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In the first 48 hours of their release,
Pokemon X
sold four million units, making them two of the fastest-selling games of all time, just behind
Grand Theft Auto 5. Pokemon X and Y are being universally received as excellent additions to the second-biggest-selling game franchise of all time — and beyond the addition of full networking/multiplayer functionality, by far the greatest new feature is the addition of full 3D graphics in battles and in some areas of the game world. The 3D graphics are so good that Pokemon X and Y almost looks the same as the Pokemon TV show — an impressive jump from the Nintendo DS’s weak 2D graphics. The question is, though: When will the graphics of a Pokemon game be
than the TV show?

Prior to the Nintendo 3DS, the Nintendo portables packed some of the weakest hardware in the gaming industry. The Game Boy Advance, released in 2001, had a 16MHz ARM CPU — at the same time, in the PC industry, AMD had just released the magnificent Barton-core Athlon XP. The Nintendo DS, which was released in 2004 and went on to become the biggest selling game console of all time, had a 67MHz CPU and 4MB of RAM. As we’ve learnt with the rise of smartphones, though, portability and accessibility can be a lot more valuable than flashy visuals.

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The 3DS, however, perhaps by virtue of its high-res display and other advanced features, packs a dual-core ARM chip clocked at around 233MHz, 128MB of RAM, and a GPU with OpenGL support and 6MB of dedicated VRAM. As a result, after monopolizing the portable gaming market for 25 years, you can finally play some impressive 3D games on a Nintendo handheld. When it comes to standard 3D games, the graphics on the 3DS aren’t that impressive — but for Pokemon, which is based on a simply drawn anime TV show, the image quality is impressively similar. Take a look at the comparison screenshots and videos below.

Pokemon TV show, screenshots

Screenshots from the Pokemon TV show. Click to zoom in.

Pokemon X and Y, screenshots

Screenshots from the Pokemon X and Y games. Click to zoom in.

When will the Pokemon games have better graphics than the TV show?

As you can see, the TV show has slightly more detail than Pokemon X and Y, but the difference is fairly minimal — except, of course, for aliasing. While the TV show looks smooth and warm, Pokemon X and Y has lots of jaggy edges that catch the eye in a bad way. Some of the textures look a bit too digital/computery in the Pokemon game, too.

The jaggy edges are caused by the low output resolution of the Nintendo 3DS (400×240) on a 3.5-inch display. It simply isn’t possible to draw those thin, dark outlines on every character at 400×240 (133 PPI) and not have jaggy edges. If the resolution was much higher — say, the 1136×640 (326 PPI) — then those jaggies would go away.

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A higher resolution would necessitate a more powerful CPU and GPU, though — but nothing too extraordinary. A last-gen Qualcomm SoC (the Snapdragon S4 with Adreno 225 GPU) or Apple SoC (A6 with a PowerVR SGX543MP3 GPU) would have more than enough processing oomph, bandwidth, and polygon-pushing power to drive a cel-shaded version of Pokemon that looks better than the TV show. Or, to put it another way, if Nintendo ever released Pokemon for iOS or Android, the image quality could be better than the TV show.

Processing power, though, is cheap. By the time the next Nintendo handheld comes along, it’s virtually guaranteed that it will have a big enough CPU and GPU that it can easily match graphics quality of the Pokemon TV show. A better question to ask is whether Pokemon’s developer, Game Freak (owned by Nintendo), will actually bother spending time on creating high-quality models and textures to beat the graphics quality of the Pokemon TV show. Considering there’s no competition, and Pokemon X and Y were two of the fastest selling games of all time, I can’t imagine Game Freak or Nintendo will be pushing overly hard for super-high-quality graphics.

Now read: GTA 5: PS3 vs. Xbox 360, gameplay and graphics quality comparison

[The story originally said that 5.5 million units were sold in 24 hours. Nintendo has since provided the official figure of four million in 48 hours, and the story has been updated to reflect that fact.]