Pokémon Art Academy isn’t a game in the strictest sense. It’s more like a digitized drawing class on the 3DS where you draw only Pokémon. And it’s really awesome.
The “game” starts out by asking whether you’re a boy or a girl, whether you’re right- or left-handed, and if you would like to receive notifications or promotions from Nintendo SpotPass. You are issued an ID card from the academy’s professor, which you must sign (your signature can be just about anything—mine was Goobity, with a smiley face at the end). Immediately afterward, the professor called me a young man, despite the fact that I chose “I’m a girl” in the introduction, so that was a little off-putting, but the guy seemed friendly enough. And thus begins the lesson.
Players are instructed to draw a yellow circle using the 3DS stylus. Simple enough! The screen outlines the figure, so you’re basically just tracing at this point. The upper screen shows you both the process of drawing the circle and the finished circle. If it sounds like this game is holding your hand, then you would be right. This is somewhat important, though, because drawing digitally is not quite like drawing physically. It takes some time to get the hang of using digital tools. Not to worry though; the game pretty quickly takes it up a notch, and while you will spend a lot of time tracing and copying, it eventually allows a bit more freedom.
Some background: I’m well versed in digital art. I’ve been using programs like Photoshop and Paint Tool SAI in conjunction with a Wacom tablet for years. I have also tutored kids in drawing, and I spent a semester teaching a middle school art class. Suffice it to say, this is kind of my jam.
The Lessons & Free Paint Mode
You can stay in lesson mode or switch to Free Paint Mode. The lessons, even the more advanced ones, have you following the guidelines and creating an image that matches the one given. There isn’t much artistic freedom here, though I will note that there’s no way to “fail” in Pokémon Art Academy. You can make a giant red scribble instead of a Pikachu, color the Pikachu green instead of yellow, or give the Pikachu four ears instead of two, and the lesson will continue as if you were trying to match the image. This method of teaching has some disadvantages (see below), but it can help you relax.
As an artist, however, I enjoyed the Free Paint mode more than the lessons. This mode takes you out of the lesson format and simply gives you a blank screen to do with what you will. I was genuinely surprised at the level of detail and creativity the game allowed me.
In Free Paint Mode, Pokémon Art Academy is a very budget-friendly version of a digital art program. Using it didn’t feel like much of a downgrade from the more advanced programs (and larger screens) I’m used to, This is a program I would gladly take with me on trips. It’s fairly easy to grab your or your kid’s artwork off the 3DS SD card as a JPEG, and the quality isn’t bad (though the Pokémon Art Academy watermark sort of gives it away—see above). You can also upload your pictures to Miiverse, a process that I unfortunately couldn’t test out after running into an “unknown error.”
As an art instructor, I have to admit the game didn’t wow me. While extremely entertaining, the game didn’t require players to invest their creativity in the lessons, which I found a bit depressing. There’s no right or wrong way to do art. The things that young artists tend to struggle with most are the very things Pokémon Art Academy failed to address—letting go of control, trying new things, and forgiving your own mistakes. The game trains you quite well how to make Pokémon, and does delve into some basic stylistic choices, but it actively discourages young artists from working outside the framework: “make sure you don’t put a water Pokémon in the desert, and no stripes on a Pokémon with polka dots!” It makes sense, when you think about it. Pokémon is a for-profit franchise, and what better way to spread the gospel than to teach kids to draw Pokémon and only Pokémon?
On the other hand, I was impressed with the range of drawing skills that the game did teach—width of line, how to draw highlights, different styles of shading, how to use overlapping shapes to build a character. I was also pleased with the way the game introduced digital art specifically—for instance, using layers, an essential part of most digital drawing programs. Some people wonder if digital art is less freeing or less legitimate than physical art, but it is my personal belief that all art is genuine and different tools all have different strengths and weaknesses. Digital art programs are becoming more and more sensitive, and people have created incredible works of art with them. Beyond that, it’s becoming more and more important for young people to learn about different art and design programs. While not all artists will choose the medium that I’ve grown to love, many careers necessitate some understanding of these tools, and Pokémon Art Academy is a great introduction to how it all works.
Is it Good for Kids?
Absolutely. Experienced artists might get pretty bored with the lessons, but there’s always Free Paint mode. If the goal really is teaching kids to draw, I’d supplement any Art Academy action with some more freeing experiences—let them explore what it means to make art on their own and, most importantly, let them have fun with it. Drawing isn’t necessarily always about making something look exactly like what you see. Parents should be aware, of course, that some kids—especially older kids—might draw unsavory things in Art Academy. Although they might do that on paper napkins or homework assignments as well, so this isn’t anything new.
Pokémon Art Academy is a great drawing program for kids, whether they’re artistically inclined or not. It’s a learning experience in both the drawing lessons and in the use of a functioning digital art program, an experience that can be intimidating even for adults. While the freedom of expression the game allowed didn’t impress me, the tools themselves were great. And anyone who likes Pokémon will likely be thrilled with the program.
Another bonus? The sound that the pencil makes when you drag it across the screen is absolutely divine. When is Photoshop going to get that?