Version tested: DS
It's always a challenge reviewing the latest Pokémon game. Unlike the rapid genetic improvements enjoyed by the colourful creature sprites contained within, the series itself has evolved at a more Darwinian pace. Improvements are incremental, new features tentatively introduced every generation but rarely mutating too far from the dependable DNA structure that has allowed the games to survive - and thrive - for over 15 years.
The result is that reviewing the latest addition to the family tree can easily become a box-ticking exercise. Everyone who has ever played a Pokémon game - whether in 1996 or 2012 - knows exactly how the game will play. There's a very real danger that what you'll end up with is little more than a Wikipedia summary with a score at the end.
So for Pokémon Black and White 2, the first direct sequel in the series' long history, we're doing something different. We're opening up the review process to some real Pokémon experts: my son Dillon, 10, and Chris Schilling's son James, 6. Both of them live and breathe Pokémon, both have completed the original Black and White games multiple times and both have been pestering for the European release of the sequels since they were announced back in February.
If anyone can help us ascertain the relative worth of this hurried follow-up, it's them. Young and old, fans and critics: after a week spent playing the English-language version of the game separately, we all convened for a State of the Pokénation summit.
Of course, as soon as the boys meet, DSes flip open and it's straight into the shop talk. Comparing Pokédexes, discussing starters, offering tactics. They've never met before, but within a few minutes they're chatting away like they've known each other for years. Amongst the detailed technical chatter, it becomes clear that they also represent very different types of Pokémon player. For Dillon, it's all about the precision focus - selecting, training and evolving the perfect team. James, on the other hand, is more of an explorer and completist, preferring the challenge of catching Pokémon and filling the Pokédex.
"You know how I said the other day about how it was nice to be new to the story?" Dillon asks... "I had a lot fun doing that on White 2."
What I'm most interested in is how concerned with innovation these young devotees are. Do they see Black and White 2 as being substantially different to their predecessors? "It's a bit different," James muses. "You can get Pokémon from other regions earlier in the game, and there's some new gym leaders like Roxie and Cheren."
It hardly sounds like a drastic alteration, but what of the Pokémon themselves? This is the part that fascinates me, with my adult critical eye. Any franchise that populates itself with a myriad of creatures and characters surely needs to keep introducing new faces to keep the money rolling in. Why else did George Lucas cram so many aliens into every frame of Star Wars, if not to ensure a bulging selection of action figures? I honestly don't understand why the Pokémon games are so reluctant to expand the Pokédex more often. Even with the new Pokédex introduced in Black and White, why, I ask, are there no new Pokémon in a new Pokémon game?
"There are five new ones," James insists with all the self-assured confidence of a young boy being quizzed on his specialist subject. "Tornadus, Thundurus and Landorus in Therian Forms, and Black and White Kyurem."
"Well, I guess we shouldn't count Black and White Kyurem," interjects Dillon. "They're really just Kyurem."
"Or the other three," admits James without breaking stride. "All five are just forms of other Pokémon."
If the boys are troubled by this sudden reversal of facts, it doesn't show. "You know how I said the other day about how it was nice to be new to the story?" Dillon asks, referring to a conversation where he'd confessed a wish to be able to forget everything he'd learned about Pokémon and start over completely fresh. Clearly, there's a joy in discovery that a sequel can't provide. Or can it? "I had a lot fun doing that on White 2," he continues.
This segues neatly into one of the things that definitely makes Black and White 2 different to previous mid-generation efforts - it has its own storyline, rather than a slight remix of the previous game's plot. Even though both Dillon and James get most of their pleasure from the more mechanistic aspects of the gameplay, both are genuinely thrilled to simply have a new Pokémon story to experience. That alone justifies the existence of Black and White 2 as far as they're concerned.
But I still want an answer regarding the lack of new creatures. Would they be more excited about Black and White 2 if they came with a hundred new Pokémon? "Yeah!" they both exclaim at the same time. "For James it'd be more Pokémon to catch, and for me it'd be more Pokémon to train," Dillon explains, helpfully.
So they would clearly love to have more Pokémon, yet they're not in the least bit bothered by the game's somewhat half-hearted attempt to dress up existing Pokémon as new. It's the kind of contradiction that kids can indulge without problem, but I think it speaks to something deeper in fandom of every kind.
What James and Dillon love about Pokémon is their own expertise. They love the accumulation of knowledge and experience, and the sense of empowerment that gives them when their brains automatically offer up stats and trivia for every Pokémon they encounter, whether it's in the wild or a gym battle. In real life, they must constantly defer to adult authority for guidance. In the world of Pokémon, they are the authority.
So while on the one hand they crave the thrill of the new, at the same time that unknown quantity would add blank spaces to a mental chart they've lovingly and painstakingly filled. No wonder they're both hungry for change and yet quite happy to delay its arrival.
But there are new things in Pokémon Black and White 2. Lots of them, in fact. For the boys, the most exciting is the chance to make movies in Pokéstar. These little vignettes put the player in a battle scenario against a character in a motion capture suit and then ask them to stick to a script. Complete the scenario, and the battle is transformed into a movie clip in which your opponent is replaced with a monster - such as a giant mechanical Tyranitar. Both Dillon and James love this aspect of the game, and list it as one of their favourite additions - certainly preferable to the rather girly musical numbers of the original Black and White.
"Even for latecomers like Dillon and James, neither of whom were born when Pikachu first charmed gamers, there's tradition in the Pokémon experience, and it's a tradition worth celebrating and - yes - protecting."
"What if you could go in somebody's house where there's a TV and you could actually see the movie on the TV?" Dillon asks. "Ones you've made and ones other people have made. That would be cool, but it might be too much."
It's quite revealing how protective they are of the Pokémon experience. Anything that might upset the balance is endorsed as cautiously as possible. When I bring up the prospect of a future Pokémon game that uses online play to create a massive multiplayer world, the reaction is one of suspicion. "It might get too crowded," Dillon says after careful thought. James likes the idea of a Pokémon game that has similar online community features as Skylanders, but both seem perfectly happy with the trading aspects already offered by the Pokémon Dream World and Global Link. The downloadable 3DS AR game, Dream Radar, is also a big hit - even though James admits he'd prefer it if it were part of the core game and not a separate title.
In fact, one of the game's cleverest ideas doesn't even become apparent until a few days after our get-together, when I'm shown that James has set up a shop in Dillon's game as part of Join Avenue, an area of the game where any players you've been in contact with will open up a random boutique. If you encourage non-player characters to shop there, the store levels up and offers even greater items.
It soon becomes clear that Pokémon Black and White 2 are teeming with fan-service. The games themselves may not have changed all that drastically from the late 1990s, and the differences in gameplay between Black and White and these sequels may be negligible - but Game Freak certainly can't be accused of taking advantage of their devoted fanbase.
Even for latecomers like Dillon and James, neither of whom were born when Pikachu first charmed gamers, there's tradition in the Pokémon experience, and it's a tradition worth celebrating and - yes - protecting. Black and White 2 obviously do that with style and depth to spare.
So, it's crunch time. How would they grade the original Black and White today? James ponders for a while before deciding they now merit a mere 7/10. You can tell his dad writes for Edge. Dillon offers a considered 8/10. You can insert your own Eurogamer joke here.
But what of Black and White 2? A game filled with wonderful new ideas in the margins, but dependable, predictable gameplay in the middle. A game that honours the past but never seeks to stray too far from it. A game that elicits absolute unguarded delight and devotion from its young fans, even as they dream of what might be possible in the future.
When pressed for a score, Dillon and James' decision is unanimous and somewhat inevitable. Thankfully, their youthfully exuberant marking matches up with the conclusion myself and Chris, with our years of chin-stroking critical analysis, also reach. Is it the same game as always? Yes. And no. That's not a weakness or a mistake. It's what makes Pokémon so popular. It's why James and Dillon will probably still be fans in another 16 years, perhaps sharing the experience with their own sons.
In the natural world, evolution is all about conserving energy, and changes only stick if the benefits outweigh the effort. For creatures that get it right early on and find themselves perfectly adapted to their environment, the process will always be one of small steps rather than giant leaps. So it is for Pokémon. Black and White 2 offers a compelling record of all that's great from 16 years of catching, collecting, collating and coaxing pocket monsters into ever more exciting forms, bit by wonderful bit.
9 / 10