Pokémon Diamond and Pearl came as a very pleasant surprise when it released in Japan in 2006 and everywhere else in 2007 as the first titles in the RPG franchise to release on the Nintendo DS. More than a decade later, this pairing of console and concept works just wonderfully.
After years of squinting at non-backlit Game Boy and Game Boy Advance screens, playing Pokémon on the dual LCD screens of the DS feels like heaven. The characters and their critters are more visible and vibrant than ever, and the touch screen functionality of the bottom screen is an absolute godsend when it comes to rummaging in your bag for items or picking your next move in battle. Using WiFi rather than a Link Cable to connect with your friends also feels like a huge leap in playability.
Set in the Sinnoh region, which was inspired by the Japanese island Hokkaidō, the game hits all those familiar story beats of leaving home, catching critters, challenging gyms, defeating an evil team, tackling the Elite Four, and eventually attempting to capture legendary creatures. Four generations into the franchise, you’d think that going through all this again would feel like a chore. But thanks to these colossal quality-of-console upgrades, it actually feels fresh and fun again.
Starting a new game on Pokémon Pearl now, one of the first things that stand out is the depth of field that the team at Game Freak managed to cram in. More than ever before, your character feels like a three-dimensional being, and the world around them has detailed background and foreground visuals. There are bridges, for example, where you get an actual sense of being up high while looking down on something totally different below you. Considering that we started out with the grainy flatness of Pokémon Red and Blue, this feels like a considerable achievement.
The other major thing you notice is the second screen, which Game Freak is committed to using at every possible stage. When you’re in the map world, this screen becomes your Pokétch, a smartwatch-like device that you can collect different apps for as you go. If you’re keen to get as much bang for your buck as possible, there are loads of extra things that the Pokétch allows you to do. If not, you can just use it as a clock, which is still quite handy.
Another way you can get your money’s worth is by making the most of Pokémon Contests, which have been given a decent upgrade since Ruby and Sapphire. There are two extra stages this time, including a fun touch-screen offering that allows you to place accessories on your critters to boost their stats in things like coolness and cuteness. And again, if that doesn’t appeal, you can ignore Contests altogether and go merrily on your way.
Game Freak is also trying to significantly expand the main storyline here, with Diamond and Pearl positioning three lake guardian Pokémon in different corners of a sizeable map. You need to visit each lake to progress, and they aren’t all easy to access. Getting through Mt. Coronet and the snowy route that follows is a particularly challenging process, which helps to make the game feel more difficult than your average Pokémon experience. And the snowy visuals look great, too.
The distance between the lakes and the difficulty of getting to them, coupled with an impressively expansive evil scheme from Team Galactic, helps build the sense that defeating this game is about more than rushing from gym to gym. And an extra sense of scale is provided by a super-powerful Pokémon that predates the known universe (you’ll get Dialga in Diamond or Palkia in Pearl, with Giratina popping up later in the Platinum version). And then there are the three lake guardians: Uxie, Mesprit, and Azelf, who are legendary Pokémon that players can catch late in the game.
Catching godlike and legendary creatures isn’t the only challenge you’ll face between gyms and Team Galactic battles, either. You’ll face wild Pokémon at level 45 before you’ve even got to the last gym, and there are loads of tricky routes and double battles to test your mettle. (There’s also a fun sequence of events near the start where you do a whole forest-full of double battles to help another trainer get to the next town.) With all of this going on, it’s fair to say that this game gave fans their first proper challenge since they went through the region-spanning 16-gym ringer that was Pokémon Gold and Silver.
All of this combines to make Diamond and Pearl feel like a vital stepping stone, an experience that expands the storytelling scope of the franchise while also upping the ante in terms of difficulty. These games set the template for what a Pokémon game would look like beyond the DS, and they’re also just very good fun to play. Top stuff.
What’s new? As well as making everything a bit easier to manage with the ever-present second screen, Diamond and Pearl also shake things up in some other ways. There are now three types of moves (physical, special, and status), for instance, and each day consists of five time periods (morning, day, afternoon, evening, and night). There is also an impressive amount of interconnectedness: you could link up with other players through WiFi to do battle or muck around in the underground area; you could move Pokémon over from your Game Boy Advance games (as long as you’ve unlocked the National Dex); and you could even connect up with Pokémon Ranger and Pokémon Battle Revolution. The post-game world was fairly expansive, too, with a whole new island offering heaps of extra battles and creatures.
Weirdest thing: The idea of a massive subterranean network where players steal flags from one another and set traps for each other is quite an odd one, especially when you consider that this world is meant to be underneath you at every point in the game. However, the trippy visuals that play out when you meet the godlike Pokémon atop Spear Pillar have to be the weirdest thing in this one. Also, Team Galactic’s plan to create a whole new universe seems a bit OTT.
Cutest critter: Continuing the stream of incredibly cute water-type starter Pokémon, it’s hard to argue against Piplup as being the most adorable entity in this game. There’s a reason that, when this generation came to Pokémon Go, Piplup was front and center in the marketing materials. Bidoof has a certain charm, as well.
Poké-Legacy: In terms of Pokémon that became big deals in the years that followed, Lucario and Arceus are both fairly major players now (although Arceus, another godlike being, was only available in Diamond and Pearl if you took part in special Nintendo events).
The legacy of these games is also felt throughout the DS era of the franchise, where the bottom screen continues to be very handy and the villainous storylines were often fairly massive. As we mentioned before, Diamond and Pearl did a masterful job of managing the move to DS, setting the pace for this whole era of our continuing Pokémon journey.
We’ll be back in a month to jump into Pokémon Black and White. In the meantime, please free to leave your own Poké-thoughts in the comments below…
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