Just as Pokémon has evolved over time with developer Game Freak expanding upon, improving, and perfecting its classic game formula, the visuals of every title have increased in quality as well, adequately showing off the power of Nintendo’s handheld consoles over time. From 1996 to 2012, We’ve played from an overhead perspective with 8-bit, black and white, pixelated graphics to a pseudo-3D perspective with colored graphics that have a higher pixel density, making way for fully animated Pokémon (versus the static sprites used in the past), more environmental scope, some visual effects, and so forth. The franchise has come a long way and continues to perform well in the market. This claim holds true because 2013’s Pokémon Xand Y have recently become the Nintendo 3DS’s best selling games, with over 12 million sold worldwide as of the time of this writing.
What keeps the franchise going? Why is it so compelling to come back to if the core mechanics and gameplay have largely remained unchanged for over 18 years? I argue that the visuals – the art style, aesthetics, and graphical fidelity – play a big role in this. While they have always played an important part in the series’ success, Game Freak took them a step further with X and Y by making a leaping bound from pixelated graphics and sprites to an astonishing 3D world that is immensely more detailed and on par with the best that handheld games have to offer today. Being a devout fan of the franchise, I noticed that the visuals were what everyone was most surprised and excited about before the games were released because they take full advantage of the 3DS hardware; that is what sets them apart from their predecessors. In the end, Game Freak played a bit on the safe side by not changing the main formula too much, but this does not matter. The developer smartly and reasonably innovated in some areas more than others, especially with the visuals. Therefore, I would like to discuss why they are specifically integral to the Xand Y experiences by discerning the appeal and qualities of the art style, the importance and clever work behind the aesthetics, and how the graphical fidelity makes such a positively vast difference this time around.
Ken Sugimori is the mastermind behind Pokémon’s art style since the beginning. His early years of work, however, reflect a significant change in the design and art now seen in X and Y. He originally used traditional watercolor elements with a more stylistic and cartoony approach with his art, especially with character models’ proportions and shapes as seen here.
However, he has transitioned to a digital means of creating his art. This is evident in that his authentic watercolor style has vanished; the distinct, white “sheen” that filled in for providing shading and a sense of depth is no longer used. The designs of everything – the characters, environments, etc. – have a more natural, vibrant, and complex look with less stylization.
As Sugimori has refined his style over the years and come to work and collaborate with a larger team of artists, he has expressed interest in returning to the more simple origins of Pokémon in the future. He wishes that the amount of information and mechanics (such as abilities, moves, etc.) could be toned down, but desires to create less complex characters as well like one of his favorite Pokémon: Gengar. Besides, the franchise has always targeted younger audiences, so it would make sense to do this by moving away from the more complex geometry, decreasing amount of stylization, and finer techniques being used now with the art. However, I don’t think that Sugimori and his team should step back from this too much. Regardless, the art style from the beginning to the present has remained irresistibly charming, with beautiful worlds to explore and a diverse set of Pokémon ranging from being adorable and innocent to fearsome and imposing. The medium in which the art has been made has changed, but the simple yet precise use of color balance and each line are carefully placed, giving unique and instantly recognizable appearances to anything Pokémon. The art style present in X and Y is just more mature and developed with more techniques (such as shading) being utilized.
The previous paragraph, however, is not fully supported without discussing the aesthetics, and they are expertly implemented with the art style throughout X and Y, especially with the power of the 3DS. To provide some illustrations, items with different attributes have fitting shapes, with Potions having a rounded, full appearance to indicate their positive usefulness and importance. However, something like the Reaper Cloth has a devilish appearance with its pointy, frayed edges and uneven surface (looking itchy and dirty), which give visual reinforcement to its item description of being “imbued with horrifyingly strong spiritual energy.”
The circular arches and thick, curved brick walls and roofs of Vaniville Town – the player’s hometown – feels appropriately welcoming and secure, whereas the Pokémon League’s headquarters is a towering, regal castle decorated in angular spires and ornate architecture, housing a giant, spacey interior with uniform, solid supports/columns. Unlike Vaniville Town – where the player’s human character seems perfectly fitting in the folksy environment – the Pokémon League is inspiring and mystical, yet has an intimidating, authoritative design that foreshadows the great challenges a player is about to face here. There’s a great, logical sense of aesthetic dissonance happening here.
Most importantly and evidently, the shapes and themed appearances of Pokémon vary greatly, which opens up the opportunity for players with different interests to connect with certain Pokémon. This is something that Sugimori says is one of the goals of designing these Pocket Monsters. “[There are] always some Pokémon you like. That’s the reason it’s very popular and the reason it’s liked all over the world.” For example, someone who adores cute, little animals will automatically be inclined to catch Ralts, Litleo, or Flabebé in X or Ydue to their rounded bodies and soft, smooth appearance, which convey innocence, playfulness, and perhaps a need for attachment or protection. Pikachu is the exemplary personification of this design choice. As a side note, it is interesting to note how its particular design has shifted since the 1990s. Not only is it clearly evident which one was hand drawn in watercolor and which was created digitally, but also how Pikachu has changed with a more muted yellow color scheme, skinnier frame, and slightly longer limbs. Does this indirectly showcase an evolving view of the epitomizing criteria of what makes something cute? It is an intriguing question to ponder that opens up for a different study entirely.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are Pokémon like Carvanha, Tyrunt, or Noivern, which have jagged body parts and sharp protrusions like claws and spikes. They seem to invoke power, severity, danger, maturity, and even antagonism, which many fans like to see in their Pokémon. Charizard remains one of the most popular ones because it displays these concepts in its aesthetics, which are logically accentuated in its stronger, more defined, and edgier Mega Evolution forms.
These are but a few examples of how the aesthetics of items, environments, and characters are not only impactful in their art style, but also effective in influencing players’ emotions and reactions toward them, while also catching every player’s interests due to the – specifically – wide-ranging shapes, proportions, and cosmetic additions of Pokémon.
Of course, the elaborate artwork has been converted to pixelated graphics up to 2012, reducing its impact in many ways since no one could see the full dimensions and detail behind the original concepts of characters, settings, etc. However, X and Y represent a graphical overhaul on the 3DS, opening up many doors for portraying the Pokémon universe more accurately and truthfully than ever before. Gone are the days when players could make out individual pixels. Character models (and nearly everything else) are fully rendered in 3D, allowing for dynamic camera angles and movement and complete views of the dimensions of Pokémon, buildings, and more. Visual effects are more possible and far more convincing, such as light shining through a stain glass window or the shadows of objects reflecting on the ground, and weather effects like wind flowing through the grass and water reflection add a sense of realism to the world. Human characters are more diverse and discernable since they have a wider range of heights and appearances, and they – including Pokémon – now display emotion with facial expressions and body gestures, which were extremely limited in the previous games. The latter point is actually immersive when a player can interact with his/her Pokémon in the “Pokémon-Amie” mode. Whether s/he pets, feeds, or plays with them, the player can actually see their emotional reactions to these things, which is especially interesting in a little minigame where a player must copy their Pokémon’s facial expressions successfully, helping to reinforce the real yet strange bonds formed with these fake creatures. Overall, these graphical improvements in X and Y portray the Pokémon universe even closer to how it is beautifully and completely realized in the official anime. While the actual 3D effects in the games are minimal and barely noticeable, it hardly matters in the grand scheme of the impressive graphical fidelity.
What Game Freak has accomplished with X and Y is more than commendable in this category. With these games, Sugimori and his art team have refined the original, infectiously appealing art style; the smart aesthetic design is more noticeable and influential in providing an improved, visually immersive experience; and the graphics are a technological marvel compared to Black 2 and White 2 (only released a year before) in further distinguishing the Pokémon universe as one of the most joyous, beautiful, and whimsical places one can escape to. Pokémon is all about evolution, and it will suffice to say that the visuals have done more than that in X and Y: they have Mega Evolved.