March 7, 2011 at 6:58 PM ET
When it comes to the official list of Coolest Dads Ever, I’m not sure who I think a game-playing kid is more likely to put at the top.
A couple weeks back, I thought it was this guy, for making a playable "Angry Birds" birthday cake for his son. But now, after having talked to Junichi Masuda, co-founder of Game Freak, I have to think that he ranks pretty high among the most awesomest parents ever (as scored by the whippersnappers of the world).
After all, this is the man who has spent the last 15 years delivering "Pokémon" games to children (and grown-up children) everywhere. And among those children is his very own eight-year-old daughter, Kiri.
And if Masuda has his way (which he surely will) even more children (of all ages) are going to be jumping onto the "Pokémon" wagon with the launch of the newest games: "Pokémon Black Version" and "Pokemon White Version."
These latest entries in the Pokémon franchise arrived in stores on Sunday. And during an interview with Masuda as well as Mana Ibe — a graphic designer responsible for many of the new Pokémon creatures found in the games — they said "Black Version" and "White Version" were created to give both seasoned players and new players a fresh start on a series that has been going strong since 1996.
"One of our goals was to make the games really accessible to new players but also very interesting for players who played the past games," Masuda said through an interpreter.
If you're not up on the Pokémon thing, these role-playing games created by Game Freak for Nintendo's handheld machines, involve exploring a large world, capturing various Pokémon creatures (fantastical little monsters with unique battle moves) and then training and evolving those monsters through a series of battles against other Pokémon.
(I think this particular simplification probably sums it up pretty well too.)
All together, the games have sold 215 million units worldwide and spawned a franchise of animated movies, manga and various Pokémon products familiar to almost everyone on the planet — yes, even to those living under rocks. It's the kind of enormous success that means when Masuda recently accompanied his daughter on a school outing, he got asked for his autograph from a whole lot of young Pokémon masters. (Masuda named a character in the "Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire" games after his daughter Kiri, so we suspect she's getting used to this sort of thing.)
As for "Pokémon Black & White Versions," they are not hugely different from past "Pokémon" games. You do not simply tear apart a formula that has been so wildly successful for so long. But having spent some time with the games, "Black & White" do offer some seriously polished Poké-gaming and some nice tweaks and treats that are sure to pique the interest of new comers and old timers alike.
For starters, there are some graphical upgrades — the Pokémon are more animated and the camera angles change up making everything a bit more dynamic to look at. Meanwhile, there have been some changes to the battle mechanics — the new Triple Battles and Rotation Battles let you duke it out with multiple Pokémon in some interesting new ways. There's also the addition of C-Gear which gives players some enhanced communication features for playing with other Poké-fans.
Is it time for Pokémon liberation?
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the new games is the story. Masuda said they have made the story a more prominent aspect in "Black & White." And it's a story that asks players to ponder the ethics of capturing and battling these monsters.
In "Black & White" you play a kid who sets out on an adventure to become a great Pokémon trainer (no surprise there) ... but this time around you encounter some rather PETA-like antagonists who think capturing and making Pokémon fight isn't such a splendid thing to do to the creatures.
"It’s a much deeper story this time," Masuda said through an interpreter. "It makes the player think about what Pokémon really are. Are they being trapped by these trainers and do they need to be liberated?"
It may seem an odd turn for a game that has spent so many years encouraging so many people to train and fight Pokémon. But Masuda said, "One of the reasons for doing this deeper story is for the players who maybe played the series in the past and maybe lapsed and haven’t played the most recent ones. We wanted to get them to come back and play the games with this new story that makes them think about what Pokémon really are and what that personal relationship with Pokémon really is."
"We think it's important to sometimes make people sit and think about something," he added
Of course, the folks over at Penny Arcade have this humorous take on the ethics quandry posed to players.
Gotta catch 'em all ... again
Meanwhile, Masuda also hopes that seasoned Pokémon vets will be drawn back into the games by the challenge of discovering the new Pokémon found in "Black Version" and "White Version." The two games contain 156 new creatures — Patarats, Purrloins, Deerlings and Blitzles just to name a few. And players, as always, are challenged to "catch 'em all."
Masuda says Game Freak has 17 designers who come up with the ideas for these beloved creatures and work on the new Pokémon with the game planners. Ibe helped design several of the new Pokémon including Victini — a special Pokémon who can only be found until April 10.
Through an interpreter, Ibe said she draws her creative inspiration from watching real animals at zoos and aquariums — from studying how they behave in the real world. But she said she also gets inspiration from inanimate objects and from imagining how the two might combine to create the unique characteristics of a Pokémon.
"Like an umbrella," she said. "If you were to combine that with a living animal, what way could you attach it and how would that Pokémon use that object?"
All in all, the total number of Pokémon created throughout the franchise's history is now at 649. But Game Freak decided that, for the first time, they would not allow players to use Pokémon from previous games until they finished the main story in the new "Black & White" games.
"The problem with having all the older Pokémon in the game is that the older players who’ve played before really know about all the Pokémon — they know all the moves, they know how strong they are," Masuda said. "So we did this to level the playing field for both new players and old players."
So far, their choices seem to be paying off. In Japan, where "Pokémon Black and White" launched last September, the games not only had the biggest launch of any game in Japan, they also already have sold more than 5 million units ... becoming the fastest titles to reach that number on the DS. Meanwhile, "Black & White" are now sitting in the number 1 and number 2 spots on the top of UK charts (they launched in the UK on Friday.)
We're guessing this means even more of Kiri Masuda's friends will be asking for her dad's autograph now. Which has to be pretty cool for an 8-year-old kid.
Then again, perhaps Mr. Masuda is not exactly the coolest dad ever. After all, he said he limits his daughter's "Pokémon"-playing time to only one hour a day.
We can hear it now: "Awww, Dad. Lame!"
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