Review: My Pokémon Ranch (WiiWare)

Is this WiiWare release a Dude Ranch or a Dud Ranch?

My Pokémon Ranch follows the franchise’s long, tumultuous history of 3D games with questionable design choices and narrow appeal. Unfortunately, this WiiWare offering is one of the worst offenders due to its strictly passive “gameplay”, ineffectual features, and obtuse design. In fact, MPR is only a game in the most liberal sense of the word: there is essentially nothing here that constitutes legitimate gameplay. What we’re left with is a sort of half-assed service designed to help Pokémaniacs get the most out of Diamond and/or Pearl yet geared for the most elementary gamers, meaning the only people that need apply are those who own a DS and one of those games or are picking up a controller for the first time.

Luckily, for those young or stubborn Pokémaniacs, there is some value here. Basically the game acts as a sort of live box to store your various Pokémon (up to 1000) along with a few Mii ranchers (20). However, instead of simple static sprites you’re treated to charming real-time activities involving the Pokémon and Miis you upload. The Pokémon themselves are displayed in an odd, deformed Mii-style that renders many of them accurately, some cutely, others strangely, and a few creepily. Some lack appendages or possess only a few defining characteristics, which makes them look abnormal to say the least. Regardless of how they look, their animations are almost always charming.

As they roam around the ranch your Pokémon engage each other and the Miis in various interactions. Mr. Mime might go for a ride on Sudowoodo. Salamence might pick up a Mii and fly him or her around for a while before dropping them back to the ground. Cranidos might ram into everything that gets in its way. Moreover, each Pokémon has a fairly representative personality and even tends to use proper attacks/abilities. Spoink bounces around on its springy tail; Mankey is overtly annoyed and aggressively uses Close Combat on anyone who comes nearby; Groudon is a plain old bully and often pounds the ground in a blatant show of dominance; Snorlax is perpetually horizontal and does little besides sleep; Abomasnow freezes any who find it in a bad mood, and so on for the 493 Pokémon in the National Pokédex. Also, at various intervals they group together to form special poses like a totem pole, a sky parade, or a ring dance where they all dance in a circle around a fire. There are even daily toys to give to your Pokémon and watch them play with.

When you first play MPR a ranch hand named Hayley will introduce herself and explain the daily operations. Basically, she has six Pokémon at the start and will bring more on a daily basis. In addition, she’ll ask for wanted Pokémon to help fill out the ranch (and inadvertently, your Pokédex) and even occasionally offers trades for the Pokémon you bring in. These trades consist of Pokémon bearing rare items and egg moves that are difficult to obtain, so they are the primary reward for playing MPR - culminating in offers for a Phione and a Mew. Beyond that, it’s up to you to upload as many Pokémon as possible to upgrade the ranch; you start out with a maximum capacity of 20 and after reaching certain quantities the ranch will expand the next day to allow for more such Pokémon. Everything in the game is based on your Wii calendar, so although the in-game day-night cycles are about 15 minutes, all milestones are based on the passage of actual days. This is designed to keep people coming back to the ranch each day, but also severely limits the usefulness of the storage feature due to the contrived way of unlocking proper storage functions.

Compounding this problem are a few seriously misguided storage-related decisions. Specifically, there is no interface to conveniently organize all the Pokémon you have stored. This isn’t always a big deal, except that once the numbers grow it’s exceedingly hard to keep track of who’s who, especially if you have several of the same species. What’s more, you can’t withdraw Pokémon to a game card other than the one they came from. I suppose this is to keep family members from stealing each other’s Pokémon or something, but it effectively prevents people from using MPR to consolidate their Pokémon among various games into one convenient location. Also, if you start a new game on that game card the Pokémon you uploaded are essentially lost forever; there is no method by which to get them into any other game. You can’t even use MRP to trade with other people who are storing their Pokémon in the same ranch.

Sadly, this is par for all of MPR’s features. There is support for WiiConnect24 where your Wii Friends or even random gamers can come to your ranch (or vice versa) to view your progress and snap pictures (which you can also send to your friends via the Wii message board), but without the ability to trade or even communicate, what could’ve been an interesting and useful service is relegated to a mundane diversion. Actually, that’s probably a good summary of MPR as a whole.

Conclusion

Ultimately, My Pokémon Ranch is chock full of missed potential. But while it’s easy to chide the game for what it doesn’t do, it’s harder to express that there is still value here for the right audience. There’s no question it’s an ideal game for young, fledgling Pokémaniacs who are frustrated by the demands of most games. Here, they can freely watch and interact with cuddly Pokémon of all shapes and sizes while looking forward to new toys and Pokémon daily. For established Pokémaniacs you have a service for storing and obtaining various Pokémon that doubles as a screensaver while you’re playing Diamond/Pearl. As long as these audiences keep their expectations in check they may find themselves charmed by this goofy WiiWare title, but everyone else need only look at the screenshots and their gut reaction should let them know where they stand.

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