So how does someone old enough to have voted for Paul Tsongas end up playing the new Pokémon game? It’s not childhood nostalgia; I was in the Pokedemographic a decade before the triumph of a Japanese children’s culture that seemed weirdly fey to a lad raised on He-Man. But word’s been floating around the gaming blogosphere for years that the series’s intricate battle strategies are worth a look, and Pokémon White Version (like its accompanying Pokémon Black Version) is a reboot aimed at giving new players a place to start. So I muttered sidelong to my editor, “I’d like to try the new Pokémon,” like an 18-year-old buying his first porn mag (oh God, that reference dates me even more than the Tsongas line, doesn’t it?), and here I am.
So if you’d like to know how the all-new, all-adorable gang of pocket monsters compares to the pocket monsters now playing shuffleboard in a Kyoto elder-care facility, I can’t help you. I can’t even tell you if the passive multiplayer system works; I’m not joining my apple-cheeked pals for Pokémon battles at recess. On the contrary, I’ve been playing in onanistic solitude, hiding my DS from fellow subway commuters as if was Earthbound-themed hentai.
But despite the damage being caught playing Pokémon would do to my carefully cultivated macho image, I keep playing. Because it turns out that in this, as in so many things, the guys at Penny Arcade were right: Pokémon is genuinely fun, clever, entertaining, and strategically rich.
Pokémon is a turn-based RPG of the sort that Japan has loved for decades, in which opposing characters politely do-si-do through offensive and defensive moves one A-button push at a time. Unlike most JRPGs, Pokémon fights are mostly tag-team one-on-one, so deciding when to switch out a Pokémon and how to split the upgrade glory forms a whole extra layer of planning, as do the strict restrictions on how many moves a Pokémon can master. Meanwhile, the game piles on a hyperactive abundance of techniques, affinities, monster types, buffs and debuffs, and weird random dice rolls. Once you get past the far-too-many hours of tutorial fights, you can expend a nearly unlimited quantity of intense thought on the consequences of each individual decision. Even the turn-of-the-century demand that one’s “gotta catch ’em all” is, I now understand, a reference to the game’s tricky party expansion system, wherein you have to carefully apply moves that will drain an opponent’s HP enough to be vulnerable, without draining it so far that the Pokémon “faints” and becomes no good to you.
This density has its drawbacks. Many of the move names are deliberately opaque (would you expect “Detect” to render you invulnerable for two turns? I didn’t!), and the super-complex interlocking systems can only really be grasped by someone with infinite amounts of mental room to dedicate to their intricacies. Having watched my little nephew spend many family vacations poring over Nintendo-approved stat tomes, I respect the serious player’s Pokescholarship. But the Talmudic intricacy of high-level matchups sometimes seemed like a malicious taunting of my hapless inability to capably min-max with a mere human brain.
The other big demerit is story. The plot of the game has some flashes of wit in its invention of a Pokémon Liberation Organization demanding that the little creatures be accorded more fulfilling career opportunities than dogfights for 10-year-olds. But it has none of the epic sweep and world-building detail that’s mandatory in big-boy JRPGs, functioning more like a kung fu movie plot that gets you to walk from fight to fight through areas where you can do some more fighting. Although the ludic complexity is captivating for now, I’m not sure the narrative simplicity won’t leave me wandering off well before I’ve caught even most of ’em. It doesn’t help that progressing through the story requires vast amounts of semi-directed grinding, further lowering my engagement with anything that doesn’t involve losing HP.
So is Pokémon worth trying for those of us primarily concerned with the stat bonus on our 401(k)s? Yes. It’s an interesting and complex system with a lot of strategic depth. Whether that makes it worth putting up with the slight story, endless random battles, and generally sugary tone, well, that’s between you and your inner child.