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TEEN: Battle With Me: Pokémon XD Gale of Darkness

@Nitro Indigo If this battle were designed by me — and I'm kicking myself for not including this point in the actual analysis — I would've swapped Metagross's Sludge Bomb out for Seismic Toss (yeah, I know it's an illegal move, but that hasn't stopped Pokémon devs before). Seismic Toss does fixed damage equal to the user's level (in this case, 50). I'd then fudge the Metagross's stats behind the scenes so they just barely get first move. There's still the soft time limit, but the player can gain first move by using Dragon Dance and up their own move's power in the process, clearly demonstrating the worth of status moves. Plus it'd eliminate the critical hits and poison that might end the tutorial early through random chance. I'm all for random chance used against the player, but not in a tutorial setting.
I forgot to mention, Pokémon has been part of my life for so long that I've taken it for granted, and the same must be true for many others, so I'm not used to seeing a thorough critical analysis of any Pokémon game.
@Snuggle Tier List
I have to admit, that sim battle actually fooled me for a little bit when I watched it the first time; I was pretty much thinking: "Wait a minute, this goofy-looking kid with goggles has a Salamence, and you start the game at level 50!?" Not even the rather non-sequitur nature of the battle clued me in, most likely because I was paying less attention to the environment and more to the fact that you had to battle all of a sudden. You've also gotta love the name of the trainer you're battling: "Losten". Hmm, I wonder why they called him called that? :D

Also, even though I still prefer Colosseum's intro for the nostalgia and "badass" factors, I will say that watching a legendary Pokémon swoop in and lift a giant ship into the air like it's nothing — all while under control of the villains — is a pretty spectacular way to start off your game. And then you get to kick ass with a Salamence right after? Not bad!

I've always thought that Pokémon games look subpar compared to other games on their systems, both main and spinoff, from the flat colours of Rescue Team, to every main 3DS game's performance issues despite having relatively undetailed graphics.

Looking back, probably the only two Pokémon games that could really be called "technically impressive" are Gold and Silver (for being able to fit so much content onto a tiny Game Boy cartridge) and Ruby and Sapphire (which looked fairly simple, but also ran at an ultra-smooth 60 frames per second, which helps it hold up much better today than it otherwise would have).
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CH4: In Which I Spend The Entire Chapter In The Starting Room

CH4: In Which I Spend The Entire Chapter In The Starting Room

So far, my opinion of Genius Sonority has been fairly positive. The parts of the game most likely within their control haven't been flawless, but my revisit has shown they've done a surprisingly good job. My rose-colored glasses have stayed intact.

For this chapter, the glasses crack. Not completely. But they won't be the same.

To properly explain this, I'd like to dive into some basic game design before we're welcomed to the Pokémon real world. XD's first hour, I believe, appeals to a completely different audience than the intro cutscene, tutorial, and even the box art and title screen. And this can be quantified via a game design taxonony.

A game design taxonomy is an method of sorting players into groups. If used well, a taxonomy lets you gauge what your playerbase wants and why. For instance, if you find most of your playerbase enjoys exploring the environment, you could devote studio resourses to creating open-ended environments.

XD, as I've argued so far, is narrative-driven. Pokémon to catch are found within trainer battles, meaning you can "catch 'em all!" by advancing the rather linear plot. Trading is unlocked after the main game. The actual battling is some of the most refined of the "core mechanic" Pokémon games (you'll see why shortly), but there's only so much you can do within Pokémon's four-moves-per-Pokémon system. Eventually, battles will start to play out the same, and with the collecting and trading aspects of Pokémon diminished, the narrative has to step up. Which is where the taxonomy comes in; by identifying what players your game's attracting, you can fine-tune your game's design for the best possible experience (or, if that'd compromise your designer's vision, redesign your game's image to attract different players).

To be clear, I do believe XD has the best narrative of any Pokémon game. Or rather, it has the best narrative to suit a particular type of player's tastes. To quote the hive mind:

"I wanted to create a world that was a little different, a little more grown up than the Pokémon world we’ve known up until now...it might be a little different from the image we have of the Pokémon universe you have now."^
—Genius Sonority which is apparently a hive mind​

Whether you think this is a good idea or not depends on personal taste. To me, I'd love a Pokémon game that's less romanticized adventure and more grounded in reality. Problem is, the most popular game design taxonomies don't group players by narrative preference, even though (and this should be obvious) different people like different narratives. After an extensive review of the most popular game design taxonomies out there,^^^^^^^^ I don't believe modern game designers have the research to determine what narratives appeal to what players.

You probably see where I'm going with this. Humor me as I appease the skeptics.

Take the game design taxonomy frontrunner, Bartle's Taxonomy.^ Published in 1996, it inspired The Bartle Test, which has been taken over 880,000 times as of July 2015 on just one website.^ The source I'm using eventually took the quiz down, hence the slightly out-of-date statistic. You can still find the quiz online,^ you can still find it cited in research papers,^ you can still find it explained in educational videos.^^ Yet Bartle's Taximony wasn't originally intended to apply to any games besides MUDs (primitive text-based MMORPGs).^ According to the paper, there are four types of players:

• Achievers: "interested in doing things to the game"
• Explorers: "interested in having the game surprise them"
• Socializers: "interested in interacting with other players"
• Killers: "interested in doing things to people" (actual wording from Bartle's original paper)^

While an enterprising MUD designer might have use for these categories, Bartle never tested how applicable these categories are to the general population. The Bartle Test (not designed by Bartle)^ ranks each category relative to each other, but it doesn't allow "none of the above" or "not applicable" answers (emphasis mine):

"The Bartle Test is an online binary-choice questionnaire that players of virtual worlds can take to discover what player type they are. As such, it offers potentially very useful information to designers...Answers to [the Bartle Test's] questions could provide solid figures that would help designers visualize the make-up of the user base they have or they want."
—Richard A. Bartle, "Designing Virtual Worlds"^

"Binary choice", in theory, can indeed offer useful information or provide solid figures. But if neither of the answers represent your testees, you're going to get garbage data. They have to pick something; if both options are bad, they're forced to pick a bad option that doesn't represent themselves. For instance:

Which is more enjoyable to you?
▢ Killing a big monster
▢ Bragging about it to your friends
—Question 1 of The Bartle Test^

My honest answer: none of the above. But the test forces me to pick something, even though I find neither enjoyable. My binary answer doesn't capture my dislike the way, say, a scale of one-to-five would. Hence, the designers are left with misleading data. Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

So the Bartle Test's a flop. What are the alternatives? The first professional taximony experiment where testees could rate categories on a point scale isn't published until 2004, and of the twelve categories tested, only two ("Background and Setting" and "Use of Humor") could vaguely fall under the umbrella of narrative.

In researching this chapter, I reviewed nine published papers available through Google Scholar.^^^^^^^^^ I found these papers by first searching "video game taxonomy", reading through the most credible papers I could find, and then investigating references that appeared in multiple papers. Even including papers published after XD's release, I still couldn't find a general taxonomy that tested how relevant certain narrative groupings are. There's no way Genius Sonority could've quantifiably tested narrative. The tools didn't and still don't exist.

XD's narrative so far has been moderately dark with a dash of "best in the business" wish fulfillment. Prepare for a swerve.

★ ★ ★​

Let's take it from the top. The black screen fades into a high-tech looking room displayed from a slightly angled top-down camera. We're talking to a personal-coach looking dude:

Leaving SIM.png

The dialogue implies we have an "aptitude for battling", even if we lose the tutorial. The dialogue ends without the player being given a goal or objective. We're now in full control of our character; the Control Stick, C-Stick, and D-Pad all move our character. There's no jump or sprint, using the sticks lets us move in a full 360° ala later core Pokémon games, and our base speed is rather fast. Drake's got 'dem running shoes.

Testing all the buttons on our Gamecube controller, we find we can open a menu with either START, Y, or X:

Menu Screenshot.png

And out of curiosity, what Pokémon are in the party?


An adorable level 10 Eevee. Which is not an awesome Level 50 Salamence. While our tutor insists we're quite the battler, we're not as awesome as the tutorial led us to believe. It seems that Drake will indeed start from the bottom.

From a gameplay standpoint, this makes sense. Handing the player high-level Pokémon right from the start robs them of a large majority of potential content. Evolutions is the obvious angle, but there's also a wide variety of low-power moves that are only viable at lower levels. No Level 50 Pokémon can feasibly use Bullet Seed, Confusion, Sonicboom, etc. Low-level battles have a different dynamic than high-level battles, and so starting from the bottom gives XD more potential variety.

From a narrative standpoint, we've switched genres entirely. We've gone from high drama to slice of life in the blink of an eye. This isn't necessarily bad — grounding your world by showing everyday life can give perspective when the plot ratchets up, and I personally have a soft spot for "start from the bottom" plots — but the sheer abruptness of this transition feels like a slap in the face. I had a dragon! Did you not read CH2? I literally have "dragon" in my name! Dragons are cool! Where's my dragon, damnit?

For the record, this could've easily been solved with a simple text box before the tutorial started:

"All right, [player name]! I'll give you a big one! Booting up SIM!"

There. Now the player's expectations have been calibrated. The coolness factor has diminished slightly (your don't actually have a Salamence), but your avatar still demonstrates they have skills. Maybe the devs could've secretly rigged the tutorial more in our favor, add a throwaway line that implies we've been practicing nonstop. But enough criticism for now. Let's press some buttons.

As you might expect fron an RPG, the A button talks/interacts/examines/etc. Apart from walking around and opening your menu, these are the only controls in this exploration segment. If you blindly pressed buttons, you'd have the gist of things within the minute.

Except not.

Talk to the engineer. He'll spout some flavor text about how hard it is to do his job. Talk to him again, he repeats his dialogue. A rule has been established; talking to people more than once just repeats dialogue. Makes sense for an RPG, right?

Talk to the coach once. He'll give you some praise. Then, talk to him again:

Train Using Battle SIM.png

Why, what is this?

SIM Training List.png

XD has already broken its unspoken rules. Talk to the engineer multiple times, and you'll have a justified reason to not talk to the coach more than once. Which means you're going to miss out on twelve learn-by-doing tutorials that are actually interesting, informative, and (dare I say it) fun battle scenarios.

I won't go into each of these tutorials in detail, as they're all set up similarly to the intro battle. All the standard rules of Pokémon battles apply, with only the Pokémon, battle type, and occasionally the items changing. Besides a title and a one-to-two sentence summary, you go into each battle completely blind, only getting hints if you lose the tutorial. And it is very possible to lose these tutorials.

For instance, take "Move Types And Pokémon Types":

Pokemon Moves Tutorial.png

Extremely simple setup. No items, one Pokémon, two moves. Neither move is super effective, while your opponent's only move (Brick Break) will make Rattata faint after two turns. We have first move regardless of what we pick. According to our POKéMON screen's summary of Rattata, Quick Attack has a power rating of 40, while Thunderbolt has a power rating of 95. Therefore, Thunderbolt should do much more damage than Quick Attack, right?

Not so fast. For one thing, Rattata has a high Attack (boosting Quick Attack's damage) but very low Special Attack (lowering Thunderbolt's damage):

SIM Rattata's Stats.png

But even then, Quick Attack is doing significantly more damage than Thunderbolt. In fact, the only way to reliably win the battle (assuming no critical hits) is to use Quick Attack twice in a row. And that's because:

Pokemon Moves Coach's Advice.png

Or, as Bulbapedia calls it, Same Type Attack Bonus (STAB).^ What a cool bonus! And its been in the Pokémon games since Gen 1 without ever being explained. Or at least, not until XD.

These tutorials teach actual tactics. They explain the more obscure mechanics of Pokémon and show you how to use them yourself. They are designed to break Pokémon gaming complacency, where you just use the one most powerful move on your overleveled Pokémon. And in doing that, they encourage a much funner way to play, where you have multiple tactics available each with their advantages and disadvantages.

And to access them, you have to overcome a poorly-designed starting room. XD, you're going to be an interesting one, aren't you?

Next time: all about dat level design!
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I do believe XD has the best narrative of any Pokémon game.
But Snuggles, your opinion is wrong! Explorers of Sky is the greatest game of all time!

In all seriousness, I've gone through several periods of being burned out on Explorers because I've grown tired of seeing people singing its praises for most of my life, but none of these praise-singers have given the game a thorough look. Maybe I should?

I've also joked that you can group Pokémon fans into two categories: Snap people and Mystery Dungeon people.
No Level 50 Pokémon can feasibly use Bullet Seed
...Until Skill Link became more widespread.
Did you not read CH2?
What's that?
But Snuggles, your opinion is wrong! Explorers of Sky is the greatest game of all time!
Crap, it is! Let me clarify:

I do believe XD has the best narrative of any Pokémon game with core-series battle mechanics.

Also, Snap is awesome. And Explorers is awesome. It's a hard choice, but I'll give the edge to Explorers.

Also also, Explorers of Sky was going to be my next Battle With Me should the series progress that far. There'd be an in-between longfic, probably some more poems, and maybe a KAIJUMON revisit, but it's on the todo list. I'm expecting at least a year away at the pace I'm going, though; feel free to snipe me.

...Until Skill Link became more widespread.
Did a quick Bulbapedia lookup. Skill Link wasn't introduced until Gen IV, and Bullet Seed's power was buffed from 10 to 25 in Gen V. There'll probably be more out-of-date moves and abilities going forward; I'll make sure to clarify when needed.

What's that?
Shorthand for "Chapter 2".

...I think I'm missing a joke.
This discussion of Explorers brings to mind a concept I like to call the "rejection of childhood", where people insist that something they like isn't really for kids (usually by exaggerating how dark it is), as if they want to feel less ashamed of themselves. People with this mindset have this idea that children can't possibly comprehend anything deep or dark, and it annoys the heck out of me. It usually goes hand in hand with a "sad = good" mindset.
While our tutor insists we're quite the battler, we're not as awesome as the tutorial led us to believe. It seems that Drake will indeed start from the bottom.
"Damn!" said every player of this game ever at that point. Double "damn!" for those who also played Colosseum, who get to see that (admittedly adorable) Eevee and think immediately of the dual kickass Eeveelutions that they could've been rocking instead!
(I kid on that second part, but I suspect that I'm not too far off for at least one person or two out there, haha.)

That said, I just realized something in the middle of writing that. The SIM battle up there was between a Salamence and a Metagross, right? As in, only between a Salamence and a Metagross... or in other words: not a double battle. And at least one other SIM battle goes the same way, apparently. I'm guessing that means that single battles are back for XD? Or was that just a one-time thing for the SIM mode?

I do believe XD has the best narrative of any Pokémon game with core-series battle mechanics.
For the purposes of what I'm about to say, I'd like to separate narrative from story here, and maybe kind of redefine them as well. I'd define story as, well, the actual raw story beats, while I'd define narrative as how those story beats are actually told/arranged/implemented as a single product or package, and what they all actually "say" or "mean" at the end of the day.

With those definitions in mind... I can't say that I can really argue with you here, if only because the bar for narrative in Pokémon games is so low to begin with. To be honest, though, I'd be tempted to make Sun & Moon have a word with you... that is, if it weren't for its poor pacing and an over-reliance on the likability of a single character (Lillie) to push itself forward in spite of that. And as for the fandom's other narrative darling, Black and White? Let's just say that I'd rather not write an essay's worth of my opinions here on that (let alone how said opinions have changed over the years). Instead, I'll summarize my feelings on everything like this:

Black & White = good narrative (until the end, anyway), almost-good-but-ultimately-fatally-flawed-story
X & Y = bad narrative, flawed-but-not-terrible story + interesting but underutilized world and characters
Sun & Moon = good story, bad narrative (but forgivably so, because yes, I do like Lillie that much)
Any mainline game before Black & White = Narrative? Story? What are those? (I kid, kind of, but I'm ignoring them all here)

And as an especially relevant bonus:
Colosseum = okay story, okay narrative + fascinating world and characters
XD = not enough hoverbikes:p

So yeah, I'm willing to buy the argument that XD might indeed have the best narrative of any Pokémon game with core-series battle mechanics, if only by default. But you'll have some work to do to convince me that it has the best story out of all of them! I look forward to being convinced (or not!) by your later entries.
I'm guessing that means that single battles are back for XD? Or was that just a one-time thing for the SIM mode?
Kinda-sorta-not really. We're in training wheels mode; single battles are the norm until you snag a second Pokémon, at which point double battles become the norm. And it just happens, out of the blue. It's a very drop-the-player-in-no-explanation approach, which I'm starting to notice is Genius Sonority's MO.

But you'll have some work to do to convince me that it has the best story out of all of them! I look forward to being convinced (or not!) by your later entries.
Me too! While I've played XD to death, I've never analyzed it too deep. Battle With Me is me writing by the seat of my pants; it's draining, but the surprising (to me) amount of fan input has given me new perspectives, which I in turn incorporate into my analysis. It's definitely not the stress-free just-playing-the-game I thought it'd be, but it's been insightful at the very least. Dissecting my own nostalgia is one of the main reasons I got into fanfic, and straight-up fan-nonfic is as direct an approach I can take. Where it leads me, even I don't know; would I love this game if I first played it today, or is my love fueled purely by nostalgia? It's a scary question for me, but I think I've matured enough to handle it.
Small announcement about this fic; due to my play environment, new chapters are coming slower.. There's more details in the latest news update (viewable in the "Updates and News" spoiler); long story short, while the fic isn't on hiatus, actually playing the game/processing screenshots has gotten harder. View the update for the full story. It involves the sun. The sun sucks.
CH5: Herpity Derp

CH5: Herpity Derp

Today, we're shifting gears. I'm going to be focusing exclusively on level design. More specifically, I'm going to be breaking down the design of our starting level: the Pokémon HQ Lab (the place we're at now).

HQ Lab Exterior.png

Exterior view if the Pokémon HQ Lab. Image source: Bulbapedia

But before we even pick up the controller, we need to determine what makes a good Pokémon level. We aren't worrying about battles yet; we're entirely focused on the exploration phase. Surely it can't matter too much, right? We're just walking around via the control stick and occasionally talking/interacting with the A button. The game's playerbase isn't that stupid.

Unfortunately, they are. And that's because they're dumb kids who might never have played a 3D RPG before. For some, this might be their first Pokémon game. For some, this might be their first video game, period. As has been helpfully uncovered in conjunction with commenters, a special edition Pokémon: XD/Gamecube bundle was sold on store shelves.^ While released late into the console's life cycle, that also meant a wonderfully cheap $99.99 US price tag. If you're a parent in a lower income bracket looking to get your kid their first console, XD may very well have been their first game. I don't have sales figures for that specific variant of the Gamecube, but the mere fact it exists means we have to consider first-time players — and, since this is Pokémon, returning series vets.

With this in mind, let's set two simple ground rules:

• Completely green players should be informed how they can interact with the world.
• Series vets shouldn't have their intelligence insulted.

I shouldn't need to tell you these rules often butt heads with each other. But Genius Sonority's hands off approach lets them avoid nagging tutorials, while (in theory) letting new players learn through experimentation. The trick is to give those new players a good environment to experiment. Or rather, a good level to experiment.

Replaying this game, it seems the Pokémon HQ Lab is a decent testing environment. Not great, not bad, but not quite good.

I'll break it down further. If we're teaching-by-doing, then we can expect the player to be using some form of the scientific method. For those unfamiliar, the scientific method is the most basic form of "logical thinking"; I learned it multiple times while going through public schooling, so I feel pretty confident boiling it down:
  1. Observation. The player receives information about the environment. This can be done explicitly ("press A to interact!") or implicitly; for instance, highlighting interactive objects or making them visually stand out.
  2. Hypothesis. The player processes the information and forms, well, a hypothesis. For instance, the A button is the biggest button on the controller; there must be some use for it.
  3. Experiment. The player tests their hypothesis. For instance, they might wander the room pressing A on everything, trying to determine what's interactive.

And repeat. The player observes their experiment's results, uses those results to form new hypotheses, performs more experiments, and so on. It's a simple model, but it helps us track what typical players are thinking.

Unfortunately, we've already stumbled across our first scientific "false positive"; the engineer and the coach's dialogue. If the player's hypothesis is "what would happen if I talk to the same person twice?", observing the engineer leads them to conclude "they just spout the same dialogue over and over". This isn't true, but it's a tested belief the player has no reason to doubt. After all, if an NPC had more to say, why do the text boxes stop? We've regained movement of our character; clearly, the game's expecting us to move on, right?

We don't have to walk far before encountering our next dilemma. How do you open the door?

Training Room Opened Door.png

This one stumped kid me (I was a dumb kid). Genius Sonority, to its credit, helpfully placed mats under the door to distinguish doors from the scenery. But stand on the mat and press A, and the door stays shut. And that's because you open doors by ramming them with your face.

Granted, this is how you open doors in the at-the-time 2D Pokémon games. However, those games used tilemaped movement via D-Pad; assuming you're not using the D-Pad to move (why would you do that?), your movement will be far more responsive. And thus, far less accidentally-bumping-into-walls-y. You're less likely to "overshoot" than in the core series, which Genius Sonority kinda-not-really addressed by placing mats under these doors.

I will give them credit; the camera operator knows what he's doing (I checked his name in the credits, he is indeed a singular he, and I'll definitely be talking about him later). Unless the door was locked, the only interior doors in the core series were clearly-defined elevator doors and floormats indicating exits. Entering a building from the back was a secret; for instance, the back stairway in Celadon Condominiums:

Image source: Bulbapedia

Opening a door from behind is an entirely new concept for series vets. I don't blame kid me for not rubbing my avatar's junk against the doorframe. But I was a dumb kid, and it seems the slight camera tilt clearly shows the literally-has-arrows mat under the door. I bet the average player won't have much trouble with the door.

What they might have trouble with is the elevator.

Entering Tube Elevator.png

Yes, that test-tube looking thing is actually an elevator. A singular glass panel slides open, player walks inside, they're taken to another floor. So this level has standard doors with slots in the middle and elevator doors with no slots. Just like the opposite of real life! And who needs helpful floor mats, am I right?

In due credit, it seems Genius Sonority knows and exploits their alien elevator design. By obscuring the elevator, we're left with exploring the two other rooms in this screen. And exploring both is a good idea for new players.

Screen A.png

Image source: Bulbapedia

(Side note: these Bulbapedia pics misplace some NPCs. Don't hold them in high regard.)

Let's break this down, room by room. Lower left: a "trainer's school" style whiteboard, where the basic battling mechanics are explicitly stated. Talking to an NPC in the room encourages us to "look at" (translation: press A on) the whiteboard, and it works!

Whiteboard Topics.png

Nothing earth-shattering here, but it's entirely skippable and placed at the start of the game. For those ten people that like tutorials as reading assignments, here you go. But more importantly, this whiteboard teaches us that certain objects in the environment can be interacted with. Useful knowledge indeed.

Upper left: the plot! But I'm going off-the-rails here. We'll ignore the plot for now and come back to it later; this chapter's about level design, not gosh-stinking-darn narrative, darn it!

Or is it?

There is an upside to this drop-the-player-in no-context level design. In case the full-body no-headset VR and pneumatic tube elevator didn 't clue you in, we are in a fantastic environment. Some of the most basic conventions of modern life (in this case, how doors work) don't apply. And while adapting to this environment has been a clumsy affair, I do feel like I'm in another world. The serious game designer might call this "environmental storytelling",^ where the level design itself is part of the narrative; in this case, worldbuilding. This will not be an isolated incident.

I'll summarize the plot cutscene because it's necessary but boring. Nostalgia glasses off, the dialogue here is stiff. As in "writing 'Hahaha' in a text box" stiff.

HAHAHA in a Text Box.png

Yeah. The effect doesn't exactly translate. Anyways, after witnessing some back-and-forth dialogue about stuff we don't care about from characters we don't care about, we learn our avatar's family lives at the lab. Our mother, Lily, wants us to find our younger sister, who is playing hide-and-seek. Meanwhile, the lab director, Professor Krane, left us a gift in our room because reasons. No characters are developed in any emotionally-resonant way (I guess Lily is a professional scientist?), and our objectives are hide-and-seek and picking up a present. Riveting.

Oh, and there's this:

Fake Choice Number 1.png

Try answering "NO". You get stuck in an infinite loop until you say "YES". It's an illusion of choice, and just like a magician botching a trick, it calls attention to how artificial the illusion is. At the very least, allow the player to say no, exit the conversation, and explore the lab before returning to say "YES". Then the player realises on their own time they need to say "YES" if they want to get anywhere. It's still an illusion, but at least the "YES"/"NO" has some consequence.

So far, things aren't looking good for XD's narrative. There is, however, one character detail I'd like to point out. And it's found in flavor text, delivered by an old man wandering the hallway immediately outside SIM training:

Father Comment.png

And then this no-name NPC backpedals, apologizes for mentioning our father, and the conversation ends. So apparently our father is MIA, possibly KIA, and a taboo subject. That's a detail that might inform our family's characterization, don't you think? Our mother at the very least losing a source of income?

LILY: "DRAKE, I think you already know, but several research projects are in their critical phases in this LAB. That's why your mother can't afford to take any time off right this instant."

Not only does this make our mother a more sympathetic character, but her stiff dialogue loosens up via subtext. Father's gone, mother needs to work overtime and she needs to explain why she can't be around. We are the load-bearing sibling; we have to step up and become self-sufficient early so we can help our family. It's a family dynamic that plants the seeds for our avatar's later independent adventures. And all this subtext would be missed if you didn't talk to a random NPC in the hallway. I can't criticize XD for having half-baked themes (yet), but this opening's presentation is plain baffling.

Now, before we use our super-secret elevator know-how, there's one more door to explore. It's on the far end of the upper-left plot office, and it leads to our first new screen!

Screen B.png

image source: Bulbapedia

Based on the mats with literal arrows, I'm assuming this screen is the intended path for bumbling-around players. For now, we can safely ignore the NPCs in the upper-right office and lower-left living quarters. But walk into the upper-left lounge and the camera zooms in on the TV:

TV Report Missing Ship.png

And the opening cutscene finally gets referenced! It seems we're currently an unaware bystander of a much cooler story happening in the background. I'm sure that's what players want out of a Pokémon adventure, right?

Snark aside, this room is a major storytelling misstep. While I understand anyone with basic knowledge of storytelling knows the villainous organization will eventually appear, "eventually" isn't "now". "Eventually" means hide-and-seek, and hide-and-seek < airlifting ships by mind-controlling legendary monsters.

And we need to talk about the music.

Herp, de derp, de derp, de derp, de derpity derpity durp!

This is the type of song that isn't trying. And that's probably the point; it's trying to project a carefree feel. Trying to not try, if you will. Childish instrument selection (high-pitched piano, that flute you learned in 3rd grade music class, fart-noise brass), random riffs that don't really connect ala a jam session, the simplest drum beats that struggle to follow the greater composition because it's all so loose it barely has structure. This song is about not having a care in the world, because everything's swell and no one has problems. You know, maturity.

Oh, almost forgot. Remember those two sailors stuck in the ocean? According to the news, nothing's been found of the ship despite extensive search and rescue.

They're dead.

...Herp, de derp, de derp, de derp, de derpity derpity durp!

★ ★ ★​

XD has a slow start. I can't defend this; the designers screwed up in three major ways:
  1. They gave the player busywork objectives that have nothing to do with the greater plot.
  2. They failed to reliably communicate their characters' roles and personalities.
  3. They failed to tie the player to the much cooler overarching plot.

This will eventually change:


Image source: Bulbapedia.

That's a bionic arm you'll get about an hour in. That's both cool and plot important, as we'll find out eventually. Which is why your absolute first busywork objective should've been "retrieve bionic arm". It's in a case downstairs, it's a project of the lab, I'm sure the devs could've made some excuse. Testing the ergonomics or something.

Second, we need to be developing characters. And I think tying a major NPC to the stolen ship can kill two birds with one stone. Move the lounge to the open area below the SIM training room, so the player immediately learns their place in the world as soon as they're done training. But instead of making the ship-napping unrelated to anything, use it to develop a character. The ship's said to have primarily been carrying Pokémon; perhaps a Pokémon belonging to your mother was aboard that ship, and she's putting on a tough act while actually distraught? Then, you doing her favors while you're wearing your cool bionic arm has some emotional weight. Slip in an accidental mention of father by Old Man Loose Lips and you have strong foundations to start exploring the world.

And screw this music. The Pokémon HQ Lab has an alternate theme that kicks in once the plot ratchets up:

Maybe use your happy-go-lucky music for a second, but once the player enters the lounge and personal stakes are revealed, use the alternate theme. Perhaps pair it with a sad song as characters mull over the ship's possibilities, before realising the player walked in the room and put on stiff upper lips. Place Professor Krane and Lily in the room, so you have a moment to witness your mother not acting for the children. The plot can then be mostly the same, but with more coolness factor and greater emotional gravity.

You know what? In an RPG, everything is level design.

Next time: we rush through this opening so I don't have to talk about it anymore!
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assuming you're not using the D-Pad to move (why would you do that?)
You can do that in this game?

XD gives me "quirky sixth generation game" vibes. You know the ones - collectathon platformers starring E D G Y characters that were developed by small companies who are probably bankrupt now, experimental games made by big companies, an era that ended just before I was old enough to play video games. Michael would look right at home in one of those games, in a good way.
@Snuggle Tier List
Nice to see that you were able to pull through with Chapter 5 there, Snuggle. Now, on to the comments:

This one stumped kid me (I was a dumb kid). Genius Sonority, to its credit, helpfully placed mats under the door to distinguish doors from the scenery. But stand on the mat and press A, and the door stays shut. And that's because you open doors by ramming them with your face.
The series has played with this a lot over the years, really. You've already mentioned the Game Boy era, of course: you just walked straight through any and all doors and that was it. Ruby and Sapphire did almost the same thing, except that when it came to exiting areas, they provided a helpful arrow that appeared when you walked near an exit to say that, yes, you could leave through there. I don't know what Diamond, Pearl, Platinum, or the early Unova games did, but I do believe that they ditched the arrows for Black 2 and White 2, regrettably. Meanwhile, Sun and Moon revised things again by requiring you to press A to enter through a building's doors, but this wasn't extended for exiting said buildings, and the arrows from Ruby and Sapphire still didn't come back in any capacity (oh well). So there's been a quite of bit of tweaking — and some give and take — when it comes to Pokémon's door implementations (of all things), although they've never really perfected what should've been such a gimme in the level design stakes, either.

Try answering "NO". You get stuck in an infinite loop until you say "YES". It's an illusion of choice, and just like a magician botching a trick, it calls attention to how artificial the illusion is. At the very least, allow the player to say no, exit the conversation, and explore the lab before returning to say "YES". Then the player realises on their own time they need to say "YES" if they want to get anywhere. It's still an illusion, but at least the "YES"/"NO" has some consequence.
This is something that I've never particularly liked about Pokémon games in general. Sun and Moon gave me hope that maybe your alternate dialogue choices might actually mean something, as it was absolutely filled with them, and many of the options were actually quite interesting (as in, not just: "I do/don't want to do X" but also occasionally: "This is how I feel about X" and: "I do/don't agree with X"). Unfortunately, said hope was mostly for nothing, as your choices don't really affect much at all beyond a text box or two, let alone allow you to have much agency in the many demands requests that people ask of you. And so instead, we continue to have encounters like these as late as the Let's Go games:

Professor Oak: Are you the one who's going to help me with a bit of Pokémon research?
You: YES / NO
Your Pikachu:
Pika pi-ka!
Professor Oak: Oh, really? But your partner Pikachu seems ready to get to work!
(cutscene continues anyway)

Situations like that make everyone look like a bunch of jerks, really. At least the series is occasionally self-aware of the ridiculousness of it all, though ("I'll keep asking the same thing over and over until you say 'Yes!'", says one character, hilariously, in the Sinnoh games). Still, wouldn't it be great to have a Pokémon game where instead of being railroaded into becoming a Pokémon trainer and completing a Pokédex that you may or may not actually care about, you could become a Coordinator, a Breeder, or some other occupation and make that the focus your journey? That'll never happen, of course, but it's certainly fun to think about the idea!
XD gives me "quirky sixth generation game" vibes. You know the ones - collectathon platformers starring E D G Y characters that were developed by small companies who are probably bankrupt now, experimental games made by big companies, an era that ended just before I was old enough to play video games. Michael would look right at home in one of those games, in a good way.
I think that's why Michael's character design, to me, beats out Wes's (and why I'm so dissapointed in the opening). I find Wes hilarious, over-the-top E D G Y, to the point it's immature. For instance, his intro cutscene has him literally blow up a building; who cares if anyone died, it was E D G Y! And then he spends the game saddled with an exposition dump because he's unable to operate on his own. All looks, no show.

Michael's understated. While he's definitely got the E D G E, is also very clearly the good guy. His mecha armpiece takes Rui's place becsuse her entire character could be replaced by an inanimate object, which lets Michael do something Wes couldn't: be independent. Meanwhile, Genius Sonority spent XD's opening cutscene building up the villains, which by proxy makes you badass when you start smacking them around. It's like building up a boss monster in a hack n' slash; the focus isn't on you, but the buildup gives you that sense of accomplishment. Michael will get those badass moments...eventually...any day now...

Replaying this game's first hour makes me want to cry.

Still, wouldn't it be great to have a Pokémon game where instead of being railroaded into becoming a Pokémon trainer and completing a Pokédex that you may or may not actually care about, you could become a Coordinator, a Breeder, or some other occupation and make that the focus your journey? That'll never happen, of course, but it's certainly fun to think about the idea!
Why not just remove YES/NO prompts entirely and make spinoff games where you can be a pure Coordinator/Breeder/etc.? The player's already said YES by starting the game; if they didn't want to play what the game's about, then they aren't going to be answering any questions. Just assume your playerbase wants to play the game they bought, and if they don't want the game, give them alternatives. Pokémon's a franchise, heck it! They can do things like this!

It just occurred to me that we don't get spinoff regions any more.

And I have no idea why. Well, I do have an idea, but it probably wasn't The Pokémon Company's best idea. Or a good idea in general, really. But that's a rant for another chapter.
And I have no idea why. Well, I do have an idea, but it probably wasn't The Pokémon Company's best idea. Or a good idea in general, really. But that's a rant for another chapter.
That ties into my points about the homogenisation of Pokémon over on the general chat thread, but I think a better term would be "stagnation". While the corporate mandates have always been there, spinoffs used to sometimes have creative visions behind them, but now they almost never do. I've spent hours screaming in frustration at Pokémon Rumble World, but it's not the same as the hours I spent screaming in frustration at Shadows of Almia as a kid, because I was at least rewarded with story there. "The darkness in their hearts became the darkness in the world" is an underrated line.
Why not just remove YES/NO prompts entirely and make spinoff games where you can be a pure Coordinator/Breeder/etc.?
I mean, there was that virtual pet game on the Pokémon Mini...
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Why not just remove YES/NO prompts entirely and make spinoff games where you can be a pure Coordinator/Breeder/etc.?
If I had to actually take a guess why, I'd suspect that money is the answer there... or rather, the lack thereof to make on such spinoffs according to Nintendo/Game Freak/The Pokémon Company/etc. I mean, I wouldn't think that it's a lack of imagination on their part or anything; someone had to have proposed such an obvious idea like that at some point.

Meanwhile, it practically goes without saying that fans have thought about it too. And maybe, like with fanfic and ROM hacks, some might have even thought about taking matters into their own hands. Although like I mentioned earlier, it's a lot harder to create a game from scratch — which is what would need to happen to create a full-bodied Coordinator/Breeder/not-a-Trainer game — than to build, write, or hack on top of what already exists (let alone keep it from being struck down by Nintendo the instant that such a project inevitably catches the attention of the gaming media). Unfortunately, that makes this an example where the fandom can't do what official media doesn't do, at least in video game form.

The player's already said YES by starting the game; if they didn't want to play what the game's about, then they aren't going to be answering any questions. Just assume your playerbase wants to play the game they bought, and if they don't want the game, give them alternatives.
The writers at Game Freak probably get a kick out of writing those prompts, honestly; I wouldn't be surprised if it's simply become tradition to include them at this point. To be fair, they can be kind of funny in general if you don't take them too seriously (which we shouldn't, really, but as writers and creators, we can't always help it). It's only when you start thinking too hard about how awful everyone's responses to "no" would actually be that things get more annoying and uncomfortable. "It's just Pokémon" or not, those "YES/NO" prompts are practically begging for the deconstructive fanfic treatment...
CH6: I Get Feels (Part 1)

CH6: I Get Feels

Heads up: this chapter's another two parter! Look out for a post coming right after this one.

Between this chapter and the last, I set up an experiment. I saved the game like this:

Save Test.png

The doors above and to the right are open, while the door on the lower left is shut. Meanwhile, my character is facing the wall with the tiniest tilt upwards.

Let's load that saved game, shall we?

Save Test.png

It seems the game has saved my exact position and rotation in 3D space, as well as which specific doors I've opened. Now, if I may quote one of my commenters because I'm lazy and outsource research:

Fun fact I found about the GameCube's memory cards: the 59-block size is equivalent to about 512 KB of space. Divided by 59 blocks, this equals 8.6779661, which is very close to a common computer block size of 8 KB, so essentially: 1 GameCube block = 8 KB. That means that 43 blocks, multiplied by 8 KB, equals a roughly 344 KB save file size for Pokémon XD.

Now, that may not seem too unrealistic at first. That is, until you look at the save file space reserved for Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire on the GBA, which is 128 KB, or almost one-third of XD's save file size. But wait... it gets even better! Ruby and Sapphire's save file itself is actually half of that — or 64 KB — because there are two save files stored in that 128 KB reserved space: a main and a backup (in case, say, the power shuts off in the middle of a save for some reason, or if you simply have bad luck one day). So ultimately, depending on whether or not XD's save system has a similar backup feature (which, if I had to guess based the little information I found on the subject, it doesn't seem to), that means that XD's save files are anywhere between 2.7x and 5.4x (!!!) as large as the closest equivalent Pokémon game. You have to wonder what Genius Sonority was doing with all of that space...

Full disclosure: I haven't independently tested InfiniteBakuphoon's claims. Regardless, I have done some research, and Pokémon: XD's file size is unusually large amongst the Gamecube library. Prohibitly large, even. Gamecube memory cards came in three sizes: 59-block, 251-block, and 1019-block.^^ That means the smallest memory card can't hold more than one XD save at a time. While you could blame this on Nintendo releasing a prohibitively small memory card, I found a circa 2004 list of popular Gamecube titles and their save file requirements.^ While I couldn't independently verify every title, I can confirm it's accurate for Mario Party 6, Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, and Pokémon: Colosseum. They also line up with my childhood memories, which happen to be stored on my childhood memory cards:

Childhood Memories.png

Yes, these are the memory cards from my childhood. Apparently, you could get a 251-block card for $17 US and change. And yes, that card with the banged-up end still works. I made waaaay too many Timesplitters 2 maps.

However, as evidenced by that price sticker, 251-block cards were sold as accessories.^ I couldn't confirm this via the google, but kid me distinctly remembers the 59-block card coming with the family Gamecube. I'm sure there were different packages that offered different card sizes, but I was stuck with the cheapo card until I got an upgrade. It sucked, which is why I upgraded (read: begged my parents). And never removed the sticker, apparently.

Back on topic. The median save block size for a Gamecube game seems to sit somewhere in the single digits. A single "fresh" save game of Pokémon XD: Gales of Darkness takes 43 blocks. And if my little experiment tells me anything, it's that those 43 blocks aren't the result of shoddy programming. Rather, by virtue of making a 3D Pokémon adventure, Genius Sonority had much more information they needed to store.

Let me get technical, then I'll dumb it down. When it comes to the pre-3D Pokémon games, saving a player's coordinates was relatively easy. Players walked along tiles and could only face four directions; save an index number of the screen they're on (Littleroot Town might be 1, Route 101 might be 2, etc), and then save the X and Y coordinates of whatever tile they're standing on. Maybe save their rotational value if you're feeling fancy; there's only four possibilities, you can hypothetically save it using only two bits of data (00 for north, 01 for east, 11 for south, 10 for west).

If I've lost you with tech talk, don't worry; the specifics don't matter much. The point is that saving position and rotation is easier when you're not programming for an analog stick. For rotation alone, if they're using the full 360° of the analog stick, then that's 360 different ways the player can face. That's ninety times the amount of data they'd need to track, at least for this one variable.

I also feel compelled to point out Pokémon: XD is a big game. There are a lot of triggers the player may or may not have activated, regardless of story progression. And once you reach a certain point in the game, there are multiple new mechanics that require tracking the player's steps. There are tricks to reduce file size; for instance, saving player's approximate rotation and position (rounding rotation to the nearest 5th degree, rounding the player's coordinates to I-don't-know-how-XD-handles-coordinates). But considering just how many variables need to be tracked per Pokémon (current health, stats, nature, friendship, status effect, etc), I have a hard time expecting a smaller file.

You may notice I've yet to play the game this chapter. That's because we're in a slow burn without the burn, and I'm procrastinating. I should probably start playing now. I didn't need to type this sentence. I did it anyways. I should probably start playing now.

For those just tuning in, I've been pessimistic about XD's opening to the point of sarcasm. There are seeds being planted for a greater plot, but we got some time before we get there. I mean, it's CH6 and I'm on the second screen of the game. My pace ain't been brisk.

However, I see what XD's trying to do. Our current busywork tasks are the developers trying to ground us in the world. They're trying to give a picture of everyday life, so we have perspective when the plot kicks up. I do think they could've given this perspective much better, but I'm willing to bite the bullet and play along.

To recap, our objectives are to pick up a present from our room and find our younger sister, Jovi. As far as we know, she's just wandered off somewhere while our avatar's mother Lily was busy working; apparently, we're the mature sibling, so we're reluctantly expected to handle sister-sitting. Remember: Old Man Loose Lips informed us father is a taboo subject, so we can't expect him to be pitching in anytime soon. We might be a kid, but we're the trustworthy sibling. Not 100% independent, but more than your average ambiguously-aged avatar of ambiguous japanese/european descent.

And as it so happens, the elevator next to the TV room leads to our room.

HQ Lab Bedrooms.png

Our room's all the way on the left. There's a few NPCs to talk to, none of which say anything noteworthy. Let's pick up our present.

Entering Our Room.png

Hey, that's not fair! Daaaaad-oh. And Mom's busy with work. We might be playing as a kid, but playing through this as an adult is giving me...

...feels? I'm getting feels? I sympathize with my avatar, and maybe even his mother and sister? Like, this is an unfair situation they've found themselves in; the mother's working all the time, the older brother needs to grow up fast, and early signs point to an unusually immature younger sister. This isn't a plot point or anything, but the missing father seems to have really been thought through. I mean, Genius Sonority shouldn't have made Old Man Loose Lips skippable info, but having talked to that one NPC has transformed how I view these opening moments. I bet the subtext would be lost on younger players or those trained to ignore Pokémon NPCs, but as an adult, I'm picking up the small hints I never would've noticed.

I wonder if it's too subtle. The awkward family dynamic's definitely in play, but I also have future plot knowledge. I know our avatar's destined for greater things at a young age, he helps his mother keep tabs on the younger sister, I can infer from his SIM training that he's striving to have more power (or rather, control more power). He seems to be just as aware of the family dynamic as his mother, and he's doing his best to pitch in and maybe pursue a career of his own. But I only know this because of course we become the hero, it's our Pokémon adventure (eventually), this is how tropes work. But a younger player not that familiar with storytelling conventions? I know kid me didn't pick up on this; I wonder if others-

Oooh Shiny!.png

Our present! Ooh, shiny! Thank you for implying we should interact with shiny objects, text box!

And it's a P★DA! It's a ★, but in a PDA! You know, those things people use to send messages and won't become immediately outdated when smartphones arrive? Do you younger folks in the audience even know what a PDA is? When I was a kid, Pokémon was in black and white! Get off my lawn!

Though, to its credit, the P★DA's disc design still looks high-tech:

PDA Main Manu.png

This here screen is the P★DA's "main menu". It functions like the Trainer Card screen in Game Freak's games, while also giving access to two (eventually four) subfeatures. E-mail is just NPCs sending us text boxes with no back-and-forth, which might be the least intrusive means of remote plot exposition. But the real standout is the Strategy Memo.

Strategy Memo, in brief, is a super-Pokédex. While you don't get flavor text for each Pokémon (and knowing how unreliable Game Freak's Pokédex is, that might be a good thing), you do get full data on every Pokémon you've seen in battle. And by full data, I mean type, abilities, cries, height and weight, a 3D portrait you can freely rotate and zoom as they perform their idle animation, a full type effectiveness chart showing which move types are super effective/not very effective/immune, and my personal favorite: a 3D height comparison to your avatar.

Eevee Height Comparison.png

I have a feeling the numerical height and weight are lies, but I don't need numbers ripped from Game Freak's perpetually-confused Pokédex when I can just compare Pokémon to my avatar. If you ever wanted to measure up Tyranitar to a puny human, now you can. Pokémon finally have a definitive sense of scale thanks to this throw-it-in feature. It might be the closest Pokémon looked to being "real" until Pokémon GO. My childhood imagination loved it. I still love it.

Oh, and the conspicuous red and white box in our room is a chest. Interact with it, and you obtain there potions. Pokémon first aid sprays, not magic potions. I think it's a holdover from Pokemon's RPG roots, as healing potions were well established in the genre and naming your healing item anything else would've caused confusion. I'm sure someone who cares can provide more information. I don't.

So having looted our room, that's objective #1 complete. And our e-mail's telling us our Jovi was last seen playing hide-and-seek with some dude named Adon upstairs. I actually talked to Adon on the way down; he's dressed somewhat kiddish and talks like he's ten, but he's the size of a full-grown man. As far as I remember, this never gets explained. Okay then.

However, before we progress the plot, let's finishing exploring the lab. Walk down on the doorless door mat, and you find yourself outside:

Exiting Dorm.png

For the record, I really like the broad-strokes design of this building. Not because it's pretty or anything, but because it makes sense. This side door leads to a more residential wing with bedrooms and break rooms, while the main entrance leads to workstations and offices. You can cut through the two wings through the door in the director's office, but considering it leads to a bedroom office I'm guessing it's not encouraged. Would come in handy if there's a fire or something. And again, it seems Genius Sonority has thought through their world, making the level feel like it could actually function as a lab. Great for immersion, but they really needed to put some arrows on the elevators. If new players can get confused, then so can new hires. Though this cylinder elevator style is common throughout the region, so eh.

As usual, it seems every NPC wants to talk boring basic Pokémon facts or our missing sister. I found a chest behind the building with Poké-poison antidotes. This screen's boring; moving on.

HQ Lab Reception.png

And the room on the right has our first working PCs and Pokémon Healing Machines. But more importantly, we have some loose lipped scientists...

We're in the midst of developing a system to purify SHADOW POKéMON. "Purify" is the term we use to describe the process in which a SHADOW POKéMON's closed heart is made to open back up again to its natural state. You see, five years ago, criminals used artificial means to close the hearts of POKéMON, turning them into fighting machines. We're developing this system to save such afflicted POKéMON. We call this system the PURIFY CHAMBER. It's not necessary in today's peaceful times, but one never knows what will happen.

Hi, DRAKE! The PURIFY CHAMBER is almost ready. But I don't get it. There's no need to purify POKéMON now. I wonder why PROF. KRANE and LILY are in such a hurry to get the PURIFY CHAMBER finished?

Canvassing the NPCs just dumped a pile of exposition on our lap. Let's go through this point by point.
  1. "Close their hearts"? LOLOLOLOLOLOL oh you're serious. Are you, uh, sure you're a professional scientist? Because I'm pretty sure that's not how hearts wor-oooooh it's a euphemism for brainwashing. Forgot, game's rated E. Carry on.
  2. Remember that boring cutscene in the plot office? Lily danced around the projects "the lab" was working on. And Professor Krane was in the room, and he didn't say zip. Perhaps they know more than they're letting on...and we're stuck doing busywork...AAAAAAA
  3. The receptionist is not impressed.

Receptionist Sleeps.png

Apparently, the lab doesn't get a lot of visitors. Though they do offer tours; wake the receptionist up, and they immediately start babbling brochure speak, before recognizing our face and calming down. Leave the screen and come back, and the receptionist's asleep again. That's the level of dialogue kid me remembers, probably because all the other dialogue is bland as tofu.

The lab needs more NPCs like this. I skipped over them for the sake of brevity, but every NPC has either nothing important to say or bland tell-don't-show delivery. More NPCs need to be like the receptionist; not explicitly stating exposition, but still delivering it through small moments. Less NPCs asking where my sister is, more people working or gossiping. You know, like normal human beings. Perhaps an NPC says something embarrassing and asks you not to mention it again, or one of the scientists says they're hard at work yet clearly isn't doing anything. As it stands, the dialogue so far has been mostly information we already know or isn't important, delivered as dryly as possible. The Pokémon HQ Lab needs more Receptionist Sleeps and Old Man Loose Lips.

And that's the last screen of the Pokémon HQ Lab! The elevator in the back leads us to the starting screen. Which means it's finally time to get on with the plot. Let's talk to...Adon.

Oh, boy.

CH6: I Get Feels (Part 2)



Hello, Adon. I, uh, heard you're playing hide and seek? I mean, you're clearly the size of a full grown adult. In fact, the scientists in the break room seem a little smaller that you. But that's fine. No implications there.

So, uh, do you know where my sister is?

World Map Reveal.png

Hey, a world map! Thanks, dude! You, uh, take care now. Have fun. Don't, uh, nevermind.

Okay, that was needlessly awkward. Even kid me was bright enough to realize something's up, and I was a dumb kid. Adon's able to handle conversation, so I don't think he's low-functioning autistic or clinically retarded. But he is awfully slow on the upkeep, doesn't have a job, and plays with children half his age. There's clearly something going on that isn't being acknowledged.

And honestly? If Adon was confirmed "slow", I wouldn't have a problem with the representation. Again, Old Man Loose Lips informed us our avatar's family has no father. Adon is, in part, keeping the younger sibling entertained while our Mother works. In fact, once our adventuring kicks into high gear, Adon is the one who keeps our sister Jovi occupied. This family dynamic only works because Adon's volunteering his time, and some acknowledgement of a disability would A) kill the creepy "hangs out with underage girls" vibe, and B) make Adon a more sympathetic character. He isn't plot important in any direct way, but he is the reason our kid hero gets to be a hero.

Anyways, our sister Jovi has left the premises entirely to go explore some doctor's manor. Which means it's time to head outside, take any path away from the lab to access the world map, and choose a destination-

Challenge to Real Battle.png

Uh, this was not the flavorless flavor text you had earlier. I mean, I guess-

First Real Battle Overview.png

Well, okay then! I guess we're battling! And we have a new battle theme!

Hey, this theme isn't as bad as I remember! I mean, the lead guitar riff is kinda weak, but the percussion's surprisingly tight and lively. More organized and complex than any jam session. The production's solid, no instrument is drowned out. And it has a higher tempo than I remember, or at least, the rapid start-stop drum beat gives the illusion of a higher tempo.

I dunno, though. This is clearly trying to be both high-energy and laid-back, like a joyride in a supercar. And I've heard this done better:

Who says metal can't be fun? I think XD's trying to go that route, but the guitar's just too slow. I think the composition would've been better if the percussion was simplified, still start-and-stop, but not so prominent. Then, let the lead guitar loose. Make the lead guitar the song. A ramp-up intro, a fast-and-furious rhythm, a few solos interspersed to add variety, maybe get creative and give a different instrument a solo. Still loose and fun, but fast and high-energy. As it stands, XD's casual battle theme is above RPG par, but also overshadowed by songs doing exactly the same thing.

Anyways, the battle. Show me that screenshot again?

First Real Battle Overview.png

Well, that's different. GIVE UP is gone; it's been replaced by CALL, which is pretty vague. Considering our opponent's half our level, I think we have time to experiment. What's CALL?

Calling Eevee.png

Oh, uh, apparently we just yell at our Pokémon. Eevee's accuracy rose. Not all that important right now, but I guess it might be useful?

Okay, yes, CALL does more than raise accuracy. For one, it awakens sleeping Pokémon. Yes, you can yell at your Pokémon to wake the fudge up. And secondly, once we start encountering Shadow Pokémon, calling a Shadow Pokémon at the right time can help them snap back to their senses. I'll get more into it once we cross that bridge; for now, we got a Sentret to curb-stomp.

Sentret Fainted.png

Yeah, no contest. We're definitely still in training wheels mode. But it's a nice change of pace from the lukewarm opening level, and we are gaining very real experience points. The adventure's technically on, it's just starting slow. Hard to fault the designer now there's a lose condition in play. And behind the curtain, this was an optional battle I agreed to.

Anyways, we have a sister to retrieve. To the world map!

Kaminko Manor World Map.png

"Eccentric scientist" Dr. Kaminko? And our sister was last seen heading there, alone?

I'm sure everything is fine. Anyways, the music:

This, no sarcasm, is the worst song so far. And that's not because it sounds bad, or doesn't fit the current tone. It's because it's boring. It has no personality.

For all the music I've talked about in the past, I've identified an intended emotional response. The title screen orchestra was ominous and powerful. The SIM battle theme was high-energy and synthetic. The Pokémon HQ Lab was carefree happy-go-lucky. The casual battle theme was carefree but high energy. And the world map? We have a horn section, a cymbal that's barely utilized, and a snare drum. Or rather, the most generic adventure-sounding instruments possible.

I think this theme warrants special attention, because while it's only heard in short bursts (hence the short loop), it's something players hear every time they travel between destinations. And rough estimate, that's going to be upwards of a hundred listens over the course of the entire game, probably by a wide margin. This theme may be short, it only has time for a few bars of music, but it's placed in the most prominent position of any of XD's songs. The title theme was the first opportunity to establish this game's tone, and while it missed, it at least had personality. The world map theme? You could slap this on any RPG.

Let me explain in detail. First off, the horns. I think horns were a good choice; they invoke bigness, fantasy, adventure. Think of medieval trumpets introducing a king, or that Frank Sinatra-style big band music. A horn section announces the presence of something with a lot of weight to it, because having access to a horn section literally requires weighty pull. Orchestras don't come cheap.

The problem is the sheet music. The horn section, being far weightier than the single snare drum, are clearly the lead instrument. But the arrangement, the actual sequence of notes they play, means nothing. It's not building up, it's not particularly fast or slow, there's little variation in volume. There is no contrast, no variation; the horns are just there, playing notes. And without that contrast, the horns are just horns. They convey bigness and nothing else.

As for the snare drum? Again, I used to be a drummer, and I can say from personal experience the snare is the most versatile drum on the kit. What separates the snare drum from all the others are strings of metal balls along the bottom of the drum (the "snares"). This gives it a distinctive rattly sound which can be manipulated in a lot of ways.

But a lone snare drum not attached to a kit? That's a marching band drum. Like these:


Image source: Wikipedia

I think this song's snare drum is trying to evoke the military snare drum. You know, those drum beats that keep everyone stepping in rhythm. Snare drums are still used for military ceremonies, because snare drums stir up the martial side of people. And if I may reuse an example:

"The Pretender“ is a song about the world being a lie, the singer being angry, and they're doing something. It is aggressive, it is martial. And it kicks off with a snare drum.

But there's a catch. The reason I'm referencing "The Pretender" again isn't just the snare. It's the contrast. The snare comes out of nowhere, smacking you in the face as electric guitars start blaring and the tempo shifts into high gear. And that arrangement fits with the song; the first few moments are quiet, subdued. They are pretend. Once the snare drum hits and the martial stir starts, no one's pretending anymore. The arrangement of notes fits with the song's central theme, while XD's world map theme has no theme, no personality.

Which leads me to the one central question of this entire analysis: what is Gale of Darkness's theme? What is its personality, its style? Is it really just "generic kid's adventure", or is there something more? We got a lot of game ahead of us; I want to find it.

Next time: more localization crap! I don't like it, either! Just give me my bionic arm, please!
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