Incredibly, it’s been ten long years since the Pokémon franchise first started bombarding us with cards, software, movies and a blizzard of merchandise. Long before social networking websites were cutting into hundreds of man hours every day, Nintendo’s fictional Facebook was encouraging adults and children alike to collect plenty of friends and add them to their Pokédex. The difference with Pokémon of course, is that a Pikachu you can’t stand isn’t going to get in touch and bombard you with pictures of your childhood.
Apart from a certain rotund plumber, no other Nintendo universe has made more money, and even then the moustachioed-one has had a ten-year head start on the world of Pocket Monsters. Now the time has come for a new duo of Pokémon games, which means there will be a consumer reaction not dissimilar to the one that greets a new SingStar.
One group will bemoan the fact Pokémon never really changes its format, instead just adding a long list of new monsters. The parents in that group will groan, knowing they are going to have to dig deep into their pockets once again, to buy a whole new range of branded goods, from Poké Ball watches to Poké Trainer t-shirts. While they have every right to be cynical of Pokémon’s ‘Gotta buy ’em all’ moneymaking machine, it’s best to remember the perfect repetition of the Zelda series before you let them convince you that Nintendo and Game Freak are guilty of lazy game design.
As Link and Pikachu have both proved before, self-referential familiarity in a subtly tweaked game world can be infinitely more enjoyable than an ill-conceived reinvention of a series you hold close to your heart.
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And there is plenty new beyond the 100 original monsters available, which add to the most complete collection of pint-sized beasts available yet. Aside from the previous games’ starter characters and ultra-rare ‘legendry’ monsters, every single Pokémon from every single release can be found on this DS cart. Those extra characters can be slipped into a Poké Ball too, using Pearl and Diamond’s Pal Park feature, which allows transferring Pokémon from old GBA cartridges via the DS at a rate of six per day.
The real new functionality though, comes not in the communication between two cartridge slots mere centimetres apart, but in all the new features Nintendo’s recent focus on Wi-Fi brings for players. Along with wireless battles with friends by your side, finally there is the ability to fight online with Pokémon fans the world over, which goes hand in hand with the slightly dubiously named Global Trade Centre, which lets you swap and trade in Pokémon. The only restrictions that apply online come with the fact you can only battle other players whose Friend Codes you have obtained previously, and the fact that you can only trade in Pokémon you’ve already seen in the game.
Of course alongside the in-game Pokémon, die hard fans will at some point be required to obtain the rarest of their combat-ready pets from the real world, meaning Pokéwidows are likely to have to endure long motorway journeys with their partners to attend a Nintendo event that gives access to the most elusive of these pesky collectable creatures.
With all this talk of reigning in Pokémon, it’s easy to forget the fantastic RPG that underpins the collection and battle systems. Even turning a blind eye for a moment to the brilliantly accessible menu system, or the magnificently simple control scheme and the flawless melees, there is still a vast and meticulously crafted game to explore.
The storyline section of the game will likely take up about 30 to 35 hours of your life, before you even embark on any wi-fi connected battles. That story takes you to meet eight legendry Pokémon trainers, and on the way there are countless characters to interact with, who will send you on plenty of side quests and after numerous secrets.
The progress and reward ratio is perfectly balanced too, in a way not dissimilar to Zelda’s model, which completely revitalises previously explored areas with a simple power given to you by a boss. For example, being granted the ability to smash obstructive rocks a few hours in means a return to earlier game areas will open up new passages and tunnels, leading to plenty more in-game content.
So what of the faults in the latest addition of the untouchable Pokémon series? Unfortunately there is a handful, but their impact on the game is negligible. There is certainly not enough stylus use in the game, and where it is used the D-pad generally does a better job. Of course one could argue that is a sign that Game Freak know when to avoid gimmicks, and stick with what works.
There are also times when the pointers with regard to what to do next are rather too miserly, as the game holds back on its hints and lures you into the gamer’s nightmare of wasting precious time wandering aimlessly. It could also be said that of all the main Pokémon releases, this one will have the least appeal to older players. That is not to say this isn’t still a great game for anyone out of their teens, but it certainly lacks a touch of the wit of its forbearers. It is also fair to say many of the new creatures are simple evolutions of previous games’ monsters, but many will be delighted to see former favourites expanded into fully fledged Pokémon families.
Regardless of such niggles, Diamond and Pearl are among the best Pokémon titles so far, if not the best. Visually the game is fantastic, ably juggling 2D and 3D elements, and the soundtrack is catchy, upbeat and distinctly Pokémon themed. If you are a virgin monster hunter or seasoned fan with a bulging Pokédex, this game will be engrossing, exciting and provide wonderfully fulfilling escapism.