Hope is the Thing With Pokéballs

As psu mentioned yesterday, Pokémon on the Nintendo DS is the new obsession.

Being a consummate joiner, I am not afraid to admit that my descent into the Pokéworld was due to Penny Arcade’s ungrudging respect for the game, coupled with a purely base financial motivation: I’m reviewing Pokémon Diamond and Pearl for PTD Magazine. After just two days playing the DS game, I found myself scrounging the local used game stores for the older GBA games so I could understand exactly what I had been missing all these years: the best Japanese RPG since Earthbound.

I consider myself a gamer with a particularly broad background, but I was an adult long before Pokémon became popular. Perhaps to avoid even the appearance of creepiness I just never bothered to find out what Pokémon was about. I knew it had something to do with monsters, and collecting, and battling, and it was marketed directly at grade school children. And that’s about it.

So what is Pokémon, really? Quite simply, it is a traditional Japanese style RPG with a collecting game built in. In the prototypical JRPG, your character has “stats”, and can pick up items which enhance those stats, allowing your avatar to kill bigger monsters. In other words, RPGs are games about making a number – here at Tea Leaves, we call it “R” – bigger. In Pokémon, your character has no “R” of her or his own. Instead, you carry around little balls with monsters in them. The monsters have “R”.

The game is superbly designed and balanced. At almost every point when you are uncovering “new” territory, battles are challenging without being impossbile. This means the game feeds you a constant sense of achievement. Healing for your little monsters is freely available practically everywhere. The game allows (and even rewards) iterative play (fight the first foe in an area, go heal up, return to fight the next guy). You can save anywhere, when not actually in the middle of a battle (so it’s already better than most other JRPGs out there by default).

There are times that I wish I could turn down the random battle encounter rate, yes. But to paraphrase the great jazz saxophonist Cosmo Jacobi, “With chicks like Shalimar, there’s just some things you gotta put up with.” Random battles are, to a large extent, what the game is actually about.

Different people get into different aspects of the game. Last week on vacation I was playing the DS when my friend’s kid asked what I was doing. When I told him “Pokémon Diamond”, he commenced to chatter for an entire hour, quizzing me in great detail about exactly which pokémon I had caught, and whether I liked Pikachu or Raichu more, and did I have this one, and he knew this guy who finished the whole game by catching every Pokémon. For this kid, the RPGness of the game was nothing more than a superstructure on which to hang the very serious work of catching them all. For me, catching them all is just another task I need to undertake to complete the game.

This latest version of Pokémon comes with substantial online features. I need psu to hurry up and level up his little monsterlings so that we can have a proper battle which results in more than his quick and ignominious defeat. In a nice twist, pokémon that you trade via the wireless connection gain more experience than pokémon that you find in the wild, which provides a nice incentive to interact with your friends in homeroom. Uh, I mean, on the internet.

The one thing about the game that I find disturbing is the somewhat relentless self-reference of it all. In the world of Pokémon, everything revolves around the little bastards. If you need to open a can, there’s a can-opening pokémon somewhere that can do it for you. There are even churches where little characters sit around and make poetic comments about how important peace and love is between man and pokémon. It’s a bit like wandering into a world populated by the sorts of people who go to Star Trek conventions. This, in turn, makes me realize that somewhere out there there is probably Pokémon “slash” fiction, which in turn makes me want to curl up into a fetal position and weep (update: oh god, it’s true).

All that being said, complaining that a game marketed to children takes itself in earnest is a bit unfair. So if you can get past that bit, and past a slightly clumsy user interface, what you’ll find is a game with intricate, yet easy to grasp, rock-paper-scissors mechanics that are more absorbing than they have any right to be. And that’s for half the price of the latest boring World War II Xbox 360 shooter. I have already spent more time walking through the virtual wilds in Pokémon Diamond than I spent playing most of the PS2 or Xbox games I bought last year. This is in part because the game is constantly giving you little micro-rewards (through collecting new pokémon, or through other mechanics), but also because there is no flailing. It’s always crystal clear to me what I need to do next to progress (compare this to, say, Viva Piñata, which for all its beauty always leaves me saying “Huh? What did I just do to make that happen?“)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go read a walkthrough so I can find out if this Pachirisu I caught will evolve into another form if I train it enough.