It’s four o’clock in the morning and I’m sitting outside my apartment chain-smoking cigarettes, mildly buzzed on cough syrup and decidedly not getting the rest I was supposed to be getting in order to alleviate the need for prescription medication in the first place. Instead I am grinding levels on my water and fighting-type Pokémon so I can get past the rock gym leader in Pokémon Black 2.
Dammit, Game Freak, I’m nearly 40 years old. Knock it off.
I’ve been here before, and I don’t just mean the Unova region, the setting for the first numbered sequels in the history of the Pokémon series proper. I mean sitting in the dark, ignoring my desperate need for a good night’s rest in order to fill a Pokedex with imaginary creatures. It was back in 2000 with Pokémon Yellow, my first foray into catching them all.
I’ve played each iteration of Pokémon since and enjoyed them, but I’ve never felt the level of obsession I did that first time. Pokémon Black and White 2 comes pretty damn close.
Picking up two years after the events in Pokémon Black and White, Version 2 sees the player stepping into the shoes of the latest in a long line girls and boys setting off on the path to becoming a Pokémon master. Recruited by a professor, introduced to a rival (though more a companion this time out, probably shouldn’t have given him such a horrible name) and thrust out into a wild world where horrific creatures easily capable of slaughtering a lone teenager have somehow conditioned themselves to only attack other horrific creatures. A world where a criminal organisation called Team Plasma — an organisation with seemingly unlimited resources at its disposal and an evil plan to take over the world — can be brought down by a kid with a bandoleer of monster balls.
It’s a silly place, but a familiar one, filled with characters and locations from the previous pair of titles. One of the rival characters is now a gym leader; the other a research assistant for Professor Juniper. Towns visited two years ago receive cosmetic changes to reflect the passage of time. The Pokémon gyms (except the first one) have all received visits from the unnecessary gimmick fairy.
By tweaking the existing setting rather than design an entirely new one, Game Freak has crafted an intriguing journey for those who played the original Black and White. The plot might be nothing more than a flimsy attempt to distract us from our extended game of rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock-Zoroark, but hey, did you see what they did to Nimbasa City?
Various diversions threaten to veer the player off the path to being crowned king of the pocket monster people. There’s a movie studio where battles are morphed into cheesy action movies, though there doesn’t seem to be much substance there. Pokémon can once again be decked out in silly costumes, collecting bits and bobs from about the region to create the ultimate ensemble for the game’s version of musical theatre. The player character, quite out of the blue, is given an entire shopping mall to populate and manage, one of the game’s more interesting side activities. And for those that would rather compete than collect there is no shortage of tournaments to participate in, with downloadable content aplenty on the way.
I, however, am a connoisseur of the core Pokémon experience — the hunting and trapping of beasts, cultivating the perfect party and then wandering back and forth through the tall grass, harvesting experience points until my Pokémon are powerful enough to move on to the next area. It’s like a Japanese role-playing game, only instead of five or six characters you have several hundred and not one of them has amnesia (not technically true).
While the element grid has expanded and the cast of creatures doubled, Game Freak has stuck to the same simple formula for 16 years, and for good reason: it’s perfect. Grinding random field fights to level up a new addition to your party; battling an unfamiliar Pokémon to sliver of health and reaching into your ball sack; to hear the lamentations of your enemies as they faint following a super-effective attack — this is what is best in life.
What really gets me about Black and White 2 — what keeps me up at night — is the collecting. It’s the 200 medals (achievements) attainable for completing specific tasks. It’s the 300 Pokémon I must enslave to my will.
Mostly it’s the damn Pokedex.
It’s a silly little thing, really. As you encounter and collect Pokémon in any given habitat, they show up in that habitat’s entry in the Pokedex. Once you’ve captured every Pokémon in a given habitat you get a completion stamp.
How can a man possibly sleep when he hasn’t captured a Koffing in the Virbank Complex? How can I save my game without the completion stamp for Route 20? Where the hell is Dunsparce!? This game has upgraded my mild OCD to flamin’ hot Cajun spice OCD.
That obsessive compulsion is what defines the Pokémon series. It’s right there in the tagline: “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”. It kept me playing into the wee hours of the morning when I was a much younger man. It drove me to acquire each iteration of the game since, hoping to rekindle that manic motivation. I’ve found it again in Pokémon Black and White 2.