It's been four years since the third Pokemon generation began with Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire on the Gameboy Advance, and a lot's changed in that time, but, Pokemon fever continues unabated. Pokemon Diamond and Pearl are the best entries in the series yet - fans undoubtedly already have their copies en route, but a deep and engaging game awaits everyone else who can get past the cute characters and irritating marketing.
Unsurprisingly, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl don't try to stray from the series' well-established formula: you'll still start with a special grass, water or fire Pokemon, you'll still collect the eight gym badges while battling a team of cartoony villains, and you'll still try to collect hundreds of monsters. The RPG gameplay is still surprisingly deep and balanced, but it doesn't get in the way of casual play. It's a huge and addictive game, and leveling up your Pokemon is the perfect way to pass a bus ride or complement your favorite TV show. What's new, and what make Diamond and Pearl in particular so compelling, are the refinements to the series' excellent gameplay and the additions that round out the product as a whole.
Foremost among these additions is online play. While hampered somewhat by Nintendo's clumsy friend code system - you have to trade long codes with your friends outside of the game to connect - online battle and trading open the series' best features up to a whole new audience, and the voice chat really livens things up. The new Global Trade System is like a simple PokeBay, letting you trade Pokemon with people all over the world while you sleep, making every wild Pokemon a market opportunity.
There are tons of side activities and mini-games, too, as well as oodles of Pokemon to catch. Old hands can transfer their Pokemon over from the GBA games, but newcomers shouldn't worry, because you'll be able to get most of them in Diamond and Pearl alone anyway. And while you can rush through the main quest in about 30 hours, "Catching 'em all," playing the mini-games and building the perfect competitive team can easily take ten times that.
This is definitely one of the premiere DS game productions. The new 3D world looks nice and retains the series' signature graphic style, but the battles remain 2D, a concession that keeps the game's pace brisk. The peppy soundtrack fits perfectly, with day and night versions of most of the music, and the new Pokemon designs are varied and fill out the game nicely. The Poketch, which occupies the bottom screen, is a handy tool, too, helping you find Pokemon, keep tabs on your berry farming, or even search for items.
But not everything's come up Roserades. While the move to 3D is a nice one, your character moves pretty slowly as a result, especially compared to previous games. The DS interface also feels half-done - while movement requires the D-pad and face buttons, battles are best played using the touchscreen, which is an awkward combination.
For those of you that have done this before, you know the drill, and you're probably going to do it again. But those of you that haven't? Well, there isn't a better time to start than now - while marketing's kept the Pokemon machine going, it wouldn't still be around if the games weren't good, and online battle and trading will help you get so much more out of the game. Pokemon Diamond and Pearl are not only the best Pokemon games yet, but some of most enjoyable on the DS.