The average person might look at this year's Pokémon game and believe he or she is looking at last year's Pokémon game. The series evolves at the speed of continental drift, but this time, Nintendo says, the changes are big.
Pokémon Black and Pokémon White, released for the Nintendo DS in September in Japan and coming this March 6 in North America, do things differently. This is how differently...
Change: Pikachu and the other familiar Pokémon are temporarily banned from the new Pokémon game. As players venture through Black or White, they will only meet new Pokémon, until they beat the game's main enemy gym leaders in the series-standard battle of well-trained pocket monsters. After that, the old Pokémon do show up.
Change: This one is in New York City. The map of the game's main terrain, the Unova region, sure looks like the map of Grand Theft Auto IV and that of the New York City metropolitan area. The game starts players in the equivalent of Brooklyn, swings them through Manhattan, over to New Jersey, back easy across Harlem and then into either the Bronx or Queens. They don't call these areas by these names, but the inspiration is obvious.
Change: The game has seasons. Like New York City, there are real seasons in this Pokémon game. In winter, snow falls, allowing the player's Pokémon trainer to climb drifts that are melted in the summer. Spring brings flowers, fall the colour brown. The seasons are tied to the DS' system clock, though Nintendo officials tell Kotaku there is no Animal Crossing-style character who will scold you if you monkey with it.
Change: The Pokémon animate. The Pokémon series regularly lags behind just about every other popular video game series in terms of graphical beauty and complexity. The relative visual crudeness continues in Pokémon Black and White, though the Pokémon creatures now animate during battle, which helps convey their emotional state, and the game sometimes uses sweeping camera angles as players walk their character through its world. These are improvements, but Pokémon is still a graphical laggard.
Change: The fighting is more complex. The new game allows for three-on-three Pokébattles. Players encounter these during the game's main adventure but can also fight through them against other human competitors. Either way, the rules of these brawls require more strategic thinking. In a three-on-three battle, with three Pokémon facing off in a line against three others, only the Pokémon standing in the centre can attack any in the opposite row. The Pokémon on the ends can only get at the one across from them or the centre one. In lieu of a fighting move, a Pokémon can use its turn to switch positions in that line.
Change: Video chat is here, on a short leash. Pokémon Black and White enable people who have DSi systems to have a split-screen video chat with each other. Up to four people can do this. But they can only do this if they are within wireless range with each other, which is about 15m. Pokémon players will have to decide which life situations enable a quartet of people to be 15m away from each other and willing to eschew in-person conversation so they can video chat.
Change: Players can survey each other. The game lets any Pokémon Black and White owner pretend they are a Census worker by setting their system in standby mode and empowering it to collect survey answers from other players who have done the same. The game's built-in survey questions, about such things as which starting Pokémon a person used, will pass from one sleeping DS to another. As a player accumulates more answers, they receive special items and, presumably, a better sense of what their local Pokémon-playing community cares about.
Change: There's an online Dream World. The enhanced connectivity features for the new games include the aforementioned video chat and a new fast-connection system that allows two players to link their DS systems using the machines' infrared sensors for immediate combat. There's also an elaborate connection between the game and the Pokémon web site, via something called Pokémon Global Link. Syncing the DS and game to the Pokémon website will, well, let's transcribe the press release here: "Inside the Pokémon Dream World, players can customise their Pokémon's home, grow Berries, and befriend other Pokémon by playing various mini games. Players can bring Pokémon they've befriended and items they've found back into their copy of Pokémon Black Version or Pokémon White Version. Pokémon transferred from the Pokémon Dream World can even be trained for battle! Pokémon Trainers will also be able to communicate and share items with other players exploring the Pokémon Dream World."
Enough change, Pokémon fans? The new games also support online battles, transfer of Pokémon from earlier prime Pokémon DS games (i.e. not the Ranger series) and more. They will be out on March 6 in North America.