Pokemon. Before Nintendogs came along, Nintendo marketed dozens of adorable critters for you to consider as your own fantastic pets. The company has racked up tens of millions in sales due to the popularity of these impossibly cute animals — mainly due to players who feel the need to follow the series mantra: Gotta catch ‘em all. But for all of Pokemon’s successes, the franchise hasn’t truly translated to superstardom on the Nintendo DS… until now.
Pokemaniacs have been waiting for a proper Pokemon title to appear on the best-selling handheld, only to be rewarded with tepid spin-offs. Thankfully, Pokefans can rejoice: “Pokemon Diamond” and “Pokemon Pearl” (Rated E, $34.99) are nearly perfect. Both titles, developed by Game Freak, give players the same deep and addictive adventures from the early days while adding creative new touches unique to the DS system.
If you haven’t played Pokemon before, here’s the rundown: in a parallel universe, humans live alongside Pokemon, which are animals that possess special powers. For example, the franchise mascot, Pikachu, is an electric mouse that can summon lightning bolts. Some ambitious humans seek fame and fortune by capturing different types of Pokemon, training them, and learning how to use their traits best in battle against other Pokemon. These people are Pokemon trainers, and that’s where you come in.
In both of these two titles — which feature similar gameplay but different animals — you begin your adventures as a rookie trainer in the land of Sinnoh.This sector of the Pokemon world is packed with dozens of new and classic critters. As you explore Sinnoh, you battle other trainers, capture wild Pokemon, earn badges for your battle prowess and uncover a Pokemon-kidnapping plot by the shadowy Team Galactic. It’s standard fare as far as Pokemon titles go.
But once you get your hands on “Diamond” and “Pearl,” the changes become apparent. The top half of the DS screen shows your movement around Sinnoh and combat. The bottom half, however, is where “Diamond” and “Pearl” show their innovation. The DS touch screen makes everything incredibly easy to manage, making previous Pokemon games (and even other DS titles) look clunky by comparison. You can keep track of your critters and supplies, pick strategies and care for your Pokemon through easy-to-read menu screens accessed with a touch of the stylus.
And that’s not the most revolutionary thing about “Diamond” and “Pearl.” Pokemon fans finally get what the series has been missing: A global network to battle or trade with other players, thanks to Nintendo’s Wi-Fi system. This feature alone pumps countless hours back into the franchise. Now players can skip playing the main quest to hang out with other players. Purchase Nintendo’s new headset, and you can literally chat with friends and rivals around the world for free.
The only weakness is that the turn-based combat system, a staple of the Pokemon games, remains (pardon the pun) pokey. Even after all the improvements, the action still slows down in battle, especially in the beginning when all your attacks are weak and few in number. And if it’s not the slowness of combat, the talkative villagers you meet drag things down more.
But once you get a handle on the pacing, you’ll discover “Diamond” and Pearl” are solid and satisfying titles. And like other Pokemon games, you’ll be able to upload critters from previous Pokemon games and even take your progress from “Diamond” and “Pearl” and load it into Wii’s forthcoming Pokemon title, “Battle Revolution.” In addition, you can save just about anywhere, making both titles a natural fit for on-the-go play.
If you never got into Pokemon before, “Diamond” and “Pearl” are probably the most user-friendly ways you can experience the worldwide phenomenon. Sure, training animals for duels might sound a bit bizarre, but the new titles solidify why Pokemon has been attracting a serious legion of fans for nearly a decade.