The latest pair of Pokemon games have been loosed upon North America’s shores.  Are you ready to catch ‘em all…again?

I had just entered middle school when Pokemon first came on the scene, which placed me squarely in the target audience.  I never really got into the show, I was way too much into Magic the Gathering to be interested in the TCG, and I didn’t get into collecting artwork or the figures.  I met Pokemon with a resounding “meh”, and not much else…except for the video games.  Ever since the original games were released on the Game Boy back in 1996, I’ve really enjoyed them.  While they don’t provide the depth of other RPGs (such as the 2D Final Fantasy games or the Dragon Quest series), they provide a relaxing yet incredibly addicting grind. 

Just like its predecessors, Pokemon Black (and its inevitable sibling, White) mostly sticks to the original formula.  You’re a young Pokemon trainer who has just received their first Pokemon.  You get hired on by a professor to fill out the Pokedex (which, at this point, has ballooned to over 600 different species), and take down some Gym leaders along the way.  The primary difference between this latest pair of Pokemon games and previous ones is the inclusion of a real, honest-to-goodness story.  Like everything else associated with this franchise, it could be considered a “lite story” rather than a “story proper”, but it’s intriguing enough: a liberation group is attempting to steal people’s Pokemon, with the intention of setting them free.  Of course, the group fails to see the irony in the fact that they use captured Pokemon to battle Pokemon trainers, not to mention they don’t really provide a motive for…actually, you know what?  I’ll just let Penny Arcade do the talking.  Suffice it to say, the idea of the story is interesting enough, even though its implementation isn’t going to win any awards.

Gameplay plants the same addicting “gotta catch ‘em all!” bug in your brain that you’ve known to love (or hate, depending on who you are.)  Just like previous iterations, this one starts out a bit slowly, but by the time you’re done with all the boring tutorial-like beginning stuff (which lasts between 30 and 45 minutes), the game gets its claws in you.  Also like the previous entries in the series, this one is best suited towards being played while watching movies or TV shows, since it’s not much more than a grind.  It’s a really fun, very addicting grind…but a grind nonetheless.

While the main changes to the series seem to be for the better (three-way battles, the PokeMart and PokeCenter have been combined into one building, there are multiple places you can rest your Pokemon while on the road, etc), two things have actually got much worse: the design for the non-evolved Pokemon, and the usage of the lower screen.  Remember how, when just walking around, you used to be able to change the lower screen on the DS so it was used for a few different things, depending on what you wanted it to display?  Not anymore!  When you are walking around the overworld, the lower screen is now exclusively dedicated to three things: a small digital clock, a two-bar(?!?!?!) battery indicator, and controlling different aspects of multiplayer and trading.  That’s all fine and well, but why take the customization options away from us?

As for the non-evolved Pokemon designs, I’m not really all that surprised, as I expected the designers to run out of ideas EVENTUALLY…but most of the Pokemon are either overly cute, visually boring, or literal visual representations of real-world animals.  The worst offender is Lillipup, a non-evolved starting-area Pokemon who literally looks like a dog that’s had its face hair fluffed and bleached.

Pokemon and Jersey Shore. JUST. SAY. NO.

While this may disappoint Poke-fanatics, it doesn’t really bother me too much.  The gameplay is still engaging and addictive, and they’ve really cleaned up some of the problems that have plagued the series, so some lazily-designed Pokemon don’t really impact things too much.  Besides, I’m only 15 hours in, and they usually save the creative stuff for later.  The non-evolved designs are really the only complaint I have about this set of entries in the series…everything else seems to be spot on.

As I said, it's only the non-evolved ones that look boring. As you can see from the screenshot above, the evolved Pokemon look badass.

What it comes down to is this: if you never enjoyed the Pokemon games, or if you already have a distaste for Japanese-style RPGs, Pokemon Black and White aren’t going to change your mind.  However, if you even remotely enjoyed previous entries in the series, you should definitely pick up either Black or White…the graphics are better, the gameplay is smoother, and the need to catch ‘em all is still strong more than 15 years after it started.