One of the best days in every elementary school kid’s year, at least in my generation, was the day of the book fair. We had catalogs that we peered at throughout the week, and the day finally came when the shelves were lined with row after row of novels we could buy with our begged-for spending cash. I can’t speak for the girls, but most of the boys flocked to the Captain Underpants and Shonen Jump area, pouring over every title until at last picking out one. A staple of these book fairs were the infamous Learn to Draw books, and I remember buying them and spending hours trying to understand basic techniques, just so I could create a decent drawing of Goku.
Pokemon Art Academy seems like the spiritual successor to those books, and in many ways achieves what they never could. The game opens with you as a new student, entering the titular academy to learn how to draw the art adorning famous Pokemon trading cards. It’s almost meta in how it directly addresses not just Pokemon, but the culture and following around it, but it’s a nice way of getting right to the point: you’re here to learn how to draw Pokemon.
And learn you shall, as the game ushers you through gradually increasing levels of complexity and different styles of illustration. You’ll start out drawing Pikachu’s face with what resembles Crayola markers, but within several hours you’ll be smudging pastels and hatching pencil sketches, all with just your 3DS and stylus. This is one of the crowning achievements of Art Academy: the stylus feels responsive and exact, comparable to drawing with an actual Wacom tablet. The many different mediums all feel natural on the touchscreen, and the few actual buttons feel unintrusive to your process. Flipping through menus to change opacity and brush weight feels very responsive and fluid. The artistic process is at home on the 3DS.
The mediums you work with on the 3DS are also very impressive. Pastels, watercolors, painting, pencil sketching and comic-style markers are all available, and the game does a great job of introducing you to all of them gradually. As you progress through the lessons, you’ll be taught both the tools used and the techniques as well, from hatching to shading and blending, and then all will be brought together into a single finale, almost like a cumulative final for an art course. It was nice learning so many different techniques, and Art Academy is very forgiving in your learning. You can undo (step-backward, for you Adobe-philes) as many times as you want, and there’s no timer or pressure; everything is done at your pace. There’s also many modes to practice in, like Quick Sketches (which act as homework assignments, helpful but not mandatory) and Free Paint (which allows you to revisit previous assignments, and even attempt them in different mediums than you were originally taught).
Another great feature is saving your artwork to your 3DS’ SD card. After every finished piece, the game gives you an option to save your work with an optional background, trading card portrait and signature onto your SD card. These can be shared online with your friends list, and offloaded to a personal computer and printed – perfect for hanging on a fridge! Not that I did that, but the game gives you a very proud sense of accomplishment, and my drawing of Charizard was pretty fantastic and deserving of fridge-pinning.
It’s hard to stop gushing about Pokemon Art Academy, but it does have its faults. There are many game modes and Pokemon to unlock, but I would’ve liked to see multiple reference angles or artworks for some of the Pokemon. Also, it’s a little difficult to tell if you’re doing the right thing in some of the later, Graduate-level classes. Sometimes your art is off-proportion from the construction shape phase, and it becomes difficult to see details due to the computer using unclear or overlapping colors to draw examples. It doesn’t score your end result either, which is a kind gesture in my case but means there’s little reason to revisit assignments outside of self-determination to improve. Also, this game has a definite target audience, and while it appeals to the would-be artist in me, it isn’t as much a game as it is an art trainer.
Still, there’s a huge amount of gameplay here for anyone interested in improving their art skills or learning to draw their favorite Pokemon. As someone who usually limits himself to stick figures and spiral doodles, I was giddy with every assignment I finished. Whether you’re looking to kill a few minutes hatching out a doodle of Squirtle, or spend upwards of an hour pouring over a watercolor of Lucario, this is certainly a major improvement to the Learn to Draw books of yore.