Drawing thousands of circles as rapidly as possible has never been more entertaining.

User Rating: 8.5 | Pokemon Ranger DS
I'm sure you all know about the classic handheld Pokemon games, from Pokemon Red and Blue all the way to the upcoming Black and White. What most people forget is that the franchise also has a few smaller side games, such as the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series and the Pokemon Ranger series, which provide a refreshing break to the endless level-grinding in the main games.

In the original Pokemon Ranger game, released in 2006 for the Nintendo DS, you play an aspiring Pokemon Ranger (with spiky blue hair) and follow him/her through his/her journey up the ranks. To throw in some background information, Pokemon Rangers only capture Pokemon to either calm them or to employ them to assist those in need. Instead of mindlessly hurling around different colored balls, Pokemon Rangers utilize a special stylus (a.k.a. your spiffy DS stylus) to draw loops around wild Pokemon and thus capture them. I'll break the game into a few categories for further discussion.

Combat – 5/5:
Okay, I know what you're probably thinking. "What fun could there possibly be in circling hundreds of Pokemon over and over?" Well, I thought the whole thing would get boring pretty quickly as well, but I was delightfully surprised to be proved wrong. While the general tactic is indeed to circle the wild Pokemon as fast as possible, certain opponents require very different tactics to catch, and it's up to you to figure out how to catch each one. For example, I was used to just rapidly circling everything in sight, so I ran into huge problems when facing Salamence in the Challenge of Destruction. Turns out, Salamence is much easier to capture when you circle him nice and slowly to keep him within range. My stylus had two health bars left when I finally managed to beat that fat thing…
The Poke-assists also add a whole new dimension to combat. You can use the Pokemon you've previously captured to entrap your opponent in bubbles, trap him with tall grass, paralyze him with thunder, and much more. Careful planning is required to determine when to use the assists and which assist to use for maximum efficiency.
There's also some amount of luck involved in battle, which keeps things interesting. Overall, I found the system very enjoyable, and I didn't get bored of it like I thought I would.

Storyline – 5/5:
As a Ranger, you're obliged to help out those in need. You'll be sent on missions all over the region to complete various tasks, like helping women find their six lost Skitties or escorting random old men out of forests. I've got a soft spot for games that send you on missions, because it makes me feel like a superhero of some sort (I dunno…we've all got our weird quirks). The missions in this game are very creative and unique, and it all pulls together into a nicely woven storyline.

Exploration – 4/5:
Staying true to the main Pokemon games, there is a lot of exploration involved when you have to get through caves or forests to reach other cities. Since you can see the wild Pokemon right in front of you on your screen, you can pick and choose which ones to run into and engage in combat with. Woohoo for the lack of annoying Zubat swarms in caves!
It's still not as easy as you may think it is, though. Some Pokemon will try to run into you when they notice you, so you'll still have to fight/flee from a handful of unwanted battles. Overall, though, it's not as annoying as it is in the regular games.

Characters – 4/5:
There are some great characters in the game. The developers did a great job with crafting an array of different personalities for everyone you meet. From the fat, lazy Cameron to the mechanic who's afraid of bugs to Silent Chris (or Gabby Chris, if you did the Rayquaza special mission), most characters are distinguished and unique. And, of course, who could forget the Go-Rock Quad? These four baddies are always a source of entertainment in the game, from their rock-out performances to their opening chant (like Jessie and James from the anime series) to their reenactment of The Three Little Pigs. One thing I will say is that I wish Aria kept her bratty personality the whole way through, because she becomes a little bland after she realizes how much respect you deserve and blahblahblah. Then again, I guess the game was designed to primarily appeal to kids, and kids would probably be more annoyed if they had a snooty lady following them and insulting them at every turn.

Graphics – 3/5:
Pokemon is never known for outstanding graphics, but I really like how they actually made the people look like…people in this game, as opposed to the short, pudgy sprites from the main games. The graphics are pretty flat otherwise, but hey, it's tolerable.

Music – 2/5:
While most people probably don't care excessively about the music in their video games, I do love me a good soundtrack. It's certainly not a deciding factor in what I find to be a good game, but, when I'm comparing two games I feel almost equally about, it can help raise the bar a little on one side. With that said, Pokemon Ranger doesn't have a very notable soundtrack. None of the tracks are exceptionally impressive to begin with, and, frankly, they get quite repetitive when you have to run around in certain areas for long periods of time (such as the giant confounding maze known as Lila Forest).

OVERALL – 8.5/10:
I enjoyed the game. It may be living in the shadows of the more popular Trainer-based Pokemon titles, but that doesn't make it any less addicting. In fact, its storyline even bests those of some of the main games (like Diamond/Pearl/Platinum, for example…). The game could do with some small changes, like a better map system, but, overall, I recommend it to anybody who likes Pokemon and is interested in trying something new.

And a special mention for my favorite signpost message in the game:
"Pedestal Stalagmites:
Enjoy the passionate dancing of Jynx on these naturally formed stages."