Sunday, January 19, 2014

Pokémon and the Evolution of Battling, pt. 1

It's been too long since I last posted on this blog, due to reasons (mostly) outside of my control. I've been inspired to write some articles about Pokémon. In this case, I'm looking at the evolution of Pokémon into a highly competitive game.

Over the last month, I finally picked up a copy of Pokémon Y - one of the two games in the newest pair of Pokémon releases, and the first for the Nintendo 3DS. I've been having a blast with the game and went through its story in about 60 hours - now I'm spending my time with it by putting together new teams and new strategies. 

Pokémon, as I'm sure you're aware, is an exceedingly popular series of role-playing games where you capture monsters and pit them against each other. It's one of the crown jewel franchises of Nintendo, and despite its cute appearances, the games have reached a point of incredible gameplay depth.

Calling Pokémon a children's game is a fair observation while at the same time being an oversight. With over 700 species now available, the sheer number of approaches that a Pokémon player can craft, practice, and finally execute are nearly infinite. The game, at a high level, plays out like a more intricate chess match.

What started out as a game for the playground (I wasn't really into physical activity all that much - being asthmatic certainly meant I took it easy) has turned into one of the more complex games that I enjoy on a consistent basis. We used to bring our Game Boys, and during those precious recesses and lunch hour breaks, a good handful of us at my elementary school would get together and play Pokémon.

Back when there were only 151 Pokémon, when the appeal was "catching them all", we played together to reach a common goal. We would trade to evolve the few Pokémon who had to be traded to do so, and to obtain Pokémon exclusive to one version of the original Red, Blue, and Yellow games.

We learnt the way that the original 15 Pokémon types played off each other, and what each of the 165 moves did (that number has swelled to 609 moves in the 18 years since Pokémon was released in Japan). I remember that nearly everyone would load a Pokémon with moves that matched its type, until every time you saw a Fire type (for example) it had four different Fire type moves. We were young, and we didn't understand concepts such as "type coverage" - a concept I will explain in a later article.

What we did understand is the fun we had playing Pokémon. Even in its initial form, Pokémon had a very accessible battle system. Your Pokémon had five determining statistics, HP, Attack, Defense, Special, and Speed. These were predetermined by their species, as well as by sets of values considered "invisible" - they were part of the game's code, but couldn't be checked by any in-game process. The way this worked could fill an entire article, and I'll go into it a later date.

Along with up to four different moves, these stats were key in figuring out how a Pokémon battle would go down.

HP determined how much damage a Pokémon could take while Attack determined how much damage a physical contact move (such as Tackle, or Take Down) could do - Defense was the other factor in that equation and it decided how much a Pokémon could resist a physical move, lowering the damage accordingly.

Special played a duel role. It was used to figure out how much a non-physical move could do, while also playing the other side of the equation - it was both the Attack and Defense stat for special moves. It would later be changed into a Special Attack and Special Defense stat, which fixed several balance issues.

Speed is pretty self-explanatory. The order of turns in a Pokémon battle relied on the Speed stat - a higher Speed meant a faster Pokémon, and that Pokémon would be able to attack first, giving them an inherent advantage. That's not to say that a slow Pokémon is always a bad one, they often traded off Speed for better stats elsewhere. 

For most Pokémon, completely rounded stats don't exist, and learning how to use their stats effectively is a big part of higher level play, while only finding its way into casual play from time to time. You don't have to be particularly choosy in a normal run of Pokémon to get through.

In the first set of Pokémon games, the balance needed work, including the aforementioned Special stat, which lent itself to creating a few overused Pokémon who had high Special and could run through other Pokémon with the right moves. 

With only 151 Pokémon, the match ups tended to get stale quite often and several types of Pokémon weren't well represented in both their number and their moves. For example, only three Dragon-type Pokémon existed in the first generation, and there was only one Dragon-type move - Dragon Rage, a move that would always do 40 HP worth of damage no matter the opponent.

Game Freak, the game's developer, would work in a new set of changes in the next generation of games that would fix some of these issues while adding depth to the games. In Pokémon Gold, Silver, and Crystal, that is when I feel Pokémon battling started to get serious. 

And that's what I'll be talking about next time.