Pokemon White/Black [Available only on Nintendo DS]
ESRB Rating: E
Developer: Game Freak
Release Date: March 6th, 2011
Parent Talk: Pokémon is one of the most popular game series on the planet. Nintendo updates it every few years to attract newcomers, yet manages to keep RPG veterans happy. Its accessibility and fun formula has kept many aboard. The tone is always lighthearted and friendly.
Game Freak didn’t reinvent Pokémon with Black and White, but streamlined and optimized the experience with the series’ past innovations. The mechanics remain unchanged, but the battle system and interface have been sped up and made more intuitive. Trading and battling are improved, and the story is significantly better. Black/White is a fine series representative.
An excellent adventure. It’s a wonder that Pokémon is still fun and addictive, with the formula changing little after nearly a decade. Black and White doesn’t do anything different. You start as a young boy or girl from a small, Pokémon-obsessed town and begin your quest with either a Fire, Water, or Grass-type Pokemon. And we love it because it’s easy to understand. Simplicity has always been the series’s draw, but there’s a deceptive amount of depth. In addition to the extensive post-game content, battling seasoned players takes the experience to a completely new level.
Black and White is most memorable thanks to a number of gameplay tweaks. Battles move faster thanks to more intuitive menus and commands. Also, only new Pokémon are encountered during the main quest. No old creatures stick their nose in, like Zubat or Geodude. Players can now trade Pokémon directly from PC boxes; you’re no longer forced to waste time cycling through creatures. Time passes from day to night, and now seasons change. Changes are simple and subtle, but that’s the beauty of it. These refinements make Black/White the most polished and fun Pokémon adventure yet. The amount of overall content is amazing.
+ Improved visuals. Black and White uses the same engine from the previous DS games, but far more effectively. The previous 3D presentations carried a more conservative style that resembled the 2D releases. This time Game Freak went creative. The camera zooms in and out, the perspective changes, and there’s more interesting interaction. (i.e. roller coasters in the electric gym). The game is more visually interesting and highlights the 3D engine rather than masking it. The sprites are more animated. Pokémon bounce and move constantly in battle, and attack animations are much more pleasing.
+ Time and Seasons. Second generation Pokémon introduced a real-time clock. The difference between night and day was and still is substantial because different Pokémon appear during different times. With Black/White, the seasons change. This not only affects the world map’s look, but opens and closes areas, and determines what Pokemon can be caught. This dynamic will most likely be seen in future iterations.
+ Connectivity. Pokémon has always prized portability and connectivity—trading between players is the series’ staple. This generation, Game Freak integrated connectivity into the mani menu via the “C-gear”, which combines the options for infrared, local wireless, and Wi-Fi . They’re always present on the menu and DS touch screen. You can trade or battle via infrared or local wireless for nearby players, or connect to Wi-Fi for global trading. This streamlines the experience even more. You aren’t required to visit Pokémon center for trading or battling anymore. Just tap the touch screen—less wasted time means more play time.
+ The shopping mart has been combined with the Pokémon center.
+ More interesting towns. In the past, towns consisted of a few homes and a gym. Even the “large cities” were pitifully small. This is no longer the case. Cities are bustling with life and activity. Castelia City in particular is huge with the new emphasis on scale: multiple sky scrapers roads and more. It’s great to see Pokémon finally feature a more metropolitan landscape to compliment the assortment of wildlife/nature areas.
+ New battle styles. Triple Battles and Rotation Battles are a slight, but fun addition. Triple Battles are a three-on-three Pokémon battle. Previous games introduced double battles, so this was just a matter of time. Rotation Battles are the more interesting. You can switch Pokémon before the attack phase every turn. There are more skills that work better in tandem this time, and there are some made just for team battles (Combined Moves).
+ Narrative. Pokémon has never featured a serious narrative. The original villains Team Rocket, were iconic because of their image. They were, and remain, the quintessential “children’s show” archenemy. They did nasty stuff, but the lighthearted tone and goofy antics always painted Team Rocket as the cartoonish gang, rather than an intimidating antagonist. Other “Teams,” like Magma, Aqua and Galactic were generic groups bent on world domination. They were more so fodder for the player to battle. The story always mattered little in the Pokémon universe, even to the characters. Many were oblivious to the game’s events, or simply didn’t care about the evil Teams.
Black/White makes substantial improvements. Team Plasma is still the bumbling, cartoonish villain at times, but they’re far more interesting because you can agree with them. Team Plasma isn’t bent on ruling the world or stealing valuables; they want Pokémon liberation. Eco-terrorists as the antagonist is an astonishing change of pace because the story actually considers the ethics of capturing and battling with Pokémon. The creative team actually decided to question the very nature of the series, and it ironically works extraordinarily well.
+Cool music. The soundtrack is surprisingly good, although not particularly memorable. One of the cooler aspects is how much the music changes, however. Battle music will change to reflect different conditions (i.e. if you’re Pokemon is low on health or if you on the verge of victory). The main themes in the game will also change by talking to certain in-game characters; musicians in the game can actually offer additional layers to the game’s soundtrack (adding drums, for example).
– Dated design. The Pokémon are more animated during battle, but the blown up, low-res sprites aren’t easy on the eyes. The battlefield scenery looks dated as well. The overworld and towns are vastly improved, but battle scenes are as conservative as ever. Why no dynamic battlefields?
– Still old. The hurdle to the accessibility is the recycled design. Despite a number of improvements, the game is fundamentally the same. You still choose the same types of Pokémon at the start (Fire, Water, or Grass), battle is the same, capturing Pokémon is the same, and so on. Anyone who’s been turned off by that won’t be turned back on. All the balance changes in the world don’t mean anything if you don’t like the formula in the first place.
– New Pokémon designs. The Pokémon designs are the weakest of the series, with some exceptions. The first and second generation Pokémon are still the best, and while the third was lame, the fourth generation featured cool Pokémon again.
If you’ve burned out on Pokémon, Black and White probably won’t change that. If you’re a die-hard or casual fan, or a newcomer, this is a must-own. It’s the finest game in the series with its essential improvements. Black/White is the new benchmark for the series.