19th April 2011 - Our Podcast member and reviewer Tyler Chancey brings us a special review on a massively popular Nintendo DS game, Pokémon Black and White. Enjoy!
Pokémon Black and White is the 5th generation installment of Nintendo’s acclaimed franchise. It has currently sold more than one million copies in the United States on its launch day and the numbers are continuing to rise. But does the series still hold the spark and charm that has made us as gamers fall in love with it fifteen years ago, or are these sales merely the death rattle of something that has long since jumped the shark?
The story is literally the same as it has been with every past installment in Pokémon. You are a young man or woman about to leave your hometown for the first time with a starting Pokémon, you will have a rival, there will be a Pokémon terrorist organization you’ll have to stop from taking over the world, you will face eight Gym Leaders for their badges, face the Elite Four and the Champion, and lest we forget, you got to catch ‘em all. Thankfully, if the exact content of all the games was as barebones as the description above, this franchise wouldn’t have sold as well as it has.
As opposed to past games where you would have one rival that always has a starter with a type advantage over your own, you have two rivals, which unfortunately have preset names this time around. One is a reckless ball of energy that has a type disadvantage to your starter; the other is a headstrong, calculating individual with a type advantage. If you aren’t hearing cheesy sitcom music in your head at this point, I’m impressed. Also, in an attempt to tackle a few issues in the established universe, the terrorist organization in Black and White are, to be blunt, the Pokémon world’s equivalent of PETA, but with very thick recruits. Their actions are a lot more apparent and occur more often than in past Pokémon installments, but it may become a bit stifling for those more familiar with the amount of freedom the games have had in the past.
On that note, Black and White has been hyped that while traveling through the Unova region, the Pokémon world’s version of the United States big metropolitan areas, that completely new Pokémon will appear, and only new ones until the National Dex is unlocked near the end of the initial adventure. The good news is this coerces the player into becoming familiar with the new creatures; the bad news is it might drive veteran players away, not just the exclusion of trademark powerhouses like Charizard or Alakazam, but the designs don’t hold the same mystic appeal. Red and Blue set the standard for Pokémon with its infamous 150, each one unique and iconic, and the number has been rising by the hundreds ever since. Black and White’s new 100+ give the impression that Game Freak might be running out of ideas, especially considering one of their Pokémon looks like a trash bag. Also, with names like Throh and Boldore, the writing, or at least the English translations, is losing their luster. The ideas are cool but the scraping of the bottom of the idea bucket is becoming more audible.
Creature designs and slightly more serious tone aside, the core of Pokémon still remains strong, and the changes brought along in this installment are mostly good. First thing to note is whenever one of the player’s team is down to low health, the annoying “warning warning, you’re about to die!” beeping is now replaced with a more urgent remix of the background battle music, which manages to get the point across without it getting as annoying as an alarm clock that won’t shut off. Battles have also been given the “cinematic” treatment that has become dominant in mainstream titles. When attacks happen, the camera zooms in dramatically, when the player goes idle the camera sways and drifts back and forth like a live feed, and the creatures in battle will be more physically active. It’s not exactly the level of a fully articulated fight but the subtle touches are just enough to make them stand out from the more static experience of past installments. To further reinforce a more visceral and fast-paced atmosphere to the battles, the damage calculations are a lot faster, including simultaneous subtractions from all involved when it comes to area attacks, and any Abilities meant to counteract a debuff simply flashes across the screen abruptly and vanishes, as opposed to a more cumbersome message that eats up three flow breaking seconds. On another note, the unnecessary money pit that is TM purchasing has been scrapped in the new versions, now TMs can be used an infinite amount of times.
Compared to other Pokémon titles on the DS, Black and White looks gorgeous. The use of 3-D models on the traditional 2-D plain really sells Unova region’s overwhelming skyscraper setting. In terms of fidelity it isn’t on the level of, say the upcoming 3DS, but what is shown gets the job done.
The trademark sounds of Pokémon are still around. The super-effective hit, the “new item obtained” jingle, and so on. As for what has changed, the orchestral themes for each city are still as catchy as ever.
In terms of value, I have stopped seeing Pokémon as a serial installment in the vein of Mario or Halo, and more in the lines of expansions. Much like how MMORPG expansion packs are meant to expand, improve, and streamline the initial experience, for an example see World of Warcraft, Pokémon has been building on itself in small installments since its inception. Gold and Silver increased the roster by 100, introduced a new region, and brought in Pokémon Eggs, Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald introduced weather effects, and so on. Black and White, on the other hand only seems to improve what’s been done before without a whole lot new to the formula. Weather effects have evolved to seasonal changes, mate diversity for eggs have spread out, Wireless and global interaction with other players have been streamlined to a T. All of these things Black and White do, but they are only natural improvements of what has been introduced. In other words, it offers nothing new, but improves on everything else so shown so far. It is not inherently a bad thing to take a step back and touch up things that have been lacking with today’s standards and technology, but the lack of anything truly new leaves a lot to be desired.
There isn’t any real world shattering innovation at work in Pokémon Black and White. What is at work, however, is a load of polish and fixes to its formula. What is presented is still fun and as adventurous as ever, but it might leave a few people disappointed.
AAG SCORE: 8.5/10
+ Faster combat
+ Streamlined controls
+ More Pokémon goodness
- More linear story progression
- Nothing Astoundingly New to the Formula
Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey