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Pokémon X & Y: why the series will always have a home on Nintendo handhelds - interview

Pokémon X & Y is out Saturday on 3DS. VG247's Dave Cook asks Game Freak director Junichi Masuda if he'd ever consider taking the core series beyond Nintendo handhelds, and why online is crucial to its success.

It's a summer Saturday in early 1999, and you're standing on Union street in Glasgow. It's a long road filled with shops, a few pubs, endless newsagents, a McDonalds and I'm sure at least four KFCs. You look over the road at G Force, the pricey yet well-stocked import gaming store and out walks an overweight, sweating kid with red cheeks and a thick afro.

He opens up his shopping bag to look at his freshly-released American copy of Pokémon Red. He's never sampled of the franchise before, but all his friends are playing the game already. He wants in.

So obviously, that heinous little lard-ball was me back in the day. All my friends jumped on the Pokémon phenomenon before it steam-rolled its way across Europe, and we ended up getting really obsessed with the original Game Boy titles.

We were all big Final Fantasy fans so the prospect of another turn-based RPG was pretty exciting. But this one was different. You could train not just a handful of character, but hundreds. Literally hundreds. It blew our minds.

I loved it, but it was the last Pokémon game I ever played. Call it being too busy, moving on to other experiences or what have you, but it was a series I just never returned to. It's now over a decade later and I finally figured out how to lose weight - actually moving and eating less helped - the afro is greying and thinning out with each passing day, but you know what? I simply can't wait to get torn in to Pokemon X or Y (I haven't decided which one yet). I'm finally ready to come back.

I'll share my thoughts on the game in a blog or two once I start playing, but for now I want to share with you a little conversation I had with Game Freak director and co-founder Junichi Masuda earlier this week. Pokémon is one of those franchises that seems immune to diminishing returns in that it seems to be growing in popularity, rather than shedding fans. It's a rare thing, so I asked Masuda-San for his thoughts on why that is.

He told me, “We think that part of the success and attraction of Pokémon is not down to just the Pokémon characters themselves, but the fact that you can give them nicknames and they have different attacks that change, and they evolve. They're living creatures, or we consider them to be living creatures, akin to if you have your pet dog for example. It would only respond to you as it's master or family friend, so there's a very close relationship between a Pokémon and its trainer.

“As we see every year when we have the Pokémon world championships, the Pokémon video games are very deep, and we see lots of different strategies and different battling comes to the fore. But basically, Pokémon games are easy to play and learn, but have many layers of depth which make them interesting.”

He's not kidding. I remember teaming my ludicrously-levelled Charizard with Haunter and just flattening people. One mate never quite grasped that physical attacks pass right through Haunter's gaseous, ghostly form. When you start to formulate strategies like that, the appeal of Pokémon starts to make sense. It's not just a dumb, cute game for kids; it's safari chess.

Those Pokémon are pretty adorable though aren't they? You'd thank that with over 500 of the critters Masuda-san's team is having a tough time coming up with new breeds. I asked him how this creative team come up with new forms. "We have a team of 20 different graphic designers who are responsible for coming up with the Pokémon design themselves," he replied, "and then there's a team of five people who actually judge the designs, and are responsible for deciding which Pokémon go into the final games.

” I wasn’t sure if – after Pokémon Black and White – people saw Pokémon X and Y coming, but we really like to challenge ourselves to create something which is different and which will surprise people. We don’t want to just create an MMORPG which has been done before. Our mission is always to create something different that can surprise people.”

“Then they consider what goes into making a Pokémon, their various aspects, but they look very deeply at the characters to see where we think a Pokémon would live, what kind of things it would eat, and what characteristics are very particular about the Pokémon. It's not just about the design, as a lot of thought goes into creating each individual Pokémon. On any particular, individual Pokémon the process to creating it can be anywhere between three months, and in the longest cases up to half a year.”

“When it comes to how we maintain the balance in the game and knowing what features to include, we always consider very carefully who is actually playing the games. Is it girls or boys, adults or children? When we consider who is playing the game, we make decision as to which features to include and how to maintain the overall balance of the game so it's appealing.”

That's all well and good but I still want to know why one of the Pokémon is a sentient ice cream cone. Instead I asked him if he'd ever consider making a core Pokémon RPG on Wii U, seeing as it's the question I often see asked a lot online. He explained, “Pokémon X and Pokémon Y are very different to earlier games, and with the 3DS you can walk around.

"With the bottom screen there's a feature called the Player Search System. It's enabled one to look for and find other players in the same area, so if you're out and about and there are other people playing Pokémon X and Y, you can see the icons of those trainers on the bottom screen.

"Just by touching the icon of that trainer you can immediately propose to battle or trade with that person. It's one of the key features of Pokémon X and Pokémon Y which is possible because it is portable.

“But by the same token if you take the game home and you connect it through the internet, then you can do the same thing with other people who are also playing online at the same time. You can trade and battle with people you've not met before. We think this mode of play is bets possible with the Nintendo 3DS. If, for example, the Wii U were to be portable in its own right we'd probably reconsider. But for the moment we think the 3DS is the best device for Pokémon RPGs.”

Masuda's got a point in that Pokémon games are perfectly suited to portable play, and it's hard to imagine thousands of people lugging their Wii U to a Pokémon tournament in London, or carrying them over to a mate's house. But I did ask him if he'd ever consider bringing the series to smartphones. I get the feeling that if Game Freak did that, it'd then make all the money. Like, all of it.

“One of the considerations we have for Pokémon games is that it can be safely and securely played in a fun environment," he replied. "Are you happy to give the game to your own child or lend it to another child? Personally, I'm a little bit nervous. I find some of the other mobile platforms a little bit frighting - so to speak – in this respect. Who knows what the future will hold, but definitely the best choice for Pokémon is the Nintendo 3DS.”

This makes perfect sense when you look back at the whole Smurf's Village fiasco on iOS, in which a few kids racked up insane App Store bills after buying stacks of Smurfberries with their parent's credit cards. It's understandable that Masuda and his team wants to avoid such an incident in Pokémon. Regardless, I asked for his view on microtransactions and DLC in general, to see if he had any plans.

"Going back to being able to play Pokémon games in a secure environment is critical. One key point obviously is that Pokémon is played a lot by children, and in Japan it's got a rating where everyone can play it, an 'E' rating in America and Europe is slightly stricter. It's very important for us that as many people as possible are able to play the Pokémon games in a safe environment.

“We like the idea that through Pokémon people can make conversation or you can become friends and that Pokémon can be a safe environment for that," Masuda explained. "In terms of DLC specifically, I don't know what shape DLC can take in the future. But at the moment I don't feel it's a safe enough mode – so to speak – appropriate for Pokémon.

“There's no download content or microtransaction content developed specifically for Pokémon X and Y. We've not come up with any ideas on that yet. I like the idea that Pokémon can be enjoyed with just one piece of software. You buy the game and it can be enjoyed just with that one software that you buy. That's a key point for Game Freak.”

As you can tell, Masuda was keen to stress that Pokémon's core RPG titles are, and could always be tied to Nintendo's handhelds. It's been a dream match after-all, and one that has created great success for both Game Freak and its parent. The core premise may have stayed largely the same in the turn-based fights, collecting creatures and training aspects, but Pokémon X & Y's online functions really are game-changing.

They bring the series closer to MMO sensibilities than ever before, seeing as other human players are never far away. It's not just PvP, but collaborations through trading that make the Player Search System so compelling. With time left for just one question I asked Masuda for his thoughts on the possibility of a Pokémon MMORPG.

He concluded, "Game Freak and Nintendo like to set limiters on what kind of games they create in the future, and there will be all sorts of possibilities and many challenges. Our key mission is to make software and make games that people will enjoy, so in that context Game Freak is responsible of making the core, main series of Pokémon games.

“Rather than looking at it from the point of view of, 'Do we want to make a game for the Wii U, or do we want to create an MMORPG?' we are always trying to think of ways to create something which is different. I wasn't sure if – after Pokémon Black and White – people saw Pokémon X and Y coming, but we really like to challenge ourselves to create something which is different and which will surprise people. We don't want to just create an MMORPG which has been done before. Our mission is always to create something different that can surprise people.”

Well, it's taken over a decade but Pokémon X & Y has surely surprised me. It just looks deep, colourful, addictive and best of all fun. I've yet to play it, but judging by review scores out there already, it looks like I've picked an ideal time to return.

What do you think?

Pokémon X and Pokémon Y launch worldwide from Saturday, October 12 on Nintendo 3DS.

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