Pokemon Black Reader Review
There comes a time in any franchise when you need to grow up. Pokemon is a classic case in point - those of us who knew it back when we were young in the late 90's are now grown adults with responsibilities and the like - cheesy cartoon tales aimed at youngsters don't tend to age with us.
Pokemon Black (and White respectively) is that most curious of beasts - it is still at its very core the same game we've played for over a decade. There are mechanics changes - seasons, rare Pokemon spawns, events. But by and large the idea is the same - beat eight gym leaders, head to the Elite Four, beat them, and then travel elsewhere to do it all again.
So Pokemon Black isn't much of an advancement on a tried and trusted formula. With 156 more Pokemon, there's more to catch and more to tickle your fancy. Some of the new Pokemon look great (Woobat is a particular favourite of mine!) and some are just wrong (Gurdurr for example). The quality of the new designs is inconsistent at best, so most will just languish in your boxes for the rest of eternity and never see the light of day.
So too are the Pokemon types - there are way more mixed-types available, which makes fights less predictable and more interesting, but also it can be hard to tell at a glance what its strengths are. Fire Pokemon learn psychic moves. A Rock and Steel Pokemon is weak to fire. Again, the consistency is a little off at times - but arguably, this may bring in a tactical advantage. Fights are shorter, pacier and far more prone to going horribly wrong. It does seem to be aimed at a more... hardened Pokemon player, rather than someone who skipped out on the last couple of iterations.
But see, none of this is what turns me off Black. I could learn to love it. I could learn to accept it and defend it. There is plenty to like in this game - there is a lot to explore, a lot to do, a lot to experiment with and a lot to learn.
But - there's always a but.
And here it is. The plot. I cannot tell you the overriding hatred and annoyance that the story in Black caused me. This is where the series tries to "grow up", by introducing Team Plasma - a bunch of renegade Team Rocket wannabes who want to stop people using Pokemon - so only they can, and therefore dominate the world.
That is the gist of it really - but it is the execution of it that makes me want to piledrive my DS and new 3DS into the floor. The game is trying to raise an ethical quandry - are Pokemon companions or slaves? Creatures with such power, and all humans can do is set them on each other. Is this right? Can it be justified? Is it what the Pokemon themselves want, being fairly sentient creatures themselves - shouldn't they also be given the choice?
That is what it SHOULD be doing, but in the end it comes down to Team Plasma throwing out Pokemon from their Pokeballs and then endlessly bitching about the freedom and rights of these creatures before, during and after your battles. They are irritating, egotistical, hypocritical morons and about as likable as a piece of Pikachu Poo on your fresh green salad. By the end of the Elite Four, I just wanted them gone - and then, of course, you are told that you didn't really beat the Elite Four, so you have to do it again - gaining another twenty or so levels on your team of critters before you do so.
It seems a bit harsh coming down on Black for trying to grow up and pose an interesting debate, but at the end of the day - it is a game, a simple and charming world of companionship and rivalry. In truth, Team Plasma cheapen it to the extreme - it's a completely unnecessary addition into a world that is charmingly whimsical and lovely. The game would have lost nothing without them - it may have even been better.
But I can't fault it for trying. Some of us are much older now, it's been close to fifteen years now and those of us who were there at the beginning are now all grown up. But this isn't how you "grow up", this is how you alienate people. In truth, we all know why we play Pokemon - it's for the battles, the exploration and the habitual and addictive collectathon that is posed by all those little beasties - both common and rare. Team Rocket were, admittedly, charmingly pathetic. But they had a sense of being evil. Team Plasma by token are just the Pokemon equivalent of PETA - and just as irritating and hypocritical.
But there is a lot more to this - some admittedly pretty immature stuff, like dressing up your Pokemon and sending them out on stage to do a dance in a grass shirt and top hat. Some deeper stuff, like the interesting Battle Train. There is a lot to explore, a big chunk opens up later on and it feels large, alive and interesting.
But ultimately, it is the same game as the original and Gold and Silver - just with some less imaginative creatures, some quirkier mechanics and a far less appealing story. If you love Pokemon - and many of you clearly still do - this will of course once again scratch that itch like no other game can. Those of us whose last exposure was with Gold and Silver - well, it's a reminder that really, time has not been as kind to the series - it's behind us by a few years. The trading is almost antiquated, and I don't know many people who I could trade with now anyway - so my only other option is to buy White and play it again and suffer the annoyance of Team Plasma AGAIN. Yeah, I think I may pass on that one.
Really, it feels like a dead end. Pokemon needs to stop adding and start taking away - taking away the plot, the rival games and the need for endless trading (which I'd prefer to be optional really), and give us a definitive world that is both interesting and makes us WANT to explore it and find new companions. Because, at the end of the day, we all aim to beat the Elite Four - but the journey is and should be the real star of the series, and the journey needs to be more of a focus, rather than a quaint side-attraction being led around by a tour guide. I want to get lost in a forest being taunted by ghost type Pokemon, and uncovering what is making them so annoying. I want to take a wrong turn, end up at a Stoutland Breeding Farm and defend it from marauding poachers. I want to end up beating a Gym Leader and them following me aimlessly for the rest of the game trying to prove that they really are better than you.
Yes, I want a new Pokemon to make me feel, weirdly, like Ash Ketchum in the original cartoons - where there's more to it than trainers pestering me as I try to catch more Pokemon or explore, where the world itself if more open and free and fluid and believable. And every iteration that doesn't now feels like a failure. We have the power, the technology (the 3D in Black and White is pretty good, must be said) and surely the talent in the industry now to pull this off. Nintendo must have the resources to throw at the series and make it so, surely? It doesn't have to be full-3D or anything - just designed and tuned enough to be a stronger, more eventful and varied journey, rather than the same old annoying hypocrites every ten minutes to shout at you for doing what they do. Surely it's possible to do this now, right? We don't need a thousand trainers in the way to lengthen it - surely we can have designated combat areas, or "boss fights", and leave the roads and forests and lakes and rivers free to explore and find new additions to our Pokedex? And surely, if we must have a hate figure, having the likes of Jessie and James back is a start - yeah they're bad guys, but they're terrible at their job and almost adorable, like Wile E. Coyote trying to snag Roadrunner - enemies with less of a moralistic and judgmental agenda. Amusing distractions, not time-wasting annoyances.
So why does the series still feel so stuck in a rut? It's not a bad game mind you - for all my rambling, it is just one that aims for something it probably shouldn't be reaching for. Perhaps the next game should hold off the new Pokemon... and just make a better actual experience for everyone. There's no real need for MORE creatures - just a need for a longer, deeper and more interesting journey - one that bonds you with your Pokemon, and one that makes you feel like yes, it has been worth it and yes, you have learned something about the value of friendship and companionship and respect for all the lovely creatures of the world. A game, quite simply, more based on the ideals and concepts of the original cartoons, not the original game - which is, in the brutal light of day, at the end of its natural life.
I guess I'll see Pokemon again in ten years time... if it is still around, and hope that it will have caught up with us.