High Praise for Pokemon, in all of its forms

Owen Sound Sun Times (On)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Super Mario is one of my favourite game franchises. Mario consistently offers great gameplay, excellent level design, a near-perfect difficulty curve, and pure fun that most other games cannot match.

Super Mario Galaxy, released last fall, got well deserved praise and Super Mario 64 is hailed as the pinnacle of 3D platforming. While I enjoy both those games the 2D Mario games are my favourites.

The last big 2D Mario game on a console was Yoshi’s Island in 1995, one year before Mario 64. Today’s eighteen year old gamer was born in 1990 and may have been introduced to Mario through Mario 64, missing the glory of 2D Mario games altogether. Thankfully almost all of them are available on today’s consoles allowing contemporary gamers to experience the fun.

Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario World 2 are all stellar examples of 2D perfection and I recommend them all.  Compared to today’s graphics these games had little to work with, so gameplay was paramount. Later, as other games became more complex, the Mario series kept a simplicity that made them easily approachable for gamers of all ages.

Though later games added functions, the basic Mario controls are left, right, jump, run, and shoot fireballs (If you have the fire flower power-up). Interesting level design allows these controls to work smoothly. Levels are designed so no one approach is sure to work; walking through a whole level guarantees death, as does running all the way. The pits, platforms and enemies are positioned so you have to mix up your play style to get through the levels.

While progressing through the games patterns begin to emerge. Certain parts of levels require slow, careful progress, while others reward you for rushing in headlong and make the slow approach much more difficult.

The gameplay perfection is subtle; the games are designed so that no matter how difficult the levels get it always feels as though you have made a mistake. I found this lacking in Mario Galaxy; I got frustrated a lot, and the game felt very hard. These older Mario games rarely frustrate me, I always feel as though messing up is my own fault and one more life will get me to the next level.

Nintendo has remained true to the old Mario games with New Super Mario Bros. for DS. It takes the mechanics of the original Super Mario Bros. adds all new levels, some new power-ups and overhauls the graphics. It’s one of the best looking games on DS and one of my favourite DS games. It perfectly captures the feeling of old school Mario while feeling new and fresh.

Anyone with a DS or a Wii can experience the older Mario games. The Wii’s virtual console has Super Mario, Super Mario 3 and Super Mario World, all of which are great. The DS will play Gameboy Advance games and the latter 3 games as well as Yoshi’s Island are available on GBA. Both on DS and Wii the games are budget priced, so if you like Mario games you should really check them out. I played most of them on GBA, since I didn’t have a TV console until the Gamecube. The old Mario games can’t be beat for pure video game fun.

About the same time I first started playing Mario games I discovered another beloved Nintendo franchise, Pokemon. Released in 1995, Pokemon Red and Blue became smash hits for Nintendo’s Gameboy. The franchise has sold millions of copies, spanned every Nintendo console since the Gameboy, been an ongoing merchandising craze and spawned dozens of spinoff games. Interestingly the core Pokemon RPGs have all been released on handhelds, not TV consoles.

Often written off as a franchise strictly for children, Pokemon has in fact gathered a devout following of gamers of all ages. Players take charge of a hero who is on a quest to be the best Pokemon trainer. You traverse an imaginary land capturing Pokemon and training them to fight against each other in turn-based battles. There is always an added incentive to collect all the Pokemon present in each game, leading to much replayability

As you play through the game you collect more Pokemon and have a more varied army to choose from. Pokemon come in about a dozen different types, rock, fire, water, etc. and each type is strong against certain types and weak against others. You can only battle with six at a time, though the games generally feature 150 or more to capture.

Each game in the series offers new Pokemon and a whole new world to explore, as well as a few new mechanics. Over the life of the series improvements like a real time day/night cycle and online play have been introduced.

The plethora of existing Pokemon characters as well as the simple but effective story led to a TV show and massive merchandising including a collectible card game. Many parents are mostly familiar with the TV show and marketing rather than the games, which leads to a stigma against the games and making it necessary to separate the games from the marketing force. All the Pokemon games are critically acclaimed.

The simple yet addictive gameplay as well as the somewhat hidden depth behind collecting and battling Pokemon has lead all sorts of gamers to play Pokemon, not just kids. But they are great games for kids, they have relatively little violence and no death and are chock full of words.

My brother learned to read in part by playing Pokemon and he is now an avid reader. Reading in Pokemon is not optional; skipping dialogue means you miss the story and will get hopelessly lost in the game.

Also important to note are all the spinoff Pokemon games. If you want the real experience look for games titled “Pokemon (Colour Name)” like Pokemon Pearl, or Pokemon Red. The rest are spinoffs and quality is completely hit and miss.

If you are an RPG fan who has never played Pokemon because you thought it was strictly for kids, or if you are a parent looking for a game that will help your child’s intellectual development I recommend the Pokemon series. Pokemon games are available on Gameboy, Gameboy Color, Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS.

Calen Henry is a graduate of Japanese Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University. He grew up in Owen Sound, has been a gamer since childhood and is also interested in music and film.

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