If you’re in your early twenties now, chances are you were swept away by Pokemania when the first games arrived in North America in 1998. The ubiquity of the games was hard to escape from, especially in the playgrounds of elementary schools where the card trading and GameBoys reigned supreme.
As Pokemon was such a gaming fixture in my youth, I’ve followed the series all my life. I did drop out around the Ruby/Sapphire era, but having dipped my toes into the series with Diamond and Pearl and the HeartGold/SoulSilver remakes, I’m once again back in the world of Pocket Monsters. The fifth generation of the franchise, Black and White, makes a few fundamental changes to both the gameplay and the presentation, but is it enough to bring new life back to this very tried and true series?
The beginning of Pokemon Black and White is the same as it’s always been since Red and Blue: you’re greeted by the foremost Pokemon researcher of the region (a woman this time; glad to see this isn’t a male dominated field) who gives you an overview of the relationship between people and Pokemon, and offers you your stater of choice. As is my wont, I picked Tepig, the Fire-type Pokemon to begin my journey. The difference this time is that you have two friendly rivals, one of whom actually picks the type that is weak against yours. Much of the game follows the same progression that we’re used to, i.e. fighting the Gym leaders and collecting badges.
Black and White do make one important change to the story of the game with the introduction of Team Plasma. While this organization is the antagonistic element in Black and White, their mantra is a bit different from the other Teams of the past. Instead of wanting to enslave all Pokemon or use Pokemon to reshape the world, Team Plasma calls for the release of all Pokemon from human domination, claiming that we’re abusing Pokemon by trapping them in tiny balls and storing them in computers. It’s kind of refreshing to see a game examine its own core reason for being. While Team Plasma isn’t all that altruistic, their change in motivation makes them the most interesting enemy the Pokemon series has had for a while.
The battling has also had a refresher for Black and White, becoming quicker and much more animated. Instead of looking at static images of your Pokemon, your team has little animated sprites that bounce around during battle. Attacks are also done in a more cinematic fashion as the camera will zoom into the Pokemon about to be hit and show the damage being done to them. Even though these additions would make it sound like the battles would take much longer to complete, fighting in B&W is actually much faster than it was in even HeartGold and SoulSilver, making the grind endemic to Pokemon a bit less of a chore.
Just as Diamond and Pearl introduced Double Battles, B&W brings us Triple Battles where three Pokemon from each Trainer’s team duke it out. Triple Battles function mostly the same as Doubles with one exception: Pokemon on the far left and right can’t attack each other, and the Pokemon in the middle can hit everyone but is also susceptible to attacks from all angles. It’s another small change that helps the gameplay stay fresh, but I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a “revolutionary change”, but more of an amusing distraction.
The graphics have also gotten an overhaul for Black and White outside of the in-battle animations I mentioned above. The world is presented from a more diagonal angle, allowing the buildings and characters to be more detailed and having them “pop” a bit more out of the screen. Calling it 3D would be a stretch, but compared to HeartGold and SoulSilver, it’s a definite step up in terms of presentation. The game also changes seasons in real time depending on how well your DS’s calendar is synched, and certain Pokemon can only be found at specific times of the year. As a nice change from previous Pokemon games, the designs of the creatures themselves are actually much improved. There’s still the odd one (like one based on a chandelier), but for the most part you can tell the type of Pokemon just by their appearance, something that was hard to judge in preceding versions.
One thing that I didn’t like about Black and White was the music. This may sound like a small complaint, and really it is, but the Pokemon games have always had some of the most memorable themes I can recall. While Black and White keeps the classic Pokemon Center and Gym themes, the town and fight songs are a bit lacking. Again, this is just a small nitpick, but for my money the music in the original games were far superior.
This is still a Pokemon game through and through, and there’s a reason why this formula has been so wildly successful for thirteen years. Collecting monsters, putting your team together, and raising your creatures through their evolutions is challenging and rewarding, and requires a certain amount of skill and forethought to put together the party that can take on all comers. While the plot of the games are always the same for the most part, Pokemon isn’t really about the badges; that’s just the carrot the game dangles in front of you. The eponymous creatures are the real reason to play, whether it’s simply for collecting them, trading them or battling them. Pokemon has tapped into a certain zeitgeist in this respect, which is why it remains foremost amongst its many imitators.
Black and White may wear a little thin for long time Pokemon veterans, but newcomers will find the refined mechanics and new additions fun and engaging. If you’re returning to the series after a long absence, you may be gratified to find that the game of your youth is much the same as you remember it, just much, much better looking.
So, that’s what I thought of the new Pokemon games. Is anyone else playing them, and what do you think? If you’ve got no love for Pokemon Monsters, just remember, haters gonna hate.
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