4.07.2011

Pokémon Black/White Reaction: My Return to the RPG

When the "Gotta Catch 'em All" epidemic first hit stateside I was just entering adolescence. I had gone through the usual crazes (Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Mighty Max, Magic: The Gathering) and felt ready to grow up and blow away such pithy money drains for greater sophistication (like that of professional wrestling and house music). Two acquaintances both had Pokémon Blue and were begging me to get Red so we could collect all 151 pocket monsters together. For what felt like the first time, I was the one laughing at them for being so pathetic. But lo, my birthday was near. Sure enough, those acquaintances gifted me a crimson cartridge and sure enough, the rest was history.

I not-so-strategically chose a Charmander to be my first virtual companion. I not-so-creatively named him "Buddy". As I grew as a monster trainer my team grew to include the other two starters' final forms (Blastoise and Venusaur), Electabuzz, Lapras, Poliwrath, Lickitung, Snorlax, Sandslash, Gengar, Gyarados, Mewtwo and Zapdos. I think I probably had a Machamp and an Alakazam in there, as well. Through on-and-off gameplay (which eventually included my own version of Blue and the "enhanced" Yellow) it took a several years to build that team up to super-high levels. The Elite 4 went down like the first Rattata outside Pallet town on countless occasions. During "downtime" I was either playing/collecting the Pokémon Trading Card Game, watching the anime or just plain wishing it was all real and being a Pokémon trainer was a viable profession.

Honestly, I didn't pay much mind when Pokémon's second and third generations (Gold/Silver and Ruby/Sapphire) rolled around. The idea of new monsters was frustrating both aesthetically as I had already grown to love the original bunch and for the all too common way so many role-playing games "reward" you only by extending the dangling carrot just that much further. Eventually though, approximately a decade after the initial infatuation, I got the itch to have some fun with generation four (Diamond/Pearl). I even managed to transfer my first generation data and get the ol' gang back together. New team members included Torterra, Luxray, Gastrodon, Lucario, Glaceon and Dialga (I also managed to nab the legendaries Giratina and Heatran). Some of the newly redesigned features this first Nintendo DS installment offered proved not only visually satisfying but also extremely helpful and certain bonus content, like the Underground, greatly bolstered the game's longevity.

Now, when it comes to video games in general, though I was introduced through Sonic the Hedgehog, weaned on N64 and harbor a love for the novelty of vintage arcade fare, I'm a Final Fantasy die-hard at heart. The Square Enix series sets my bar for comparison and the top entries on my what-titles-have-I-wasted-the-most-life-on list are all from the core line. More than any other (and this is considering an entire winter break spent on the couch with VII and probably even longer with XII) I got pulled in to FFXI, the series' first massively multiplayer online offering. Oh, the time I had there... and the friends I made! I spent close to two years doing little but fritter away in its world of Vana'diel as Kiddoe the White Mage (and eventually also Monk and Scholar), entirely lost to Final Fantasy: my preferred reality.

In time I set FFXI aside (not before commemorating the experience with a tattoo of my character... yeah, I'm obsessed). The "quit" wound up more an extended "break", however, as the game's absence from my existence was eating away at me. I resumed play several years later to reunite with a few remaining friends and complete my journey as Kiddoe. I could go on for ages about my adventures with FFXI, particularly those involving the Chains of Promathia expansion, and I actually have to a certain extent on my short-lived side-blog Kiddoe's Quest, but what I really mean to do by covering all this (as briefly as I am emotionally capable of) is to set the field for what I truly look for in a game. The Final Fantasy games have a grand sense of uncompromising escape like no other, and that is precisely what draws me in. XI in particular had me with the added appeal of adventuring alongside compatriots - sharing the discovery of a new world's wonders.

Pokémon's fifth generation brings me back to gaming after another hiatus. I recently traded in all my Playstation 2 equipment (but held on to my FFXI harddrive and memory card for sentimental purposes) to go toward the purchase of a Nintendo 3DS. The first actual 3D title that interests me (the Ocarina of Time remake) doesn't release until June and I had already played many of the Final Fantasy titles available for the DS, so Pokémon it was (Ōkamiden was recommended but it takes a lot to get me to risk money on an unfamiliar title). I selected White, primarily for the aesthetics of the White Forest versus those of the Black City. Unfortunately I have been unable to locate my Pokémon Diamond cartridge, so it would seem my honed team led by Buddy the Charizard is but a memory. Here's to a fresh start with what is the series' first batch of entirely new monsters.



Beginning Anew in Nuvema

Several of the new generation's changes are apparent right from the start. First we have an opening sequence involving... what? Royal court proceedings and what appear to be mystics and princes and that kind of stuff? In a Pokémon game? Yep. Then there's the notion of friends. Previously we've had insolent rivals who surprise us with challenges and this time that remains intact to a deeper extent but we also have friendly repeat competitors Cheren and Bianca. This allows us to relate to the game in fresh ways through the provision of original side stories. Also, as the first of many streamlines we see, our very first task puts us directly into the action with the selection and trial of our starter monster. Really, though, the main thing we notice is the excellent presentation. Particularly for those who recall hours upon days upon weeks of playing the originals, the animated, full-color, three-dimensional environment before us here is a marvel.

Perhaps more importantly, however, are the ways Black and White are similar to those seminal pocket monster games, and I don't mean that yet again we're playing as a tween of an apparently single mother traveling the forests, caves and memorial towers between the cities in which we battle for gym badges (yeah, don't fix what's not broken but really, a new concept would be welcome at this point). Just look at our main character's hat. In each generation a new outfit has been employed for our heroes and due to the top-down camera's "super-deformed" view of them, the hat has always been the most prominent updates, but this time we're back to the traditional baseball cap. There are several NPC throwbacks throughout for seasoned players to pick up, and with the mentioned all-new batch of monsters, the feeling of uncertain excitement as to what or whom you'll encounter in the tall grass next is back in full.

So, as I always do, I selected the girl as my avatar and, as I always do, named her "Kiddoe" after my FFXI character. Though there is no customization beyond gender, conveniently this character looks practically identical to my Kiddoe, dark hair half-pulled into a ponytail and all.


On the Hunt in Unova

Like I said, the all-new batch of monsters is exciting because this time there's no chance of running in to the same boring Metapod over and over. This is double-edged, though, in that the old monsters have more or less been replaced with clones. Pidgey becomes Pidove. Zubat becomes Woobat. Poliwag becomes Tympole. Meowth becomes Purrloin. Chansey becomes Audino. Machop becomes Timburr. Diglett becomes Drillbur. Magnemite becomes Klink. Etcetera, etcetera, so on and so forth. Even Hitmonlee and Hitmonchan have replacements (Throh and Sawk).

Thankfully there are some interesting elemental combinations. For example, Scraggy is both Fighting and Dark. Its Fighting side is weak to Psychic attacks, but its Darkness disallows those attacks from affecting it. Thing is, while this provides a challenge in fighting against Scraggy, I still find little use in actually training a Scraggy to use in battle yourself. Dark and Steel types were added in generation 2 yet I still feel they do little apart from leashing certain powerhouse types such as, well, Psychic (seriously, anyone who remembers the pre-Dark days knows that the elusive Alakazam and the legendary Mewtwo were practically invincible).

I find it takes me a while to fill all six of my team slots. Not only does a monster have to offer a practical element missing from the team, it has to look good doing it. In Pokémon White a fair number of the monsters we meet within the stronger dungeons fit the latter bill, but many are downright hideous. What's worse is the younger stages are vastly more appealing than the evolved forms. Take Petilil, incidentally my favorite critter of the lot. Maybe not the greatest example seeing as it evolves into the also pretty good lookin' Lilligant, but come on... that little bulb Pokémon is so adorable! Put it in the Nimbasa "Forest Stroll" musical with the "elegant" top hat, bow and cane and tell me you don't swoon at its supreme cuteness. Yet, where with the first generation I was always giddy for evolutions, here I lament when my precious Petilil flowers, becoming Lilligant. Furthermore, some of the cooler original monsters now have ugly evolved forms. Electabuzz now becomes Electivire? Gimme a break.

As for my team, I started with Oshawott (evolved into Samurott, nicknamed "Gobi Rider") before adding Munna (Musharna, "Ru'Hmet"). Next to join was Throh ("Huu Xalmo") followed by Petilil (Lilligant, "Saruta"), Victini ("Tu'Lia"), Tynamo (Eelektross, "Lufaise") and Zekrom ("Bahamut"). Temporary team members included Pansear (no nickname) and Yamask ("Promyvia") and so far I've managed to catch the additional legendaries Cobalion ("Fei'Yin"), Terrakion ("Uleguerand"), Virizion ("Prishe") and Thundurus ("Zeromus"). If you aren't familiar, most of those nicknames are, you guessed it, Final Fantasy-related. I also have Pokémon named "Aldo", "Terrigan", "Quasilumin", "Horutoto", "Ayame", "Pso'Xja", "Promathia", "Selbina", "Rabanastre", "Bhujerba" and "Xarcabear". Then there's "Gary" the Gyarados.

UPDATE: The team has grown to include a replacement Poliwrath ("Talos"), a Chandelure ("Vesta"), a Volcarona ("Aquilisect") and a Ferrothorn ("Enmity") while I have trained on the side a Golurk ("Zi'Tah") and a Scrafty ("Phomiuna"). So, scratch the above comment about doubting the usefulness of Dark and Steel types, I suppose. I have also managed to capture all the current legendaries native to White; am awaiting the upcoming event monsters.


Team... Morality?

In this franchise's prior outings, story has never factored in much. If anything, interference from Team Rocket or your rival or whoever served to keep you on your toes and provide extra means by which to level up your team. This time the opposing team and your rival are affiliated, but what really puts this story a level above the predecessors is their motive. Team Plasma and their new king, named simply "N", are on a mission to free Pokémon from their trainers. They believe Pokémon are happier in their natural environments and being trapped inside tiny compartments, forced to fight all day, negates the allegedly mutual bond most people feel with them. This, particularly in some of the forms it's presented, stands to sway our conviction as the resistance to the cause even if we're not ultimately given much choice in the matter. What's unfortunate is that in the end (um, spoiler alert and stuff) you discover Team Plasma never cared about their "cause", which was merely a ruse to disarm potential meddlers in their plot to, well, basically take over the world (writing those last four words practically makes me cringe).

The narrative does prosper in other ways. To go along with what is, quite honestly, an almost my-first-Final-Fantasy feel some of the later plot elements feature, is the notion that from the beginning there are heroes destined to befriend the legendary creators of the Unova region to either protect or destroy the world as Unovans know it. Has sort of a "Warriors of the Crystal" ring to it, no? And really, I can imagine how bare it would all feel were one to play through without ducking in to every alcove or intruding in every household (and scavenge through every trash can, even though this time all but one is empty) to glean information and receive gifts. Pokémon Black and White do indeed healthily reward those who don't just barrel toward the finish and if you're paying close attention, you'll discover a relatively subtle touch that renders N a most sympathetic character.

As for your friends, Cheren and Bianca, they're all fine, well and good. They show us, the heroes, what various paths trainers can take. Thing is, Bianca winds up all but throwing in her towel even after an optional side story about overcoming her father's selfish demands for her to remain home. Her defeated timidness can be cute at times, though I wonder what may have happened had I not whooped her butt every time she challenged me. All would have turned out the same, I'm sure, but how would she have justified her claims of weakness?


Would you Poké her?

Okay, I won't spend much time on this, but within the bounds of an all-audiences game, could the developers have given the female trainer any more sex appeal? She wears a tight, midriff-revealing tee and short shorts with thigh slits and cutely sticks her bum out each times she chucks a Poké Ball. They probably could have gotten away with some cleavage if they wanted to. With the overt sexuality in my face each time a battle commences I just have to unassuredly tell myself the same thing I do when watching Japanese anime programs: "She's supposed to be 15 but she's drawn like she's 21! It's okay!! ...right??"


Fast Food Gaming... for Better or for Worse?

It always bugged me in the Pokémon anime how main character Ash was often rewarded with gym badges without having to actually battle gym leaders. Oh, he would, if I remember correctly, perform tasks likely worthy of the badges, but after training so hard and getting smacked around so many times in my own adventures through what would come to be known as the Kanto region, I wanted to see Ash endure the same challenges. With Pokémon White, I doubt I'd have similar worries. Maybe it's just my experience with prior Pokémon titles but I was hardly ever genuinely challenged this time around. Journeying across every route and city, through every dungeon and gym, I never once lost a battle were it to a wild monster, trainer or even gym leader. Hell, in one instance a NPC actually gives you a Pokémon elementally strong against the upcoming gym just to make things easier on you. Elesa (Nimbassa's gym leader who rewards the Bolt Badge) almost had me with her Volt Switch trickery, but that remained the sole instance of challenge throughout. Even the Elite Four and its aftermath of a very traditionally Final Fantasy-esque you're-not-allowed-to-save-until-you-win-'em-all triad of boss battles didn't make me waver. Now, it's not like I'm spending loads of extra time grinding to maximum strength in the tall grass, so what gives?

Furthermore, the gyms themselves aren't challenging. Their trainers are just like any other, only with more predictable elemental types so it's easier to select which monster to toss out first, and their "puzzles" are more like straight paths that look flashy with things like roller coasters and, er... walls made out of honey (that's the Bug-type gym). Granted the gyms look better than ever - same goes for the Elite Four's respective chambers - but come on, make me think a little!

So if easier isn't exactly better, at least quicker is. Getting from point A to point B have fewer unnecessary hold-ups this time, and added to the DS' super-casual close-it-whenever-you-need-to-even-without-saving nature this makes for great on-the-go gaming. Streamlined features in generation five include consolidated Pokémon Centers and Poké Marts, easier storage functionality (use the "Move" feature, forget "Deposit" and "Withdraw"), a customizable key item menu, a bottomless and superiorly organized inventory, less nonsense within battles, three different movement speeds - walking, running and biking - and the fact that poison no longer affects your Pokémon outside battle. Could more be done? Sure, but what we've got going now is pretty sweet.

One feature I'm a tad iffy on. There are now healers (some of whom you do have to battle first) on practically every route and in every dungeon. Of course I enjoy the convenience of bringing my team to full speed in the thick of things but if you're just a smidge more patient than your average thumb-masher these NPCs will make it so you virtually never have to unzip your medicine kit (though, regardless, sometimes you're sure to find yourself doling out Fresh Water at 200 a pop just incase only to discover one of these healers two more steps ahead). In zones like Pinwheel Forest and Twist Mountain it takes mere seconds to dash over to the healer following each battle, often just for the compulsion of having Petilil's Giga Drain Power Points at full. I enjoy the spoils of war far more when I feel I've earned them. Each looming cave or desert or bridge or beach or whatever should present mounting difficulties that take me several tries to conquer, not just be the next thing to look at as I breeze by.

Let's talk Hidden Machines for a second (or however long it takes to read two paragraphs). Ever since generation one they've taught our Pokémon moves they could use outside battle to traverse seas, push boulders and climb waterfalls. At first they were impossible to unlearn, now they're a nuisance to unlearn, and no matter what they're taking up one of four precious maneuver slots. Are these things really needed? I mean, yeah, having obstacles and secrets only passable or discoverable until certain points when the relevant HMs come in to play keeps things in order - you're not going to talk to a NPC before you should and you're not going to accidentally wander into a brush of monsters twenty levels ahead of you - and it makes re-tracing your steps a rewarding experience... but isn't there a better way than making us occupy maneuver slots with pseudo-permanent techniques that aren't necessarily handy in battle? Could we possibly instead just unlock the ability to make, for example, our winged companions fly without overwriting something else?

There are six proper HMs in the game and eight when you include the TMs Dig and Flash. Out of a team of six monsters that's eight whole maneuver slots - two whole monsters worth of moves used for non-battle stuff. Three of these moves are water-based, so my Samurott is only left with one customizable move. Theoretically once through exploring Unova I could delete these and customize away (the move deleters and re-learners were great additions from a previous generation now added to TMs finally, thankfully being reusable) but what happens when I get the itch to explore some more? At first I was only teaching HMs to weenie monsters - Cut went to Patrat and the water moves were shared amongst Tympole, Ducklett and Frillish, some of which aren't able to learn Waterfall or Dive. It became tiresome, however, to trek forth with my core team, encounter a tree, return to town to get Patrat and cut down the tree only to find a boulder up next. Back to town to get a monster with the Strength ability... but of course I still need to get past that reappearing tree so that's two team slots used up on weenies.

All this said, the game is very enjoyable and addictive and the streamlining is most appreciated. Could really use greater challenges and fewer HMs, though (and, come to think of it, less flashing. Of the bright light variety, that is. During each training session I wind up with a headache from all the flashing).


Final Thoughts &... are Handheld MMOs the future?

Due to the recent tsunami, Japan has ordered temporary power conservation. This means no Final Fantasy XI, no Final Fantasy XIV and no online features for games like Pokémon White. This means no Pokémon Dream World, no Entralink, no cool goings-on in the White Forest, etcetera. I mentioned above liking the previous generation's Underground feature considerably - it made the game fun for far longer than it otherwise would have been. I'm hoping the Dream World and all that goes with it will fill a similar void but for now I have no way of knowing. Typically, at least as I've found, online content in single-player games is very "extra" - stuff like doing a co-op in a Zelda title. It's never really interested me and I've been fine skating right past it. Here, though, you're practically forced to interact with others to experience the "endgame" (the stuff that comes after the credits roll). That can't happen now for anyone in America... but what if I didn't have WiFi?

Then, Pokémon has never really been a single-player game. Sure, you can get a lot from it as just one person, but it's always seemed, very related to the way we're constantly being drilled that the bonds between trainers and their monsters are special, the game developers have been encouraging us to be social and make new friends. To really "Catch 'em All" one has had to interact with acquaintances (unless, I suppose, one can afford both versions of a generation on top of two consoles). It's easy to think our trainer identification cards don't mean anything, but the idea is for people to see them and compare Pokédexes. By that, it's just as easy to get too caught in being defined by our cards and our 'dexes. I know when playing FFXI I often felt I was defined by how many missions I had completed or how maxed out my armor was. The fact that I often customized and gear-switched against the grain (I.E. using maces and shields when White Mages are "supposed to" use two-handed staves) didn't reflect well with many. I know plenty of people obsess over Pokémon training to the point that they meticulously monitor hidden stats called "EVs" and reset if they misstep. If I left my beloved FFXI initially due to widespread conventional elitism and finally due to the carrot getting even further away (with a series of updates raising the level cap from 75 to 99), Pokémon's persistent generations (equivalents of expansion packs, really) definitely aren't going to rope me in to being made a fool of online just because I didn't pour my entire life force into my Pikachu. Wow, okay, where was I?

Rants about role-playing elitism aside, I actually find Pokémon Black and White's online features potentially fascinating for the idea that, at least from how it sounds, they could essentially turn Pokémon into a handheld MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online Game). This makes me think how incredible it'd be to introduce genuine MMOs in which you play simultaneously with others all over the world just like in FFXI right there on handheld devices. Most folks have a handheld something these days, and to my understanding Sony's upcoming NGP is trying to tip the phones/tablets-replacing-gaming-machines thing on its ear with its own phone feature. Getting ahead of myself and looking way into the future, I could see people walking around with built-in devices creating some form of virtual reality MMOs engrained in actual reality.

Phew, this wrap-up is becoming an unwieldy mess. Let's bring it around. So anyway, maybe this is just "growing up", maybe it's having another decade of the the world beating me down each time I try to stand, but I don't feel the urge for Pokémon to become my reality anymore. Yeah, the fantasy of becoming a trainer is an alluring one - traveling the world with unusual animals at your defense, making money just by interacting with the interesting people you meet - but I'm okay with it just being on a screen. Still, all the gripes and all the venting considered, I'm having fun with it for now until the Ocarina remake releases... and until Square Enix gets around to some Final Fantasy titles for the 3DS (fingers crossed). And if a MMO, preferably a Final Fantasy one, ever hits handheld... you'd better believe I'll be all over it.

5 comments:

  1. u wanna know what i find interesting...half your article has very little to do with the title

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    1. It's a very selfish article. I was mostly just venting... had no idea the traffic it'd generate just because it's about Pokémon. I'm impressed you stuck it out through the whole thing!

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  2. and the female character is beautiful...you're just a prude

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    1. Well, I'm not sure I can go as far as to call a few crude pixels on a handheld screen "beautiful" in that sense, but I'm more just calling out the fact that this game is aimed at children, yet it frequently includes overtly sexualized images of a presumably underage character.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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