IGN Review of Pokemon Diamond
Pokemon on the DS is nothing new -- we've already received Pokemon Dash, Pokemon Trozei, and Pokemon Ranger in the system's two years of life. But it's the RPG design the public's clamoring for, not the spin-offs -- those games were just biding the time while Game Freaks cranked out the enormous, ambitious, real deal Pokemon project. It doesn't matter what's going to be said in the next thousand or so words: Pokemon Diamond and Pokemon Pearl will, without a doubt, be the top-selling game released to date on the Nintendo DS. There's absolutely no debate here. Millions of gamers are going to buy this game no matter what the critical word will be, but that won't stop us from calling it like it is: Pokemon Diamond and Pokemon Pearl are still the "gotta have" portable games, but don't expect to be overwhelmed with a fresh take on the series. The team stuck to its guns and kept the DS game in line with the Game Boy Advance designs, which were, honestly, a modest upgrade to the Game Boy Color game, which, in turn, wasn't a huge step over the game that started it all in black-and-white a decade ago.
For a game that's literally sold countless millions of copies over the past ten years, it's pretty amazing to discover gamers who have yet to experience what Pokemon is all about. Under its kid-friendly, thick sugary coating lies a deceptively deep and addictive design that encourages players to create collections of highly marketable creatures of various species. The core mechanic is an adventure with role-playing game battle mechanics -- these creatures will fight for their owner using their abilities in a turn-based interface, where players choose the best mode of attack or defense that'll get them through the brawl. Winning battles will earn these creatures experience which will, in turn, advance their levels and increase their capabilities...as well as earn their owners some coin for purchases at the shops.
It's a concept that's already proven itself enormously successful, both critically and commercially, in close to a dozen iterations over the course of ten years. There's a tremendous amount of depth and strategy within the Pokemon design, and because the designers incorporate hundreds of different creatures to capture, it also becomes addictive even when the whole adventure potion's at an end.
While there have been some similar spin-off designs on the console side Nintendo's kept the true experience exclusively on its handhelds. Pokemon Diamond and Pokemon Pearl is the RPG's official move to the Nintendo DS platform, and as long as you're comfortable with playing "more of the same," which -- let's be honest here -- is more of a really excellent and strategically deep handheld experience, then it's thumbs up for the DS version, too.
The developers do a fine job incorporating the Nintendo DS elements into the design of Pokemon. For example, in battle you no longer have to cycle through a menu using the D-pad to pick your Pokemon and attacks -- it's now handled through the simplicity and elegance of big, fat, thumb-friendly buttons on the lower screen. This streamlines things more so than you might realize, since you no longer have to scroll through menus or navigate using the directional arrows. Just tap and go. The designers also have fun with the new item for Pokemon Diamond and Pokemon Pearl: the Poketch, or Pokemon Watch. It's essentially a personal "computer" where you'll get programs to plug into it throughout your travels. So, while it might be disappointing that you don't get a map on the lower screen while wandering the environment, don't worry...you'll get one eventually. Some widgets are rather cool, some are completely useless, and a variety of them fit in between.
Game interfaces are all over the place in Pokemon DS. Some Pokedex menus use the touch screen, others do not, some spread out over two screens, others are smooshed on one. It doesn't really hurt the experience to have the interfaces scattered like this, but it's obvious how Game Freak managed to toss in all this functionality during development...it most likely had bunches of groups working independently.
The biggest issue is its hard-to-shake feeling of deja vu -- most of what players do in the single player experience is identical to the adventuring laid out for the gamers in previous versions. That "explore the world, fight gym leaders, stop the evil Team" storyline progression hasn't changed at all in Pokemon Diamond and Pokemon Pearl. Instead of Team Rocket, you've got Team Galactic, and while their aim is different, their motivations aren't. The big reveal is why they're doing what they're doing, but everything that happens before then is exactly the same as previous games in the series.
It wouldn't be so obvious had the game changed its adventure presentation, but even though Game Freak pushed a 3D engine for the overworld exploration, the team kept the visual style incredibly close to the Game Boy Advance game. So even though there's hillsides and mountains, polygonal mountains and 3D trees, everything still has that Game Boy look to it. The battles are still using that limited sprite battle system where creatures animate in two-frame sliding motions, though the developers enhanced that action with some special effects that are specific to the Nintendo DS capabilities. After seeing these creatures in 3D way back on the N64, it's a little awkward to have it all come back to 2D on a system that can do so much more.
Like it or or lump it, though, this is the definitive Pokemon experience. Even if you've spent hundreds of hours doing the Pokemon "gotta catch 'em all" thing on the Game Boy Advance or Game Boy Color, if you want to keep up with the series, it's going to be done again on the Nintendo DS. Luckily the game design still holds up after ten years on the market. And sure, we'll admit that there are little elements tossed in to help keep things somewhat fresh in the move. Real-time system clock function, multilayer level designs, touch-screen mini-games...listing all the additions would take forever, but they're all pretty minor and supplemental in the whole swing of things.
What is one hundred percent new to the Pokemon franchise is the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection support, and it is undoubtedly a way-cool function of the Nintendo DS version. Where battles were once confined to local areas using link cable or the temporarily free Wireless GBA adapter is now open to anywhere you've got access to a compatible Wi-Fi spot. In other words, you can be either face-to-face or thousands of miles apart in order to battle and trade between systems. Nintendo went the extra mile, too, by incorporating voice chatting using the Nintendo DS microphone, or optionally a headset peripheral. The ability to talk to the other user during a fight makes everything that much more interactive and "in your face," even when the other person isn't even in same room with you during the fight.
There is a limitation, however -- the only way you can simultaneously voice chat and battle over the internet in this game is if you've already arranged to do so with a friend by asking for and adding his or her Friend Code, and likewise to their copy of the game. This is one of the few Nintendo DS games that does not allow for random user connections over the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection service. You can't even connect to the Internet without a Friend Code entered into your game. Nintendo locked this one down hard. Of course, this "friend" limitation is only for the Internet portion of the game -- as long as you can physically see someone, you can connect to them using the traditional Pokemon network means. There's even an earned Poketch gadget that you can turn on to see if anyone in the local area is looking for a match-up or trade.
But obviously to take advantage of the trade and battle portion, you really have to play through the adventure. And even if that's all you do, there's more than forty hours of adventuring required to get through to the end of the campaign. As a reward for your service, once that happens, any person who did the Pokemon thing in the Game Boy Advance version can bring over their collection using the cart slot on the bottom of the Nintendo DS.
©2007, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved