Two people could look at this game and come to entirely different conclusions. One could say that it’s the fifth verse, same as the first, another 160some pokémon and a whole lot worse. Another could say that the differences, though subtle, mix things up in ways that haven’t been seen in the series’ 15-year history. It’s a matter of how closely you’re looking.
Pokémon, as a series, thrives on that dichotomy. The general tenets – speak to a professor, receive a pokémon, leave a trail of obliterated rivals, gyms, and criminal syndicates – are the same as they were 15 years ago. However, the cast of characters, the arrestingly intricate mechanics, and the competitive metagame see an overhaul with each iteration. It’s this dichotomy that makes the game difficult to classify into a “good” or a “bad.” It behooves me to go into exceptional detail, as the series’ broad appeal and interactive elements make it more akin to an MMORPG than a classical dungeon crawler. As such, I’m going to take a different tack here and discuss the game from four different points of view, as put forth in Richard Bartle’s 1996 paper, “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs.”
The Pokémon experience is a story at heart, a coming-of-age tale of a young trainer exploring, meeting people (and pokémon), and rising to challenges. Its own mythos continues to grow and expand, growing more and more complex with each passing generation. One mystery, however, has lasted for 15 years…
“What happens to the starter pokémon that neither you nor your rival take? Does it just sit there on the Professor’s desk forever?”
Black/White finally settles this quandary by simply adding a second rival. Bel (the Heart) and Cheren (the Spade) demarcate opposite ends of the story/gameplay spectrum, and both take a much more active role in the game’s events than rivals of generations past. In a particularly touching gesture, the three of you step off onto Route 1 in unison. These aren’t the jerks who pop up during inopportune moments to pound you into the dirt; they’re the folks who have your back as you take on the Evil Organization du jour.
|Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are manipulation, violent revolution, and ferris wheels.|
That evil organization is Team Plasma, lead by a charismatic bishounen named N (/ˈɛn/), a green-haired savant who prefers diplomacy rolls to pokéballs. He dreams of freeing pokémon from the oppressive yoke of the human race, and convinces one of the legendary dragons (the one that’s the same color as your version) to assist him in his overthrow of the Pokémon League. It’s an evil plan, though somewhat less evil than, say, destroying the oceans/landmasses of the world; Game Freak seem to be joining the likable-and-somewhat-justified antagonist party. (About a decade late.)
In terms of interpersonal relations, the social aspects of the game return in force. The High Link, an ad-hoc wi-fi mode, enables players to engage in cooperative missions and quests, while gradually expanding the pokémon available in your own version. The online connectivity from previous versions returns, along with features like the Global Trade System.
On the whole, the storyline continues the trend of deeper and richer worlds for the familiar Pokémon concept. There are certainly some moments that’ll tug on your heartstrings. It’s not just set-dressing, a new, thicker candy coating on the same old chocolate. It can stand on its own two feet (or four feet, or no feet at all, depending on which pokémon you start with).
The Pokémon experience is a challenge at heart; this is a JRPG, after all. There’s random battles to be fought, a linear path to follow, a series of underlings (let’s call them gym leaders) along the way, and more random battles. The classic Pokémon format applies: 6-member team, max 4 techniques per member, 17-element rock-paper-scissors-ish mechanics. It’s the same gameplay that lit the world on fire 15 years ago, but with 15 years’ worth of upgrades, innovation, and balancing.
|It’s tough to be smug when you’re staring down a legendary Dragon/Fire pokémon.|
New to Generation 5 are Triple Battles and their dizzying cousin, Rotation Battles. The former is exactly what it says on the tin: three-on-three skirmishes that introduce the concept of splash damage to a game where Splash is synonymous with “useless.” Rotation Battles set each team upon a Lazy Susan, with only one pokémon per team taking action and only one opposing target available. As part of your command, you may turn your team 120° in either direction before attacks are resolved.
Both of these modes, along with the new item-heavy Miracle Shooter mode (which is restricted to multiplayer matches) are available in “Random Match,” which allows for online competition… though actually connecting to this service can be an experiment in futility. Nintendo’s had a spate of issues with their servers, and basic matchmaking can take several minutes at a time. If you have the patience and fortitude, online rankings are viewable on the Pokémon Global Link website, which is back up after collapsing under the weight of the strongest first-week sales in Japanese video-game history. The Pokémon Dream World section of the Global Link can be used to capture 1st-4th generation pokémon with new and interesting abilities and items, while also offering an online space to grow berries, visit friends, and… furnish a house. Why not? It’s like a secret base, just online.
Part of the challenge is the completely new slate of foes; none of the 1st-4th generation pokémon appear until after the main story is complete. Even afterward, there are plenty of time-sinks available for the discerning competitor, including the deliciously-named Battle Subway (think Battle Tower meets Shining Time Station). For even the most practiced pokémon trainer, there’s a difficult road ahead. And it probably crosses three bridges.
The Pokémon experience is about catchin’ ‘em all, about being the very best like no one ever was. The “Catch ‘em all” count is up to 649. Six hundred and forty-nine. Let that sink in. 156 new pokémon. Fortunately, they’re all you see until you finish the main game, so you have plenty of opportunities to get your hands on them. There’s a pile of new items to obtain, as well, not to mention an overhauled TM list.
|Hope you’ve got a Japanese 4th Gen cart lying around, else you won’t be seeing this until March.|
For you Pokédex completionists out there, you can migrate your old pokémon from 4th generation games via the Pokéshifter, which actually requires two Nintendo DS systems. The system with Black/White broadcasts a DS Download Play application to the system with the pokémon to transfer. The transfer itself takes the form of a little minigame, which I wish I could describe to you, but the truth is that the transfer itself is region-locked. Hopefully this is fixed for the NA release.
In the meantime, though, there’s more than enough to keep the materialists occupied. Interacting with friends can open new possibilities in your own version, and playing through the Dream World minigames on the Global Link site yields even more available pokémon. There’s a slew of new legendary monsters only available in the end-game, as well as a roaming pokémon or two (and thankfully that few) and recurring weekly events for rare items.
(Speaking of shiny objects, a 4-CD set of the game’s music has just been announced. 170 tracks are featured, and the breadth of the 5th generation soundscape merits such a selection. Each class of trainer has its own musical cue, there’s suitably dramatic tracks for the touching moments, and the accurséd critical-health alarm beeps are now integrated into their own melody, which starts playing when things get dicey on the battlefield.)
The Pokémon experience is an elaborate mechanism, a study in combinatorics, diversity of design, and the interaction of local and global metagames. In every iteration, the very physics of the Pokémon world are given a little stir, to keep things fresh, balanced, and interesting for another couple years.
|Victini, the first-ever Psychic/Fire pokémon. Cute, marketable, and packs a wallop.|
Black/White‘s cadre of 156 new pokémon include several never-before-seen type combinations, including Ghost/Fire, Normal/Grass, and Fighting/Dark. They come with a number of new attacks and abilities, including a couple combination techniques. In addition, a number of older attacks have been re-vamped, adding power or accuracy in an attempt to re-balance some powers that had fallen by the wayside.
While the changes aren’t nearly as drastic as last generation’s divorce between elemental type and physical/special designation, there’s still plenty to shake up the metagame in this iteration. The Dream World brings new abilities to some lesser-used pokémon, making them more viable for competitive play. The wide selection of new attacks include several with aftereffects, such as increasing the user’s stats or even altering an opponent’s type.
Compared to the mechanics, the presentation has seen a much more drastic overhaul. Gone is the static combat screen; generation five brings with it a much more dynamic display, with a free-roaming camera zooming and panning across the battlefield. Every pokémon now has ambient animation, front and back, though only your rival trainers receive the same treatment. Outside of battle, the overworld map continues its embrace of 3D graphics that started back when Diamond and Pearl introduced us to parallax. Several times throughout the game, the camera seems to revel in its own freedom, such as the huge zoom shots while crossing the Sky Arrow Bridge. In the face of non-portable gaming, it’s not much, and all the zooming can cause the sprites to get quite blocky on occasion. That said, it’s a refreshing change of face for a series which the majority of folks may prejudge as samey and stale.
The interface, though, feels like half-a-step backward from HeartGold and SoulSilver. The C-Gear interface takes up the bottom screen, thus eliminating the oh-so-convenient “Run” toggle and two quick-access item buttons. Further, the operative areas of buttons – even when confirming a simple “yes” or “no” – are significantly smaller than previous versions. On the whole, it’s not too much of an inconvenience, but it feels like a slight after the masterful controls put forth in the generation 2 remakes.
The game’s the same, though the game’s always changing.
Pokémon‘s come a long way in a decade and a half. Part of it is mass-market appeal; it’s one of the most accessible JRPG series in history. Part of it is franchise appeal; it comes from all angles in all forms of media. Part of it comes from social appeal; not many games can entice their players into actually interacting and cooperating with other players, rather than sequestering each in an ivory tower of solo objectives. Part of it is familiarity; experienced players know what to expect on a general level, but the actual hows and whys are subject to change each time.
I will say, though, that in an era where Pokémon is looking to unite the world, this is quite an import-unfriendly game. Handheld systems were once seen as the bastion of region-free gaming. I’ve got a number of ‘em myself: Mother 1+2, Star Ocean: Blue Sphere, even a Japanese copy of Pokémon Gold I found one day at the local second-hand gaming concern. But with Pokémon Black, I’ve not only been locked out of using my brand-new, actually-comfortable-in-my-freakishly-large-hands, did-we-mention-the-screens-are-92%-larger DSi XL, but I can only transfer pokémon to it by trading them to my friend Jim across town, who happened to pick up a copy of SoulSilver at the Pokémon Center in Tokyo on his vacation this summer. That’s a lot of finagling just to get my hypnosis-and-false-swipe-packing Gallade into the new version. Hopefully, the inevitable release of Grey Version will address some of these concerns. In the meantime, we on these shores might as well continue speculating, as we have some five months to go before we can participate in this new era.
Played to completion – and by that, we mean finishing the main story and fiddling around with some of the extras, as “completion” is a fluffy term around the Pokémon franchise – on a copy imported via our friends at www.play-asia.com.