Multiplayer: First Look At 'Pokemon Pearl'

Our gamer feels like a Pokémon rookie, but he's willing to put in the time to learn more.

I don't remember ever getting frightened while playing a "Resident Evil" video game. I never jumped during "Eternal Darkness." But a game has finally scared me. It's a game coming to stores next week: "Pokémon Pearl."

To be precise, it's not the game that scared me but the instruction manual. Some 60 pages thick, it's nearly as packed as the guides for some strategy games. I flipped through it Sunday night after logging two hours in "Pearl." I'd been confused by some things in the game. Little did I know that the manual would confuse me more. Forget my questions about whether flying Pokémon have an advantage over bug Pokémon. The manual indicates that I'll eventually have to worry about entering my Pokémon in dance competitions and acting competitions. I'm also going to have to make Poffins, whatever those are. I can also send air mail.

I'm confused. I know "Pokémon" about as well as I know French, which is really little more than what would get me by at a restaurant that served croissants or fried Pikachu. I don't know it well enough to know if Kricketot is a good match for Shinx. Should I use growl or bite?

Last week I thought I was being clever when I told a friend that the Pokémon games change less often than the design of the $20 bill. Screen shots of each pair of games in the nearly decade-old series failed to look all that different from those of earlier ones. But my brief time with "Pearl" — and my peek at that manual — showed me that Nintendo and series developer Game Freak have been lopping on new features every time out.

That puts a person like me in a bit of a daze. This is my history with the franchise: Having missed the initial Game Boy versions of the series, I first played a GBA edition, 2003's "Pokémon Sapphire." I played that game for about four hours, enough time to understand the potency of that "Gotta Catch 'Em All" slogan. The adventure of the game sets you loose as a trainer in a country full of cute monsters to bump into, recruit to your side and then use to defeat and recruit other monsters. Each conquest makes the next one possible. It's like Game Freak lets you eat the carrot dangled out in front of you, just so that it gives you enough energy to eat a bigger one. Somehow you don't get full. But just before I got myself lost gorging on "Sapphire" I put it aside. Later I would do the same thing with "World of Warcraft." The experiences were just too addictive, too seductive, to not take over my free time. I chose instead to avoid them. Plus I didn't have anyone to link a GBA to and battle my "Pokémon" with, which is part of the point of these games.

In 2006, I tried "Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Blue Rescue Team," the first "Pokémon" game that let players control the Pokémon directly. The game sent my Pokémon group into randomly generated dungeons, but as soon as I discovered that my Pokémon allies weren't as smart as I wanted them to be and kept abandoning me, I abandoned the game. Late last year, I started playing "Pokémon Ranger," one of the few games in the series not released in a color-coded pair. This game was on the Nintendo DS and had the player capture Pokémon by rapidly drawing circles around them. As limited as that sounds, it was fun. Then I lost the cartridge. So much for catching them all.

Now I'm playing "Pokémon Pearl," hoping to finally enjoy this series as much as its fans do and hoping my free time can stand it. My first challenge was just to decide between "Pearl" and its counterpart, "Pokémon Diamond." The paired games in the series are always similar, with just a handful of monsters appearing exclusively in one game or the other. That's how they encourage compulsive players to play against friends — or to buy two copies of the game. I chose "Pearl" because the Pokémon on the cover looked cooler, sort of like a winged T-Rex.

My first impression of the game was that it wasn't pushing the DS too hard. The graphics are simple. The music is even simpler. From an overhead perspective, the tops of buildings and trees scroll by in limited 3-D. The characters have limited animations in battle. Backgrounds in the fight scenes are still shots — not even of scenery, but just bands of color. At first glance, that's about as advanced as it gets.

Characters in the game encourage you to talk to every person on the screen. It's these little folks that begin to hint how the DS is really getting pushed. In Jublifie City, one of the first major urban areas, I was directed to three clowns, who then led me to a guy who turned the lower screen of my DS from a static place-holder graphic to the Pokétch. A new term that is surely buried in the manual, it stands for Pokémon Watch. What it gave me was a clock on my lower screen, a big digital one that made it clear coming to work this morning that while I was playing "Pokémon Pearl" on the subway, I was late. The Pokétch can be switched to a pedometer, which indicates my trainer has taken 1,087 steps since I turned it on.

Another character told me that I will soon be able to use the DS' Wi-Fi to get online and trade Pokémon. Another character said I will be able to go online to battle characters.

But these are early days for me and my Pokémon. I'm still trying to figure out how to make my Magikarp do anything more threatening than splashing water in front of enemies. I've got some playing to do. I've gotta understand it all.

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