The TMs have changed to meet the times, as have some of the in-game services available such as the NPC who can re-remember a move a Pokémon has neglected to learn. If you’re unsure you want to teach an evolved move to one of your team and select ‘forget’ in the heat of the moment, it’s possible to dig that move out and have another shot at learning it around three-quarters of the way through the game.
Finding and managing the Hidden Machines in Black/White has also become a little easier, as most are handed to you by an NPC without any effort whatsoever. No more searching the Safari Zone for surf in these games.
One small backward step is the lack of shoulder-button functionality. The shoulders do nothing, and can’t seem to be activated in any option menu in the game - an annoying regression.
Battles are the core component to Pokémon. After all, they allow you to progress the story and indeed 'catch ‘em all'. Whilst the standard turn-based battle pitting different types of monster against each other has been done a million times, Black/White still manages to make fighting engaging. Double battles (two vs. two) are still in, yet still feel a little pointless and restrictive though.
With this new generation of Pokémon comes a new battle style, a rather clumsy rotating battle, where three Pokémon from each team are on the battlefield at a time. Only the central creature can be controlled against an opponent who rotates around each turn. It adds a new element of strategy, but is too under-utilised to be a game changer. Battling has for a long time been a numbers game, especially as most Pokémon players can pick the right move against each opponent without fail. The multitude of strange new beasts in Black/White helps to switch this up, adding to the challenge of the title. Having two rival characters in the storyline gives you a plethora of pseudo-boss battles to hone your skills in between gyms, which is a nice change of pace for the series.
Speaking of strange new beasts, the new 156 stars of the show are virtually all designed to a very high standard. The starters give you the choice of a fiery pig, a snide looking grass serpent or a goofy looking otter. The designs of the new Pokémon owe a lot to the original 151, but they are respectable deviations and for the most part look neat and distinctive. With the exception of the Ice-Cream-Cone Pokémon, that is. Who knows what was going on at Game Freak when they gave the OK to that one.
As well as the new Pokémon, the gyms throughout the world have been lovingly designed and come with an entertaining array of puzzles and traps to navigate before you earn your badge. One of the highlights includes flying around an airplane hanger with the help of some large cannons.
The graphical power of the DS was not utilized to the extent it could have been in the last generation of Pokémon games. Some minor elements of 3D were thrown in, but they felt tacked on at the last minute. Black/White have taken things a step further, but the developers still refuse to launch head-first into a consistent and immersive 3D solution. Parts of the game are rendered in 3D, including an amazingly detailed city, which feels immense as you begin to explore it. You get a feeling you’re playing in a proper 3D Pokémon world, if only for a brief moment. Awkward camera transitions and the fact you’re reduced back to pseudo-3D around virtually every corner makes the game flow feel a bit off. 3D is used to good affect for a few physical puzzles in the game, bringing back memories of the fantastic Golden Sun franchise - something Game Freak should be applauded for.
The resolution and detail of the standard, top-down overworld looks fantastic. The animation is smooth and redesigned buildings such as the all-in-one Pokecentre/Pokemart look spiffy. Many of the cities take up a few screens worth of real estate and all look and feel like distinctive locations in a real world. Ambient effects like rippling water and rustling leaves add a bit of extra charm to the game, but entering buildings has a bizarre slowdown on the engine.
One major gripe on the graphics here – the battle graphics are horrendous. Using the same small sprites the game uses for the Pokedex, but stretching them to fit and move with the semi-3D battleground? Ugly and lazy on the developers part. They have the power of the DS to push polygons (or even vector images), so why are they using technology that looked dated a decade ago? Indeed, certain animated cut-scenes in Black/White show what could have been and give a hint as to what we’ll be buying come generation six.
Multiplayer is an area which Pokémon games have always pushed, even back when that meant sitting next to your friend on the school bus and linking up with a physical cable to trade and fight. Thankfully, as many of us are too old to sit on school buses swapping monsters, the Internet is all grown up and has brought hand-held consoles along with it. Black/White offers standard ad-hoc or infrastructure Wifi battles/trades, as well as the newly in-vogue Infra-red connectivity, provided by a sensor built right into the game cart.
Things start to get a little more interesting when you fire up the so-called ‘C-Gear’ device and begin fighting, trading and importing new Pokémon from via the Pokémon Global Link web service. This online hub allows you to bring across Pokémon (including starters from previous generations) from something called the Pokémon Dream World, in addition to providing both random and ranked battles. The fact Nintendo are maintaining a global ranking of the toughest trainers will be enough to convince many ex-Pokémaniacs to dive back in.
Pokémon Black/White has rekindled the addictive magic that made Pokémon such a tour-de-force in the late '90s. The urge to catch-em-all is instilled in the player, amongst the slightly heavy-handed story and inconsistent graphical design. It’s this urge that drives you though the game and gives you the energy to plough through another cave filled with Woobats. Differences between the Black and White version are slightly more pronounced than in previous versions, making it important to secure a buddy with the alternative version for all the "completists" out there.
With nearly 700 Pokémon available in the Pokémon universe now, Black/White serves as the most complete title available so far, and by far one of the best. To complete the main campaign up to the Pokémon League will take around 30 hours for most players, and the end-game activities offer nearly limitless opportunities for training, fighting and collecting. For the hardcore, Black/White offers as much if not more value for money as any of the previous titles.
If you’re looking for a nourishing gaming experience sprinkled with the addictive sea-salt of Pokémania, then these games are for you.