I’ve been feeling particularly old within the last week. Maybe it’s down to the harsh realities of adulthood. I’m due to complete the purchase of my first home within the next two weeks and will be a married man in just under three months. As wonderful and exciting as those two events are, they can also be pretty daunting; as I’m sure any married homeowners who read Tap-Repeatedly may attest to. Perhaps however it’s also because the Pokémon franchise is now fifteen years old, a fact which sends me on a serious nostalgia trip back to my school years and perhaps the most formative moments of my gaming life.
When I was in school, Pokémon was huge. Everyone had a copy of Red or Blue stashed away in their rucksacks, backpacks and satchels and trading Pokémon, whether it be via the Game Boy link cable or the equally popular trading cards, was a common occurrence between each period of Maths, Art, English and Double Science lessons. The girls played it. The boys played it. The nerds played it. Even the cool kids played it. It was the only reason I ever owned a Game Boy and, if I’m honest, is one of the main reasons why I picked up a Nintendo DSi just under a month ago (yeah, how Late to the Party am I?).
Since those halcyon days however, my interest in the Pokémon universe has always been as a passive onlooker, thinking back to my school years and becoming all gooey eyed and retrospective. As the second most lucrative video game franchise currently in existence – second only to Mario – it’s clear that interest in filling the now 649 strong Pokédex hasn’t waned between my early teens and mid twenties. A decade and a half on since it’ launch to the world, it’s obvious that Pokémon still retains the ability to entrance gamers just as it did back in the mid 1990’s.
Pokémon Black/White represents Game Freak’s biggest and perhaps boldest regeneration of the franchise since the launch of Red and Blue (or Red and Green as they were in Japan). Four separate generations of Pokémon have subsequently appeared over the last 15 years, spanning multiple games and re-makes for Game Boy, Game Boy Advance and the DS. Over this period, the series has often faced criticism for a failure to evolve beyond the core tried and tested gameplay experience; criticisms that even the most seasoned of trainers will probably agree with. Game Freak’s response with Black and White is to take the franchise back to its roots with a number of crucial adjustments and alterations.
Perhaps both the most significant and the riskiest change within Black and White is in the game’s updated Pokédex. As always, a new Pokémon game means more adorable monsters to catch and train, but unlike previous generations, you’re stuck with the new faces until at least completion of the main story arc. The decision to temporarily do away with 15 years of Pokémon history and 498 unique characters – including Pikachu and his marketing muscle – can’t have been an easy one, but even just a few short hours into my own adventure, it’s a dramatic change that I’m already thankful for.
With 151 brand new Pokémon to discover, Black and White feels like a fresh experience from the off. Having chosen one of three starter Pokémon from Professor Juniper at the games outset, every other monster you come across between now and the conclusion of your travels will be totally new. Enter the long grass outside your home village of Nuvema and you’ll find the chipmunk like Patrat rather than an endless swarm of Rattatas. Caves will be free of Zubats and Geodudes, instead replaced by new creatures to discover and learn.
My first impressions of this move, speaking as someone who was already sick of Zubats, Geodudes and Rattatas after just a short period of playing Pokémon HeartGold prior to starting my copy of Black, is that this is perhaps the best decision Game Freak could have made when starting development on a new generation of Pokémon games. By removing your sense of familiarity with the inhabitants of this new world, Black and White ask you to start from a totally blank canvas. That magical sense of exploration and intrigue that made the original two games so popular, but became increasingly absent in subsequent generations, makes a welcome return in Black and White.
One aspect of Black and White that may feel refreshingly similar in the face of larger changes elswhere is the basic path of the adventure itself. Like previous games, you start out by making basic character decisions such as your gender and name, then proceed to collect your chosen starter Pokémon from the local Pokémon Professor. As you progress through your adventure, you’ll travel between towns, villages and cities, exploring the Pokémon world and challenging local Gym leaders for their badges before taking on the Elite Four trainers in the region. It’s a simple format that will be instantly familiar to anyone has played a Pokémon game in the past, remaining largely unchanged from previous generations.
The region of Unova is however a totally new and varied mass of land, comprising of sea’s, mountains, forests and bustling metropolises to explore. Thanks to some new visual techniques, Game Freak have also worked hard to make the game world feel more ambitious. Towns themselves offer more varied designs, including raised sections or taller buildings, and the camera will often swoop or pitch to include a greater sense of depth or reveal distant landscapes. Although Black and White do little to dramatically improve on the series’ relatively basic visuals, there are enough subtle techniques such as these to create an altogether more impressive sense of scale. In addition to this, Black and White also build on the previous games’ night and day cycles, with seasons now dictating the games visual design (snow in winter, different colored leaves in Autumn) and affecting which Pokémon appear in which seasons.
At the time of writing, I’m just a few short hours into my new Pokémon adventure. Although large aspects of the game feel familiar, tickling the part of my brain that still fondly remembers the original Red and Blue craze, I’m already finding scores of new features and additions that make Black and White feel like a worthwhile new experience. The admittedly small selection of new creatures I’ve added to my Pokédex so far are all well designed, and the way in which different elemental creatures are introduced seems far more balanced here than it has done in the past. With the rest of the game world yet to explore and over one hundred new creatures and evolutions still to discover, I can’t wait to get stuck in to everything Black and White has to offer. As a 24 year old I may lack the youthful imagination and innocence that captured the Pokémon vibe so perfectly 15 years ago, but as an immersive gameplay experience Black and White are certainly no less compelling.
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