The Summer of Pokemon

This has been the first summer vacation in a while in which I've had absolutely nothing to do. It's a far cry from the last three summers which had been filled with (at least in 2016 and 2018) interesting projects to do.

I have a tremendous opportunity waiting for me on the other side of this vacation – pursuing my Masters in Robotics degree at UPenn. It is remarkable that with hardly a month to go to MS, the specifics of life after graduation are still hazy. That said, if undergrad has taught me anything, perhaps things are best left unplanned. It's not to say that I haven't had my concerns about MS, but my initial trepidation is gradually turning into excitement.

One of the main reasons which made shift from CS to Robotics was that the greater interdisciplinary focus in Robotics would give me more options to figure out where I would really want to do. In some sense, it is giving me a second chance at postponing an important decision of which path of engineering to go down.

It's nice to be back at home after the internship in Singapore and it's been great to catch up with people from school and college. If anything though, this summer was the Summer of Pokemon. I was lucky to snag a used 3DS XL in near mint condition for S$45 on my last day in Singapore and it's made playing my library of 3DS games a joy.

For the first time ever with my Pokemon game collection, I deleted my old save and replayed Pokemon Moon from the beginning till the end of the postgame. Shortly after that, I borrowed a friend's cartridges to finish off Pokemon X and Pokemon White 2, to bring my count of completed Pokemon games to nine. Or rather 8.5 because I only vicariously played through about half of the Kanto part of SoulSilver. With this experience, I think it can be said that Pokemon is not a series to be binged. It is to be enjoyed slowly, one bit at a time. The three games which I played over the summer felt very similar and by the end, I blitzed through the last third of White 2 in a five hour marathon.

My second playthrough of Moon only supported the opinion I had after finishing my first playthrough - that the series was heading down a troubling path. Even after trying to make the game harder for myself through a Nuzlocke, it was hardly a challenge because of the change in the X-item mechanics. The story wasn't bad, but it felt very hamfisted and I dreaded the repetitive cutscene interruptions on going to each flag on the map. Speaking of the map, Alola looks a lot larger than it really is because the beautiful but short routes do not lend themselves to the same half an hour exploration fests that Platnium used to have. Also, the less said about the performance of this game, the better. After a hundred battles the delay between turns becomes less apparent but it's impossible to go back to Moon after experiencing how fluid Gen V was on the DS. Double battles are so poorly optimised that I couldn't bring myself to do more than ten battles of the Battle Tree before just switching to another game.

First impressions of Pokemon X were more positive. The game's performance was markedly better than Moon. X was also one of the more traditional Pokemon games with plot and objectives, only having Mega Evolutions thrown into the mix. Kalos reminded me a lot about Unova. X also tried to make better use of the 3DS's superior 3D capabilities over the DS, but the implementation left much to be desired. The camera angles were always off in Lumiose city and only certain areas of the map supported the 3DS's 3D mode which was very confusing. Unlike the O3DS, the 3DS XL doesn't have a 3D mode indicator LED so it requires pure guesswork to figure out which parts supported the 3D effect. Meaningful NPC dialogue in this game is hilariously lacking and it's left me wondering if the translation effort to make the worldwide release was using a briefly edited version of Google Translate. Random trainer battles felt obstructive and barring a few well produced cutscenes, netither the story nor the rivals are nothing to write home about. Another pain point were all the Battle Frontier references in X, which as we now know, never materialised and doesn't look like it will in the near future either. My personal theory is that the Battle Frontier was intended in a third version of XY, but the game was cancelled to make way for Gen VII.

After finishing X, I had high hopes for White 2. Pokemon Black has always been my favourite Pokemon generation, although some part of that can be attributed to the fact that 14-year old me could finally relate to a Pokemon game which didn't treat its players like small kids. It took me some time to get used to the DS era graphics, though this game made the best use of the console it was released on among all Pokemon games. It was so nice to see a new Unova after a two year absence (well, eight years for me anyway). I have to say, I did really like White 2. The handholding and cutscene spam which plagued Gen VII is much reduced and the difficulty of the game (even on Normal mode) is quite enjoyable. I suspended my Nuzlocke for a normal play after getting wiped out by Burgh's Leavanny. It was the first time I had to actually strategise and make a suitable team for a gym leader ever since FireRed which I played back in 2005. I found a Darumaka outside Castelia who fit the bill and swept Burgh in no time. I didn't find an EXP Share for some reason and the game was all the better for it. The regional Pokemon selection is excellent and there are plenty of great Gen V Pokemon to use. The story was not quite on the same level of the revelation the first Gen V games had, but after playing through X and Moon, this was a forgivable shortcoming for the better gameplay it had. There are a lot of subtle nods to the previous Gen V games through NPC dialogue which is miles ahead of what X has.

This little discourse on Pokemon games is years out of date, though it has been pretty interesting to play through half the series in reverse order to figure out where GameFreak started regressing on its best features to give us what looks like a rather uninspired effort for Sword & Shield. I do hope for the best, but I am not holding my breath for these games and I have no plans to invest in a Switch based on what I've seen so far.