Since its creation in 1996, Pokemon has grown to become one of the most well-known and best-selling franchises to ever hit the market. With the success of Pokemon Red and Blue versions for the Game Boy Color, the original 151 lovable critters have since been joined by hundreds of new friends. The most recent installations to the series, Pokemon Black and Pokemon White version for the Nintendo DS, have added an additional 156 Pokemon to the pack and promise to be everything that you loved about the originals and much, much more!
So, are you a boy or a girl? It’s the age-old question that started with the Pokemon Crystal version installment and has been a staple ever since. These two fine kids pictured above are the protagonists whose lives you’ll be embodying. It’s interesting to note, however, that these new characters are quite a bit older than the standard ten year old sprite that was present in previous versions; these new guys are sixteen. Their hormones are raging, and they’re ready to tackle the adventures of the Unova region!
After the preliminary gender picking and name input, you find yourself in “your” room in the humble setting of Nuvema Town. This is where you meet your two best friends (the so-called “rivals” of this game) Cheren and Bianca (they are the same regardless of your gender choice). After meeting with your friends, you encounter a gift box on the table from Professor Juniper (the first-ever female professor of the series), who leaves a note granting permission for the three of you to choose a Pokemon companion. They are Snivy, Tepig and Oshawott (pictured below, left to right). You get the first choice, Bianca chooses the Pokemon you are strong against and Cheren chooses the Pokemon you are weak against.
After this, a string of events occurs that prompts you to begin your Pokemon journey to fill the Pokedex for Professor Juniper’s research. The rest is, well, history. All in all, the basic mechanics of Black and White aren’t really all that different from the previous games, and, to be honest, they shouldn’t be. Game Freak struck gold with their original game play plan and will continue to do so for many more years to come. It’s like the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” A new antagonist group, Team Plasma (think PETA for Pokemon), is at the center and is the driving force of most of the storyline progression throughout the game. That, combined with some friendship making, lesson learning, moral teaching and, of course, badge getting, is the skinny of your adventure in the Unova region. There are, of course, a plethora of additional features that really set these two games apart from the rest and make them, in my opinion, the best installments in the Pokemon series to date.
First off, the graphics have definitely been upgraded from the pixilated and color-limited environments of Pokemon Red and Blue. The traditional birds-eye view has been traded in for a slightly angled view, giving the environments a more 3D aspect. Although you may not notice it from the get-go, the environments are also highly detailed and animated. Everything from the swaying grass to the blowing leaves of autumn provides for an experience that simply pulls you into this vivid cartoon world of possibilities. Speaking of environments, the new Black and White installments have added yet another “time” component to the game play: seasons. While I have yet to experience the season change myself in the game (seasons change every month), it has been well-publicized that these seasons are not merely for show. Different seasons will grant you access to not only different Pokemon but also to different areas that are inaccessible during other times. Weather conditions, which sometimes affect battles, are also season-dependent. There is even a Pokemon whose appearance changes with the seasons!
So, aside from the graphic updates and tweaks, there are several game play features that make Pokemon Black and White that much more fun to play. The first one I will mention is the fact that Pokemon Centers and PokeMarts have now been merged into one building, allowing for less travel time and a more streamlined experience when running tasks such as healing your Pokemon and stocking up on key travel items. In addition to the center/mart merger, the Pokemon centers also feature an upper floor which provides wi-fi and global link services. Each center also features a small large area that is largely useless to players but certainly adds a homely and aesthetic feel to the building.
Another aspect of the game that also saw some major streamlining is the battle system. While the overall mechanics of battling have not changed a bit, the way battles progress have been significantly speeded up. In-battle text and animations have been significantly streamlined and speeded up to keep the action going at a pace that allows for much faster progression in the game. In terms of aesthetics, Pokemon sprites now have slight body movements during battles, once again, bringing the game play to life and showing that the little details sometimes can make a huge difference. In addition to traditional single battles and double battles, Pokemon Black and White also feature new rotational and triple battles. Other fun new features include the Pokemon Musical, the Battle Subway and the Pokemon Dream World (a wireless feature that will be launched on March 30th in the U.S.).
Now I will briefly touch on some of the more hardcore game play mechanics. While I am not officially a tournament-going type of guy, I certainly know my way around when it comes to training a tournament-ready Pokemon team. Competition enthusiasts will be glad to know that various tweaks and new additions have certainly made building a solid team as enjoyable and as satisfying as ever. Yes, there are new Pokemon to choose from, but old Pokemon have also gained additional ability and move-set possibilities with the new generation, as well, giving you access to new options in terms of team-building.
One of the most exciting upgrades that these games are seeing is the new and improved trading, battling and wireless capabilities. After reaching a certain point in the game, you gain access to the C-Gear, which is conveniently accessible with the touch of your stylus. The C-Gear allows you to access three mediums of wireless communication: infrared, wireless and online. Although I have yet to dabble extensively in the latter two (since they require the launch of the Dream World on March 30th), I have made use of the infrared functions at various times throughout my week of playing to trade and battle with my brother (who has Pokemon White version). Gone are the days where you have to run to a Pokemon Center to trade or battle with someone right next to you, because with the new infrared system, you can simply connect to your friend’s DS system wirelessly and instantly trade or battle via the C-Gear. This streamlined and convenient system has been a long time in the making, and most, if not all, Pokemon players, including myself, are extremely happy with this upgrade.
You rarely find a game, however, that is all sunshine and puppies, and Pokemon Black and White are no exceptions, albeit my complaints are quite miniscule. One of the first things I noticed about these games, having previously played Pokemon Heart Gold, is that the first Pokemon in your party no longer leaves its Pokeball to follow you around on the screen. Although this was a small detail and certainly does not take away from the game play, it is a feature that I missed nonetheless. In addition, Pokemon staying in their Pokeballs is a minor theme that appears in the storyline, so it made a little bit of sense to axe the feature for these two games. Hopefully they will be bringing it back for future installments. Another “downgrade” from Heart Gold/Soul Silver that I perceived was that the menu was a lot less touch friendly. Instead of having the menu buttons immediately available on the bottom touch screen, you instead have to press X to access the buttons. Furthermore, items that have been “registered” for quick access must be preceded by a press of the Y button, instead of simply tapping on the convenient item tab as in HGSS. Once again, however, this is a small complaint, and, although it takes some getting used to, it does not detract much from the actual game play.
So, if you are a Pokemon fan and are considering buying one of these fine games, there is one final thing to consider: Which version should you get? Unlike previous game pairs, where the only difference was the Pokemon availability, Pokemon Black and White have some additional nuances that may lean you one way or another. Another theme that resonates in the games is the idea of the future and the past. In Pokemon Black version, certain cities and areas will seem more “modern” and technologically upgraded, while those same areas on Pokemon White version will feature more traditional and almost rural characteristics. Furthering this theme is the addition of exclusive map areas to each game. Black version has Black City, while White version has White Field. The former is an area where you can battles various high-level trainers with Pokemon foreign from the region, whereas the latter is an area where you are able to catch Pokemon from foreign regions. The game you choose will also dictate which legendary Pokemon (Zekram or Reshiram) that you will catch.
So, all in all, I can guarantee you that Pokemon fans old and young will not be disappointed with these new installments. Whether you’re a casual Pokemon player or a savvy tournament-trainer, there is something for everyone in these two games. Game Freak did not re-invent the wheel for Pokemon Black and White; they simply kept the same tried and true concepts, streamlined them and added in a host of fun new features that are designed to heighten your game play experience. $34.99 is a small price to pay for what will no doubt become hours, days, months and even years of good, clean fun. Get out there, and catch ‘em all, folks!