Pokemon X & Y review: everything old is new again

Pokemon X and Y soundly exceeds expectations, making use of its new features to highlight and improve upon classic monsters, all while managing to avoid feeling the least bit old or stale. All told, it's an impressive accomplishment, and a great start for the series on the Nintendo 3DS.


In the land of Pokemon, the original 151 monsters are king. Witness the complaints that inevitably follow every single new entry in the series, almost all of which inevitably boil down to: "but they aren't as good as the originals." Well kids, I have good news for you. Pokemon X and Y are all about the franchise's golden oldies. And the way they take old favorites and make them new again is easily the biggest strength of what is a very strong update for the series.

 It's an approach that represents a complete 180 from Pokemon's last generational update, Pokemon Black and White, which featured only new Pokemon through the main storyline. However, the classic critters end up being so prominent in X and Y that the newbies end up being mostly overshadowed, which is odd for a new Pokemon game. Charmander, Bulbasaur, and Squirtle pop up early on, and Lucario plays a starring role as well. It's clear that X and Y are all about updating everything that has come before. Personally, I don't mind. The Pokedex has gotten so huge and diverse that it hardly feels like retreading old ground. Every other minute, it felt like I was either running into an old favorite, or rediscovering a cool monster I had totally forgotten. It's an approach that kind of makes sense for Pokemon X and Y's new region, Kalos, which is based heavily on Europe. After all, Europe is a continent comprised of many different countries, so it only makes sense that Pokemon's corresponding region would have an equally diverse array of well-known Pokemon (who knows, maybe they all originally came from that region, then spread to Kanto). 

The new Pokemon, for their part, are mostly pretty strong. As always, a few stand out for being memorable and cool, like the fully evolved forms of the starters, while others are a little more... abstract. There's actually a monster shaped like a set of keys, for example, which joins Chimecho (a living wind chime, of all things) in the annals of lame object-based Pokemon. On the flipside though, my favorite new Pokemon is a flying/fighting luchadore bird that is almost as awesome as it sounds.

Fairy-types drastically change game balance

Obviously, time will tell whether this class ends up matching up with the rest. As with later games in the series, I expect the the new generation to shine once the competitive battling community gets hold of them and starts integrating them into their teams, thus unlocking their true potential.

 In the meantime, the new generation does bring a whole new type to the table, which hasn't happened since Pokemon Gold and Silver. That would be the Fairy-type, which is intended as a hard counter to the Dragon-type that has come to dominate competitive play. It does its job. Once I had a fairy-type on my team, I hardly feared dragons, which I expect will make them a staple on every team. An added bonus is the fact that they counter the equally popular fighting-type, while being vulnerable to the under-utilized poison-type. 

The real significance of the Fairy-type, though, is what it does for old Pokemon. Color me surprised when I ran into a Granbull, a stalwart from the Gold and Silver days who has been mostly forgotten, and discovered that it's immune to dragon-type attacks. More than one old Pokemon gets rescued in this fashion, potentially giving them new relevance in a game that had mostly left them behind. It's a move reminiscent of the Dream World abilities from the previous generation, which made obsolete monsters like Ninetales suddenly relevant again, giving them new life among fans. This is just what developer Game Freak does, and it's a welcome approach to a series with as much history as Pokemon. 

Another way Pokemon X and Y revitalize old monsters is with Mega Evolutions, which in the grand scheme of things, may be even more important than the Fairy-type. Essentially, Mega Evolutions are the Super Saiyan variations of old Pokemon, temporarily turning them into supercharged version of their former selves, complete with better stats and new, funky artwork (your mileage may vary on that front). Not surprisingly, all of the original starters have Mega Evolutions, as do popular favorites. Their purpose seems pretty clear: make certain Pokemon strong enough that they can't help but be relevant, no matter what the metagame throws at them. Apart from that, they're pretty helpful in the main story, making it much easier to simply power through gym leaders. 

Mega Evolutions do come with necessary caveats. They preclude held items, since a Pokemon must hold a special stone for them to work, and only one transformation is available per team in a battle. That means some hard, but ultimately interesting, choices will have to be made regarding Mega Evolutions when constructing a team. It should result in the sort of big, interesting changes to strategy that the series hasn't seen since Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, which ought to further propel a battling community that has had a lot of momentum lately.

 Looking beyond the mechanical changes though, I think there's another reason that Game Freak has opted to showcase the original 151 Pokemon in particular. Pokemon X and Y is gorgeous. With its attractive new cel-shaded graphics engine, it looks way better than any Pokemon that has come before it, console-based battle simulators included. In fact, in finally making the move to 3D, Pokemon X and Y are pretty much the console Pokemon games that people have wanted for over a decade.

 Given the graphical improvements, it's only natural that Game Freak should want to use the original 151 monsters as a point of comparison, and of course, it works. It makes me all the more excited to import my old collection once the Pokemon Transporter app is released in the eShop.

The new 3D visuals are amazing

The art ends up impacting X and Y in other ways as well. It's now finally possible to fully customize your avatar's hairstyle and clothes, which is an option that excites me to no end. It's also possible to actually interact with fully-animated 3D Pokemon models, using the stylus to rub their bellies or scratch them behind their ears to make them happy. They even appear to recognize expressions via the 3DS camera, which is... a little disturbing. I'm not sure how I feel about my Pokemon finally recognizing their cruel master. 

In any case, I'm really not exaggerating when I say that Pokemon X and Y represents the fulfillment of many of the wishes I've had for the series for ages. The customizable avatars and the interactive Pokemon have both been at the top of the list for a very long time now, along with visible Effort Value stats (the hidden numbers the drive a Pokemon's relative strengths), which also appear in Pokemon X and Y. If Game Freak were to actually bring back contests, and maybe toss in a customizable ranch where I could hang out with my Pokemon all day long, I could almost die happy.

 But of course, excited as I am to see all these new features, there are sacrifices as well. The Join Avenue is probably the most notable casualty for serious Pokemon fans, as it was a pretty amazing way to breed and train monsters for those with cash on hand. Losing medals also hurts, since being an obsessive achievement-hunting completionist fits in rather nicely with Pokemon. Being a new generation and all, I'm sure Game Freak had bigger fish to fry. But for returning veterans, be aware that the post-game content feels a little sparse in comparison to more recent games, short of the usual battling, trading, and legendary Pokemon hunting. 

These caveats aside, Pokemon X and Y is a very successful update for the venerable series, and actually, it compares rather favorably to Diamond and Pearl in terms of content out of the box (not as much Black and White, which had half a continent to explore after the Elite 4 was done). The thing you have to understand about Pokemon is that it's not just about the bullets on the back of the box. It's about finding a community, making trades, breeding new Pokemon, and battling. In that sense, it's actually kind of like an MMO: an experience that's meant to continually renew itself over the course of hundreds of hours. The single-player campaign may only last 20 hours, but I routinely log 200 hours or more in a Pokemon game, and I expect that will be the case with Pokemon X once it becomes possible to import my old collection. 

In the greater context of the series, any new generation of Pokemon's main purpose is to get a foothold on the Nintendo 3DS, shake up the battle system a bit, and introduce a new generation of monsters that can be marketed to kids around the world (as well as sheepish adults like myself). Pokemon X and Y soundly exceeds expectations in all of those categories, making use of its new features to highlight and improve upon classic monsters, all while managing to avoid feeling the least bit old or stale. All told, it's an impressive accomplishment, and a great start for the series on the Nintendo 3DS. I have no idea what the future holds, but for another few years at least, the beat will go right on for what may be the most important series on any Nintendo platform. [9]
This review is based on early retail 3DS code provided by the publisher. Pokemon X and Pokemon Y will be available at retail on October 12. The game is rated E.
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