"Whatever happened to Pokémon?"
Whenever I hear that question, usually while discussing the things we enjoyed as kids, I'll do one of two things. Depending on the crowd, I'll either fade into the background to make sure my PokéWalker is still safely concealed in my pocket, or I'll explain that the series is still going and it's more popular than ever before.
It's true. The fifth generation of Pokémon games, Black and White, launched in Japan last week and sold around 2.7 million copies in two days. Most would assume that the majority of these sales represent obsessed kids buying two copies of the game because of Nintendo's brilliant marketing. They're probably right, too, but no amount of marketing can churn out these numbers if the product doesn't deliver.
Thankfully, developer GameFreak paced the series so well over the last decade and a half that this latest generation of games looks poised to be the most original yet, despite raising the number of collectible monsters to over 500.
Warning! Black and White spoilers ahead.
People have been down on the series since the third generation, claiming nothing could ever top the original 150 monsters of Red and Blue, and I agreed for the most part. Each generation introduced slight variations on a formula set since the very first games, and the more original creations grew increasingly more bizarre. The number of sensible designs modeled after real world creatures players could actually imagine roaming the wilderness of the Pokémon universe faded.
When Nintendo began teasing Black and White, I feared the series had hit an all-time low. Once fansites began leaking the full sprite list, however, I didn't know what to think.
A Power Ranger Pokémon? A trash bag Pokémon?? An ice cream cone Pokémon!? What was GameFreak on when it came up with these designs? Apparently, a bit of American spirit.
Black and White takes place in Isshu, a region totally disconnected from any other region from the past games and modeled with American influences in mind. In particular, the game's cities have a big city, New York feel. The monsters followed suit with more urban and practical designs that would be the series' worst were it not for this change of setting and theme. Pokémon like the afro buffalo or the fiercely patriotic eagle would have been immediately dismissed for being silly rehashes were it not for the setting, and any locale that allows for a seriously mustachioed Yorkshire terrier to round out my team of mustache Pokémon gets my approval.
Black and White isn't just about new Pokémon, even though no species from a previous installment shows up until the end-game. One of GameFreak's latest mechanics breathes new life into old, abandoned monsters of yesteryear.
Each new generation of Pokémon introduces a few game-changing mechanics that alter the way players train and battle their monsters. Gold and Silver provided two new types (dark and steel), pioneered breeding, allowed monsters to equip items, and split the Special stat into Special Attack and Special Defense. Ruby and Sapphire granted each monster static abilities, introduced double battles, and granted players a greater degree of control over their monsters' stats. Most recently, Diamond and Pearl designated different attacks within the same type as either physical or special.
In comparison, Black and White's contributions to the series' mechanics initially look uninspired. Players can now participate in triple battles and can catch monsters with new abilities in a side-game called the Dream World. The latter, however, has the online Pokémon community buzzing with excited discussion. That's because it allows older monsters, some obscured by more powerful options since the '90s, to finally shine with their own unique potential.
The starter Pokémon you're asked to choose from at the beginning of each game have all traditionally shared the same boring abilities that increase their elemental power when their health is low. Now, a Dream World Blaziken can grow faster each turn with Speed Boost and Blastoise can restore its health in bad weather with Rain Dish.
Nintetales and Politoed now have access to Drought and Drizzle respectively, two weather abilities that were once exclusive to legendary Pokémon deemed too powerful for regular battles. The competitive battling community is already theorizing these abilities will have a tremendous affect on the scene because of Ninetales' and Politoed's more modest builds in comparison to their legendary counterparts.
The old sarcastic meme of "F*** yeah, Seaking!" may lose its punchline in Black and White now that the horned fish can learn the new and improved Lightning Rod ability in the Dream World. Before, Lightning Rod simply drew electric attacks toward the user, something the water-type Seaking wouldn't have wanted. Now, however, Lightning Rod nullifies all electric damage on the user and increases its special attack. Seaking's stats may still be a bit too meager, but at least he's getting some of the attention he's longed for since 1996.
Perhaps the most significant individual change granted by the Dream World belongs to Ditto, the transforming pink blob. Trainers typically use Ditto as a universal breeder. Nearly every Pokémon can breed with Ditto as it can transform to take on any shape. In battle, this ability was slow and often left Ditto with little to no health due to its poor stats. Now, thanks to its new Dream World ability, Ditto immediately transforms into the enemy upon entering battle, copying its species, type, moves, and even stat boosts. With a Choice Scarf equipped, Ditto can effectively out-speed any monster it faces in battle, a prospect the online community is very excited about.
And why shouldn't they be? These changes, while initially subtle, are shaking up the competitive environment in a very good way. I always hated the idea of organizing Pokémon into tiers of usefulness, but it's been a necessary evil since the beginning. Hopefully, some of these changes will make for a more diverse crowd in the years of battling to come, allowing for forgotten gimmicks and goofy favorites to compete with the big boys. Maybe then my dopey Quagsire will gain the respect he deserves.