Since we first put stylus to touchscreen on the original DS, Nintendo's handhelds have made full use of the unique interface by allowing us to interact with games in a whole new way. Some ideas have worked better than others, but the natural act of scribbling or doodling shapes, in particular, has never ceased to entertain. The Art Academy series is perhaps the culmination of this simple joy, allowing us to move from the basics to full-on works of digital art. Things have finally come full circle with Pokémon Art Academy, as the same extensive set of tools now comes packaged with a very welcome Nintendo-twist.
Whether this is your first foray into the series or you're a long-time fan, Pokémon Art Academy is an extremely accessible experience to jump into. You and your fellow novice student work through a series of classes under the guidance of Professor Andy, a famed Pokémon card illustrator and brother to Vince from previous entries in the series. Where one has dedicated their life to working as a mentor in the fine arts, the other is an expert at drawing Charizard — we think we know who made the right choice there. It's a charming little backdrop to help tie the lessons together, but confident artists needn't worry about it interfering with their progression. The simple caveat that you will only be drawing Pokémon aside, there's as much on offer here as ever.
Before things really get started you'll be asked to sign an ID card and choose to sketch either Pikachu, Piplup or Froakie in a simple warm-up exercise. It's the first of 40 step-by-step lessons, and serves as an entry-level tutorial to help acclimatise new players with a basic set of tools before launching them into the game proper. These lessons serve as the real meat of the game, and there's a tremendous sense of progression, as each set of lessons introduces a new skill, a new piece of equipment or an entirely new style to master. None of it feels overwhelming, especially when you can take on an optional set of sub-lessons to help reinforce what you've just learned before moving on. It lets the confident get to more complex challenges quickly, while allowing for others to take their time and make sure they're comfortable with the basics first.
Professor Andy makes for an exceptional guide through the core series of lessons, accompanied by some charming dialogue and giving just the right amount of input throughout the process. Each lesson deals with a single Pokémon, and before you begin he'll provide info not only on the different techniques you'll be using, but some fun facts about the creature itself. He's a firm believer in The Eight Rules, which will be drip-fed to you as you advance from Novice to Graduate. In a nutshell, it means portraying Pokémon in a range of exciting ways, making them appear alive and active, or drawing attention to their individual characteristics. It's not really something you need to pay too much attention to, but for all the budding Ken Sugimoris out there it'll provide some valuable insight into placing Pokémon into their own world when free-drawing.
On a technical level processes are just as intuitive as before, and the interface leaves any kind of confusion entirely out of the equation. You can easily switch between menus, add or remove overlays and quickly access the full range of paintbrushes, pencils and erasers at the touch of a button. During a lesson you can repeat steps as often as you like, and the Professor will often advise you to take your time, zoom in when necessary and even move the 3DS itself to help with curves or complex shapes. Its a surprisingly organic experience akin to a real hands-on lesson, and with such highly responsive touch controls it can make for a supremely involving and rewarding experience as well. An original 3DS may feel like too small a canvas, but having played on the 3DS XL we had absolutely no complaints.
This accessibility is helped along by additional features that are entirely new to the Art Academy series, one of which being the excellent 'undo' mechanic. Now all it takes is a quick tap of the 'L' button to undo your last move, allowing more control than ever when things go ever so slightly disastrous. Breaking the line, messing up on a quick sketch or minute detail — none of this is the headache it once was, and this simple inclusion definitely helps champion the merits of digital art. The outline pen is another useful inclusion, which draws black lines that can't be coloured over. Given the more comic style inherent to Pokémon this definitely makes sense as well, and when combined with the solid colours produced by markers this can result in some especially clean images.
There's an impressive variety of Pokémon to serve as inspiration, too, with over 100 reference images including favourites old and new. The 3DS camera can be used to snap real-world references as an alternative to be used in Free Paint mode instead, and this is likely to be where player creativity really shines. It's a good thing that its easier to share your creations than ever, then, with the recent integration of Miiverse being an obvious appeal for artists eager to show off their work. Gone are the days of SD-card antics just to share a quick sketch — now your gallery can be put on display much more easily, and while some of our humble contributions are scattered throughout this review, we're very excited to see what real masters can create. Hints at upcoming competitions once the community is up and running should serve as an ideal platform for exactly that.
This title's brilliance stems from the moment where it all comes together, when you take a step back and feel a genuine sense of pride in what you've drawn. The outline or sketch may look messy at first, the paint comes out in unpredictable patterns and streaks, but step by step you begin to learn exactly what the effect of each small change adds to the overall picture. The enduring recognition of every Pokémon amplifies this satisfaction, because you know what Mewtwo is meant to look like and you know when you've gotten it right. Your fellow student shows off their own results at the end of each lesson — ranging from bad to hilariously bad — but they never give up, and they're praised for the attempt. It uses the Pokémon universe to inspire creativity and patience when approaching the canvas, hopefully encouraging a generation of new artists as result.
Pokémon Art Academy is no gimmicky spin-off. It's a well-realized, totally engaging experience that will appeal to both the curious and long-term fans alike, and uses its host of versatile, recognizable characters to put across a broad range of styles and techniques. The lessons are enough to get anyone up and running, and with Miiverse it's easier to share your masterpieces online than ever before. Those who aren't interested in the subject matter may want to give this a miss, but tempting new additions to the mechanics and a healthy dose of charm should win over almost anyone eager to get drawing again.