Gaming stat of the day: There are more than 500 different species of Pokémon.
Knowing that somehow makes it easier to pity the poor guy who has to pore through the dictionary and the zoology books to find some sort of cute and clever combination that hasn't been used yet every time a new Pokémon game gets released.
And there's another new game -- two new games, actually, echoing the split-and-share strategy Nintendo's been using with this franchise for the last 15+ years. They're working their way through the rainbow of colors they've trademarked, so we're now up to Pokémon Black Version and Pokémon White Version. With 150 totally new Pokémon on the docket, everything old is set to feel new again.
Yes, the prime target demographic for the Pokémon videogames is several decades lower than the average age of the modern gamer, but there's still something absolutely brilliant and compelling about the RPG system the game uses to carry the action. Even if you've seen it before -- and is there a gamer alive who hasn't at some point? -- it's so, so easy to get sucked into the gotta-catch-'em all spirit of finding just the perfect six-pack of Pokémon to train, level up and evolve.
And therein lies the biggest problem with Black and White -- even with 150 new options, way, way too many of the "new" Pokémon feel like pale rip-offs of ones that have come before. None of the starter Pokémon have even a lick of personality, and it takes a long, long time to encounter new critters that won't feel distressingly familiar: For instance, Pansear, the fire-type monkey you'll encounter or use in the first gym leader battle, looks like Chimchar from Pokémon Diamond with a curlier coif. (This ceases to be an issue once you've completed the game's main quest and opened up the full Pokedex and endgame universe, but man, it takes a long time to get there.)
The good news is that there are plenty of smart and stylish updates to offset the sense of sameness. The Pokémon Center and the Pokemart are now in the same building, and the system for battling online has been (thankfully) streamlined. The triple battles are entertaining. Even better, the game now reflects the changing of the seasons, and these changes are more than just aesthetic additions to the graphics -- winter's frozen ponds and piles of snow can make previously inaccessible areas a snap to reach.
The game's primary villains, the Arthurian-garbed Team Plasma and their mysterious leader, N, offer quite the ethical conundrum. They travel the countryside of the Unova region, raising the one issue that's always seemed especially troublesome about the Pokémon universe -- doesn't keeping these cute creatures stuffed in hand-sized Pokeballs and forcing them to constantly beat themselves senseless constitute a form of animal cruelty?
Thing is, Team Plasma is looking to liberate the Pokémon as a means of stealing all the power for themselves. Black and white? Sounds more like shades of gray to me -- and that's a real first for the Pokémon universe.