Change is a regular thing when it comes to video games. Franchises improve from title to title, sometimes making huge adjustments that make it hard to go back to previous titles in the series. It doesn't always work out, but it's a pretty standard process that we're all familiar with.
Then you have the games that got it right the first time, or found that magical formula at some point along the road and have stuck to it ever since. Since its debut on the Game Boy with Pokémon Red and Blue, Nintendo's handheld RPG franchise has stuck to its own hard-and-fast rules: cute monsters fight it out in turn-based battles built around a complex rock-paper-scissors structure, monsters can evolve and grow stronger, and each title's endgame is the real game, just to name a few.
Pokémon enters its sixth generation and debuts on the 3DS with Pokémon X and Y, bringing 69 new Pokémon to the table, adding a completely new Type that changes the competitive dynamic, and completely redoing the franchise's now-standard visuals in 3D-rendered polygonal graphics. Hell, I'd be fine if that was all that was changed--each successive Pokémon generation has really only served to slightly upgrade the graphics and add more Pokémon to the roster. However, X/Y doesn't just make a visual change--in fact, a lot of little touches make the paired versions of Gen VI the very best place to jump on the Pokémon bandwagon.
For starters, Pokémon is no longer an interminable grind. Yeah, yeah, Penny Arcade's Gabe was bitching about it, but I've always felt that there's a big difference between games that are difficult because they require you to have superhuman gaming skill, and games that are difficult because they require you to have superhuman patience as you repeat the same tasks over and over again for days and days. In every generation, Pokémon could only level up if they participated in a battle you'd won, and that experience was split up among the Pokémon you'd used.
Now, you get experience for capturing a wild Pokémon. If you have to switch Pokémon mid-battle and win, every Pokémon used gets the same amount of experience. There's an item called Exp. Share which passively gives experience to Pokémon that are in your party, but didn't participate in the battle. It doesn't make the game easier--you still have to pay attention during battles, and stupid choices are very quickly and brutally punished--but it does make playing Pokémon much, much less of a grind.
There are also more ways than just fighting to make your Pokémon stronger. Super Training gives you a series of target-shooting minigames that specifically up certain stats, and Pokémon-Amie gives you a trio of simple puzzle-type minigames to build up friendship levels, along with the chance to feed and pet individual Pokémon, strengthening your bonds with them. Pokémon with higher friendship levels will hit harder, level up faster, and are basically harder to kill. On a smaller, more personal note, you're automatically able to run from the very start of the game (it's a bigger deal than it sounds), and you're given actual analog control (and almost too-fast movement) with the roller skates only an hour or two into the game, so it's pretty easy to dash back to the Pokémon Center if you're like me and harvest an entire field of Pikachu just in case.
The battle system always keeps you on your toes. For the first handful of hours, you'll be doing the basic one-on-one Pokémon battles, but X/Y ease you into fighting multiple opponents in pair battles, but that's all just prep work for the two big additions: Sky Battles and Horde Encounters.
Sky Battles are exactly what they sound like: use a Flying-Type Pokémon or a standard Pokémon with Levitate to engage in a mid-air fight to the death faint. Horde Encounters pit you against a group of four or five wild Pokémon, almost always of the same type, so wasting a turn can be lethal.
The roster is not overrun with familiar faces. Back when Pokémon Black came out, I remember entering a dark cave where every three steps I had to fight--not a Zubat, but a Woobat. Yes, totally different, I know. I was pretty concerned that the Unova Region's 150 "new" Pokémon would just be reskins of previous-gen monsters, but thankfully I wasn't entirely correct on that. While you'll find plenty of previous-gen Pokémon out in the wild, a large chunk of X/Y's new Pokémon truly feel new, with fresh designs and a variety of new moves.
The newly-introduced Fairy-Type ends the Dragon-Type's competitive reign of terror, and seemingly-dull Pokémon like Fletchling (a Normal/Flying-Type that feels redundant next to Pidgey) soon show their worth after their first evolution. You're rewarded for going off the beaten path and giving extra attention to your Pokémon, but the game will very clearly mark off areas that you're not yet ready for. However, with all these adjustments designed to modernize the franchise, they forgot something very important:
The endgame is practically nonexistent. Hardcore Pokémon fans may be in it for vastly different reasons--battle, or breeding, finishing your PokéDex, or scouring the four corners of a region and finding every secret that each game has to hold. If there's one thing that you can get most, if not all of them to agree on, it's that finishing the story of a Pokémon game is only the beginning--the real challenge starts at endgame.
In previous Pokémon games, new towns open up, new quests become available, and some Pokémon you couldn't capture during the main game are now available. While I won't give away exactly what's available at the end of X/Y, let's just say that it's practically nothing compared to what previous games have offered. It seems like the inclusion of stronger online features and StreetPass/SpotPass features had to take away from something, and it was the endgame that suffered. Oh well, I guess that's what Nuzlocke Challenges are for, right?
X/Y feels more personal than previous titles. Since practically the beginning, every Pokémon game has let you play as either a boy or a girl Trainer, but X/Y lets you customize your character right from the start, and letting you buy different clothes and cosmetic items as you continue in the game. This is mainly for those beefed-up online features I was talking about, including the ability to trade or battle anywhere without having to run back to a Pokémon Center. The PSS (Player Search System) can be brought up with the touch of a button on the bottom screen, letting you link up with online friends or send items to random strangers.
The Global Trading System (GTS) returns as a kind of Pokémon "classified ads" system, and the new "Wonder Trade" system lets you put up a Pokémon for trade and receive one in turn, although you have no idea what you'll be getting. StreetPassing with other X/Y players adds PokéMiles that you can spend on rare candies and level-up items, while official SpotPasses are used for announcements and giveaways. I should also point out that Nintendo is taking game-breaking glitches seriously, so any technical problems should be easy to handle through the game's online connectivity.
Pokémon X and Y use the same formula as every past Pokémon title: choose a starter, catch some Pokémon, earn your Gym Badges, take on some lunatic and his team of crazies who want to rule the world, and have a great time doing it. But the way X/Y goes about this whole formula feels fresh, making changes in all the right places to make these games feel more playable and modern without alienating everybody who's been battling and trading and evolving since 1998.
+ Lots to do in a massive world--collect, fight, explore, follow the story--how will you leave your mark?
+ Less new Pokémon this generation (69, to be exact), but most newcomers feel fresh and different for a change
+ Complete graphical overhaul gives life to the battles, and more personality to each individual Pokémon
+ More-forgiving experience system lightens the grind, changing the focus to battle strategy and team-building
+/- New battle types keep the action fresh, but constant random attacks can still be frustrating when you're trying to get somewhere
- Major lack of endgame content