Take a trip back to 1998 and remember the first time you stepped foot on that grassy area and a Pokémon popped out of the grass. Back then you were a pioneer in an unforeseen land discovering new surprises with each step you took. Over a decade has passed since those first few steps, and the series continues. Each new Pokémon version that has been released since then has the same framework of the original, but each one adds extra features and plenty of new Pokémon to make each experience seem new and exciting.
Pokémon Black and White both start out with the same ritual everyone is used to by now. Choosing your starter Pokémon signifies you're in a new region - this time you're in Unova - and it also signifies the start of a new journey. You choose your character, give him a name, and choose your Pokémon. It's all been done before, and each game since Pokémon Red and Blue have been prettier versions of the original. Pokémon Black and White is, in fact, the best game in the series so far. It combines new features with old series staples, but manages to give each player a unique immersive experience that will feel new and foreign even to the most seasoned Pokémon fan.
Unova is a huge region, modeled after Manhattan Island and the surrounding boroughs of New York City. Completely removed from the distant Japanese-inspired regions of the previous games, Unova is very Western in design. Not only will you battle trainers of different skin tones, but you'll also notice places like American football stadiums, ferries, and a variety of bridges inspired by real world landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The game also introduces seasons that last one real-world month and affect in-game events and the occurrence of different species of Pokémon.
Speaking of species of Pokémon, Unova introduces 156 brand new creatures, each with its own unique design and type. As you make your way through the game and explore each patch of grass, you'll run into new Pokémon you haven't seen before. But his time you won't run into any Pokémon from previous generations until after you complete the main story, and even then, they will be hiding in areas you normally won't have access to right away. Game Freak's choice for doing this puts even the most seasoned Pokémon player on the same playing field as someone who has never played a Pokémon game before. It allows everyone to rediscover the game by discovering new Pokémon.
You may run into Pokémon that may remind you of previous ones, but that's because this game essentially starts from scratch. You'll run into pigeons, bats, dogs, cats, and other familiar animal-based Pokémon, but each one still manages to be unique and different. Pidove will remind you of Pidgey, and Woobat roams every cave just like Zubat did in past games. Think of Unova as the "American" parallel universe of a past Pokémon game. The game also introduces new type combinations that add to the its competitive battle system. You will encounter Pokémon that are Dark/Fighting, Ground/Dark, and Ghost/Fire, for example. And with 649 total Pokémon in existence, you now have the largest variety of Pokémon to choose from.
As with past Pokémon games, your journey to be the Pokémon League Champion is riddled with obstacles you'll need to overcome. For starters, there is an organization called Team Plasma that wants to liberate Pokémon from being oppressed by humans. They're basically a mixture of advocate and criminal since their mission to free Pokémon also involves stealing them from their trainers. Along the way, you will also run into your best friends, a girl named Bianca and a boy named Cheren who will challenge you to battles. These are essentially your friendly rivals in this game, but a mysterious person named N with ties to Team Plasma will also test you strength every so often.
New to the series are Triple and Rotation battles. Triple Battles require strategy, and depending on your Pokémon's position, attacks may not hit. Some attacks also hit all Pokémon, while others lose power when hitting multiple opponents. Rotation Battles, however, are more luck-based since you can switch out to any Pokémon during your turn and your opponent can do the same. There is only a small handful of instances when you will have to participate in these battles throughout the story, so I feel like these new battle variations weren't properly introduced. At least you can always test them out with your friends online.
The game's familiar graphics may remind you of past DS titles. A lot of things in the game look the same, and the top-down camera angles from those past games are back. But once you make your way to the grand metropolis of Castelia City and walk by giant skyscrapers and crowds of people, you'll notice that the game includes many 3D elements that surpass those of previous versions. The camera angles change also and create a dynamic perspective depending where you are. Every time you get a gym badge, for example, your badge case will open and your 3D badge will stylishly rotate and shine. Your first battle will also show you that your Pokémon now move while they battle and that the camera angles during battle shift to give you different viewpoints. The Pokémon animation may loop after a few seconds, but it's these nice touches that make you feel like you're not just playing Pokémon Platinum 2.0.
The game's music continues to get better and you will hear more depth in each arrangement if you listen closely. All the classic songs are back too, and they all are remixed nicely. You might also notice some songs pay homage to past generations and some, like the melody heard on Route 10, will simply amaze you that they come from a Pokémon game. The new Pokémon's cries are also a lot more complex than past generations, and when previous generation Pokémon battle alongside your new ones, you'll notice how jarring how some of the older ones actually sound.
Another great thing about Pokémon Black and White is that it removes all the annoying elements that made playing through a Pokémon game tedious for some. In other words, the game is a lot easier and more enjoyable to play. For example, TMs are now reusable, so casual players can have fun experimenting with different attacks and moves while the more competitive players now have an easier method of prepping their teams. Also, scattered throughout each cave and forest you'll discover are doctors and nurses that will heal your Pokémon whenever you want, thus eliminating the need to backtrack to a Pokémon Center every time to heal. You will also notice that there aren't many instances that require you to use an HM move, so you don't have to worry about having an HM slave with you at all times.
Nintendo hasn't forgotten the interactive experience of playing a Pokémon game either. The bottom screen of your DS displays your C-Gear, a device that lets you battle, interact, and chat with friends and strangers over Nintendo Wi-Fi, infrared, and local wireless. You chat with your friends using its built-in Xtransceiver, and if you have a DSi, you can video chat too. The game also lets you sync your game with your online Pokémon Trainer Club account which lets you access features like Dream World that allow you to upload your Pokémon to Nintendo's servers and then interact with them on your browser. This lets you plant berries, receive items, and befriend other Pokémon to import into your game. You can also use the Game Sync function to upload your battle records and trainer information onto the website's Global Battle Union that displays worldwide leaderboards and will occasionally host tournaments.
Another neat feature that you can access via your C-Gear is Entralink, a special area in Unova that lets you interact with a friend and visit his or her game wirelessly to do missions together. Once you complete these missions, you will get temporary in-game boosters such as increased experienced, money, or Pokémart discounts. After you befriend Pokémon in the Dream World, you can also enter Entralink to retrieve them.
Every person that plays Pokémon can have a totally different experience depending on his or her playing style. If you want to devote your time to creating your perfect team, go ahead. You can later import your Pokémon from previous DS versions to Unova and take advantage of their new moves and updated abilities. If you want to just have fun battling online, you can also do Random Battles against strangers all over the world or enter the game's Battle Subway for offline battles. Like dressing up your Pokémon and playing minigames? Then enter them in a Pokémon Musical. Pokémon Black and White gives you the reigns to do what you want.
Nintendo and Game Freak know the winning formula to a great video game series, and they're not going to completely revamp it anytime soon. Pokémon Black and White may simply be another game offering you "new beginnings," but the way the game introduces new Pokémon in a remote setting far removed from all other regions mirrors the first game in the series introduced over a decade ago. There really isn't anything groundbreaking about Pokémon Black and White, but its power to reintroduce something you're so familiar with and rekindle your urge to explore a new world each time a new version comes out is indeed impressive.
The Pokémon series continues to grow into something bigger and better each time new versions come out. My only question is how many more battles will it give us until it reaches level 100 and cannot level up anymore.
I've been playing the Japanese version of Pokémon Black since it came out in September. I also played the English version of Pokémon White for about ten hours to get a feel for it in English. Note that the online features mentioned above (Pokémon Global Link) will not be up and running until March 30.