great game with a terrible tutorial
I would have been around 4 when I booted up my first copy of Pokémon Red (yes, I know Green came first but as I didn’t live in Japan I was stuck with Red or Blue, and Red has a dragon on it). Over the years I must have started that game, or emulators of it, at least 30 or 40 times. It holds a special place in my heart. But recently, or the last time I loaded up an emulator on my smart phone at least, I realised something. The opening of Pokémon Red/Blue sucks. It’s a sluggish tutorial, filled with busy work and very little ‘wow’ factor, even for the time.
You have a little face time with Professor Oak, then you wake up and have a quick chat with your Mum, she tells you to go see Oak, which you do (normally after being told that the grass is too dangerous for your brittle 10 year old legs) and get your first Pokémon. After this you’re sent on a fetch quest to get Oak’s package. You've got no Pokéballs, so you can only fight with your weak little fire lizard who only knows two moves. Then you go to a Pokémart, get the package, retrace your steps, get to Oak and are thrown a Pokédex.
After this you have to retrace your steps again - though thankfully armed with some Pokéballs this time - before wandering through Viridian city, taking a peek at the gym and realising no-one's home, and listening to a crazy old man explain how to catch Pokémon (probably after you’ve learnt it yourself). Finally you top all this off with a walk through Viridian Forest, which is filled with annoying poison Pokémon that you’ve no idea how to deal with, before eventually arriving at Pewter City and Brock, your Gym leader - marking the end of the tutorial and the start of the full game. It's mind numbing, lasts around an hour (I timed it) and leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.
It took 17 years...
Fast forward a couple of generations and we had very few changes to that opening formula. Sometimes we met the main enemy faction in this early stage, and sometimes there was less busy work, but the bulk of that tedious, useless opening was still there.
In fact I think it was overcoming this lack of explanation that made a lot of kids feel smart and kept them pushing their way through the game.
Maybe it inadvertently added something, but I think it still created a skill gap and there were a lot of people that didn’t make it. I’ve spoken to a few gamers who ‘couldn’t be bothered’ with Pokémon in later generations, and I think it was these openings that put them off. More than that, I think Nintendo agreed with me, and with the 6th generation they decided to change it all.
Pokémon X/Y has a brilliantly fast paced introduction. It still contains all the same elements as the original game, but each one has been fine tuned. You start talking to Professor Sycamore who gives a more active version of Oak’s original speech, with a lot more movement (obviously taking advantage of the 3DS’ improved hardware) and less dialogue. Then there is a cut scene as your character wakes up, this is very rare for the series but it has some immediate ‘wow’ factor and pulls you into the world.
You are then sent out into Vaniville Town where you meet some friends. They ask you to come meet their other friends. You explore the town a little and go meet the wider friendship group. They give you a nickname and your first Pokémon, with a short tutorial on battling, but only if you need it. Then you all head through Aquacorde Town and out into nearby Santalune Forrest.
You get some Pokeballs, do an optional tutorial on catching Pokémon and you’re immediately playing Pokémon the way it’s meant to be. You’ve been given all the information you need and the
whole experience is over in less than ten minutes (I even timed this one as well). After exploring the forest and battling a few trainers you come out the other side and you’re at Santalune Gym. The
important thing about this gym is that it’s bug themed, making it fairly easy compared to Brock’s tough rock types. It’s one of the most visually impressive gyms too (offering more of that ‘wow’ factor). This was a revolution.
Looking to the future
I talked to a lot of gamers at the time who said that X/Y ‘felt different’ or that they could ‘get into it easier’ than previous games. This brought a lot of old fans back to the series and pushed them to
complete a full Pokémon adventure, rediscovering their love of the franchise. It was a game changer, and that was reflected in the sales of X/Y compared to the previous generation. It showed Nintendo that Pokémon was alive and kicking and, I believe, that it was the first step that lead us to the return to fame of my favourite franchise. Nintendo have followed this ‘strong opening’ philosophy in the Pokémon games ever since and I can only hope it continues as they move the franchise on to the Switch.
Pat has a background in both pop culture and gaming, having studied creative writing with a focus on comic book script. His introduction to gaming was through a GameBoy Color, alongside his first and favourite game to this day, Pokémon Blue.