Pokemon Black and White Review

I remember the day I first played Pokemon:  After months of getting hyped up via Nintendo’s cleverly disguised advertisements masquerading as magazines, I managed to successfully convince my Dad to buy me a copy of Blue Version, along with a matching Game Boy Pocket, as an early Christmas present.  It was easily one of the best days of my childhood (though, in retrospect, the thought of that is kind of depressing.  anyway…,) I tore through the packaging and excitedly fumbled to put the game and batteries into my new handheld even before we managed to walk out of the store, and all my unrealistic, youthful expectations of the game were immediately fulfilled: Despite being limited by decade-old hardware, Pokemon instantly had me addicted, and for the next year or so, the rest of the videogame industry simply disappeared to me.  For 12 year old me there was only one game, and that game was Pokemon.

The memory of that feeling still remains with me to this day, mostly because of two reasons: One, I am a coddled man-child who hasn’t mentally matured a day since then, and reason number 2, the newest Pokemon games, titled Black and White Versions, manage to recapture all the best elements of the original entries of the series.

Black and White’s greatest achievement is that it manages to do what no new Pokemon game has managed to do in almost ten years:  It feels new.  While the first set of sequels to Pokemon, Gold and Silver Versions, managed to add new innovations to the series — an in game clock that affected gameplay, two new types, etc — all of the series’s sequels since then have simply been content to recycle the same formula while adding new monsters.  Hell, despite advances in hardware, even the games’ visual style has barely changed: Pokemon games have for the most part managed to look identical to the simple, tile based graphics of the original game.

But, while yes, Black and White still maintains the classic rock-paper-scissors combat and collectible-driven formula as its predecessors, it also introduces the most radical changes and updates to the series, since, well… Ever. The franchise’s lack of change over the years is indicative of Nintendo’s understandable hesitance to mess with a winning (billion dollar) formula, but they’ve finally decided to shake things up a bit, and the results are, outside of a few remaining legacy issues, spectacular.

The most immediately noticeable change is in the game’s presentation: the previously static battles are now fully animated, and the results are excellent; not only are all 650+ Pokemon given new, fully animated sprites (an endeavor which must’ve taken a lot of time and money to create, I’m sure,) but the sprite work itself is surprisingly well done and impressive: Fans of classic 2D Saturn or Neo Geo games will likely find a lot to like about this game’s presentation.  This is the first Pokemon generation since the original where I’ve actually kept battle animations on, partly because this is the first Pokemon game in which the in-game battles were actually presented in a way that was dynamic and interesting to watch.

And of course, Pokemon battles are the core element of the franchise, and thankfully, they’ve been given a bit of a modern update as well.  The most common criticism of past games in the series has been the repetitive nature of training Pokemon, as older games required to spend hours grinding as you sat through endless, monotonous battles that dragged on due to either slow battle animations or slow text crawl.  Black and White alleviates the monotony somewhat by doing a simple change: battles are now much, much faster: battle animations (which, like in previous games, can be turned off completely) are sped up and quick, while the traditionally abominably slow text crawl that narrates each battle has been sped up significantly, with entire messages of information appearing instantly instead of being slowly typed out letter by letter.  This sounds like a minor change, but it greatly improves the overall experience: while the traditional Pokemon amount of level grinding is still there, it feels… well, it feels like less of a grind.

The main story of the game still has you travelling around a new region of the Pokemon world (this time it’s called Unova, which, unlike the Japan-centric locales of previous games, is actually inspired by New York City,) collecting Pokemon and defeating regional Gym Leaders to collect badges, with the ultimate goal of becoming the Pokemon Champion.  The story makes attempts at changing up the formula– your reoccuring rival in this game is a genuine crazy person instead of just the usual asshole kid/neighbor, and the main bad guys are a bunch of PETA inspired eco-terrorists instead of the usual Team Rocket-esque bumbling bad guys using Pokemon for money-making scams — but the story will still likely bore anyone over the age of twelve, and while this would be a death knell for any other RPG, let’s face it, nobody plays Pokemon for the story.

So while the story falls flat, the game still manages to be engaging because your journey is so simply well-designed: each location you visit is distinct and attractive, the dungeons you have to cross to get to your destination are cleverly laid out, and the battles you’ll fight along the way are genuinely challenging:  where as in previous Pokemon games you could get away with simply concentrating all your level grinding onto one or two Pokemon and simply brute-forcing your way through the entire game, Black and White’s gym leaders were tough enough that I had to carry a full party of diverse types in order to advance, and I had to rely on tactics beyond spamming my most powerful attacks in order to win.  So yes, while Pokemon’s story likely won’t have you wondering what’s going to happen next, it’s gameplay is well-balanced, challenging, and more than compelling enough to keep you glued to your DS.

But of course, none of the things I’ve talked about so far wouldn’t matter if the game’s titular creatures weren’t worth collecting, and Pokemon Black and White has the best menagerie of merchandise fodder since the original game.  While there are some duds (the cleverly named, but ultimately bland Roggenrolla, for instance,) it has some of the coolest, cutest, and most iconic new Pokemon since Pikachu, which include Pokemon like (but not limited to,) a flying squirrel that calls down lightning storms, the popular and already-a-meme grass starter Snivy, a gothic lolita-clad psychic type that will likely replace Alakazam as many player’s non-Legendary Psychic-type of choice, a Pokemon that is seemingly inspired by classic Japanese sentai (i.e. Power Rangers, Kamen Rider, etc.) and, most adorable of all, a polar bear who uses his nose snot as a weapon.  It’s easily the best batch of new additions made to the franchise ever, and this is the first time in the series where I was satisfied with the new lineup that I didn’t immediately want to connect to an older version to trade over some of my classic Pokemon from the original generation.

The game has also made great strides in making Pokemon more of a social game as well: while the game has all the usual wi-fi trading and battling options that you’d expect, it also introduces a new method of local multiplayer: the C-Gear, which almost seems like a test bed of features for the upcoming 3DS– Now, even as you play the single player mode, the C-Gear will use your DS’s wireless features to constantly scan for any other nearby players, and will alert you to any players you happen to walk by, allowing you to effortlessly trade, battle, or exchange info with any other plays whom you happen to be in wi-fi range of, essentially blurring the line between single player campaign and multi-player and turning the whole game into one massive, potentially endless experience.  It’s an excellent idea and it’s one that I hope other games copy.

But for all the advancements, there are still some legacy elements that Black and White forgets to modernize: most noticeably, some of the menus are still laid out in a rather obtuse, overly dense manner.  Take for instance, the online options in the game:  If you want to trade with somebody on your friend’s list, you have to connect to a server, save your game, and then enter a special room with your friend.  Now, if you say, want to then trade with a random person over the internet, you have to then disconnect, walk to a different area of the Pokemon Center, save your game again, reconnect to the server (again) and select an option from an entirely different menu.  You get used to it eventually, but it is rather confusingly laid out at first, and for all the game’s focus on modern streamlining and speed, the menu’s for certain aspects of the game still occasionally feel like slow, tired relics from 1998.

I’ve spent a good deal of this review comparing Black and White to it’s predecessors, and while it’s partial true that a certain amount of the appeal of this game comes from how improved it is over other Pokemon sequels, when taken on it’s own merit, Black and White is simply a genuinely great handheld RPG, with well-balanced combat, a healthy sense of exploration, and an addictive collectable element.  It succeeds by being the type of game you want it to be:  if you simply want a casual, relaxing experience, the game is accessible enough that you can play it a few minutes at a time and still feel like you’re getting something out of it; likewise, if you want a 100 hour long RPG with deep mechanics, you can easily spend months breeding Pokemon and min-maxing their stats, or hunting for rare catches or simply trying to figure out a balanced team for competitive play.  The game is simply as casual or as hardcore of an experience as you want it to be, and that’s an achievement that many games don’t manage to do.

Pokemon Black and White has become my favorite game in the series, and while I’ll always have a nostalgic attachment to the original games and the memories associated with them, Black and White manages to create an experience that’s just as addictive, just as competitive, and, despite adhering to the classic elements that made the series a hit in the first place, somehow just as fresh as the original games.  Whether you liked previous Pokemon games or not, if you’re a fan of well-made handheld games or RPG’s, you owe it to yourself to at least give this new Pokemon a shot.

Final Score: 9/10