Saturday, 5 March 2011

Pokemon Platinum

I was going to introduce my 2009 review of Pokemon Platinum - posted here to celebrate the UK launch of Black and White - with some considered analysis of writing about Pokemon, and how nearly all reviews (including my own) follow the same structure of bemoaning identical mechanics and fan exploitation while simultaneously praising the series' finely-tuned perfection and addictive qualities. Then I remembered that I had this photo of Pikachu seemingly laying waste to New York City:

Who needs a deconstruction of videogame journalists' predictable tendencies when instead you can see that? Anyway, here's the review.

To the casual observer the Pokémon games are understandably seen as just one small piece of a wider cultural behemoth that encompasses all manner of merchandising, their combined revenues bigger than that of many small countries (Platinum is, by our rough estimate, the fifteenth ‘proper’ Pokémon RPG). However, it’s easy to forget – bombarded as we have been by the cartoons, plush toys, towels, Pikachu money banks – that Pokémon actually began life as a videogame, and an astonishingly good videogame at that.

The 1996 Game Boy originals laid the template, one that has had very little reason to significantly change in the intervening thirteen years. Though this has thrown Game Freaks open to the charge of milking the franchise, it has arguably only been the titles that exist on the series’ boundaries – the Puzzle Leagues and Mystery Dungeons of this world – that have done this, and many of those weren’t even developed by Satoshi Tajiri and co. The core Pokémon titles have instead slowly tweaked and updated the formula where necessary, ensuring an experience that grows and develops with the hardcore audience. The games have also tended to embrace whatever technological innovation the latest Nintendo hardware brings, a trend that reached its peak with Pokémon Diamond and Pearl.

Introducing Wi-Fi, touch screen and even microphone support, alongside the full rundown of 493 Pokémon across both titles, the overriding sense around Diamond and Pearl was one of liberation, the DS’s array of features opening the way for all manner of ideas. It quickly became considered the definitive Pokémon experience thus far. This preamble is not just a shortcut to a healthy word count, but a verbose way of establishing the idea that on paper, in both the context of Pokémon and the series’ so far distinguished presence on Nintendo DS, Platinum seems a tad superfluous. Can it really add more to Diamond and Pearl’s exhausting package?

The key reference points here are Pokémon’s Yellow, Crystal and Emerald. If the charge of fan exploitation could be levelled at Game Freaks, then these three titles would be the prosecution’s main evidence. Virtual remakes of previous games, the lack of significant new features (unless Yellow’s addition of a Pikachu that follows you around could be considered significant) brought the franchise closer in spirit to EA Sports-style annual updates, something that the release of Platinum continues.

In itself this is no bad thing. After all, the original DS games coincided with the handheld’s growth from quirky hardware to Soccer Mum-approved ubiquity. There are now several million more owners then there were back in 2007, and for the majority of them (and indeed all those who missed out on Diamond and Pearl), Pokémon Platinum approaches a certain level of necessity. The basic aim remains to traverse the land (in this case Sinnoh) and catch the Pokémon through turn-based battles, slowly building an army of the creatures to aid your progression. There are gym leaders to beat, fellow trainers to meet, and badges to earn. Whilst the early games are now looked back on with much fondness because of their relative simplicity, Platinum is exceptional because of the sheer wealth of things to do. Our personal favourite was the Wi-Fi Plaza, a basement of multiplayer mini-games found in every Pokémon Centre. Spend too long in there and you’re eventually whisked away by a boat in the shape of one of the more iconic Pokémon; we’re told such a time limit exists to prevent score manipulation, but what shines through is the attention to detail and obvious love that Game Freaks have for their creation.

One of the few criticisms levelled at Diamond and Pearl was that, while they made excellent use of the DS hardware, they were less successful in eliciting more than a perfunctory grunt from the graphical and audio side. In this respect Platinum is slightly more impressive. There seems to be more variety in the locales, and a little more colour, but it’s a shame that the battles still exhibit about as much dynamism, relative to hardware, as the Game Boy originals.

The single-player campaign is substantial (and that’s without even considering the idea of finding all the Pokémon) but it’s in the online department that Platinum really excels. The Wi-Fi options are extensive, and aimed successfully at building a network of traders as opposed to a more console-orientated approach of faceless random battles. For the first time you can record your favourite battles, which is a nice touch, though you’re limited to saving only one of your own. In fact it’s online that the strides Pokémon has slowly taken over the years are truly evident, as well as serving to underline what genius game design this is: communication, battles, trading, rivalries, strategy…a large chunk of videogaming is right here.

Pokémon is one of those series where it’s hard to separate one game from the larger history. As a result we find ourselves swerving from admiration for the sheer effort that goes into the game to fighting off an inevitable déjà vu. Gamers are, after all, rarely content. It would be nice to see a little more experimentation soon, or perhaps a complete reinvention like the one Capcom has promised for the next Resident Evil, if only because the economic and developing clout Game Freaks have had for the last decade seems wasted when spent on such baby steps as Platinum, however fine tuned and well accomplished. Until then it’s very much a case of damned if they do/damned if they don’t – to those whose obsessive desire for collection and completion has been hard-wired over the last thirteen years, the thrill of the search will likely never fade. The bad news for everyone else? DS remakes of Gold and Silver arrive later this year.

- Originally published over at D+PAD Magazine in 2009.

- The photo that begins this post was taken by a friend. In case you were wondering, it is in fact a Pikachu float in the process of being deflated. But let's not let accuracy get in the way of a perfect image, eh?

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