In The Beginning…
Innovation. It’s a concept that any franchise has to inevitably contend with. If you continue to churn out virtually the same experience over and over again, with no differences whatsoever, your audience may become bored. They may wish to leave your series in the dust to pursue other more promising franchises that change and improve with each new entry. However, if you follow that path and switch things up with each entry you may end up losing sight of what it truly means to both you and your fans. It is a delicate balance, and one that the Pokémon series must wrestle with day in and day out. For over a decade, Game Freak had stayed true to its original vision set by Satoshi Tajiri all those years ago, of a game that brought the simple joy of bug catching to the hands of children and adults around the globe. In the intervening years, they had done much to improve upon this simple framework. An improved battle system that offered a complexity that rivaled many of its peers, newly designed Pokémon that continued to inspire awe in players, and stories that actually made them think. Things had certainly changed but the core of the experience was still there. But after breaking their formulaic chain with their latest entry, what were they to do? All eyes were on Game Freak to deliver an experience that exceeded the last in more ways than one. Their only choice? To go global.
A Fresh Start
When development began on the latest Pokémon title it proved difficult for them to come up with and overarching theme for the project as first. Resonance, love, happiness, and the extremes had defined some of their previous efforts so it had to be something along the lines of those yet original in its own undertaking. They desperately needed some inspiration and the game director they could always rely on, Junichi Masuda, had a prime example. A country that is reported to be the most visited in the world. A country that is very particular about fashion and the aesthetics of its cuisine, and one that is concerned with the beauty of its words. He thought of France. The theme of beauty was a perfect fit. Having traveled there for many years he soon took his research team to the country to scour it for details. From the famous Eiffel Tower to the ancient Carnac Stones of Brittany, they took inspiration from each and every corner of this new and exciting world. And they just couldn’t wait to implement them into their creation.
Maintaining this emphasis on beauty would be essential to the first games of the sixth generation. Every aspect from the design to the battle system would reflect this. However, to reach the pinnacle of it all they would have to do something drastic, something that would change the very foundation of all that they had created. They would have to go 3D. This had been an idea rattling around in the heads of many Game Freak employees for some time, but had never gone through with it. The design team, in particular, thought that they might end up losing Ken Fujimori’s artistic touch in the process, and the fact that the majority of them could only work with 2D pixel art never helped. Fujimori himself even though the very idea of translating all of his art over was that of a madman’s. However, him and his team were up to the challenge and they soon began the difficult process of converting all of their designs over to this new ecosystem. If this process didn’t work out they could always just go back to what they were used to. Over 600 Pokémon would need to be given this 3D makeover, a task that Takao Unno was excited to accomplish. Many of the models for four of the previous generations already existed due to side games such as Pokémon Stadium and Colosseum, yet they lacked the liveliness and personality that their pixel art had perfected. It didn’t look natural, it looked like a computer program going through the motions. By rigging up and redesigning these to modern standards they added the characteristics they were lacking, however, as one final touch, rich outlines were implemented onto every single Pokémon to accurately reflect Ken Fujimori’s art style even more so than ever before. But what of the new Pokémon might you ask? Each was made with a distinct and defining characteristic in mind. This new generation was to be the most carefully thought out one yet. They wanted each Pokémon to be a standout addition to the series line up with much more nuanced and simple designs being favored. These, of course, took their influences from the region they called home, the Kalos region. Animals from wild hares to mountain goats and even medieval swords were used as inspiration. As they wanted to hone in on their designs, this generation would have under half of the amount of new Pokémon they had previously, and also take three times longer to make. This was done not only to beef up the quality of their artwork but also to implement a new feature that would radically change the battle system and how players played.
It was called, Mega Evolution. You see beauty wasn’t the only overarching theme that held their project together, there were three. Beauty, bonds, and evolution. Game Freak not only wanted to create a beautiful game but one that tried something entirely new, anything really. Evolution was one of the defining characteristics of the Pokémon games, so it seemed like the perfect feature to experiment with. However, if they just added a new stage of evolution, and made it permeant, it would absolutely wreak havoc on the game balance. Hence, Mega Evolution, a second stage of evolution that is only temporary, requires an item, and can just be used by a single Pokémon at a time. Created because of a bond between a trainer and their Pokémon, Mega Evolution was a significant power-up and dynamic shift in the way you played. While it certainly beefs up and makes certain Pokémon viable again it replaces an item slot that could be used for something better. Masuda, in particular, was delighted by the strategic depth this feature entailed. You could fake out a player into thinking you didn’t have a Mega Stone, evolve in the second turn, and easily take down one of their Pokémon. The possibilities were simply endless. Mega Evolution finally gave Pokémon that had long since been forgotten another shot in the spotlight, and their impeccable designs reflected this.
The franchise’s iconic music also received a face lift thanks to the power of the Nintendo 3DS, Pokémon’s new home. Impressed by the improved quality and the ability to finally achieve a fully orchestrated score with no strings attached, Masuda had a number of ideas for the games score. However, he would have to scale back his involvement this time around. Being the director meant he had to oversee the entire project and its members, Masuda just didn’t have time to create the entire soundtrack like he did in the old days. Thankfully Shota Kageyama, Hitomi Sato, and Minako Adachi were all up to the task, and what a task it was. 212 songs were built from the ground up for the project. Taking heavy inspiration from France while adding in a Japanese instrument or two to lighten the mood, Masuda and his team created many memorable tracks that just hadn’t been possible up until that point with several techno tracks added in to spice things up. Pokémon was known for its music and this entry would be no different.
X and Y
With the release window on the horizon, a name had to be selected. But this couldn’t just be any name as president of The Pokémon Company, Tsunekazu Ishihara, wanted them to be the first to release worldwide, simultaneously. International players had always waited upwards of a year to play the next Pokémon games, and now that they were in a global economy that idea just wasn’t feasible anymore. Everyone had to have them at the exact same time so the name had to be universally recognizable with all languages and nationalities. Every game would even ship with the ability to choose between any language so this was a priority. Seeing as the major feature of the game was its 3D capabilities, Pokémon X and Y seemed like a perfect representation of this. Representing both the x and y axis’s, Pokémon X and Y reflected different forms of thinking, a stance they had from the very beginning. Pokémon X and Y were shaping up to be something of a revolution for Pokémon in both gameplay and design. With an exciting reveal trailer that wowed the world, and a public enthralled with the idea of mega evolution, all eyes were on Game Freak to produce yet another hit title. And they were prepared to do just that.
Releasing on October 12th, 2013 worldwide, Pokémon X and Y were new yet right at home for any Pokémon fan. Starting from your new home in Vaniville Town, you quickly befriend four budding rivals of sorts, a first for the series, and are given your classic choice of fire, water, and grass starter. After choosing either Fennekin, Froakie, or Chespin, you set out to conquer the Kalos regions eight gym leaders, defeat the Elite Four, and discover the secrets of Mega Evolution. However, X and Y’s story would choose to go a lighter route instead of the dark and more provocative themes that dominated the last generations storytelling. While there were certainly moments that brought out these elements the goofier and more hilarious aspects of the franchise were brought to the forefront. This especially showed in Team Flare, the games humorously designed villains. Deliberately written this way to pay homage to past evil teams and a stark contrast to Team Plasma, Team Flare was an ode to a simpler time, even if their ultimate goals were some of the most ludicrous ones yet. But that was the point of Pokémon X and Y. They wanted to take what players had expected and turn their expectations on their head while still remaining true to their original vision. One only had to look elsewhere to truly see this decision’s true impact.
Let’s take the main character for instance, who was drawn to be a blank canvas for you to inhabit. Many players could never fully inhabit their in-game avatar as they never looked like them. There was no way to change their appearance to look like you or whoever you wanted to be. The developers at Game Freak saw this and thought of an idea that perfectly fit in with the games theme of beauty while solving the problem in one fell swoop, player customization. Players would have the ability to completely and utterly change how their character looked. From their race, to their hairstyle, to the clothes that they wore, everyone who played would have an avatar unique to themselves. It was a change that was a long time coming, one that fit in with modern times and just felt right. But the innovations that the switch to 3D offered wouldn’t stop there. From the very beginning you have the ability to run, no special shoes required. Later on, you even receive roller skates, breaking the series mold entirely by losing the grid like walking mechanics that had been with Pokémon ever since Red and Blue nearly 20 years ago. The cinematic look that Game Freak had implemented into Pokémon Black and White was also further improved upon with the series’ first true cutscenes that had realistically proportioned character models to boot. For a relaxing side distraction, there was Pokémon Amie. Letting you pet, take care, and play with every Pokémon out there, Amie was meant to encourage players to feel for the little critters they battled beside day after day. They weren’t just tools; they were living creatures with unique personalities of their own. Other simple things like ridable Pokémon, naturally sounding Pokémon cries, and the chance to be given one of the original three starter Pokémon only helped to add to the experience, an experience that was truly global in nature.
The worldwide release wasn’t just for show; it had more meaning behind it. To allow virtually anyone to battle and trade across the globe their online resources need to be beefed up considerably. The C-Gear from Black and White did the job ok, however, it wasn’t seamlessly integrated in with the experience. To rectify the situation the Player Search System was created. Making its home on the bottom screen of any 3DS, the PSS allows players to simply and quickly interact with others. See someone you want to battle? Just click on their icon and challenge them. While you could still go online and perform in ranked battles that put you up against the best of the best, this made it easier for the casual player to enter into the metagame. The brand new online Pokémon experience was all about that ease of use. Wonder Trade lets you send one of your Pokémon and get a completely random one in return, O-Powers let you apply temporary buffs that ranged from increasing your experience gain to making eggs hatch faster, and the Trainer PR Videos proved to be a nice distraction. All of it was just made for the player’s convenience, and while it wasn’t perfect it was the closest they’d gotten to their modern equivalents. The outdated aspects of Pokémon were slowly being reworked and replaced; the gameplay was the best primer for this.
You see, Mega Evolution wasn’t the most drastic change that Masuda and co. had made. That honor would have to go to Pokémon’s 18th typing, Fairy. Dragon types had been a dominate threat on the competitive battlefield for over a decade. With few weaknesses, and many strengths, all too often dragons would sweep through teams leaving none in their wake. The Fairy type was made to correct this with a built-in immunity to the creatures. This radically changed competitive Pokémon. New strategies had to be thought up, old ones had to be thrown out the window, and players suddenly had to start thinking differently. Multiple Pokémon from other generations along with a few new additions were gifted with the typing, making them viable again. Game Freak was finally starting to balance out the game, making none of the types the ruling class and giving each and every one of them a fair shot at success. All Pokémon were useful in their eyes, they just wanted to show that. But how would anyone even get the chance to use these competitively? If you didn’t train your Pokémon in a specific and convoluted way you’d stand no chance against someone who’s dedicated their life to the series, even if you might happen to be more skilled then them. The amount of work to have a usable team was ludicrous to many, leaving competitive Pokémon battling open to only a select few. X and Y made this a thing of the past, though, with Super Training. A collection of mini-games that your Pokémon can play to beef up their stats, Super Training was there as an easy way in for anyone looking to battle. With a general understanding of how breeding and training worked, anyone could have the ability to go toe to toe with the best trainers out there. And if you wanted to have a top tier team ready to go, sooner than later, there were plenty of tricks players could employ.
An Elegant Adventure
Beauty, bonds, and evolution. Convenience, elegance, and simplicity. These were the elements that defined Pokémon X and Y as an experience that was easy to get into yet difficult to master. An experience that redefined many aspects of the franchise while paying homage to its earlier years. If Black and White were a radical departure from the series, X and Y were a homecoming of sorts to a time gone by. And it seemed that some fans had been waiting for this. Selling over 15 million copies worldwide, completely edging out Black and White, Pokémon X and Y were a runaway success. Managing to outsell their predecessors on a system that had a third of the userbase of the Nintendo DS, this was no small feat. The nostalgic offerings and the elegant designs of the 69 brand new Pokémon had brought back fans in droves eager to have a trip down memory lane. Coming in 17 years after the originals, Pokémon X and Y were a renaissance of their own, both inside and out. An explosion of content revolving around Pokémon on the Internet brought many of the series diehard fans to the forefront. While Pokémon Black and White had been the ones to get the ball rolling, X and Y made it breakthrough into relevancy. People calling themselves PokeTubers appeared, excited to talk about their favorite thing; Pokémon. It was never a better time to be a Pokémon fan, with fantastic games and an incredible community to match.
A Nostalgic Offering
The only thing that people wondered was, what’s next? The Pokémon release formula was no longer defined. Game Freak could do anything. A sequel, a remake, or a completely new generation, all were in the cards at that point. A sequel would be ordinary, another generation could tick off fans, but a remake; now there was a possibility. Fans had been craving a remastered version of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire ever since Heartgold and Soulsilver’s release. For the first time, they decided to make a game truly for the fans whose input they’d only use for adding new features and improving others. As tradition dictates, a new director had to be found for this side project of sorts. A game like this could only be tackled by someone who was deeply imbedded in the source material, someone like Shigeru Ohmori. Having started work at Game Freak as a game designer for Ruby and Sapphire, Ohmori had stuck with the company for over a decade, never forgetting his time spent on his first project. Masuda saw something in him that was in none of the veteran staff from the project so after a meal one day he asked Ohmori if he would take over. He couldn’t have accepted the job any faster. Pulling together the X and Y team, Ohmori went to work to bring his past to life.
However, they wouldn’t be going the traditional route like they did with Heartgold and Soulsilver. While they were able to improve on many aspects of those games due to the improved hardware Game Freak wasn’t able to remain as faithful to the original as they could have. They wanted to change this with the Ruby and Sapphire remakes. Features that were meant to be in the game like a day/night cycle could finally be implemented. From a visual stand point, Hoenn could be further emphasized to feel like Japanese suburb and a more faithful rendering of Kyushu, the island the region is based on. For the musical score, Masuda and his fellow composers would essentially bring the tracks into the modern era fully intact, with several new ones to make the experience feel fresh for newcomers and veterans alike. If fans had come back to Pokémon X and Y because it felt like the good old days, then they would feel right at home with this new effort.
Releasing on November 21st, 2014 worldwide and November 28th, 2014 in Europe due to information leaks before launch, Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were everything one would expect a remake to be and more. The same characters, same journey, and same world are here. From your start in Littleroot Town to the grand finale in Ever Grande City the whole experience is filled to the brim with nostalgia, however, there were some changes to make ORAS a unique tale. Plot holes were fixed, the rivals went from some of the dullest in the series to the most relatable, Mega Evolution became a huge part of the narrative, and an entirely new post-game episode revolving around a mysterious woman and Rayquaza called The Delta Episode, challenged players in ways the main story never could. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire had done what a remake ought to do, tell the same story of their predecessor while exceeding the original in every conceivable way. The same goes for the gameplay. For the first time, fresh evolutions were introduced in a remake. With the advent of Mega Evolution, 20 brand new mega evolved forms were usable, ranging from the bizarre to the much needed. Even legendary Pokémon from every generation make an appearance in mirage spots, hidden areas scattered throughout the world. But to challenge them you’ll need the Eon Flute, an item that summons either Latias or Latios to take you to the skies and soar where you never could before, above a 3D rendering of the Hoenn region. This distinct feature opened up a wealth of possibilities for the future, one where hidden machines and their many problems would become a thing of the past. As a small touch of nostalgia, it was even possible to bring your Pokémon all the way from the originals and battle alongside them in the remakes, taking them on a brand new adventure over a decade later. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were shaping up to be something quite different from your bog standard remake. The Delta Episode was proof of this alone, but, if you needed more there were plenty of examples.
Both Pokémon Contests and Secret Bases made their much wanted return to the series with upgrades that left them feeling less like distractions and more like a necessary part of the game. Contests, in particular, had always been a divisive feature since their inception. Unlike the battle system that anyone could pick up and play, contests, now contest spectacular’s, were hard to approach and at times incomprehensible. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire tried its best to fix this with a fleshed out round based system and easily understandable meters that show how well you’re doing. There’s even a new sidequest revolving around Lisia, a Pokémon Idol, and your rise to stardom with a unique Cosplay Pikachu being one of its many rewards. As for Secret Bases, they became one of the best features in any Pokémon title to date. You could still build one in nearly any place around the Hoenn region but you also have the ability to make yours into a fully featured Pokémon Gym, filled with trainers itching to battle. Using trainers you find and defeat in other secret bases, you can build out a dream team of your own, register your Pokémon to defend it, then send it out onto the Internet for anyone to find and compete. Other now staple features of the series such as Super Training and Pokémon Amie made a welcome appearance, however, none of these additions were as game changing as the DexNav. For the first time players can actually see what Pokémon they’re battling next and even select which one they’re looking for. Initially seen as silhouettes hinting at the Pokémon beneath the undergrowth, searching with the DexNav brings them out into the overworld, forcing you to tip-toe over to them so they don’t run away. If you catch a ton of Pokémon in a row you may even end up with a perfected version of them, ready for battle. It was a smart system that Pokémon had needed for years, a feature that helped both casual and skilled players alike and made the simple act of catching Pokémon a more rewarding endeavor.
Where To Go From Here…
Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were quite odd in the face of other remakes of the time. They could have just upped the graphics to the level of say the Nintendo DS games and just called it a day. Instead, Shigeru Ohmori and his team worked harder then was needed to create a true love letter to Ruby and Sapphire and the fans who had wanted it to be remade. With a plethora of sentimental tracks, locations, characters, alongside plenty of original creations to mix it up, these remakes were something all their own. Selling a whopping 13 million copies worldwide, Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire had nearly eclipsed the success of Game Freak’s last effort, an undeniable feat. Both stand as a testament to fan involvement in video game franchises. When game developers listen to their audience, the success that this small action brings is immeasurable in a certain sense. If Game Freak continued this trend from here on there was a possibility this could bring about their greatest triumph. However, what would be required of them to do so? What would they lose? What would they gain? And above all else, how would the future of Pokémon be changed… forever?