Pokémon Black/White - Import Impression

Pokemon Black

Developer: Gamefreak
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: 09.18.2010

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You Say You Want an Evolution...

I'm hoping that I've come into this game with the right frame of mind. Pokémon Pearl, though fun to play, left me a little underwhelmed. All the material I'd seen on Pokémon Black/White made it look too interesting to pass up, but inwardly I'm afraid I was waiting for disappointment to kick in.

For the record, twelve hours in and it hasn't yet.

It's still very much in the same vein as the first four generations of the series, so any long-time haters can keep on doing as they please. Still, there have been quite a few surprises so far. The first came as I started my new gamefile. A question popped up -- would I prefer kana or kanji (i.e. phonetic script only, or with Chinese characters)? It was a simple choice, but its very existence threw me for a loop. In all the games of the series (barring the CCG), the number of kanji used could be counted on one finger -- the symbol for yen. B/W raises that by three orders of magnitude and brings the reading level up to middle school Japanese at the same time. The average seems to be around a 5th-grade level, but there are a few common higher-grade symbols from time to time, and all in all it seems to be a saign that the developers are altering their target age group a little.

The next big surprise was the first Gym. For the first time ever, the series has a gym with no specific type attached. Instead, the player's choice of starter determines which of the three gym leaders he or she battles -- and the gym will always have the type advantage.

And then there's the story to talk about. This may just be me, having recently played through SoulSilver, but B/W feels like it's had a lot more plot development so far (currently training for the fourth gym). I've explored, competed, and tracked down badguys multiple times in the last twelve hours, and always with a solid reason or event to back it up. Hopefully this trend will continue.

At this point I've seen forty-four Pokémon, of I which I possess thirty. None of them are from earlier games. Aside from the occasional bit of background, like topiary in one city or a big mascot-like statue of Pikachu in another, I've yet to see any evidence that previous-gen Pokémon even exist in this game, which is kind of refreshing. Everything I've met so far has been a new face, and it really makes a difference when I go into a cave and know that I won't be facing Geodudes and Zubats yet again.

" really makes a difference when I go into a cave and know that I won't be facing Geodudes and Zubats yet again."

B/W does interesting things with connectivity as well. Shortly after I beat the first gym, I received a special item called a C-Gear. When it's on, the DS will go into a constant scanning mode for IR, wireless, or wi-fi connections as you play. This sort of feature dovetails nicely with what's known of the 3DS and its networking capacities.

Last, I'd like to mention the various graphical improvements. In battle, Pokémon actually move now. Each species has its own set of animations, ranging from nose-wiggles to pawing in the air to juggling things. If they fall asleep it's readily visible on-screen. While I admit that the change from static images to almost-3-D in battle is largely cosmetic it certainly makes the game feel more dynamic.

Less cosmetic are some of the tweaks to other parts of the series' system. The biggest changes I've seen are 1) experience received after battle is now at least partly dependent on the relative levels of all Pokémon involved, and 2) TMs are no longer one-use only items.

All in all, Pokémon Black/White is a definite attempt by the developers to both refine and reboot much of what made the series so popular in the late nineties. In the best tradition of the series, it's trying to evolve. How well it turns out, well, that's going to be up to the opinion of the individual. I think they've done a good job of it.

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