"A new player is starting on the same footing as a Pokémon expert," a Nintendo representative told me while pitching the latest games in the series, Black & White. At first glance, it's just another Pokémon game: you go around the 2D world collecting monsters to use in RPG-styled battles. This time, however, you won't encounter the Pokémon you've come to know, grow and love. There's an all-new set of 150+ critters to collect, meaning everyone will have to learn a brand new Pokedex to stay competitive.
"That's a good idea," I retort. "But if there aren't any new elemental types, then won't people just apply the same strategies as before?" Yes, the Nintendo representative had encountered a wild Pokemon nerd, ready for battle. The demo began with a brief overview of the features requisite of a sequel. Yes, the game sports better graphics, although to say that the franchise has become competitive visually would be a lie. There are a few nifty 3D effects here and there, and some new animations during battles, but this is pretty much Pokémon as you remember it.
But isn't Black & White supposed to represent a "generational leap" for the series? Wouldn't it have made more sense for it to be on the 3DS? Oddly, many of the genuinely cool new features added in this iteration feel like workarounds to the aging platform's limitations. For example, there's an almost-cool video chat service that connects you and three of your friends ... but only through local (ad-hoc) wireless connections within 30-50 feet. The online option is far more limited: two people can chat simultaneously.
Other 3DS-esque features that have sneaked into Black & White involve Friend Codes ... and no longer needing to use them. Like Soul Silver & Heart Gold before it, the cartridge has a built-in IR communication feature that lets it transmit information directly from game card to game card. If you meet a friend in real life, you'll be able to add each other to your friends lists automatically. As with Street Pass on 3DS, you'll also be able to see if there are other players near you, and if you're brave enough, you can even challenge complete strangers on the internet without ever using a Friend Code via the "Wi-Fi Random Matchup." Although it's a DS game, the online features look like a genuine improvement for Nintendo -- and that should have Pokémon fans excited.
In spite of having a built-in IR receiver in the cartridge, I was surprised to find out that the Pokewalker included in the last set of games won't be compatible with Black & White. Time to get fat, kids! Thankfully, the MSRP reflects the omission of the peripheral, dropping the price from $40 to $35.
In addition to the new connectivity options and the new breeds of Pokemon, Black & White promises to have "Triple Battles." An extension of the Double Battles introduced in Ruby & Sapphire, Triple Battles introduce a brand new element to consider when strategizing: location. "With Triple Battle, depending on where your Pokemon is positioned, it determines who you can target," a Nintendo rep explained. "A good strategy is to have your most powerful Pokemon in the middle," because that's the one that can target all of the opposing Pokemon. (It's also the only creature that can be attacked by all three of your opponents.) You will have to pay attention to opposing element types, and think about how to best utilize area attacks -- without hurting your own teammates, of course.
At the end of the demo, I felt like Nintendo had convinced me this really was an "all new Pokémon game," even though I know precisely how the game will flow: get a Starter, fight some Gym Leaders, and defeat the Elite Four. I told the rep that, in spite of all its new connectivity features and new creatures, it wouldn't be able to bridge the gap between the really hardcore and the casual player. "If you're hardcore, wouldn't you have played the Japanese version by now?"
Pokemon Black & White will be available in the US on March 6th.