Thirteen years and over fifty games later, I finally decided to stop avoiding the juggernaut that is the Pokémon franchise and gave the perennial card-fighting RPG a shot with Pokémon White.
Obviously Pokémon has become a common part of popular culture over the last decade so I’m of course familiar with a few characters and creatures. I did play the hell out of Pokémon Snap, so I’m not entirely unexposed to the classic pocket monsters or their games. The concept of card-fighting isn’t new to me either. I played MTG heavily for a few months during the Odyssey years and put close to 300 hours into the Capcom and SNK Card Fighters Clash games on the Neo Geo Pocket Color. Pokémon White is the first DS game I’ve played in over a year, having lost interest in the platform around the time of the launch of the DSi.
Like most everyone else, I’ve been hearing about the wonders of Pokémon since it dug its adorable little claws into American society in 1998. With a hearty roster of colorful creatures and simple yet addicting gameplay, kids (and adults, apparently) of almost any age could pick up Pokémon and enjoy it on some level. I was no different.
From the start, I was a bit surprised as to the level of quality reflected in a game that could be half as good and still sell as well. The environments were bright and colorfully crafted and the animations were detailed and fluid. I have to respect Nintendo for at least keeping the cash cow polished. The one area the game lacks shine is with the creatures themselves. They’re still sporting low resolution models that look very dated. I’m hoping the 3DS will see a revamped set of sprites when the inevitable transition is made. Maybe they’ll even make a 3D creature to take advantage of Nintendo’s new gimmick.
Pokémon White starts by identifying you as an adolescent boy (or girl) who is about to set out on a journey to complete a Pokédex at the behest of Professor Juniper, and to the excitement of your mom. You must choose your starter Pokémon from either Tepig, the fire pig, Oshawatt the water otter, or Snivy the grass snake. I chose Snivy since he seemed the most unassuming, and went on my way. In the world of Pokémon, it’s apparently not that big of deal to go out on your own on a month long journey, but as it’s pointed out numerous times throughout the early parts of the game, as long as you have your Pokémon at your side, you’ll be fine.
You make your way through various towns and wilderness as you continue your quest to catch ‘em all and complete your Pokédex. Along the way, you occasionally meet up with your friends, who have also been set out by Professor J. to gather information on wild Pokémon. They feel consistently compelled to challenge you, but they’re easily dispatched. Actually everyone seems to feel compelled to take you on, which is something I like and hate about the game’s pacing. Regardless of your race, creed, or social class, you Pokébattle against nearly every person you meet eyes with, from Janitor Jake to Housewife Henrietta to Pedophile Paul.
One thing I noticed after winning the last story battle is that I never felt the slightest bit overwhelmed by any of the battles in the game. Not to say I never lost, but the couple of times I did seemed to be due to my own carelessness. I didn’t expect staggering difficulty from a game aimed at young children, but a difficulty setting might have been a nice feature. On the other hand, I did like that they presented the game as a living world without compromise or customization so maybe it just works better that way.
The whole Pokédex thing is really a minor piece of the story, as you’re almost immediately introduced to Team Plasma at the start of the game. Team Plasma is a group bent on freeing Pokémon from human captivity, and they’re willing to spill some blood to make it happen. Think P.E.T.A. with gray jumpsuits. I won’t spoil any more of the story, but Team Plasma is there fighting you to the end — and beyond.
Pokémon White ends, credits and all, about halfway through your exploration of the world map. Though the story does continue, it’s up to you to progress through it when you choose to do so. I immediately took my post game freedom to begin catching the classic Pokémon and filling my shiny new National Pokédex with Jigglypuffs and other classic friends. I was a little bummed to find out there was no way to get Pikachu, Charmander, or many other major creatures without importing data from previous games. This being my first, I suppose I’m out of luck. Seeing some of the new creatures compared to those of the classic generations, it did occur to me that they must be stretching their imaginations a little thin with nearly 650 creatures. I was definitely a little surprised to see “Trash Heap” and “Ice Cream” type Pokémon like Trubbish the cute garbage bag and Vanilluxe, the two-headed waffle cone.
I played for a little over 55 hours prior to calling it quits, and I think I had just as much fun in post-game exploration as I did pushing through the initial story. I caught myself several times grinding an area over and over to catch a rare creature despite trying intently to push on and get the game done for this review. I was also pretty shocked that I put that many hours into a game I played in my off-time for a week. I was happy I managed to get the legendary Pokémon for my version, and getting the one from Black wasn’t too difficult by trading with the gal at EB Games across the street.
Usually when I review a game, I try to think of ways I’d improve upon the next entry given the chance. For Pokémon, I keep thinking that their core audience must be spread out quite a bit since the kids who started out in ’98 are much older now. With the 3DS getting better internet capabilities, it could be fun to see some social network integration. I could easily see tweets popping up bragging about how Molly caught a new creature or how her starter Pokémon hit level 50.
The game takes advantage of seasons and weather to create a mixed environment in which certain creatures can only be caught under certain conditions. The problem is that the rain lasts as long as I’m on that screen, but if I leave and come back it’s gone. I also never played long enough to see a season other than Autumn. That’s a shame considering it’s even based off a condensed calendar in which seasons change every month.
If you look at something like Animal Crossing, not only did weather change on a day-to-day basis, the days, seasons, and holidays were all on an internal clock and calendar. I’d love to see functionality like that on the 3DS and speaking of Animal Crossing, it would be fun to be able to have a way to decorate your room or house or whatever and let people visit a la Animal Crossing Wild World. I won’t even get into how much better I’d feel if you had to return home at night to sleep.
So, to wrap it all up, Pokémon White is a fun little RPG. It reminded me of the countless hours I spent playing 16-bit RPGs and how addicting and fun they can be. I honestly expected a little more being that it’s so deep into the franchise, but I wasn’t disappointed overall. With a fresh coat of paint on the monster sprites and a few less bizarrely conceived creature types, I hope Pokémon continues to enjoy success for generations to come.