VIDEO: The trailer for Pokémon Diamond and Pearl
It’s difficult to remember a time when Pokémon hadn’t yet captured America’s heart like some kind of parasitic worm, but in fact the franchise didn’t begin till 1996. The introduction of the cuddly pocket monsters set off a decade of dominance like none other, with a string of lucrative children’s properties spread across television, film, tradingcard games, and, of course, video games. The backbone of the franchise has always been the video games, so it’s all the more stunning to discover that the newest entries — Pokémon Diamond and Pokémon Pearl — are the interactive equivalent of plain yogurt. They’re neither good nor bad, just there. This is what all the fuss was about?
Diamond and Pearl are traditional top-down role-playing games. Actually, they’re the same game with a few different characters in each version. I was prepared for a learning curve, since I’d never played a Pokémon title before, but the mechanics are familiar to anyone who’s played an RPG since the first Final Fantasy. You take control of an aspiring Pokémon trainer who leaves home for the first time on a journey of self-discovery, not to mention catching them all. Everyone wants Pokémon: the uniformed dweebs in Team Galactic want them for a nefarious purpose, whereas you want them to be your friends. That’s the story.
In an RPG, the story is all. Take Final Fantasy games, which are stuffed to the brim with political high intrigue, epic romance, and scorched-earth warfare. Or the classic Chrono Trigger, which features a band of misfits from across the temporal spectrum who battle to defend existence itself. By contrast, Pokémon is a pleasant diversion. Which might not be so bad if its mild manner didn’t extend to the gameplay. As you walk from town to town, you’ll encounter random battles every three steps or so. The frequency of the fights is itself a problem; what’s worse is that each area keeps throwing the same two or three Pokémon at you. Capturing every type of creature is a part of the game, but that’s not much consolation when you’re seeing a species for the 13th time.
And that’s too bad, because with a little variety the game would have been much more fun. You can carry six Pokémon at a time, and each one has very different strengths and weaknesses. At the basic level, this means that a fire-based monster has the advantage over a grass-based one, but a rock-based monster will destroy the fiery fellow, and so on. The combat gets a little deeper as the Pokémon grow stronger; each monster can take only four fighting techniques into battle, so learning a new move requires forgetting one it already knows. But since each area is saturated with the same types of foes, the strategy never really comes into play. You’ll soon identify the quickest way to obliterate your enemies, whereupon the fights become busy work. Diamond and Pearl do feature head-to-head wireless play, and that’s far more interesting than the quest battles.
Playing with a friend may take the sting out of the biggest drawback of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl: because each game has a few creatures that the other doesn’t, you have to buy both games if you want to catch everybody. Many people, of course, will be more than happy to do so, but the marketing move still smacks of cynicism. I’m sure the executives behind it have trouble sleeping at night — on top of a pile of money.