Long-time readers may recall a somewhat disjointed review I penned on Blogtown for Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver almost a year ago. Originally I'd planned to simply cover the duo as a mini-review, however after spending a bit of time with them I found myself completely hooked, and ended up having to write an entirely new, massive review to cover all the things I'd come to appreciate in my 200+ hours with the games.
When my copy of Pokémon Black arrived from Nintendo a few days ago, I had no idea how I ought to review it. I'm positive I could spend a few hundred hours with the game and come up with another few thousand words on this latest Poké-title, but that would take at least a week, and that's assuming I do nothing but rain down Tepig's fury on other pocket beasties.
So, as a bit of a compromise, I'm going to emulate what I did with HeartGold and SoulSilver. This post is going to be the short review with a dearth of in-depth details, that instead focuses on the broad strokes and the crucial question, "should you spend $35 on another Pokémon game?"
Then, after I've spent a blatantly unhealthy amount of time with the game, I'll return and pen another much longer piece that covers all the minute details and special bits that the rush-rush-rush review cycle generally forces games journalists to skip over in favor of appeasing the Hearstasaurus (the vengeful yellow lizard god of missed deadlines and sans serif fonts).
For now though, hit the jump for a quick verdict on Pokémon Black and White (or as I call them, "Pokémonochrome.")
Theoretically there are two types of people stuck deciding whether they ought to purchase Black/White: Those who have played Pokémon games in the past and those who haven't. If those of you in the former group can bear with me for a moment, I can pretty easily set the latter folk straight, and then we can get into the minute, geeky details.
If you've never before played a Pokémon game, I'd like to congratulate you on surviving in the molten core of the Earth for the last 15 years. Also, I'd like to express a bit of catty envy that Pokémon Black/White is the Pokémon title you get to cut your teeth on.
See, the Pokémon games have always followed a very rigid formula. Some would even say they were less "sequels" and more "blatant rehashes designed to suck cash from the wallets of loving, gullible parents." I've long been a fan of the series, and believe it to be one of their few brands that Nintendo is not actively damaging, and even I'm hard-pressed to argue that point.
Pokémon Black and White on the other hand feel original from the word "go." In a series that thrives on (or is loved despite) a glacial level of true innovation, that simple sensation is incredibly impressive. More than any two games since the series' debut, Black/White really shakes things up design-wise. It actually feels like you're playing the next generation of Pokémon games, instead of the same game you played last year with better graphics and a hundred more 'mon to catch.
In short, if you've been looking to get into this whole Pokémon craze, there is no better time than now. Black/White is going to be a big hit and I see it becoming the new gold standard for Pokémon. Thus, even those new to the series have got a perfect chance to insinuate themselves into even the most insular parts of the community by buying in as soon as you can visit the nearest retailer.
Now, let's cover those of you who've been doing the Poké thing since Missingno. was shredding a curl with Pikachu. Hopefully you followed along with the last bit where I mentioned that Black/White actually feels like the next generation of Pokémon games. That's the broadest possible way to spell out the game's appeal, but you folk likely want details.
The first thing you'll notice is the change in aesthetics. The game engine still uses mostly 2-D sprites for crucial objects like characters and moving items, but the vast majority of everything else you see is at least pseudo-3D. For instance, there's a high cliff-side you can climb in the first major city you enter where you can see another far off cliff-side in the distance behind you. Instead of being simply background flavor graphics, this is a cliff-side you eventually walk across, viewing it and the Pokéballs you spied on it from your original vantage point, from an entirely different angle.
Likewise, the in-combat graphics have been greatly improved as well. First and foremost it should be mentioned that the frame rate (and thus the smoothness of the combat animations) has been vastly improved. I don't think they quite managed to get the engine to run at a constant 60 frames per second, but I'm sure it can manage 60fps from time to time, and it never seems to dip below 30fps. As a result, fights are silky smooth, even with all the new animations characters go through. They have enough idle animations to rival Sonic the Hedgehog circa 1991, and it's a huge improvement over Black/White's immediate predecessor which was content simulating combat between almost entirely static images which occasionally shook or howled in pain.
This was yet another instance where, while playing, I was struck with a strong sense of "this is the future of Pokémon." After having spent a decade and a half playing admittedly enjoyable sequels that were incremental improvements at best, being given a gigantic evolutionary leap like Black/White is just stunning. Literally. It leaves you with no idea how to react, and nothing useful to say outside of swears punctuated with compliments or compliments punctuated by swears.
Only the most cynical, heartless orphan thief could look at these games and not be blown away.
I suppose the reason all these changes come as such a giddy shock to me is that modern day Nintendo is an exceedingly conservative company. Many industry experts, including those within their own firm, believe that Nintendo simply got lucky with the runaway success of the Wii and now the company won't do anything that could even remotely put them in a position where they might lose the marketshare they currently control.
I don't really blame them either. It's not often that you go from the undisputed heavyweight champion of the industry to a kiddie-pandering lauging stock, then back to the top dog. Short of murdering people (maybe ...) I think Nintendo will do whatever it takes to make sure their big series stay big. I think someone at Nintendo HQ realized that people were getting tired of the same old, same old though, and by going with that feeling, the Pokemon team has revitalized the series for what could easily be another 15 years.
Let's just hope the Big N continues to err on the side of "awesome," instead of reverting to "boring and repetitive."
[Propers to Nintendo, DS Dates, Reality By Nex, Serebii, HG101 and cosplayer Cassandra L. for being the second best mudkip image GIS returned (and the first best cosplay image)]
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