"It doesn't matter if you're black or white"...you'll love Black or White regardless.
Pokémon is still surging along as one of the most popular RPGs to date due to its mass appeal to young and audiences alone. With its “easy to pick up, difficult to master” style of gameplay, Game Freak has succeeded in addicting countless individuals to the series while pulling new gamers in through each iteration. And, as each new generation of Pokémon hits the market (these latest installments mark the 5th generation of Pokémon), Game Freak always seems to add game-changing additions/modifications to the format of the series. If you want a brief rundown of the additions/improvements from generation to generation, read the following blurb of details (or skip over it if you’re disinterested):
From the onset, Red/Blue/Yellow provided appeal through the amount of Pokémon/moves available (which was a lot at the time). Gold/Silver/Crystal added a plethora of additions such as more Pokémon, held items, tons more moves, time/day based events, berries, two new Pokémon types, and breeding (not to mention the fact that you played through the entire world from RBY after finishing through that of GSC). Next came Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald with effort values and individual values taking full prominence as well as Pokémon natures being added. These were also the first games to play around with running into only Pokémon of the recent generation for the most part (which was a plus in terms of pulling in new players).
Generation IV quite possibly could have been the strongest generation in my opinion. This generation brought Diamond, Pearl, Platinum, and the remakes to Gold and Silver, HeartGold and SoulSilver. This generation arguably brought about some of the largest amount of extras (each Pokémon could have both physical or special moves, many new Pokémon and evolutions to ones from previous games as opposed to just new ones in general, online functionality, return to calendar based events and berries, Pokémon abilities). Additionally, HeartGold & SoulSilver allowed us to finally retrieve some of the Pokémon from GSC that couldn’t be traded over from Game Boy Color to the current generations and the Pokéwalker was an incredible peripheral to be boxed in.
If you skipped over the above two paragraphs or read through it and are overwhelmed by the additions, you may realize that the game has gotten quite complicated in terms of game mechanics (if you're one of the freaks like me that's still curious, check out http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Main_Page or http://www.serebii.net/index2.shtml for all your . Thus, not only is it difficult to find new mechanics to add to the formula but it would also further complicate the experience. So, at the onset of generation V, I wondered if Game Freak could add any more gameplay mechanics without causing our heads to explode but I also longed for some streamlining of the series to help make it more approachable for new gamers. And though the game doesn’t add as many new mechanics as some of the previous titles, Game Freak has succeeded in a major way in the whole streamlining process. You could say that Pokémon Black & White thrive from more improvements to the game’s format, aesthetics, and simplification as opposed to continuing to add revolutionary mechanics (and this is definitely a welcomed approach).
Stronger (but still not Sensational) Story
Pokémon Black and White most certainly made leaps and bounds in terms of presentation. From the onset, you’ll notice a darker starting sequence with an anime cut scene featuring the crowning of a king. The game still follows a similar format in terms of motive where gamers begin a quest to fill up their Pokédex and thwart the plans of a group call “Team Plasma.” However, the motives of the team have a little more weight in this game as opposed to previous Pokémon titles where the gist of the motivation is an egotistical group attempting to use Pokémon to gain control of the world. In this game, the group’s intentions are for the “liberation of Pokémon.” They bring up certain moral issues about Pokémon training that could actually be seen in present day times such as whether or not it’s right to control Pokémon, battle with them, and use them for our betterment.
As you play through the game, you’ll notice stronger attempts at storytelling such as interactions between your characters and two other friends throughout the adventure. Additions such as anime conversations similar to those from the Tales series of RPGs, as well as a more fleshed out storyline separate this game from its predecessors. However, the dialogue and storytelling is still not up to par with some of the best RPGs on the market (which is ok because Pokémon’s all about the gameplay). If Game Freak ever did make a Pokémon with comparable storylines to other RPGs, it would most certainly be one a near-perfect experience.
3D/2D Audio/Visual Masterpiece (almost)
Where Pokémon Black & White make presentational leaps and bounds, however, is in their soundtrack and graphical overhaul. From the onset, you’ll notice that the game’s perspective has been angled even further than in the previous generations of the series bringing a further 3D perspective to exploration around the vast environment. This angle, coupled with a free-flowing, variable camera at times makes for a strong sense of visual enjoyment throughout your exploration. For instance, the game makes use of several different camera pans across one of the 5 different bridges throughout the game to give you different perspectives of the length of the bridge, a zoomed out view of your travels, and then a full skyline of the metropolis in the distance. Then, once you reach the city of Castelia, there are circular camera pans similar to Animal Crossing: Wild World, to make for a gigantic city full of skyscrapers and different alleys to explore.
Another nice subtlety to the visuals while exploring are the seasonal and weather effects. In Black & White, seasons have been added to the mix to give different environments to explore on a monthly basis. These are brought to life throughout exploration with leaves gliding across the air for fall or rain cascading the land as it rains. The addition of seasons also helps to keep the experience fresh for the hardcore fans, such as myself, that will be playing the game over a long period of time (beyond a single month).
And, if the vivid camera angles and environments weren’t enough to improve upon the game’s overall looks, the battles have also been overhauled greatly. Sure, the sprites are still pixilated as in previous games but a huge addition to help give them even more life and individualism are actual animations to their caricatures (aside from just the animations from the moves). Secondly, the camera is interactive within battles as well, panning across the field as the action takes place. Sure, these can be seen as aspects that should have been there generations ago but now that they’ve been done, I must say that it makes the battles much more exciting and entertaining overall and gives even more personality to the individual Pokémon.
The second major aspect of the game is the musical score. It still contains the same chirpy instruments we’ve come to expect from previous games (which some complain about) but where this game’s soundtrack shines compared to previous iterations is in its overall interactiveness. From the beginning of the game, you’ll notice one of the stronger interactions as the battle music actually changes from time to time according to the status of the battle (reminded me of Skies of Arcadia). For instance, you know that beep that always annoys you when your health is low from previous games? They’ve merged that with a song in Black & White to retain the old-school beep but actually make it a piece of music that’s exciting to listen to rather than barely tolerable. Also, important trainer battles feature a different song that gets played once you have your trainer down to his/her last Pokémon (signifying that the battle is at its climax).
As for the different songs you’ll encounter throughout the adventure, you’ll notice changes as you travel next to musicians playing instruments, or subtleties such as the addition of percussion as you walk on routes (and subtraction as you stand still). I really loved the soundtrack from Gold, Silver, and Crystal and subsequently the masterful remakes in Heartgold & SoulSilver but I must say that Black & White have evolved the music (as well as presentation) into something that’s at a different level than all previous Pokémon games and helps to keep the adventure exciting throughout.
Evolution over Revolution
As for additions to the formula, these games don’t provide some of the major battle changes that we’ve seen in previous iterations (which again is no surprise since Game Freak is probably running out of tweaks to add to the formula). But, where Game Freak makes up for improvements in this game is in the evolution of previously installed aspects from other titles. For instance, there are multiple things that fans have wanted to be added to the series and each recent iteration seems to gloss over them. However, Black & White seems to focus a large amount of its efforts in streamlining and improving the little quips from previous games into a stronger, more polished experience overall. After all, streamlining almost seems necessary to keep the “easy to pick up, difficult to master” mantra of Pokémon easy.
In terms of interface, Diamond & Pearl were the strongest to date in terms of making run-of-the-mill tasks easier with the Pokétch apps that used the bottom screen as a multi-functional device. Black & White furthers this simplification of menial tasks by allowing you to register a large list of items to a speed dial list that pops up whenever you press Y (as opposed to only 1-2 registered items from all other previous games).
Other obvious simplifications include combining the Pokémarts with Pokécenters and showing an active clock, battery level, and wi-fi signal at the top of the touch screen at all times. However, one of my personal favorite improvements is the fact that Technical Machines (TMs), which teach a specific move to a Pokémon, can now be used as many times as you want, rather than getting used up after only one use. This is touted multiple times throughout the beginning of the game because it is an incredible addition than makes team customization and move experimentation infinitely better (literally). To give you an idea, in previous games, trainers such as myself would receive a TM but never use it until the very end of the game once I began building competitive teams. However, now that TMs have an infinite amount of uses, you can use it on as many Pokémon as you’d like and as early as you’d like to be able to get the full experience of the move as soon as you find it (making the adventure all the more enjoyable). This also prevents the need to do multiple play-throughs just to get more than one of a certain TM.
As far as battle changes, there are a few new types of battles and tweaks that are added to the picture. Though these aren’t fundamental changes in the battle mechanics, they do add a further complicated battle system with extra permutations of battle combinations. One addition is combination techniques that couple two combination moves used by two separate Pokémon to make a more powerful move.
The first of the three additional battles is called a Triple Battle. This is similar to double battles where 3 Pokémon are used instead of 2 but has an added amount of complexity in that the position of the Pokémon determines which Pokémon it can target and which Pokémon can target it (left Pokémon can hit opposing left or middle Pokémon, center Pokémon can hit all three, and right Pokémon can hit opposing right or middle Pokémon). Pokémon can also take a turn to change positions if you think you can gain a tactical advantage or are afraid of getting swept by a Pokémon with a super-effective type.
The second type of battle is called a rotation battle. This also features three Pokémon on the field at once but only one-on-one battling with the other two sitting in the back row. The catch, though, is that any of the three Pokémon can be rotated into the front during a player’s turn without using up a turn. Finally, something called the “Wonder Launcher” has been added to link battles to give players the ability to use items. A special meter at the bottom of the screen shows the amount of energy you have and energy is charged at the beginning of each turn. You can then expend some of this energy to use items (of various energy costs) during a turn.
Diamond & Pearl also added internet multiplayer for the first time to the series on a portable device. However, the ways to interact with others over the internet as well as locally were still difficult to seamlessly access throughout your adventure (first of all, you would need to grab the 6 Pokémon you wish to trade, then travel to a Pokécenter and enter the link zone, all after making sure that your WiFi transmission was set to ON). In Black & White, multiplayer has become extremely intuitive and quick through multiple additions using the game’s C Gear item (which uses the bottom screen as a fully fledge multiplayer interaction device).
From the moment you receive the C Gear, you’ll be asked to turn it on during every subsequent time that you turn the game on. By turning the C Gear on, this allows for multiple forms of quick interaction with other gamers. Once on, the game will constantly be searching for others’ C Gear using the wireless signal so it makes local interaction much more seamless. Using the touch screen, you can also open up a number of different modes of interaction including Infrared (IR), Wireless, Online, Chat, and Charts.
First of all, the strongest addition to multiplayer, in my opinion, is the use of the systems’ infrared sensor for multiple local interactions. Using IR, gamers can battle, trade, exchange friend codes (without actually going through the trouble of typing them in), and check compatibility with other trainers via the “feeling check” game. This eliminates the need to rush to a Pokécenter in order to communicate and also makes for easy obtaining of friend codes for future online communication. Once you have the friend codes, you can also access them quickly in the game by clicking a button at the bottom of the C Gear to see who is on (assuming your DS is connected to a local wireless router for Nintendo Wi-Fi connection.
Wireless communication is used for the traditional union room type of communication from previous games where you can battle, trade, chat, etc. It can also be noted that trading between previous games is much simpler, as you can trade up to 6 at a time (as opposed to just one) and the mini-game is easier than it was when transferring Pokémon from generation III to generation IV (GBA to DS). The second available Wireless communication is the Entralink where you enter an island at the center of the map. This allows you to enter the Entralink of others’ games (either locally or via Nintendo Wi-Fi friend codes).
Wireless communications are also active throughout the entire time the game is on (either in gameplay or sleep mode). This allows the game to tag any systems within the area and do a number of things. First of all, if you fill out a number of surveys available in the game, you can distribute your own personal preferences to others within the area (or you can receive the data of others’ preferences as well). Other data is also transmitted such as the first Pokémon sent out in battle in others’ teams. Secondly, Pokémon that are left sleeping at a special place (you can choose to do this) will dream and can meet other dreaming Pokémon from others’ systems. Any Pokémon met while dreaming can be caught once you enter the Entralink.
Finally, the online options have been bulked up a bit and can be accessed on the C Gear as well. First of all, once you log in, you can see all of your friends that are online. There are a number of things you can do including the traditional battling, trading, and communicating with your friends but you can also use the microphone to voice chat. Secondly, if you wish to not battle a friend, you can use the global terminal to battle a random trainer or use the Global Trade Station (GTS) to trade with anyone else throughout the world. Finally, the game can also be registered/linked to a Pokémon Global Link website, www.pokemon-gl.com to enter the dream world and to check random stats and rankings of other trainers throughout the world.
Though Pokémon has had a slow progression of advancements throughout the timeline, the game always seems to need a reboot every now and then. Take Ruby & Sapphire, for instance, which successfully brought an entire slew of new Pokémon to the table and only allowed gamers to catch some of the first and second generation Pokémon at the end of the game. This allowed seasoned gamers to start from a fresh perspective and not be overwhelmed by repeated encounters with some of the games’ more common Pokémon (Pidgeys, Rattatas, Zubats, etc). This also helped to increase the sense of overall unknowns when collecting and training Pokémon as most every Pokémon you encountered was guaranteed to be one you hadn’t seen in previous games.
Pokémon Black & White follows this same notion of rebooting the series by providing another 156 Pokémon that can be obtained throughout the adventure and these Pokémon are the only ones you’ll encounter until you finish the game (in which others can be obtained). This is a refreshing reboot and helps to pull in other gamers that may have played Pokémon but are tired of some of the repetition experienced in past games.
As for differences between the two games, this generation sees the strongest contrast to date between two counterpart Pokémon titles. Aside from the usual different Pokémon you’ll be able to obtain (along with a different legendary for each game), there are also aesthetic and plot differences between the two with White being more focused on nature while Black is more based around technology (and the contrast between the two is explored in the storyline). In fact, one town’s appearance and music is completely different from game to game, along with different people to interact with.
Aside from the differences in aesthetics, each game has its own unique island you can visit that contains exclusive material the other game doesn’t have. For White, there is a special White Forest where you can obtain up to 32 different Pokémon from previous games that are not available in Black (along with items). As for Black, the special Black City allows you to battle powerful trainers that have evolved versions of the Pokémon available in the White Forest as well as shops for purchasable items.