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Nintendo DS Review: Pokemon White

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The Pokémon series is one of the most popular videogame franchises of all time.  For many it was the reason to buy a Gameboy or DS in the first place and each new release in the main series ends up a bestseller.  Yet, despite continued popularity, many longtime fans feel that the franchise had gotten stale.

There are a number of reasons for this, the multiple re-releases of old games, the hardly distinguishable storylines, and the somewhat antiquated gameplay. Pokémon has always been popular with the younger audience but has always contained many hardcore RPG elements. Level-grinding your Pokémon, acquiring certain items, and back-tracking throughout large maps was necessary to complete your adventure.

Pokémon White is fresh new start for the series. The game’s developer, Game Freak, made improvements and tweaks to the gameplay, storyline, graphics, sound, and multiplayer. It is like they took every criticism of the series and addressed it without changing the core experience.  The changes add up to the most enjoyable Pokémon experience since the first game.

The setup is still predictable. You are a young, brand new trainer leaving your small town to collect Pokémon and become a champion. This time instead of one main frenemy you now have two friends, a boy named Cheren and girl named Bianca. Unlike the original childhood “friend” Gary, Cheren and Bianca are actually friendly to you.

Team Rocket and Team Galactic have been replaced by Team Plasma as the overall worldwide baddies.  Unlike Team Rocket and Team Galactic, Team Plasma is fighting for Pokémon rights. They believe that the Pokémon should be allowed to roam free and that trainers mistreat them by placing them in pokeballs. But their motives may not be as pure as they seem.

While the story is not ground-breaking or elegant, it is nice that the developers finally acknowledge some of the criticisms leveled against the franchise. Pokémon is basically cock-fighting and children really should not be allowed to roam parentless just because they have a pet with them. The story does not offer more than rationalizations to these issues but they are rationalizations that are believable in the game world.

The tried-and-true Pokémon gameplay formula has not been re-invented here. At the beginning of the game you choose a starter Pokémon out of three possible choices. As you explore a world region you search for Pokémon to catch, other trainers to battle, and of course Team Plasma.  

Battles are turn based affairs where knowing how different types of moves affect different type opponents is all important. For example, the water type move, Surf, is super-effective against a ground type foe but not an electric type. Your Pokémon gain experience by winning battles. The experience allows them to level up and leveling up allows them to learn new moves and evolve into new species. You can add more Pokepals to your party by fighting wild Pokémon and then catching them in Pokeballs.

So, the basics have not changed but there are a few new elements to game mechanics. Double battles had been introduced in previous iterations but Pokémon White introduces triple battles. Three Pokémon from each party are on the field at once. In a triple battle a Pokémon can only attack an opponent one away from it. So your Pokémon that is farthest left cannot attack your opponent’s that is farthest right. This adds a new element of strategy to the battles as you now have to worry about not only type matchups but also placement of types. There are a few other gameplay changes as well, but delving into them too deeply would spoil the experience for those playing.

The game is not as punishingly hard as older versions. HM moves (Hidden Machines are special battle moves that can have effect outside of battle) such as Strength and Cut can still be acquired but are no longer necessary to continue advancing the quest.  In previous games you would have to have attained Cut to cut down a bush that was in your path or have to have acquired Strength to push a boulder out of your way to advance to the next town. The gym leaders still have preferred types, but you will not find yourself stuck against a gym leader whom you cannot beat because you have not yet caught the right type of Pokémon to do so.

There are three different ways to connect to Multiplayer – wireless, the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, and IR. Wireless uses the DS wireless signal to create a link between your DS and another in close proximity. Connecting to the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection is simply connecting to Nintendo’s worldwide server using your DS’s internet connection. IR stands for Infrared and by putting your DS back-to-back with friend’s DS you can quickly launch a battle or trade.  The lag over IR is much less than the lag using wireless connection. If you are interacting with a friend in the same room, IR is the preferred way to interface.

Once connected to another player you can battle, trade, and share photos and videos.  Battles and trades have more options now. You can select certain battle types that allow any Pokémon at any level, or select types that put all Pokémon to level 50. Having all Pokémon set to level 50 eliminates the frustration of fighting someone whose arsenal is much stronger than yours because they are farther in the game. There are other types of battles as well such as double, triple, rotation, etc.

Trading has been made more painless. You can now trade Pokémon from your computer boxes; they no longer have to be in your party. You can also search the Nintendo Wi-Fi for specific types of Pokémon you are looking for or offer up your own Pokémon for trading.

There is also a new way to access the multiplayer options — C-Gear. It is displayed on your bottom screen almost always and can be used to access multiplayer at almost any time. C-Gear has IR, Online, and Wireless options, but did not work flawlessly in testing as the online server seems to always be under maintenance.

You can still access similar options in the Pokémon Centers of each town.  On the second floor of each center you can enter the Pokémon Wireless Club Union room to launch a wireless session, the Pokémon Wi-Fi Club to connect to friends you have registered over Wi-Fi, or enter the Global Terminal to connect to random trainers around the world.

The Pokémon series has always had a top-down, 2D view with some pseudo-3D effects during battles. The same familiar view is still present but there is now 3D perspective. In some instances you even change to a 3D view.  It is not the best looking graphics on the DS for either 3D or 2D. The 3D could use more detail to look more realistic and the 2D could use a more varied palette and more shading. However the bright, primary and solid color scheme fits the cheeriness of the game perfectly.

The game is filled with all new Pokémon. It is impressive that with over 600 different varieties of monster Game Freak is still coming up with distinctive and memorable looking creations. While most of them have been done before in some way, the new creatures are still easily distinguished from old ones.

There is a lot of other new stuff as well. There are new moves and all of the existing moves have new animations. The new animations keep the spirit of the old moves but are flashier and more exciting.

The towns also have much more personality than before. Each different town feels like a unique place with its on geography whereas in past games nearly all the towns looked similar.  

Listening to the game, veterans of the series will recognize most of the sound and music, but there have been subtle changes there as well. Many of the sound effects have been redone so they resemble the old sound effects but are not the old sound effects. Some of the music is the same but there are a lot more tracks in the score. The new music has a wider range of emotion than the older music as well. These changes result in much richer sound without killing any nostalgia factor.

The old Pokémon titles were great games, but the series had begun to feel like a franchise that was on the decline. The re-releases were beginning to feel like fan exploitation as much as fan service and the series was beginning to feel antiquated. However, this new generation of Pokémon games has fixed almost every complaint that was levied against the series and managed to still stay true to the series’ core. Nearly every single change made in this game is an improvement over the old. While not perfect in every possible way, this is the most accessible and enjoyable Pokémon game ever.  It is the best Pokémon game of all time and must be considered as one of the best DS games of all time as well.

Pokemon White is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Comic Mischief, Mild Cartoon Violence.

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About Mark Kalriess