Pokémon Black and White had one goal: to recreate the feeling of wonder and awe many of us felt over a decade ago when first setting out to be the very best on our Game Boy bricks.
So, the setting was new: Unova, a locale based on the urban metropolis of New York. Naturally, the enemy was also new: Team Plasma, a surprisingly nuanced villain who sought to liberate Pokémon from humans. And most importantly, all 150 of the Pokémon featured in the game were fresh.
The knowledge we had accumulated over the years could only take us so far in the new instalment -- it was as if Nintendo was responding to the constant criticism that the Pokémon games were too samey.
So here was a game that shook things up a little, without changing the core formula that made the Pokémon games so wildly popular.
Now, less than two years later, Nintendo is following it up with the DS games Pokémon Black Version 2 and White Version 2 -- the first title in the main Pokemon franchise to be a direct sequel. Why a sequel instead of a third color? Who knows. What's more clear is that Nintendo is less keen on reinventing the wheel and more interested in refining, if not adding to what worked in Black and White.
Last week I sat down with some folk from Nintendo in San Francisco, who showed me where Pokémon is headed next.
Turns out, we're still in Unova, only some things have changed. There's new locations and new gyms, since Black and White 2 takes place some time after the first game. Enough time for Unova to become populated with older Pokémon, like Evee.
Old characters find themselves in new situations, all of which will be revealed to the player through vignettes. N, the old leader of Team Plasma for instance, has let go of their old Pokémon -- and the player can capture them. Awesome.
The game takes save data from Black and White to determine which of these vignettes to show, granting the game a sense of development.
Oh, and Team Plasma is now pirate-themed instead of templar-esque. Yeah.
One of the new locations is Pokéstar Studios, which takes inspiration from Burbank, California: otherwise known as the media capital of the world. Fame awaits in Pokéstar Studios, where players can create their own Pokémon movies -- with green screens and everything.
It seems like the logical progression of earlier Pokémon offerings, where players could enter Pokémon into beauty pageants. That sort of thing is too small town for a place like Unova though, right? Upgrading to movie stardom makes complete sense.
Players are given scripts which they can follow (or not!), through something that resembles a choose your own adventure book. In one particular scene, my character was asked to respond to a villain's monologue about world-takeover. Feeling silly, I told my character to say "I'm scared!" The judgmental audience wasn't very amused -- I was supposed to be a hero!
Different movie genres can be unlocked as the player advances, and the movies can be watched after they're recorded, too. I was also told that an old gym leader gave up his profession to become a director -- so players will be welcomed to a familiar face.
Everything else I was shown seemed similar to Pokéstar Studios in that they are neat little distractions from the main game.
There's Pokémon World Tournament, which seems similar to earlier games' Battle Zone. It's a special location where we can battle other trainers to earn "Battle Points" (or BP). These BP can be redeemed for special items if not Pokemon.
What's new about the World Tournament is that it includes all previous leaders from older games -- like Brock and Misty. Also noteworthy is the fact that real-life Pokémon champions will be uploaded to the game for players to battle against. Sounds hardcore, and great for those that want to see what their own Pokémon are really made of.
And like all Pokémon games, there has to be a crazy shopping centre -- enter Join Avenue. Join Avenue is a social market where players can connect with friends and strangers alike over Wi-Fi. These folk will occupy the storefronts, which is neat. The stores themselves can level up, granting the player discounts.
Gamified shopping and the pursuit of stardom? This is a modern Pokémon, alright.
One of the new features I most look forward to is, surprisingly, the Pokédex. Normally Pokémon is the type of game where I refer to a FAQ often -- what Pokémon can I find on this route and when? Which Pokémon am I missing? Now the Pokédex indexes the different Pokémon habitats, allowing you to see all the Pokémon living in any given route. You'll know exactly when you're done capturing all the Pokémon in an area without leaving the game. That's useful.
And the most bizarre thing I was shown had to be a 3DS-only AR game called Dream Radar that is acquired through the eShop. Get this: you use the camera to capture Pokémon ‘floating around' in the air. Uh, well, I guess this is one way of making my childhood dream of having Pokémon bleed out into the real world become true...
Initially, most of these seemed like pointless additions to the game. Thinking about it more though, I realised that most of my time in Pokémon games was spent with ‘frivolous' inclusions, like gardening. I wouldn't be surprised if I was sucked into making my Pikachu into the star he was destined to be, or in making sure my best friends commanded their own stores. It'll be a welcome breather from the main quest, at least.
Though not branded under a colour, Black and White 2 seems to promise what the third title in each Pokémon release offers: refinement and expansion. That might make Black and White 2 the title worth owning out of all three. We'll be able to properly access that on October 7, 2012 -- when the game drops on the DS.