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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Great stuff mat. I desperatly want this game; does it have online match making for Poke-duals?
Pokemon is something I missed out on during that initial boom; I’d like to say I don’t really know how, but it’s probably just because I didn’t own any home or handheld consoles between Genesis (’93) and Xbox (’04).
I played one of the games on someone else’s N64 … but can’t remember what it was called. I think it was actually some party game/mini-games thing?
That was fun, but I guess some things you just miss them outright at the start and you can never ‘catch’ up. Har har?
Great article. I wish I could get into Pokemon, I really do. I think it helps to have friends who play it though.
If you’re totally committed to completing the Pokedex I think it’s essential, Armand. There are always different creatures that are exclusive to each coloured version and Black and White are no exception, so anyone who wants to 100% their Pokedex will either need a local or Wi-Fi buddy to trade with.
That said, completing the Pokedex isn’t essential to finishing the game, and each version is always a pretty full and self contained experience. Pokemon games can become incredibly involving and are usually good for a 60+ hour adventure just to cover the main story and the basics. Anyone who has the time to dedicate to such a huge handheld RPG could do worse than pick up Black and White, especially as the new set of Pokemon requires no experience of the previous generations.
I also completely missed the Pokemon craze. I don’t think I’ve ever played one or am even familiar with the basics of the game. Between these great impressions and Lewis’s earlier World of Pokemon idea, I admit I’m intrigued. Is this something someone can get into without any experience?
No, I guess more for a driving reason to develop your Pokemon. I tried playing some of the earlier ones, but after a pretty short time would get tired of the grind. If I had people to use my army of Pokemon against in real life, it would be a better motivating factor to play for me. The single player story element just isn’t enough to hold my attention.
I have the same feelings about Monster Hunter. It looks really interesting, but playing by myself in a vacuum just seems to miss the point.
Of course, they just might not be the right games for me. One of the guys at BnB wrote an article about being a grown man who likes Pokemon. I don’t like plugging my site on the front page here, but seems relevant to the conversation, and thought the fans might enjoy it.
Mat you big cheat! I demand you try and shoehorn perfectly good screenshots into our letterbox 597 x 194 pixel frame.
Lewis’ Gameboy was like a physical extension of his arm for several years because of Pokemon. I remember him playing it non-stop on holiday and even (gasp) attracting a lady with his face stuck in the screen sat at a bar. I shit you not. It was going to take more than Lew’s Pikachu to scare her off.
Needless to say I have zero experience of Pokemon, other than the tremendous wipe of Lew’s 600+ hour save game all those years ago. Sorry Lew. I will say though Mat, after seeing this new version the other week on your DS it looked awfully tantalising even if I have no nostalgia for the franchise. I think I’d share the same sentiments as Armand though with regards to the grinding and story but who knows?
Great write-up! And all the best with the house purchase!
I never got into the Pokemon craze back in the day. The only game I played was the photography game on the N64.
Maybe it was because I was already older when the craze hit. Maybe is was because I was working in Toys R Us at the time and the over-saturation of Pokemon toys and items, combined with how busy it would get when a new Pokemon “thing” was released, lead to me kinda hating the entire franschise.
I do admit there was always a tiny place in the back of my mind that was interested in trying it out. But I quickly bashed that desire down. Probably my loss.