Since the release of the original DS, there has been speculation on when the Pokemon series would make the shift away from sprites to 3D rendered models. There is no arguing that the sprites are a real staple of the series, Pokemon being one of the last remaining mainstream franchises to feature them prominently. However, the series has seen its share of criticism from people who see the jump to 3D models as long overdue.
If GameFreak stayed with sprites throughout the entirety of the DS era, what made them decide to change now? The answer lies in an interview in GameInformer with the producer of Pokemon Black 2 and White 2, Junichi Masuda.
In Pokémon Black and White, there are sprites and polygonal characters. Are you interested in a fully polygonal Pokémon game in the future?
There are definitely good aspects to both 3D and 2D. For example if you look at the Pokémon on the package you can really see how cool it looks as a 2D illustration and in the games, for the Pokémon characters, one of the reasons we use sprites, at least currently, is because we like to have more of a comical, kind of look like an animation, this kind of visual style is what we want to do for the Pokémon games. If we were able to take that style we have now and have it translate into 3D with no problems; that is definitely something we would be into. However, it’s not just about the visual appearance either. The feeling and the control of the character is also very important to us. There is definitely a certain feeling you have when you control these 2D characters. It may be different if we switched over to 3D.
This interview was held only a few months ago in September, so he was obviously well aware of the changes to the series that we didn’t know until last Tuesday. Earlier in the same interview — which you can read in its entirety by clicking here — he mentions that the reason Black 2 and White 2 were on the DS was in part because the user base of the 3DS was dwarfed by the massively popular DS system. A lot has changed in the past year, however, and the installed base for the 3DS is only going to grow from here.
Mr. Masuda’s explanation as to why they stayed with the sprite format until now also makes it abundantly clear that they took the decision of when to move to 3D models very seriously. They were not going to settle for Pokemon Stadium quality graphics when they could render the sprites to be as vibrant as their official art. The power behind the 3DS as well as its continual growth made both Nintendo and GameFreak confident that this was the perfect time to move the series towards 3D graphics. Of course there were signs that change was in the air. While it wasn’t a game, Pokedex 3D featured fully detailed and interactive models. This was the first time since the first Pokemon Stadium that all the Pokemon had been rendered in a 3D environment from scratch on a Nintendo handheld or console (barring Pokemon Ranch and Pokemon Rumble), which ended up being just an appetizer for things to come.
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity was announced in September of last year, surprising everyone with an entirely 3D game. Although they are fully 3D models, they function very much in the same way the sprites did, with limited to no facial expressions and using manga iconography to signify emotion.
But how different does this make Pokemon X and Y from the rest of the series? From a technical standpoint, of course they’re very impressive — especially the battling segments. In Black and White, GameFreak introduced a moving camera that wandered the field as the players decided their next move. Now, multiple angles and close ups during attacks are more in the vein of the console iterations than the mostly static battle screens from the handheld predecessors. The improvement in the animation for the Pokemon and their moves is also noteworthy. Physical attackers now lunge towards their opponents. Along with the vibrant and detailed backgrounds surrounding the Pokemon, the animation will most certainly make battling more fun to watch for both the player and spectators. With all that being said, it is worth pointing out that the actual visuals, the style in which the Pokemon are depicted, hasn’t changed much at all. The team succeeded in the goal of making them look like an illustration; however, they’ve pushed the expectations that much further. Now you can actually see the emotions of the Pokemon change as they react to the context of the battle outside of status ailments. The choice to use cel-shading makes this one of the most beautiful games on the 3DS to date.
The overworld in Pokemon X and Y also got a lot of attention from fans, featuring fully rendered 3D environments with more detail than we have ever seen. With trees and buildings towering overhead, the world is much more in proportion to the trainers. However, I don’t think the difference in gameplay is going to be a dramatic leap from the Black and White series, which also had scenic routes, most notably the Skyarrow Bridge.
The brilliant views in Black and White came with the price of a much more linear gameplay experience, usually just a long path without any detours. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, as long as it’s being used to enhance the experience. Placing a route that is purely for showing off the scenery is absolutely fine to buffer the entrances of cities; it makes a lot of sense for the wildlife to taper down the closer you get to civilization and helps builds up the excitement of going to a new area. However, there were places that leaned too much toward the visuals but lacked in actual content. Celestial Tower in Unova blew me away, but it was a far cry from the head-spinning mazes that the earlier generations were known for and I ended up being disappointed to find out that the tower ended up being a glorified nugget bridge. Twist Mountain and Victory Road are two good examples of how to integrate the feel of a traditional Pokemon maze with visuals to create a new type of gameplay experience.
If GameFreak can find a way to show off the visuals and deliver a Pokemon journey with more creative non-linear gameplay, Pokemon X and Y could very well become the ultimate single player Pokemon game experiences.