Developer: Game Freak / Publisher: Nintendo / Price: / Played on: DS / ESRB: Everyone (Comic Mischief, Mild Cartoon Violence)
Remember when “catching ‘em all” meant just grabbing 150 (and later 151) Pokemon? Well, four generations of pocket monsters and three different handheld platforms later, catching them all is no longer a simple task. Pokemon Black and White, the newest games in the stalwart series, brings the Pokemon total to well over 600 and offers the same addictive gameplay that ate through so many batteries on the original Game Boy 12 years ago. Whether you’re a Poke-Veteran or you don’t know the difference between your Charmanders and Tepigs, Pokemon Black/White is a great game to end the Nintendo DS’s life cycle and one of the better Pokemon games I’ve played.
Pokemon Black/White starts out like every other game in the series: you get your very own Pokemon from the local Pokemon professor in town and you start your journey to train and collect as many of the critters as you can. I don’t know if Game Freak is going for a nostalgia feeling every single time you play a new game, but after three or four times I’d like to see a bit of variety in how the game starts out. Why not start with a few Pokemon instead of just getting one from a professor? Anyway, the story progresses much like every other Pokemon game: you battle wild Pokemon and trainers, earning Gym Badges proving your worth as a trainer as you try to become the Pokemon Champion. The biggest difference in comparison to previous titles comes in the form of Team Plasma, the “evil” organization in Pokemon Black/White. I say “evil” because their intentions aren’t entirely dastardly. Team Plasma is sort of like PETA; concerned about the ethical treatment of Pokemon. They don’t believe Pokemon should be captured or battled, and instead should be free (oftentimes stealing Pokemon from trainers to attain their lofty goal). The ideas brought by Team Plasma are refreshing for the series, but they don’t pan out. The story is ditched to the backburner far too quickly, with your driving force to continuing being the battles and advancement of your own Pokemon.
If you’ve played one Pokemon game then you’ve essentially played them all. The basic concept here hasn’t changed. You pit your Pokemon against your opponent’s Pokemon and fight it out. Each Pokemon has up to four moves to use to damage or otherwise hinder your opponent. Every Pokemon also has a unique class to which it belongs (e.g., electric, fire, water, grass) that determines how effective it is against another Pokemon. For example fire types are stronger against grass types, but water types have the advantage over fire types. You can still only have up to six Pokemon on your character at any given time, so maintaining a diverse team to conquer each challenge is part of the strategy. Nothing has changed in terms of the core gameplay and why should it? The system has worked so well for the past decade or so that it’s not broken, so fixes are pointless.
A few additions have enhanced the game, but are still relatively minor changes. Three-on-three Pokemon battles are just as they sound and definitely up the pace of standard one-on-one battles. Unfortunately only a handful of these exist in the entire game. Rotational battles are like three-on-three in that you have three Pokemon out on the battlefield at one time, but you can only attack and defend with one of them at a time. If you want to switch who you are using you have to rotate them with the Pokemon on either side of them. Again, it’s not a huge change but it is a fun addition, and it too is underutilized. More attention has been given to the gym battles. While you still fight your way through trainers to battle the gym leader, you oftentimes have to solve puzzles to get there. Riding roller coasters, shooting out of cannons, and pushing switches in the correct order are just a few of the puzzles that attempt to add some dynamism, but come off as nuisances.
A few good changes have been implemented, such as including the PokeMart in the PokeCenter. Also, all of the 156 new Pokemon in Black/White are very hit or miss: I loved guys like Sandile and Sawk, (a crocodile and Gi-wearing hawk, respectively) but found Vanillite (the Fresh Snow Pokemon) and Trubbish (the Trash Bag Pokemon) to be a stretch. It took me nearly 30 hours to beat the main story, and afterwards a few new areas open up that allow you to catch some of the Pokemon from older games. If you loved past Pokemon games then you’ll love Black/White just as much, but if Pokemon was never your thing then there’s nothing really new here to bring you in.
The feature that keeps fans playing any Pokemon game past its ending is multiplayer. The multiplayer options in Black/White are easily the best for the entire series. Introduced early in the game is the C-Gear, a tool you can turn on or off at will. The C-Gear acts as your hub for Pokemon multiplayer. Using infrared connections you can battle and trade with your friends locally. Connecting through Wi-Fi allows you to battle with anyone from around the world. Friend codes are only needed to battle with friends (go figure), but finding a random opponent is easy. You can also engage in Feeling Checks, which has you and a partner pressing buttons in sequence to gauge how in sync you are, with the result being items you can use. It’s nothing special at all, but is there for those who need the extra items. You are also able to trade Pokemon from your computer storage box without having to withdraw them first, a much-needed addition that saves loads of time. The C-Gear streamlines the entire process so you no longer need to go to PokeCenters or other areas just to battle your friends. The strong multiplayer aspect will definitely keep PokeManiacs occupied for hours battling, trading, and meeting new trainers from around the world, and is easily the best addition to the series in the game.
Pokemon Black and White is a good addition to the Pokemon series, but will leave you feeling like you just played the same game you’ve played so many times before. A lot of new additions show signs that the series can change: streamlined multiplayer, more dynamic battles and story elements, and an overall entertaining new set of Pokemon to catch help make the game standout from its predecessors. The formula has worked well for Game Freak so I can see why they don’t want to change it, but after five of essentially the same game I feel more than a facelift is needed for the next game in the series. Overall Pokemon Black/White is still a great RPG that offers up the same addictive gameplay you’ve come to love, but don’t expect anything new to entice you to catch ‘em all again.