Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, the first Pokémon games were unleashed on an unsuspecting Japanese public. Designed by Satoshi Tajiri both as a way to leverage the Gameboy's link cable and as a method of revisting his insect-collecting hobby as a child, the games were originally pitched by showing real insects fighting in a box.
After fifty three Pokémon games on consoles alone, the franchise has spawned numerous TV series, movies, spin-off games and an uncountable number of random plastic things emblazoned with the images of cute anime monsters. The franchise also single-handedly propped up a struggling Nintendo, whose Gameboy handheld was suffering from declining gamer interest.
After selling more than 200 Million units and garnering numerous fans around the world, the latest generation (Pokémon Black and Pokémon White) is here.
First, a little background information. Pokémon Black (the specific version reviewed here) is partnered with a simultaneously released Pokémon White. Each version is essentially identical, with the differences between each limited mainly to the monsters you'll encounter as you play. Your goal is to go on a grand, coming-of-age adventure, in a world populated by little monsters called Pokémon. To survive here you need to catch the little buggers, level them up and battle against an ever increasingly difficult menagerie of wild and trainer-controlled Pokémon. It's an RPG but it keeps most of the hardcore elements of that kind of game hidden, so as to avoid putting off the kiddies.
With such a vast number of games, spanning such an incredibly long period of time (in videogame terms), you'd expect the very latest in the series to be markedly different from the originals. The reality, though, and something we want to get out of the way right up front, is that these new games are still very, very similar to the black & white originals (see what I did there?). Sure, there have been enhancements and some of those enhancements are significant but you could still describe the core gameplay (much as I did in the second paragraph) without giving the reader any clue as to which specific variant you were talking about.
So what changes, then. For a start, the Pokéwalker (a little pedometer thing that let you take your Pokémon with you) accessory introduced with Heart Gold / Soul Silver is gone and not supported. In its place, however, is the much more interesting (if less exercise-inducing) Pokémon Dream World - a website, essentially, that you can send your Pokémon to and in which they'll have a bunch of adventures. Unfortunately, it's not live yet (it was supposed to go up on the 6th of March, however it's now been pushed back to the 30th - too late for this review), which prevents us giving you any idea as to the value or experience that such an excursion might bring you (or your Pokémon).
Another key change is the seasonal cycle, with seasons changing every month - on the first of March, for example, mine rolled over from Summer to Autumn. This brings with it visual changes (such as the trees changing from green to brown and numerous other little details) as well as changes to the types of Pokémon you'll encounter, where you'll encounter them and how many of that particular variety you'll find. It really does change things up quite a bit, significantly changing the feel of the title from month to month - if not quite as much as a neglected Animal Crossing game might change.
Another welcome change is the ability to participate in multiplayer activity from wherever you are, including video chat on DSi systems, without having to run back to town and use a computer at a Pokémon center. Again, our ability to test this out (beyond enabling and disabling it) is somewhat limited due to the system not being enabled yet and copies of the game still only being in the hands of the press.
There's also a host of changes as to the way Pokémon are transferred, events you can access after you complete the main storyline and so on. Even the story has changed, eliminating the old rival-based tale of previous titles and replacing it instead with something more collaborative. Don't get too excited, though, the narrative squarely reflects the target market - children. Unlike The Simpsons, there's no dual-layer storytelling here; it's typical Pokémon; that is to say, unabashed triviality backed by a barely concealed moral lecture. Still, that hasn't harmed the series so far and there's no reason to suspect it will now.
Another thing which is consistent with previous versions is the interface. Oh, it's changed - but it's still frustratingly cumbersome to use, steadfastly refusing to bow to modern usability conventions. There are numerous clunky aspects of the interface, such as the requirement to dismiss your Dowsing MCHN (which helps you spot hidden objects) to access the main menu, after which you need to pull it up again. It's not, by any stretch of the imagination, unworkable but that it's so unweildy after all this time and those ridiculously large sales numbers (Black & White have already smashed the record set by previous titles in the series, selling 1.08 Million on day one in the US - nearly a third more than the previous record set by Diamond and Pearl) beggars belief.
Battling is still essentially identical to previous titles, however there have been some tweaks to improve the flow and presentation. The best change, most certainly, is that status effects (such as poison) don't continue to damage your Pokémon between fights (in previous versions, every few steps you take outside of battle would inflict more damage). They do, annoyingly, continue to aflict your Pokémon between fights though, giving you a disadvantage in your next encounter - should you have run out of antidotes.
There have been huge improvements to the flow of the title over Heart Gold / Soul Silver, which lost their way a bit once you got a fair way into the adventure. Now, while you're not lead by the hand, you are provided with frequent guiding nudges to keep you progressing. Your friends show up frequently and the narrative, such that it is, keeps driving along and developing throughout the journey. The flow is good, ensuring you're never far from someone who can heal your party and the kind of Pokémon you need to defeat the Gym Leader can always be found nearby. Yes, you'll almost certainly need to do some grinding from time to time to get the right kind of Pokémon up to the level you need, but it's not as big a part of the gameplay as it once was - unless you want it to be.
The visual changes, in particular the large-scale 3D stuff that has been added, definitely add to the proceedings - although they continue to feel more tacked on than a cohesive part of the aesthetic. We're glad they're there but there's definitely a ways to go to integrate them more convincingly into the graphical experience. The sound remains as solid a component as ever, with numerous tweaks to the audio system (particularly around battles) which help things remain both familiar and fresh.
What we have, then, is a game which you could score very highly or fairly harshly, depending on what you're looking for. If you're looking for the very best Pokémon game yet, you'll find it in Black or White. The changes they've made tweak the formula in good ways and the all-new world in which the all-new Pokémon live in is worth exploring.
If, however, you're hoping for a significant revamp that addresses the myriad of fiddly quirks the series has collected over its 15 years or simply brings the title inline with other modern RPGs, you'll be (yet again) disappointed.
We opted to go with the former method of scoring, thanks in no small part to this being the definitive Pokémon experience. Just be very sure of what you're looking for and what you expect to find before you jump in, to avoid disappointment.