When the first images of Pokémon: Black and White appeared and Zoroark, a dark, fox-like Pokémon was revealed an unbridled giddiness ran through my core. A new game with over 150 more Pokémon to collect! The prospect was so enticing that I could hardly wait for the game to arrive. One year and 20 hours of game time later, my giddiness is more deflated than a sleepy Drifloon. For about a year, I anticipated the game’s release hinging on every new reveal and article out of Japan. There is more to do in this game than in any of the previous games. There are more features, drastic changes and Pokémon, yet the experience somehow feels lacking. After 15 years, could the series finally be reaching its limit? My trek through the Unova region began very simply. It began like any other Pokémon game.
As in every other game in the series you – a young trainer – are summoned to adventure through the world of Pokémon. The game introduces you to Cheren and Bianca, two of your childhood friends who play integral roles in the game’s plot. Professor Juniper has tasked you three with completing a Pokédex, an encyclopaedia of Pokémon. To do this, she has given you a choice of three starter Pokémon one of who will act as your companion. There’s the fiery Tepig, a small pig-like creature. The grass-snake Snivvy, who looks slightly smug. And the slightly teddy-bear like sea otter Oshawott. You pick one of the three, give your new friend a nickname and together begin your adventure in the new region of Unova, fighting trainers and Gym Leaders all along the way. It’s the same Pokémon. It is as it has always been. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, at least that’s how some gamers feel.
There’s an opinion that Pokémon: Black and White is pretty much the same game as every other in the series. It’s partially true. Slight changes in the formulaic, dynamic battle themes and a number of battle types keep things fresh, but overall little has changed. Some additions like the C-Gear, which allow players to use Wi-Fi functionalities any time at the cost of battery life, add a new online aspect to the game. Other additions like rotation and three-on-three battles change things up, but feel slightly gimmicky in comparison to the two-on-two battles introduced in Pokémon: Ruby and Sapphire. While the game provides a variety of battle types, it is pretty much the same song and dance. A trainer meets your eye, a battle ensues and then it’s a game of wit, strategy and timing. Enough has been done to keep the game fresh for veterans of the series, and for newcomers it’s a world unlike any other to explore.
Unova is expansive. Mega-cities, small towns and caves dot the map given to you by Professor Juniper. As I wrote above, there’s more to do in Unova than in any other region. There are more NPCs to speak to, mini-quests to complete and areas to explore, but of these I completed only a fraction of them. There’s a lot to explore, but on the whole I found myself using repels to get through caves, groaning when I had to fight trainers and feeling a sense of depressed catharsis when I beat Gym Leaders. Eventually I found myself travelling on x-route, to fight x-Gym Leader in x-town, so I could get to the Elite Four and beat the game. Pokémon: Black and White began trudging on like a Snorlax. It doesn’t help that the game’s story is insubstantial. Team Plasma is attempting to free the world’s Pokémon. However, their bid for Pokémon emancipation comes at a quite hypocritical fault: they use Pokémon to battle you. The prophecy doesn’t come true, Team Plasma is a two-faced organization, N – the enigmatic leader of Team Plasma – disappears with either Zekrom or Reshiram, depending on your version, and the world is saved. It’s insubstantial and the story elements like the mini-quests failed to catch my attention.
I beat my version of Pokémon Black with one-single-Pokémon: my starter Tepig. His name is Horace and he’s now at level 90. I could give you a rundown of his stats, but all you really need to know is that the Gym Leaders, the Elite Four and Cynthia were defeated by him with the help of a few team mates and a lot of items. There was no grinding involved in his upbringing and only a few stat boosting items – mostly pp ups – were used on him. You could boil this seemingly game-breaking issue down to play style, pacing or simply my impatience, but in a game that offers you a choice of over 150 creatures to collect and feeling no urge to do so, one has to examine why. There are two major issues: gameplay and aesthetics.
After I beat the third Gym Leader, Burgh, I was already at Level 30 with Horace. Burgh, like so many other Gym Leaders, has a team that is susceptible to fire-type Pokemon. The Leader before him, Narcene, had an all normal-type team against my fire-fighting Pignite, Tepig’s evolved form. Even the Leaders, who had teams designed to be super-effective against Horace, fell when I applied a new TM or used a variety of items to keep my Pokémon going. When you can beat the entire game with one Pokemon there’s an issue, among many others, that needs to be dealt with.
There’s a game I’d like to play with you. Say: Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle. Each of these names is catchy and descriptive. Each name gives the player a short, but sweet rundown of the Pokémon and what it looks like. When you say Charmander you can see how the parts of his name are integrated into his design. He’s a fiery salamander, plain and simple. Now say: Alomomola, Darmanitan and Pawniard. What kind of description can you discern from these names? Like the names, Unova’s Pokémon suffer from a bit of design fatigue.
Great design usually entails a kind of simplicity. Vanillite – an ice cream cone Pokémon – defied what I had known about Pokémon design. I reasoned with myself that Unova, a largely commercialized region, similar to the United States, would have similarly industrialized Pokémon. It made sense, but then Pokémon after Pokémon suffered from this same colourful, curvy, complexity. The simplicity that is a Diglett will always trump the complicated form of a Drilbur.
I’ve been a fan of the series all of my life. When the first game was released in 1998, Pokémon: Red and Blue changed how I viewed portable role-playing games. Pokemon: Black and White retains the elements that made the series great, but more and more the idea of “don’t fix what ain’t broken” is creating more cracks in an already broken Shellder. Ok, enough with the puns. The bottom line is this: Pokemon: Black and White is a good game. It’s new, colourful, dynamic and a great addition to the series, but if you’re a fan looking for something out of the norm, look elsewhere. It is derivative, but that’s Pokémon. That unbridled giddiness lies dormant deep down in the core of my person. I know that when the next iteration of the series arrives, I will be just as excited as I was for Pokémon: Black and White.