While the Mario cast of characters is the one most closely identified with Nintendo as a company, the Pokémon properties have arguably been more successful overall. As a formula, Pokémon succeeds in being many things to many people. The large cast of creatures, one that grows with every entry in the series, is vast and colorful. It’s very easy to have favorites. This certainly helps make the games appealing to children. But the series is also characterized by a deceptively deep RPG experience, and hardcore RPG fans who are able to put aside the cutesy presentation tend to also find a lot to like about the franchise.
Further, Pokémon titles are surprisingly accessible and there’s plenty of fun for those who simply find themselves interested in the franchise because of its ubiquity, even those that generally eschew traditional RPGs. In other words, Pokémon is characterized by a conceptual brilliance, the juxtaposition of the presentation and the gameplay giving it massive crossover appeal. The mechanics of Pokémon games are relentlessly addictive, and the ability to migrate your collection of characters as new generations of titles are introduced makes for a series that loses very few fans as time goes on.
As a company, Nintendo has long had a reputation for relying on their core properties, revisiting familiar material time and time again. Nowhere is that notion more apparent in the main titles in the Pokémon franchise. While entries in first party Nintendo games tend to be mechanically and thematically similar, Game Freak, the second party developer responsible for Pokémon, has made a career out of essentially releasing the same pair of games over and over again. In some sense, many of these titles are fundamentally interchangeable. Game Freak’s approach seems to be repeatedly polishing the Pokémon experience to a high gloss shine with each generation.
The brilliance of this approach, on the part of Game Freak, is that every new set of Pokémon games is the perfect entry point for series newcomers, since no core Pokémon title assumes any familiarity with the series. Although there is an overarching geography to the Pokémon universe, there is essentially no penalty for not paying attention to it from generation to generation of game. What longtime series fans expect will always be there, with minor annoyances from previous games assuaged, and new little touches to marvel at.
In keeping with the notion of incrementally modifying the Pokémon experience each generation, there are subtle differences in Pokémon Black/White, mostly in favor of streamlining the experience. Pokecenters and Pokemarts have been combined, making visiting both in order to prepare for battle unnecessary. Battles themselves are noticeably faster. Further, though level grinding has never been too much of an issue in the Pokémon series, at least on the single player front, leveling up your characters seems even quicker this time around.
That’s not to say that Black/White is perfect. The Pokeshifter replacement for Pal Park, the mechanism via which Pokémon captured in previous games can be transferred to the new generation, is still needlessly obtuse. First and foremost, the need for two DS machines is unfortunate at best. Perhaps more frustrating is the amount of time that needs to be sunk into transferring these characters, since you can only transfer six at a time. Slowly migrating a triple digit count of Pokémon, something that is not at all out of the ordinary, is irritatingly time consuming. It seems like the onboard memory of the DS could be used to allow a one time transfer of all selected Pokémon from a previous generation to Black/White at once, using a single machine. Hopefully this is an issue that will be addressed when the inevitable sixth generation, 3DS Pokémon games appear.
Other problems are similarly longstanding ones that seem as though they simply haven’t been addressed yet. It would be nice if there were some system aside from Repel items to avoid the numerous random encounters with wild Pokémon, particularly once the lead Pokémon of your party is of a significantly high level so as to make these encounters little more than nuisances. Also, needing to hold down a button to run, an issue that was actually addressed in the HeartGold and SoulSilver remakes last year, rears its head again.
If Pokémon has never held any interest for you, Black/White is not likely to change your mind. For long time fans, for better or for worse, the same great gameplay is here, but so too are some long time annoyances. The cutesy presentation of Pokémon belies a deep RPG experience that is actually a nice alternative to the traditional fantasy and futuristic designs so prevalent in the genre. While the HeartGold and SoulSilver remakes are larger games that are arguably more substantial overall, there’s still no better place to start with the series than the Black/White titles, as they represent the most streamlined, refined version of the Pokémon experience yet.