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Interact with Michael Newman

New Pokemon for Game Boy bound to please

Friday, October 13, 2000

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Right off the bat, let me make a confession: I'm not big on Pokemon.

Never mind that millions of children around the world have swooned for TV shows, movies and electronic games that have spun off from the card game manufactured by Wizards of the Coast. Never mind the gazillions those kids and their resigned parents (me, among them) have plunked down to buy the above-mentioned cards, games and everything from breakfast cereal to bed sheets bearing trademarked Pokemon characters.

Out-of-step crank that I may be, I've tended to view the roughly drawn Pokemon characters as silly, if harmless. With an array of more challenging, visually interesting games out there crying to be played, I never could figure why my sons and their game-playing buds preferred to chase tiny critters with goofy names around the teensy screens of their handheld Nintendo Game Boys.

But hey, what do I know? More than 65 million Pokemon video games have been sold around the world in the past couple of years, with more than 18.7 million of those games being purchased by U.S. buyers. More than 70,000 units of Nintendo's wildly popular Red, Blue and Yellow versions for Game Boys continue to sell each week.

As Sunday's U.S. release date nears for the latest Pokemon Gold and Silver versions (Nintendo of America Inc., $34.95, Game Boy Color and Game Boy, 2 1/2 stars), more than 600,000 U.S. Pokemon enthusiasts already have shelled out down payments to reserve copies. I suspect they'll be pleased.

Don't get me wrong. Characters and backgrounds in Gold and Silver still have the simple, two-dimensional look of the old versions and move about to the same tinny, calliope music that sounds like an off-key "Mary Had A Little Lamb."

But dubious as I was when I started playing the Gold version, I was pleasantly surprised as I maneuvered through it. The old versions had a monochromatic look, with characters and backgrounds all in mushy shades of blue or red, gray, black and white. Playing them gave me a headache -- and, I suspect, once made my teen-age gamer seriously carsick from squinting too long at dull settings.

Gold, while still not exactly three-dimensional, is markedly more colorful and detailed, with settings that are much more interesting to explore. Tiny hair ribbons, flower petals and diamond patterns in carpets are now discernable in real-life colors. Trees now are green, not that irritating muddy shade of gray.

There's more to do, too. Gold and Silver, which tell essentially the same story of a boy who collects and battles Pokemon characters, introduce new characters and settings. Players must obtain twice as many badges to advance, and, for the first time, they'll encounter eggs that hatch into baby Pokemon that require nurturing.

New features include a built-in clock and activities that take place in real time. Some events only take place after dark or on Tuesdays. These twists require strategic planning -- although a player's insistence on staying up late to battle nocturnal Pokemon is likely to trigger a much greater bedtime brouhaha with his or her mother.

I'll give Nintendo well-deserved credit for coming up with a better-looking game that's more fun to play, even if I didn't find it to be terribly challenging. After all, the young gamers in my house -- the folks to whom Pokemon Gold and Silver are intended to appeal -- have lavished the ultimate praise: "It rocks."

Both generations in my house were able to agree, however, on Nintendo's other recent Pokemon release, Pokemon Puzzle League (N64, Nintendo of America Inc., $59.95, 3 stars).

OK, even my kids recognized right away that Pokemon Puzzle League is little more than a copy of old Tetris and Columns games that require players to quickly match combinations of colored blocks, jazzed up by the addition of Pokemon characters, settings and sound effects.

What they didn't realize was that this game requires them to hone their problem-solving abilities and hand-to-eye coordination while they're vying to be the first to clear the blocks from the screen.

This increasingly fast-paced game, while not exactly homework in a box, fools players into developing skills that are actually useful. All the while, they think they're simply battling Pokemon characters in yet another new way. Even better, Puzzle League is good-looking and addictive, with 3-D modes and adjustable levels that test players' skills.

No doubt my junior gamers will be among the millions who, come Sunday, will be clamoring to get in line for their own copies of Gold or Silver. Given a choice, I'd rather spring for Puzzle League.

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