Off the Wagon
Pokémon is more than just a game: it’s an institution. I’m not simply referring to the fact that it is a global media franchise comprised of a multiplicity of elements including films, a number of anime series, trading cards (I still consider Shiny Dark Charizard to be the most valuable possession I own), merchandise, and even a Pokémon-plastered plane; the video games alone formed the backbone of what constituted light entertainment during my teenage years. Sure, I can’t claim to have that many friends, but boy did I have a lot of Pokémon to make up for it. Though I slowly grew out of my 100-Pokéballs-a-day habit, I cannot deny the attention that Pokémon games command from me, and my intrigue grows with each generation that passes. I was mildly curious by generation III, generation IV turned my head, but by Pokémon Black and the fifth generation of Pokémon games, I was sweating profusely and at breaking point. Having read many positive reviews but not being one to trust the opinion of pretty much anyone on the internet, I finally snapped and decided to ingest what Pokémon Black Version had to offer me. I shake my fist at you, Game Freak; you’re fuelling an addiction that took me years to break.
Back in Black
One Part Antiquity, Two Parts Modernity
Pokémon has always been one to stick to its guns in terms of format and to an extent, its content. This has long been a sticking point for many critics, but this unwavering consistency is universally defended by long-term fans of the games as being an ‘if it isn’t broken, it doesn’t need fixing’ approach by the developers. The format of the Pokémon games certainly isn’t broken, and there are roughly fourteen million owners of Pokémon Black and/or White Version to back this statement up.
We begin Pokémon Black in very much the same way we have always started our Pokémon adventures; in your home city, with the initial events requiring you to choose between Snivy, Tepig or Oshawott, which are your traditional grass, fire or water starter Pokémon respectively, courtesy of Professor Juniper. As you progress through the early stages, the age-old custom of encountering trainers with stories of legendary Pokémon with vast amounts of power still holds true, and your primary goal is, as ever, to travel through the land engaging in task and battle with trainers and gym leaders with view to facing off against the elite four and champion. Team Plasma, with their comically disruptive activities and bumbling attempts at evil interference also feature more heavily in the plot, with the game scratching the surface of the morality issues behind the use of Pokémon by humans for battling and other selfish needs. Post-game content such as new areas to explore and new Pokémon to catch augments the experience, and of course, about 150 new creatures usher in the fifth generation of Pokémon games, making the experience all the more refreshing on the palate.
They grow up so fast: Even starter Pokémon must start somewhere
Game Freak couldn’t very well claim that Pokémon Black Version to be part of the new generation of Pokémon games without providing us with a noticeable leap forward in content, which is why we have a juicy selection of features that separate this game from its predecessor. Most noticeably, our adventure takes place in the brand new region of Unova, with a geographically substantial area to explore, fresh new characters (Cheren, Bianca), brand new gyms to take on and another rival to dominate throughout your adventure.
Seasonal cycles now dramatically change both how your surroundings look as well as having some functional influence on the gameplay. The seasons usher in some beautiful aesthetic touches such as crunchy auburn leaves enveloping the ground in the autumn and beautiful blankets of soft, white snow settling on the ground during winter. The ebb and flow of the seasonal changes also make certain areas either more accessible or impossible to reach.. Certain Pokémon are also more common depending on the season, as well as some Pokémon’s physical characteristics changing over time, such as Deerling and Sawsbuck’s colours altering with the seasons.
The Pokémon Musical is one of the new sideshows to the main game that can be entered into, allowing you to dress up your Pokémon with props and accessories, garnering as much support from the audience as possible, whose reaction is the key to your success. The Battle Subway also provides a little break from the main action, allowing you to encounter trainers of increasing difficulty whilst riding the rails (I wouldn’t like to be a commuter in this particular carriage; the noise would be unacceptable). The Royal Unova is also a source of entertainment within itself, allowing you to board her and battle other trainers daily for items and well, just for the hell of it!
The graphics of the game are vastly improved as well, and even though the developers were limited by the DS’s hardware, there are a number of sweeping cut-scenes that make the most of the graphical constraints by getting a little creative with the camera angles and providing us with some fairly spectacular and occasionally epic views of the scenery.
All this has happened before and will happen again: Classic format overlays new locations and characters
More Pokémon, More Ways to Battle
Perhaps the most significant changes (in terms of the usually steadfast and unwavering course of the Pokémon franchise in general) come in the form of additions to the battle types available in the game. Triple battles allow you to use three Pokémon at once, choosing their moves which will then be performed in an order determined by the speed stats of the active Pokémon. Rotation battles also allow you to switch between three Pokémon, while allowing your enemy to do the same, making for some tricky tactical play. Interestingly, Pokémon Black Version has more trainers that engage in rotation battles, while Pokémon White is heavier on Triple Battles. These battles allow you to use combination moves (grass, fire, or water pledge) that can be taught to your starter Pokémon and can be used in combination with the other pledges in order to increase their power. Your wild Pokémon encounters can now involve double battles (usually encountered in tall and/or shaking grass).
The new wave of Pokémon in generation V also brings a considerable bit of variation to your collecting experience. Since the completion of your Pokédex is one of the overarching goals of the game, new Pokémon simply make the true collector’s life a little more fun. Wild Pokémon encounters also include a bit of variation with the new mechanics of encountering them. Specifically, I am referring to the phenomena of rustling grass (also dust clouds in caves) where walking into a patch will result in you encountering Pokémon of considerable rarity, higher evolutionary form, or specific Pokémon that cannot be caught any other way such as Audino (a literal goldmine of experience points) or Emolga.
Unwavering and Fully Aware
Aside from its debut features, Pokémon Black Version remains extremely steadfast in its format, refusing to yield to the possibility of change over time, and instead sticking to the same format and general in-game progression as ever. The choosing of your elemental starter Pokémon, the training of subsequently captured Pokémon in order to take on the eight gym leaders of the region, and the desire to defeat the elite four to become the champion has always been the staple of Pokémon’s diet, and is almost certainly why the games have enjoyed such a healthy longevity that most developers can barely muster up even in their wildest dreams.
The assembling of a team based on their levels, stats and types is a fairly basic concept but is one that keeps everyone coming back for more, including me. Countless hours spent grinding for levels, farming for items, and trudging back and forth in the wild just for that one chance to encounter a rare Pokémon; I wouldn’t change this process for all the Pokémon in the world (actually, I would, but that kind nullifies the playing of the game in the first place), and I’m glad that in spite of some minor gameplay changes and necessary steps away from its predecessor, Pokémon Black retains the classic formula, without which the game simply wouldn’t be what it is today.
In spite of any opinions that may rain criticism down on Pokémon for its conformity to a fairly standardised format, I believe that Pokémon Black is (aside from Black and White Version 2) the most substantially brilliant offering of the Pokémon main-series games to date. There’s enough fresh content available to please even the stubborn malcontents out there, as well as the retention of the most unique and addictive format to ever grace the Nintendo DS, or any console for that matter.