Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pokemon Stadium

The Final Destination of the Gameboy Classics.
Review By FuzzyJello

To take a break from modern games, I have recently booted up my copy of Blue Version, and likewise it's N64 companion. Panned by critics, nostalgically revered by some, and unimpressive to others. I've always found the original Pokemon Stadium one of the N64's many underrated gems; well known, but only so appreciated. And as such, I review it, ten years later.

GRAPHICS: The game menu takes a creative urban background- which is good, because this game is one giant menu. The style of its distant buildings implies that it is either in the Saffron-Celadon block of Kanto, or some uninteresting, unnamed city. The menus are very clean. The backgrounds are cleverly designed (The Poke Cup is a closed-top Stadium, and the Prime Cup arena has an almost ritzy feel to it, for example). The Pokemon models are all true to form; jumping from questionable Game Boy sprites into the creatures the anime portrayed them to be. They are also surprisingly expressive, having multiple attack, recoil, and taunt animations. The camera moves in interesting ways as well, taking interesting shots of the decision period between moves. The attacks, sadly, either get the job done or are a bit simplistic. Surf, Thunder, and Blizzard are stunners, though.

GAMEPLAY: The idea is brilliantly simple: Give Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow Players another round of battles. Only this time, do it competitively. That's right, take the game where move pools are shallow and paralysis and the Psychic type are the twin hammers of overpowered, and make it competitive. Power-leveling a single Pokemon will get you nowhere in these battles. Make use of every Pokemon at its highest potential, with all TM and level up moves available- the computer will. Then-President Satoru Iwata and fellow HAL Laboratories programmers succeeded swimmingly in refitting a cartridge-filling, created-for-portable game into a 3D event.

The namesake attraction, the Stadium, features four tournaments- standard 50s and 100 battles, and cups for low-leveled and unevolved Pokemon. The Gym Leader Castle adapts the Gym Leaders and Elite Four of the Game Boy games into a tournament-style format, and Free Battles lets you battle a computer or friends- including “Anything Goes”, basically link battle rules.

The game's difficulty scales nicely. The first “Round” of battles are relatively easy- the gyms stick religiously to their type of choice and all tournaments use many unevolved monsters. After clearing them and winning a six-on-one match with a high-end Mewtwo, “Round 2” is unlocked, with far better teams and move sets to take on- simply slapping a Mewtwo onto every team you can guarantees little here. If you never thought you'd have to think about how to win against a computer in a Pokemon game, please think again. (The final tier of Poke Cup is particularly nightmarish). Although the truly competitive stick to internet simulators, clear Round 2 and it's safe to say you know the original 151's ins and outs. It's sad, in a way; although the original games are perfectly compatible with (And actually pretty viable) in Pokemon Stadium 2, this was one of the last breathes of the original craze.

Outside of battle, there is The Kid's Club, which provides a set of minigames featuring cute Pokemon, such as the Rattata run, Clefairy Class, or a Pikachu/Voltorb generator race. Though a couple are hard to grasp (The Ekans/Diglett and Drowzee games in particular), they are rather fun in themselves and a nice extra- you can play for fun or compete for who can win a certain number of games first. You can also store items and Pokemon in Professor Oak's on-cart lab, allowing you to store your current Game Boy monsters and items make restarting your Game Boy games painless (Your Pokedex must have 100 caught before you can import from other trainers, so be wary of that). You can also play your Game Boy games at multiplied speeds, allowing for speed runs and faster Pokemon training.

Almost all of this, importing to battle, storage, and TV play, assumes you've gotten your hands on a transfer pak. Should you lack one, the game provides rentals, copies of the first 149 Pokemon with Wild Pokemon stats and less-than-ideal move sets; you can win Round 1 if you use them right, but Round 2 won't be kind. Rentals are fantastic for an extra challenge, but this is an expansion of the Game Boy games, and the limitations rental move sets place on your choices will hurt in the harder battles.

To bring up the problems, the first is balance. In both Rounds, particularly the second, your opponents will have liberal access to TM moves, particularly ones dramatically outside of the Pokemon's move pool; Psychic, Thunderbolt, Earthquake, and Thunder Wave, to name a few, are staple attacks. The player, by contrast, will only get access to each of these moves once per playthrough of the Game Boy games. While replaying the game to build up a roster is somewhat practical thanks to the Game Boy Tower, the gap could have been bridged by having Stadium give away TMs, or better yet packs of them, as rewards. Those using glitches or cheat devices, of course, will have no problem.

Furthermore, the Pika Cup is a cheating mess. Its level restraints are 15-20, but in later battles you will Golems, Gengars, Electrodes, Muks… a whole host of Pokemon that the player cannot match because they are against the Game Boy game's evolution requirements. Creating a mode in which the player has about eleven usable Pokemon without Second Generation support (As breeding and certain encounters in those games opens up your Pokemon selection significantly) is horrible game design, plain and simple.

The other problem is creativity; while it does make a Game Boy formula feel at home on a TV-based console, that's all it does. The opportunity for real “extras” liked timed battles, mono-type matches (That you don't have to set up yourself), or an encyclopedia would have been nice. Not to mention the only actual rewards for play are “Pokemon Presents”, all of the once-per-game monsters aside from the legendary birds. Very nice, but there could have been so much more, particularly, to say it again, the failure to supply TMs.

SOUND: Judging the sound for this game is easy. Almost every piece in the game is a fantastic redux of the Game Boy game's soundtrack. The Gym Battle and Rival themes remain epic, and various route remixes you'll find while menu scrolling are almost larger-than-life, given how simple the chiptunes actually are. Then we run into a problem; that's all there is. Everything that isn't a remix could have been a rejected piece for the game- you'll often hear various beats or sounds from the original songs in the new pieces.

The other addition is the announcer, who will announce Pokemon, call play-by-plays, and make comments. He is at times annoying, and at times outright wrong, and there is an option to turn him off, but he really adds a lot of personality to the battles, having at least one comment for every plausible situation. Explosions, death by recoil, annoyance at continuous attacks, shock at a resisted move inflicting incredible damage, noting when a Pokemon on a roll has finally been silenced… he's everywhere.

Many penalize Stadium's music choice, feeling the N64 could do much more. Honestly, when the point is to bring the game to a TV, I don't see why the music can't be updated along with the visuals. Attack the music itself, not Stadium for doing its job.

Stadium's lasting value is entirely relative on your interest in Red, Blue, or Yellow after you have finished the last real expansion Nintendo provided for their future cashcow. Would you replay a tournament for fun, raise a small army of monsters with the Game Boy Tower, or get a sea Pokemon presents from the Elite 4? Do you have friends to play with? If you can't give a stern yes to any of these questions, it may not be worth tracking down. If you ever hanker for a dose of the classics, though, there's no better outlet than HAL's tournament simulator.

NAME: POKEMON STADIUM
SYSTEM: Nintendo 64

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