Late last week it was revealed that the 5th generation of Pokemon games will be called Black and White. The games were announced with little detail, leaving fans and bloggers alike to speculate how this new journey will pan out.
The only real details given, when the titles were announced, were that the games would be available in Japan in autumn of this year on the DS and that we should expect "every aspect" to be "reborn innovatively". The announcement mentioned that further details would be released on the 15th of April. Frankly, I can't wait that long.
After that initial announcement several things were assumed. Firstly, this edition would once again see a whole bunch of new Pokemon introduced. We had already been given the names of two new Pokemon, Zorua and its evolved form Zoroark, as they will feature in the latest Pokemon movie. It is also being assumed, or at least hoped, that the PokeWalker and the ability for one of your Pokemon to follow you around, recently seen in HeartGold and SoulSilver, would make an appearance in Black and White. It is also being assumed that, while they were announced for the DS, some sort of 3DS capabilities will be added into the game.
Since then an assortment of images have made their way online to give gamers their first glimpse of the Pokemon Black and White universe. The images, while being poor quality, show off one major change in the game, a further implementation of the 3D graphics that exist in recent titles HeartGold, SoulSilver, Diamond, Pearl and Platinum.The improved 3D seems to be aided by a change in camera angle. Prior Pokemon games have used a top-down camera angle. This tended to make characters and backgrounds seem flat and squishy and lack any depth. Slowly the camera has moved to a more eye-level, or what sports games call the TV view, where the camera is side on to the action instead of on top of it. This gives designers a greater depth of field which they can use to put more detail in the game.
For example, one of the images in the game is of a city, and the player character is seen surrounded by a row of towering, imposing skyscrapers. For the first time in Pokemon history, a city actually looks like a city. That is, a bustling hive of activity where skyscrapers tower above and where there are actually cars (one of the images shows the player character walking over a bridge with cars driving underneath). These small design changes already make the game seem a little bit different. The world now seems closer to something we know in the real world and something closer to what the TV show presents, an advanced modern society which is slightly obsessed with Pokemon.The cities of prior games had a few apartment buildings around the place, some smaller houses, and a few businesses. They seemed haphazardly placed and more like a collection of buildings than a living breathing city.
While visually it seems like something different I wonder how it will turn out in terms of gameplay. Prior Pokemon games allowed you to enter any building in the game, often rewarding you for your desire to explore in true role-playing genre fashion. The buildings in the city pictured seem less inviting and less interactive than previous additions. Even though they have been designed in 3D they look like flat, un-interactive backgrounds. Will this see an end to the 'open' world of prior Pokemon games?
One of the other images released online shows off the 'new' battle screen. So far, to me, the battle screen does not look much different. Apart from zooming the camera out to completely show your Pokemon, it is hard to see any changes. Battling has largely remained the same in Pokemon since the original Red and Blue games. Players travel with a party of up to six Pokemon who can perform up to four different attacks . Finding the right balance between the Pokemon in your party and the abilities you allow them to learn has been one of the most challenging aspects of the Pokemon series. I cannot see them altering this element of the game too much, if at all. They have added elements, like giving your Pokemon special items and double battles, to try and shake things up a bit but it is still largely the same.
It would be wise to assume we'll see them further enhance the battle animations which have become more detailed, and designed the Pokemon to be more realistic as the series gets older. Still, many of the attacks, like flamethrower, are meant to originate from the mouth of the Pokemon but in the battle animation they appear to come from the chest region. Changing small things like this would enhance the look of battling and make it more accurate.
While one of the biggest strategic challenges of the Pokemon series is selecting the right combination of four attacks, things have been complicated by Game Freak expanding on the amount of attacks each Pokemon can perform. It's about time players were given the opportunity to expand their Pokemon's attack capabilities. Even expanding it to six moves would greatly increase the strategic component of the game. If they wanted to, developer Game Freak could set it so players could choose four damage-inducing attacks and two defensive modifiers or status attacks (like sleep or harden) so players can't create completely overpowered Pokemon. Players would then have greater freedom to tailor their Pokemon to their style.
Interestingly the game chooses not to use the DS's stylus and interactive capabilities like some other games. For instance some of the Naruto games require you to blow into the microphone to perform fire attacks and draw certain things to perform a certain attack. This style of interactivity could be applied to the Pokemon series but it's a change I'm not too concerned with. The beauty of Pokemon is the ability to pick it up and play it on the move as it has a rather simple control scheme. Adding in interactive elements may make the controls confusing and battles longer and some of the charm of Pokemon – the ability to pick it up for 30 minutes to catch a few Pokemon and turn it off — may be lost with those sorts of changes.
The Pokemon games are considered an RPG but, unlike other RPGs, they provide little in the way of customization. Your core character cannot really be altered to reflect your style or the actions your trainer takes, like so many other RPGs. It would be nice to see Game Freak allow players to customize their in-game appearance through changing their hair color, clothes, body shape etc. It would allow gamers to feel more like they are a part of the game rather than just tacking their name onto a pre-designed character.
Lastly, the thing that many believe needs work is the story. The basic story from the first games hasn't changed. Players choose a starting Pokemon and seek to 'catch them all' while battling the eight gym leaders and then the final four. That means that for almost 15 years the game has remained largely the same. Side quests, Pokemon Contests, and puzzles are thrown in along the way but they are never as challenging or exciting as the core story. It's a dilemma that Game Freak has found itself in because those who purchased Red and Blue when it first came out have grown up and expect more from the games. Then there are the new young fans of the series who could pick up the latest game as their first entry.
Making a story and game that can appeal to a diverse range of people is certainly difficult. Producer Junichi Masuda told Official Nintendo Magazine, "I always try to create a game that anybody, including those who have never played before, can enjoy." Meanwhile game designer Shigeki Morimoto said, "I think the games need something familiar combined with new elements." While it looks like the core story (collecting badges) will remain, Game Freak could make this a far more challenging pursuit than simply having a high enough level Pokemon. Having Team Rocket, or some other evil organization, interrupt the battles, requiring you to team up with the gym leader would be interesting and often happens in the show, or you would have to collect a certain Pokemon or item to prove you're worthy of even entering the gym. It would make the gym storylines that extra bit more challenging and memorable.
I'm also interested to know why the Pokemon Tournaments, which I find the most exciting part of the TV series, are not included in the games. It would provide another reason for collecting all eight badges and provide another storyline for the game. They could introduce shops and other things, which are only available during a tournament, giving you extra incentive to reach them. Trainers you meet along the way could return as the competitors, especially your rival, or, if the Global Wi-Fi network is improved, trainers from around the world could form the members of the tournament. This would also allow Game Freak to implement environmental effects on battles. In the show, the fields constantly change in the Pokemon Tournaments and give certain Pokemon an advantage or disadvantage. It would provide yet another level of strategy and challenge to battles.
The Pokemon franchise is a billion-dollar one, and we are sure to see many more games in the future. The key to their success will be how they can manipulate the core game in new ways to keep fans coming back for more. Simple Pokemon and graphic upgrades will eventually not be enough and hopefully on April 15th we'll see that Black and White will be taking the series in a slightly new direction.