Pokemon Black and White (Pokemon B/W) is nothing short of a massive video game. It doesn't take much to beat the game. In fact it's possible to beat most Pokemon games in 5-10 hours. A good friend of mine took part in a fundraising event where he and others beat all the Pokemon games in a back to back marathon. Check out more on his site wavedash.net. When I said it doesn't take much to beat the game, I meant more than just time. Pokemon is an RPG. Because of features like leveling, it's possible to brute force your way through most of the challenges. By brute force I mean not adhering to more complex strategies and interplay systems. Technically, you don't have to catch more than a handful of Pokemon, explore most areas, or talk to most NPCs to beat the elite four. But there's much more to the game than this.
Naturally, what I refer to is optional content, which is, I think, a necessary consideration when putting what Pokemon has become into proper focus. First of all, Pokemon is a Japanese RPG. You play the role of the up-and-coming champion while story and themes unfold around you. The world is huge featuring various environments from the urban, natural, to the mystical. But outside of battle you solve few puzzles and face few challenges. The out of battle gameplay is fairly simple. With few locks and keys in the form of HMs and specialty TM, the only thing limiting your exposure to the world is your drive. The battle system features turn-based combat and hundreds of characters to build your party.
It's easy to underestimate the innovation and feature rich design of Pokemon Black/White. After all, the game still retains the style of the original Gameboy handheld games. I think it would be very instructional to list some of Pokemon B/W's features.
- A meaty main quest.
- Post game missions, environments, challenges, and other content.
- Special time sensitive and event based exclusive content. e.g. Victini.
- IR communications for faster interactions.
- Extralink: Drop in/out missions for local wireless where players can invade other's game worlds without permission. Missions are an open free-for-all for players to compete.
- Tag Log: A live, local wireless monitor for nearby players complete with automatic twitter-like updates of their activities. Can also check out mini player profiles and send messages.
- Xtransceiver: Local wireless video/voice chat.
- Battle Subway: Single player and co-op battle gauntlets for a variety of different battle types. The Wifi train allows players to download new team combinations from actual players.
- Wifi Room: Wifi activities like like trade, battle, and voice chat.
- Global Terminal: Random and ranked international wifi battles.
- Geonet: An international asynchronous Pokemon trading system.
- Pokemon Global Link: A fully integrated online web portal.
- Pokemon Dream World: An asynchronous online world where players can interact with random players from around the world, find/collect rare items, and befriend Pokemon with exclusive abilities.
- Poke Transfer: The ability to transfer Pokemon from all previous Nintendo DS Pokemon RPGs into Pokemon B/W.
- Record battle videos for later viewing. Can trade battle videos with friends online.
- 649 Pokemon with animations, 455 unique attacks, 162 abilities, and hundreds of items.
It's clear that there hasn't been a Pokemon game with quite so many features. It's also fairly obvious that the core gameplay and style has not changed much since the 1998 Pokemon Red/Blue. This trend is common with many video game series as they have common themes, features, and elements of design between them. Often times, talk of innovation and formula are used as a substitute for thoughtful analysis. It's not enough to say Pokemon Black is the same as Pokemon Red. It's equally unhelpful to dismiss talk of game sameness with phrases like "if it ain't broke don't fix it."
Whether you examine the story or the gameplay of Pokemon B/W, understanding the formula and conventions of the series helps put its design into proper focus. After all, sometimes the smallest change can be a breath of fresh air to veterans. And sometimes big changes don't really make too much of a difference at all.
Actual Pokemon formulae.
The Pokemon formula is a combination of a classic hero story common in many Japanese anime and a gradual tutorial like widening of scope and difficulty of the RPG game content. In Pokemon Red/Blue, you and the main character of the game begin the adventure knowing little about Pokemon (supposedly). In a small town you receive your first Pokemon and permission to travel the world taking record of all Pokemon you encounter for research. And you're not the only one. It turns out another boy from your home town sets off to do the same. He's both a reflection of you and a rival. From here you talk to new people, go to new cities, meet new Pokemon, and complete side quests at your leisure. On your adventure you learn about the less than honorable deeds of Team Rocket, a gang of Poke-theives who plan on using Pokemon to strong arm the world. By the end, many of the trials you overcome lead into the conclusion. Giovanni, the leader of Team Rocket, turns out to be the 8th gym leader. Upon defeating him Team Rocket is disbanded. With all 8 gym badges you make it through the Elite Four, the strongest battlers in the region, and find that the final obstacle you must battle through is your Rival.
This Pokemon formula does many things and works many ways. Facing your rival in the end is designed to make you question who you are and the choices you've made. You might think, if this other no-name trainer from your home town could make it this far, then can anybody? What makes me special? Is it all the challenges along the way? Your new friends both human and Pokemon that you met? Did he battle Team Rocket to get this far? Your rival was the first person you ever battled on your adventure, and now he's here at the end. After playing him repeatedly throughout the game, you've seen his team grow and evolve. Somehow you knew it would all come down to this. It's the kind of dramatic full circularity that drives most quest narratives.
In Pokemon B/W instead of the conventional picking a starter Pokemon while your rival picks the type that beats yours, Cheren and Bianca are two characters that pick the remaining two Pokemon starters. Though they battle you sporadically throughout the game, their narrative drives and character roles are different. Cheren is brash, somewhat hot headed, reliable, and data driven. In his quest to become a stronger trainer he realizes that he has become a stronger person only through the support of his Pokemon. Realizing he's not the hero of the story, he resolves himself to help you on your journey. Bianca, the clumsy, answer seeking child of overly cautious parents, learns that the world is filled with many people that can live a life of many roles. These characters are the foil that strengthen the core themes of Pokemon B/W of personal choices and gray middle grounds.
One of the strengths of the Pokemon formula is how the text/dialog does very little to progress the actions of the story giving more focus to the gameplay. Each NPC has something to say, but it's short and to the point. Like twitter, the dialog puts and idea out there and the player is left to reflect on it. Some are gameplay tips while others are like Chinese proverbs or fortune cookie messages: "If you don't know how to fish, you're missing half of life's enjoyment. If you don't know Pokemon... You're missing out on all of it!" Many themes and questions are simply put out there and left on the table for the player to mull over. Only by playing more does the complexity of the narrative increase. The game can be as simple as Charizard Fire Blasting anything that crosses your path or a complex as watching a faux terrorist organization crumble from opponents of the opposing ideology.
Since the 3rd generation of Pokemon, the evil Pokemon gangs/cults have enacted radical plans to bring peace to the world. Team Aqua (gen 3) wants to destroy the world in a flood and hopefully bring back Kyogre, a powerful Pokemon thought to have widened the seas of the world. Team Galactic (gen 4) tries to create a new world order by putting the legendary Pokemon of space/time under their control to create a new universe. And in Pokemon B/W Team Plasma attempts to separate people and Pokemon because they see Pokemon capture and battling as a type of abuse. This change in tone and theme is fairly significant considering Pokemon's history. Introducing doubt into the primary action of the game,(battling) is a great way to make veteran and new players alike look at their roles differently. Ultimately, we have to pick a side on the issue. And this choice is made through our in game actions and narrative progression.
One of the main challenges of the previous games is becoming a champion. Pokemon B/W is about becoming a hero. Champions are for competitions or sports. But heroes fight for bigger ideas. What started with the issue of Pokemon abuse amasses into a spiraling collection of gray. Throughout the game relationships are questioned. Cheren and Biana search for answers. Ideologies are discussed. Players are tested. And you, the hero chosen by Zekrom or Reshiram, push through it all by doing the only thing you know, battling. By the end of the main quest, you're given few answers. Right and wrong is such a simple way of looking at the world. The minds, beliefs, and thoughts of people can hardly be organized into black and white categories. What's more compelling is the thoughtful reflections on it all by the characters in the game. Decide for yourself if Team Plasma is as evil as you thought. Be there as various Team Plasma members see the world from a new perspective and find a new direction for their lives. Walk the entire region and figure out if you "believe that Pokemon battles help us understand one another."
Pokemon is an RPG that appeals to a wide range of gamers of different ages and skill levels. For this reason, all the games have started out simply. Easing in the player is a great way to keep more players on track, but it also meshes well with the story. From the start of the game to the end of the main quest (beating the Elite 4) you will gradually get better travel methods (walk, run, bike, fly, surf, dive, waterfall), more diverse Pokemon to catch (normal, flying, bug, ground, psychic, ice, steel, dark, dragon, etc), and more advanced items (Pokeball, Potion, Repel, Escape Rope, Rare Candy, Zinc, Exp.Share, Lucky egg, Life Orb). This kind of design is to be expected with most RPGs. Gradually unlocking content is a great way to make the game last longer and to give the player an opportunity to appreciate each addition without being overwhelmed. I don't expect other games to change up this formula, and I don't expect Pokemon to either. This issue is not a matter of design innovation or creativity. It's about how players learn.
Along these lines, Pokemon B/W does something new to help educate players. For example, instead of picking your starter Pokemon and either doing really well or really poorly on the first few gyms like in Pokemon Red/Blue, in Pokemon B/W the first gym adapts to your choices. The gym leader of Striaton city is actually a gym trio. Each have a team designed to counter your starter Pokemon. Never fear. The game provides a special monkey Pokemon of a complementary type giving players everything needed to play into the fire, grass, water interplay loop. Even before reaching the gym leader, players must answer questions to test their understanding of the counters.
In terms of story and non-battle gameplay, there's nothing wrong with the Pokemon formula. Granted the style, tone, and presentation could use a brand new spin. We'll get to these topics in the repair section of Pokemon B/W. It wouldn't be fair to discuss repairs before we address the core component of Pokemon B/W. After all, I'd say battling is a good 85% of what makes Pokemon shine.
The best advice I can give for how to thoroughly enjoy Pokemon B/W is to have two things: First, a love of animals, biology, or mystery is important for appreciating what Pokemon are and what they do. Second, a desire to battle, compete, and win is a must.
In part 4, we'll analyze the best part of the Pokemon RPG games. Is it the best turn-based RPG battle system ever? Is it held back by the same issues that hold back so many other RPG battle systems?