Over at Ctl-Alt-Del, Tim Buckley has been playing Pokemon for the first time, and sharing some thoughts; and he pretty much nailed everything I had complaints about. I got the new white version a couple of weeks ago and, while it’s fun, it does bring up a shitload of questions. Why haven’t they revamped the combat? The damn game’s been around, essentially in the exact same form, for 15 years. 15 fucking years!
I remember reading somewhere, a long time ago, how pokemon was a fantastic RPG disguised as a fad- which, at first, is exactly what it was. If by “fantastic”, you mean “on the level of the first Dragon Warrior”. Acquiring a team of complementary characters and then killing things with them over and over so they become stronger, in order to kill bigger things. And there’s a bare-bones, poorly translated plot that only exists to explain why you need to go from point A to point B, using a vocabulary small enough for a seven year old child to grasp; mostly to sell them on the tamagachi/pokemon/digimon/etc. Japanese cartoon-and-toy explosion of the late nineties.
Initially I avoided it; it was a little childish even for a guy who still watches cartoons. I caved in 2000 and got a copy of Gold, played it over Christmas, out of boredom more than curiosity, but it turned out to be a lot more fun than I had thought. I would’ve gotten really sucked in if I’d known anyone else who played it, but as it was I didn’t have a way to trade and thus no motivation to finish the pokedex. I’m not even sure if I beat the champion. But I did wind up getting copies of the first-gen games, and silver, and later on ruby and sapphire. I got a bootleg (unintentionally) of diamond a couple of years ago, but the save didn’t last more than a few days, and I never quite got into it. But somehow I wound up kind of exited to see the new black/white games, and I’ve gotten comfortably far in white (black was the initially more popular one, so I went with the one that everyone didn’t pick up).
So far, I’m not any more impressed with this one than the others; that said, the fights run much quicker. The battle graphics are still just as lame- a 3rd grader with rudimentary knowledge of flash could make something cooler- but you can still turn them off. The dialogue boxes can be set to fast (and they’re actually fast this time), and a lot of multiple-hit moves have been sped up. So grinding is slightly less annoying that it used to be.
The “plot” still irks me- not because it’s lousy, which it is, but because it had potential to be decent. The antagonists are a group who call into question the capturing of what are essentially animals and forcing them to fight.. an idea players have at least joked about since the first games. But rather than using that as a springboard to allow the player to progress through the game based on choices and consequences (a-la Bioshock; here, should I go looking for battles to level my team, or avoid them to avoid harming them?), it’s merely used as a reason for having antagonists, like in the previous games. If you’re gonna have depth, have some depth, but don’t tease.
On the plus side, it’s still pretty fun for a grind-fest. I’m an ’80s kid, so collecting cute things that kill each other is ingrained, and so far I haven’t been overwhelmed with mini-games that take large amounts of real time and don’t really do much but provide an irritating distraction. Since the DS is wi-fi capable, I will (once the official site is up and running) hopefully be able to play against other people, and more importantly trade with other people, so that should be interesting. I really would like to see the designers step up though, and maybe make something with some substance after all this time.