Every new Nintendo handheld gets a new Pokémon game. That’s the way it’s been for the past 15 years. The OG Game Boy got Pokémon Red/Blue, the Game Boy Color got Pokémon Silver/Gold, and so forth.
That has been true until Pokémon Black/White. This is the first time a Nintendo handheld has seen a second new iteration of the Pokémon series within its life cycle. This is the first Pokémon game that can’t rely on the power of a new console as a selling point. For that reason, Pokémon Black/White needs to be good enough to compensate for the fact that it’s on “old” hardware, which is a particularly tall order considering that the shadow of the 3DS is looming over all of gaming right now, not just Nintendo portables.
Thankfully, Nintendo and Game Freak rose to that challenge. Pokémon Black/White is the most impressive main-series Pokémon game to date, and is more than worth the purchase, old hardware or not.
Pokémon Black/White (DS)
Developer: Nintendo/Game Freak
Released: March 6, 2011
Pokémon Black/White is my favorite Pokémon game. That’s my opinion. It’s also the most robust, fully featured, polished Pokémon game on a technical level. That’s an objective fact. Put those opinons and facts together, and you can only come up with one conclusion — if you like Pokémon, you should go buy Pokémon Black/White. Like, right now
OK, in that case, maybe you don’t like Pokémon all that much. Maybe you’ve never played a Pokémon game, or maybe you just don’t get what’s so great about the series. If that’s the case, I’d be happy to explain to you why Pokémon is so popular, and why Pokémon Black/White is the best example to date of what makes the series so great.
The underlying draw of all the main-series Pokémon games is their slot-machine-like appeal. People today often complain about random battles in RPGs, but the fact is, developers still utilize them because they still work on our brains. On a strictly biochemical level, random battles are effective game design, but only when used properly.
Like I once said about Animal Crossing, playing Pokémon triggers the same chemicals in our brains that fire when someone is just about to win or lose something in real life. There is a reason why that kid bothered to hunt for a shiny Ponyta for so long. It’s because every time he got into a random battle, the music, the graphics, and the promise of a new Pokémon caused adrenaline and endorphins to fire in his brain. Those are powerful drugs. It’s a good thing that Nintendo sells the full Pokémon cartridge up front, instead of charging per random battle. We’d have a lot of bankrupt Pokémon fans out there if Nintendo started to treat Pokémon battles like online poker.
Back to the point, Pokémon Black/White maximizes on the “game of chance” aspect of Pokémon by ditching all the old Pokémon, making a new and exciting reward all the more likely. If you’ve played the series at all in the past, then you’re likely sick of running into Zubats, Geodudes, and Magikarps in the process of hunting for new Pokémon. You won’t be seeing any of those guys in the main campaign of Pokémon Black/White. Instead, you’ll be treated to 155 all-new Pokémon. Some of them are clearly influenced by previous Pokémon designs (the flying electric mouse Emolga is basically a Pichu with webbed arms and black headstocking), while others appear to be totally new ideas (the fire/bug-type Larvesta is particularly awesome). Regardless of how original these new Pokémon appear to be, it’s unquestionably more compelling to have each and every Pokémon in the main game be a new design. This is on top of the enormous laundry list of new features and items found in the game (more on that later). Suffice it to say, there is always something new around the corner in Pokémon Black/White, and that’s exciting.
The second big selling point for the Pokémon series in general is that Pokémon (the actual Pocket Monsters themselves) are awesome. I say that as a fully grown married man with two jobs and a relatively normal social life. I know that a lot of people in their twenties and younger associate Pokémon with “kids’ stuff,” and that’s understandable. The less-than-sophisticated accompanying Pokémon cartoon show and movies do a lot to further that notion. As a 34-year-old, I’m sort of oblivious to all that. Pokémon first came out when I was 18. I knew that kids liked it, but by then, I was too distanced from the world of children to fully associate Pokémon with being a kid. Instead, Pokémon was just Nintendo’s new turn-based RPG to me. It allowed for player-vs.-player combat, and player-with-player trading, which I thought was awesome. More importantly, it took place in a world that was one part EarthBound and one part Dragonball, but with characters that were one part Totoro and one part Godzilla, with a liberal dose of total insanity cast over it all. To this day, I’m still convinced that Squirtle is one of the most ingenious character designs ever. A turtle that squirts water with a squirrel tail, named Squirtle? Fucking amazing.
None of that design genius has been lost on Pokémon Black/White. The new Pokémon are just as amazing as the old ones, if not more so. The best part is, the designers at Game Freak no longer have to rely just on static images to convey their ideas. Each Pokémon now has a smooth, expressive standing animation. That goes for every Pokémon ever designed — all 649 of them. I believe that’s some sort of record for individually animated 2D sprites in a videogame.
Those animations can really go a long way toward making these characters interesting and fun to look at. For instance, when I first saw the new legendary Pokémon Victini, I passed it off as a cheap Pikachu knock-off. That was before I saw his hyperactive dance animations and the tiny changes in his facial expressions, and heard his signature whistling battle cry/death rattle. I love that little spaz so much now. He hasn’t left my party since I first caught him five hours into the game, which is saying a lot, since I’m 88 hours (and counting) into my first play-through of Pokémon White.
The attention to detail doesn’t stop at the animations. Like all the Pokémon games before it, Pokémon Black/White is an immensely detailed game. Figuring out all the features, systems, and techniques is like a science unto itself, one that I don’t think I’ll ever fully comprehend. If you want the full laundry list, check out Serebii.net after the review. In the meantime, I’ll tell you about a few of the new aspects that really enhanced my time with the game.
Right off the bat, you get a starter Pokemon (like in prior Pokemon games), but after a bit of exploration, you’ll also get a corresponding monkey Pokemon of complimentary type to go a long with it. Your first gym battle will also change depending on which starter you chose. A little later on in the game, you’ll find that you trade online in real time with strangers, which really ups the excitement and potential for online trading. You can also jump into someone else’s game and team up with them on special multiplayer missions, and catch Pokémon that are otherwise unavailable to either of you. Then there are the two kinds of triple battles, which are easily the biggest evolution of the Pokémon combat system to date. I honestly never really enjoyed playing Pokémon against other people before. One-on-one — and even two-on-two — battles just felt too predictable and limiting. With triple battles, that’s really changed for me. It’s a very straightforward improvement, but it goes a long way to making the game more fun.
On the other hand, Pokémon Black/White doesn’t just stack new stuff on top of the old formula. It also works to streamline play. You won’t have to rely as heavily on moves like Surf, Flash, Strength, and Cut in order to make your way through the campaign (though all those moves are mandatory for certain side quests). It’s all part of Pokémon Black/White‘s overall push to make the player enjoy every second of their experience with the game. The polygon-based backgrounds allow for dynamic camera angle changes that make even walking around the overworld potentially exciting. The seasons change once a month, which both allows for new seasonal Pokémon to pop up, and for new areas to be explored in the overworld. Music changes dynamically in battles, trainers give mid-battle trash talk, you can get video chat calls from NPCs and PCs alike in the midst of playing; the list goes on and on.
There is also a storyline. I’ve never been much for the storyline of the Pokémon games, but I have to admit that the story for Pokémon Black/White has its moments. The game is about your player and his/her two best friends setting off into the world of Pokémon, a world that much more closely resembles the United States than in prior Pokémon games. Almost right away, you bump into Team Plazma, a group dedicated to freeing Pokémon from the oppression of humans — sort of like a PETA for Pokémon. What makes them interesting is that like PETA, they may (or may not) have their hearts in the right place, but either way, their methods are often questionable at best.
The further you get into the game, the more you get to understand Team Plazma, and the fact that they are a truly bizarre, cult-like organization, poisoned from the inside by entitlement and dogma, but potentially saved by the purity of their Pokémon love. This ambiguity and internal conflict is encapsulated in Pokémon Black/White‘s main “rival,” a character named N. I don’t want to give away the details about N, but I’ll say that by the end of the game, you’ll feel like you’ve gotten to know this mysterious character pretty well. The game’s story may not be Metal Gear Solid 4, but it’s definitely a step up from the simple “terrorist/organized crime/environmentalist group uses Pokémon to do bad stuff” narratives of the past games.
There are a few niggling issues I’ve had with the Pokémon series since day one that still bother me in Pokémon Black/White. The menu system remains overly complicated at times. I tried out the game’s limited video chat system with Destructoid’s Max Scoville yesterday, and it took about a half hour for us to figure out how to get it going. Max is a smart dude, and I’m not totally dumb myself, but we still needed to bust out the instruction manual and engage in some trial and error just to get online. Find your Pal Pad in your bag, exchange friend codes, then go to the Wi-Fi room (not the Union Room, you idiot!) in the Pokémon Center to get each other in the room, then select your Xtransciever, which does… wait, what does that thing do again? It’s all much more work than it needs to be. There is no reason I can see why they couldn’t just let you select “video chat” from an “online” option in the game’s main menu. For that matter, there is no reason for there not to be an “online” option in the game’s main menu, instead of breaking up the game’s online modes and settings into multiple different locations.
And don’t even get me started on the game’s “box” system. Why does it still take me more than three steps to get into the Pokémon storage system? Why do the “Deposit Pokémon” and “Withdraw Pokémon” options even exist? These are such little problems, and it seems like such common sense to fix them, that I can’t help but wonder if I’m missing something here. I’m pretty sure it’s not just me, though. It’s probably just another case of Nintendo making an incredible game, but missing the boat on a few basic interface optimization techniques that would do a lot to make their software more fun to use.
There are a few other tiny problems I have with the game. Some of the Pokémon animations are a little bland; the “legendary trio” this time around doesn’t look all that legendary; and there is the occasional bout of slowdown (usually in particularly large areas of the overworld or in triple battles). I could also do without the mandatory in-game tutorials on how to catch Pokémon and what a Pokémon Center is. They’re great for beginners, but veterans like me shouldn’t have to sit though that stuff. Overall, though, those issues really do nothing dampen what is the newest, most polished-feeling Pokémon sequel to date. Just before writing this, I tried going back into Pokémon Pearl/Diamond/Platinum to see how it stacked up to Pokémon Black/White. It felt like such a step backward that I could barely stand to look at it. Even without new hardware to rely on, Pokémon Black/White still delivers the next step in the evolution of the Pokémon series.
If you like Pokémon, or ever could like Pokémon, this is the game for you.