[GAME REVIEW] Pokémon Black and White

Introduction

By the time the fourth generation of Pokémon debuted with the Diamond and Pearl versions, Game Freak’s signature franchise gained a new lease on life. Though no longer the pop cultural juggernaut it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, gaming enthusiasts stopped dismissing the series as a fad from a bygone era, accepting it as a cornerstone of the medium. With Diamond and Pearl outselling the set of games that came before, Nintendo realized the series’ popularity hadn’t waned. In response to the fans’ enthusiasm, they began work on a sequel following the release of HeartGold and SoulSilver – remakes of the second-generation titles.

The fifth-generation games were officially announced in January of 2010. A spokesperson from the Pokémon Company stated that the new set of games were to debut later in the year for the Nintendo DS. Junichi Masuda, who directed Diamond and Pearl, said that several aspects would be revamped for the next generation. In April, the company’s official website was updated with the titles of these versions: Black and White. With the naming convention for the series electing to incorporate valuable metals and gemstones, Black and White sounded incredibly plain. Nonetheless, fans were excited to see what the series now had to offer. His ultimate goal with this project was to appeal to both newcomers and those who had not played the series in quite some time.

Pokémon Black and White were released domestically in September of 2010. International fans wouldn’t have to wait too long, for the games were released in Europe, North America, and Australia in March of 2011. Although the series had little trouble finding an audience, it wasn’t always a critical favorite. The first-generation games were outright dismissed as mediocre efforts by domestic critics, and while subsequent sets would fare slightly better, the fans took it upon themselves to keep the franchise afloat. That all changed when Black and White became the first set of games to garner a rare perfect score from Famitsu magazine. It fared just as well internationally with many critics feeling it to have been the single greatest generation in the franchise’s history thus far. These sentiments were reflected by the enthusiasts; throughout the remainder of the decade, the games sold over fifteen-million copies. Did Black and White move the franchise forward during its second wind?

Playing the Game

Depending on the choice you make at the beginning of the game, the protagonist of this story is either a boy named Hilbert or a girl named Hilda. The protagonist lives in Nuvema Town, which is a small community on the outskirts of the Unova region. They have two childhood friends: Cheren and Bianca. One of the most notable residents of the town is Professor Juniper – an expert on the fantastical creatures that inhabit this world known as Pokémon.  One day, to the surprise of the protagonist and their friends, Professor Juniper leaves a special gift for them – a box containing a single Pokémon for each of them. The protagonist is allowed to pick first. They couldn’t possibly have known at the time that the decision they’re about to make will decide the fate of Unova.

With Ruby, Sapphire, Diamond, and Pearl throwing players into the action right away, Black and White elect to scale things back by simply allowing you choose a Pokémon as a gift – just like in the first two sets of games. As per usual, your potential starting Pokémon represents one of three types: Fire, Water, and Grass. Specifically, you’re made to choose between Tepig, Oshawott, and Snivy. Respectively, they are a pig capable of breathing fire, a small otter that attacks with a razor-sharp clam shell, and a creature one could say provides a literal spin on the term “snake in the grass”. Once you have chosen your Pokémon, Cheren will pick the one with the type advantage over your own. Conversely, Bianca will opt for the one with a disadvantage to the one you chose. Regardless of your choice, Bianca will ask for a battle immediately followed by Cheren.

Even though Mr. Masuda said in interviews that Black and White would revamp the series’ gameplay, battles function exactly as they did in previous generations. A majority of the confrontations are fought with a single combatant representing each side. A round of combat is initiated once the player character has issued a command. Pokémon can have one of four moves in their repertoire. Offensive maneuvers are divided based on whether they inflict physical or special damage. This could be considered an analogue to how typical RPGs divide basic attacks and magic, though all moves in these games require an expenditure of a single Power Point (PP). The type itself has no bearing on this aspect; you could very well encounter a Pokémon capable of using a physical Psychic-type move despite how strange such a scenario sounds. A Pokémon’s speed stat determines which one moves first in a given round.

The protagonist’s room turns out to be a poor choice for a battlefield, as the ensuing fight renders it a complete mess. Despite this, the protagonist’s Wii console, having been made from the anomalously durable material only Nintendo knows how to make, is completely unscathed. Once both battles have concluded, the journey will begin in earnest once Professor Juniper hands the protagonist their Pokédex.

As these battles are intended to ease newcomers or returning players into the gameplay, no Pokémon is allowed to use a move representing their own type. Indeed, with your starting Pokémon knowing only two moves – one of which merely lowers a stat of the opposition by a single stage – winning is primarily a matter of luck, though you have a chance to gain a level fighting Bianca before facing off against Cheren. This way, you encounter the Pokémon with the type advantage over your own second. When your Pokémon advances enough levels, they will eventually learn new moves. Pokémon can only have four moves in their repertoire at a time. When the opportunity to learn a new move arises, your Pokémon must forget an old one to make room for it.

On the surface, it would appear as though the gameplay is completely unchanged, but in reality, it is through very act of accumulating experience points that the first major change Black and White brings to the series’ formula becomes evident. Whereas in previous generations, defeating opponents in battle would yield a flat number of experience points, the designers of these games implemented a modifier based on the difference between the combatants’ levels. This means if one of your Pokémon defeats or is present in battle against an opponent with a higher level, they will gain significantly more experience points.

This simple change resolves a problem that had plagued the series since its inception. Before Black and White, one usually needed to save time to grind levels to have any chance of defeating the Elite Four. The problem was at its worst in Gold and Silver wherein the strongest teams far outpaced the speed at which you could grind levels. The problem wasn’t as egregious in Red and Blue or Diamond and Pearl, but their respective final acts did effectively snatch a well-deserved ending away from players for the sake of having them perform mindless busywork. Of the first four generations, only Ruby and Sapphire managed to have a natural difficulty curve.

With genres outside of role-playing games offering compelling stories throughout the early twenty-first century, the genre’s primary advantage had been compromised. By the 2010s, the act of grinding levels was universally recognized as a bad game design choice. With Pokémon being one of the most popular and successful Japanese RPG series of all time, its own active rejection of level grinding ensured the design choice as all but dead. Thanks to how experience point distribution works in Black and White, you will not have to wait long before your team catches up to the levels of the Pokémon in a new area. This is especially evident should you attempt to breed a Pokémon and raise the offspring. After its first dose of experience points, it will likely ascend several levels at once. This small change significantly improves the series’ familiar gameplay – and it can be observed before your character has even left their house. It could be seen as foreshadowing for the rest of the experience, for as good as this change is, things only get better from there.

One ramification the new experience mechanic has on gameplay becomes clear once you reach the first gym in Striaton City. Because Pokémon would receive the same amount of experience points regardless of their own level, there was nothing stopping players from using their starters as their first, last, and only solution to whatever the game threw at them. If one did this, they would end up with super-powerful Pokémon that couldn’t be meaningfully damaged by any opponent in the game. This was especially obvious in Red and Blue, both of which suffered from serious balance issues, but one could reasonably pull off such a feat in later generations as well.

Black and White, on the other hand, make it clear that anyone attempting this strategy a fifth time is doomed to fail. Breaking the series’ tradition, the Striaton City Gym is run by three brothers named Cilan, Chili, and Cress. As fate would have it, these trainers specialize in Grass, Fire, and Water-type Pokémon respectively. You only need to fight one trainer to obtain their badge, yet in a development too serendipitous to be considered a coincidence, your opponent will be the one who happens to have the type advantage over your starter. Fortunately, the player is in luck, for prior to facing off against these trainers, they will receive one of three Pokémon that resemble monkeys: Pansage, Pansear, and Panpour. As one would expect, your character ends up with the one that holds the type advantage over your opponent.

It’s rather difficult to defeat the gym leader without using this Pokémon. If your opponent is Cilan, you can’t use Unova’s common bird Pokémon, for they don’t appear until after you defeat him. The starters also don’t evolve until they have reached level 17. As per the new experience mechanic, attempting to evolve them early would be highly impractical. Until then, the only Pokémon available to you are of the Normal and Dark types – neither of which will give you an advantage over any of the three potential opponents. You could overwhelm the Gym Leader using a combination of the Pokémon you can capture on the early routes, but Pansage, Pansear, and Panpour will greatly expedite the task at hand. Although this sounds like a case of railroading, it’s actually an effective way of teaching newcomers the importance of type matchups while discouraging returning players from solving problems through sheer brute force. For want of a way to end up with a team significantly more powerful than that of your opponent’s, you will have to battle intelligently if you want to win.

When you do triumph over the brothers, you will obtain the Trio Badge. It is commonplace for Gym Leaders to award triumphant Trainers with a Technical Machine (TM) upon defeating them. This is a rule by which the Unova Gym Leaders abide as well. As before, by using a TM on a Pokémon, they will learn the move programmed into the disc. However, starting in this generation, you will notice one particular facet about TMs that solve yet another issue weighing down the series from the first installments. Up until the fifth generation, savvy gamers would only ever use TMs on male Pokémon. Why is that? When breeding Pokémon, moves are passed down through the male parent. Because many TMs could only be obtained once per playthrough, players would have no choice but to use them on male Pokémon lest they deprive other potential teammates of a powerful move.

The fact that TMs break after a single use was likely to make players think carefully before using them. After all, a majority of the moves learned from them – particularly the ones obtained late in the experience – are some of the most powerful in the game. In practice, this turned managing these resources into a nightmare. Newcomers would expend them at the first opportunity, thus depriving themselves of a significant advantage later down the line. Savvy players didn’t have it any better. Unless you researched the games beforehand, you were unlikely to know what your final team would look like until halfway into your playthrough. Because of this, expending TMs on Pokémon you ended up not using in the long term was incredibly common. Any player familiar with the series would refrain from using them at all. This would result in a paradoxical state wherein the player, depriving themselves of an advantage, proves they didn’t need it in the first place.

Thankfully, Mr. Masuda and his team finally realized that persistent players would find ways to circumvent TMs’ fragility and decided to expedite the task for them. Therefore, as of Black and White, TMs are now reusable – just like Hidden Machines (HMs). As an understandable tradeoff, they cannot be used to restore Power Points. For example, if one of your Pokémon’s moves has only 4 Power Points remaining, the replacement will possess the same number. On top of that, the ones sold in stores are now much more expensive. It’s a small price to pay, so to speak, because now the player will have no qualms using them. They’re there if the player needs them; if they don’t, the option is always available.

While on the subject of addressing older issues, one may wonder how these games handle HMs. From the first generation, fans have had a decidedly contentious relationship with the moves taught by these HMs. They differed from normal moves in that they could be used on the field. It’s more accurate to say that they needed to be used in order to clear certain obstacles. With the exceptions of Fly, Surf, and Strength, these moves were generally unpopular, owing to their lackluster damage output. Waterfall was improved once Diamond and Pearl made it a physical move, but you still needed a Pokémon that knew Surf to use it in the first place. Many players deployed a Pokémon not meant to see combat with the sole purpose of teaching it HM moves. Because of this, players often had to make temporary changes to their lineup, which only served to waste their time. Worst of all, you couldn’t delete these moves on your own. To do that, you would need to employ the services of the Move Deleter. This strange man was invariably found in a late-game town, meaning if you taught an HM move to a Pokémon you intended to seriously use, you were often out of luck. The first generation was especially bad, for no method to delete moves existed at all. The basic idea behind making HM moves impossible to forget was so that the player couldn’t trap themselves in an unwinnable situation. However, this only made sense in the first two generations wherein HMs could be deposited into a storage system. By the fourth generation, this facet was a meaningless holdover that only served to inconvenience the player.

At first, it would seem that Black and White merely fall into old patterns. Fortunately, the designers began to realize just how annoying HM management was and scaled the number back to six from the excessive eight featured in the fourth generation. More importantly, there is only one moment in the entire game in which an HM move is actually required to advance. Once the moment has passed, HMs are primarily used to access secret areas and obtain items that aren’t necessary to complete the game.

There are other little touches that go a long way in streamlining this process as well. If you’re faced with a tree you can cut down, it will take twenty-four hours in real time to grow back. Before, the trees would instantly reappear once you left the area. Whenever a large boulder needs to be moved with Strength, you can usually push it into a hole. Once there, it will not return to its original position. How the designers placed these obstacles was sophisticated as well. After a certain point, you will no longer encounter any thin saplings. This means once you obtain every item possible from using the Cut move, you can delete it permanently with minimal consequences. HM move management only becomes an issue whenever you need to use Surf and Waterfall, but because the latter is introduced fairly late, it’s not terribly irritating.

Although this development greatly streamlines the experience, it does admittedly come with something of a downside. Game Freak clearly took many cues from The Legend of Zelda when they implemented the HM moves in the first place. They allow the protagonist to access more of the world in a manner similar to the various dungeon treasures in The Legend of Zelda. However, while switching items in The Legend of Zelda took little time, one could only swap Pokémon using a PC, which was usually only available at a Pokémon Center. This is why, despite its poor implementation, I can understand what led them to believe this was a good idea. In Diamond and Pearl especially, it was a refreshing change of pace in light of the contemporary design standards to play a game that doesn’t explicitly tell you where to go or what to do. They gave you the tools with which to advance, and placed the onus on you to figure out things from there.

This is not quite the case with Black and White. For those annoyed by the NPC in Pewter City who insists on leading Red to the gym every time he attempts to leave, there is some bad news. You will have to put up with this irritating brand of railroading constantly. Whenever you reach a new town, you can safely bet that you can’t leave until you have defeated the Gym Leader. Sometimes, even that’s not good enough, and you will have to speak to the one NPC or trigger the specific event capable of advancing the plot. I still insist that this aspect is the lesser of two evils compared to making multiple trips to the Pokémon Center to swap your lineup, but I definitely understand why some people wouldn’t like it.

Although Black and White had little trouble amassing acclaim when they debuted, critics were a little disappointed about the perceived lack of innovation they brought to the table. I ultimately feel this complaint is unsubstantiated, but I can see what would lead someone to such a conclusion. The second generation rebalanced the type matchups so Psychic Pokémon actually had weaknesses, the third introduced Double Battles, and the fourth resolved the divide between physical and special attacks. While the improvements to the series’ formula are evident in Black and White, they aren’t as obvious as the ones proposed by previous generations. What especially doesn’t help this perception is that some of the most significant innovations are underutilized.

While Ruby and Sapphire introduced Double Battles, Black and White ups the ante with Rotation Battles and Triple Battles. Which format you get depends on the version you purchased, but both operate under a similar premise. Triple Battles operate like a standard JRPG wherein you issue a single command for each Pokémon and a round of combat is played out. However, Pokémon positioned on one end cannot target an opponent on the opposite side. Conversely, the Pokémon in the center is allowed to hit any opponent with an attack in exchange for being a potential target for all three of them. Whenever you have an opportunity to issue a command, you can switch the Pokémon on the left or right side for the center one.

Mr. Masuda once stated in an interview that while Triple Battles rely on strategy, Rotation Battles require luck. I would argue they merely ask for different kinds of strategies. While Triple Battles force players to put some thought into how they position their Pokémon before the fight begins, Rotation Battles require them to do so in the thick of things. Like Triple Battles, both Trainers deploy three Pokémon at once. However, both sides can only issue commands to the front Pokémon. Neither Trainer may inflict damage to the other side’s inactive Pokémon either; if you’re feeling particularly cheeky and attempt to use moves such as Earthquake and Surf, they will only hit a single target.

Instead, Rotation Battles require Trainers to be careful about what they do each round. This is because it’s possible to switch your active Pokémon with either of the two in the back row and have them launch an attack on the same turn. If your Grass-type Snivy is leading the charge against a Fire-type Pansear, you might want to swap it with the Water-type Panpour on your team. However, your opponent may have assumed you would do that and they are primed to swap to their own Electric-type Emolga to thwart your strategy. This effectively means that every round in a Rotation Battle is involves a hefty amount of psychological warfare. Do you switch on this turn or call your opponent’s bluff? You will be asking yourself this question every single round.

Regardless of which version you’re playing, I think both formats are welcome additions to the series. It’s a complete shame that neither of them have much of an effect on the experience. Outside of a scant few mid-tier Trainers and player-versus-player matches, you won’t get a chance to appreciate the nuances these battles entail. It would’ve been a little unreasonable for them to be featured exclusively, but one wonders why the developers bothered implementing them in the first place when they barely have an effect on the overall experience. With the majority of the games relying on Single Battles, it’s plain to see why certain journalists criticized them for their lack of innovation – even if there is quite a bit to be found in practice.

Finally, I also have to admit that as much as I appreciate as the new formula for distributing experience points, it does occasionally work against the player. In a stark contrast to the three generations that preceded it, ordinary Trainers cannot be refought. The defeat of a trained Pokémon yields a greater amount of experience points than wild ones, so it’s easy to see why this would be a problem. To be fair, this isn’t a pressing issue for the most part. In fact, Mr. Masuda and his team addressed the biggest consequence of this design choice – the lack of a consistent source of income – by drastically increasing the number of valuable items that are useless to the player character. These items can, in turn, be sold at a high price to certain NPCs.

Things become slightly untenable whenever you happen upon a Pokémon you want to use. In these cases, you will have to set aside time to ensure it catches up with the rest of your team. They will have little trouble ascending to the average level of the wild Pokémon in the latest area you’ve reached. However, should your team exceed that threshold by a significant amount, there is no quick method of having them catch up. This does mean, unfortunately, that like previous generations, you must decide your final team in advance to avoid wasting experience points on Pokémon you don’t intend to use in the long term.

Luckily, these problems are not insurmountable. In fact, when you learn to deal with them, you’ll realize just how polished of an experience these games provide. In terms of presentation, Black and White are a noticeable step forward from Diamond and Pearl. Characters are rendered as two-dimensional sprites and are placed against a three-dimensional backdrop. While this was true of Diamond and Pearl, Black and White are far more dynamic with the style.

This is especially apparent the minute you get into your first Pokémon battle. The first four generations all had all Pokémon in a given fight remain perfectly still. Pokémon Crystal, an updated rerelease of Gold and Silver, experimented with the idea of giving these creatures animations, but they only played out when appearing on the battlefield for the first time. During the actual fight, their sprites remained static. As of Black and White, Pokémon sprites always animate. In fact, this is the first generation in which Pokémon have complete back sprites. While they aren’t shown hitting each other, it still makes the battles much livelier.

Moreover, the player character reaches the largest community in the Unova region, Castelia City, via a large bridge. The camera changes angles as your character traverses the bridge, letting the player see just how gigantic the city is. This is notable because the largest cities in previous regions were still decidedly small. It was understandable given the technical limitations at the time. Even rendering a digital version of what would be considered a small hamlet in real life was equal parts infeasible and impractical. With touches like this, one gets the sense that there is more to these communities than what is shown to the player. This feeling is reinforced when you see various businessmen running down the street with whom the player cannot speak.

This presentation upgrade would be a nice bonus to a solid experience, but what I admire about it is that the creators didn’t settle for merely improving the aesthetics. The exact manner in which you explore Unova is identical to how you would go about exploring Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, or Sinnoh. That is to say, like many pioneering JRPGs, you’re limited to exploring the world by traveling in the four cardinal directions. However, as you progress through the various gyms, you will realize that their designs simply wouldn’t be possible to render on the Game Boy. One gym involves having to navigate a series of rooms shaped like honeycombs while another requires the player character to climb a large dragon statue, constantly changing its configuration. Starting with Diamond and Pearl, the gyms would more skillfully incorporate the leader’s type themes in their designs, and the presentation boost in Black and White allowed the programmers to fully grasp this concept.

While Gold and Silver introduced the concept of real time to the series, Black and White go a step further by adding seasons to the mix. To some degree, seasons had always been implemented in this series. Respectively, the protagonists’ journeys through Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, and Sinnoh were set in spring, autumn, summer, and winter. However, because this aspect rarely had an impact on the gameplay, it was easy to miss – especially so in the first two generations owing to their simplistic presentations. Only in Diamond and Pearl, which introduced the series’ first snow-covered route, was the wintry motif obvious. Even then, one could dismiss it as an isolated area similar to how other JRPGs have areas of disparate climates.

To make for an even more immersive experience, each month of the year in Black and White ushers forth the coming of a new season. If the games are played in January, May, or September, the season becomes spring. Playing the games in February, June, or October causes summer to begin. Should one play the games in March, July, or November, they get to see the leaves turn brown and gold as they fall from their trees, signaling autumn. Finally, winter will begin should the player start the game in April, August, or December.

The effect this has experience is highly similar to the central overworld exploration mechanic of The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons. As a direct result, there are many similar parallels between the two games. The most obvious occurs in winter. Thanks to the heavy snowfall Unova receives during the winter season, the player character can access areas that were otherwise out of reach. On the other hand, it can prove a hindrance if it covers up the entrance to an area you want to access. Fallen leaves in the autumn also allow the player character to access new areas similar to how they were used to cover pits in Oracle of Seasons. Because you do not have direct control over the seasons, the other effects tend to be subtler. Some routes experience rainfall in the spring while summer could be considered the most normal season in terms of the effects it has on gameplay. Although it doesn’t sound exciting, I do appreciate that one doesn’t have to wait up to three months – or adjust the clock – every time they needed to advance. By not having any control over the weather, one really gets a sense of how grand in scale their journey manages to be.

Finally, those who found the bad programming of Diamond and Pearl to be deal-breaking flaws will be pleased to know that by the time Mr. Masuda and his team were in the process of creating Black and White, they learned how best to optimize the DS platform. Should you ever find yourself in a situation in which you need to use the storage boxes, you no longer have to wait an additional ten seconds when saving. To put it another way, Black and White are games that look and play better than their direct predecessors. They truly do manage to provide the best of both worlds.

Analyzing the Story

WARNING: This section will not only contain unmarked spoilers for the series thus far, but also Mother 3.

It is a well-known fact that a significant portion of the staff who worked with series creator Satoshi Tajiri to bring his vision into reality was composed of former members of a company known as Ape Inc. This short-lived developer’s claim to fame would be Mother and its sequel Mother 2: Gigyas Strikes Back. Both games, produced by a lauded writer named Shigesato Itoi, quickly became beloved classics in their native homeland due to their cross-generational appeal. Adults and children alike enjoyed playing through the adventures of Ninten and his successor, Ness.

Parsing its international reception is a little more complicated.  This game was slated to be released in the United States under the name Earth Bound, but Nintendo cancelled the plans to release it at the last minute, electing to focus their attention on the then-upcoming Super NES instead. Mother 2 was released in the United States after having been granted its predecessor’s tentative international title – albeit without a space in between words. However, due to an exceptionally poor marketing campaign, it was quickly forgotten. It wouldn’t be until Ness appeared in Super Smash Bros., a game featuring various Nintendo characters, that Western fans expressed interest in the series. Once they did, Earthbound was quickly reevaluated to the point where many enthusiasts dubbed it one of the greatest games of the 1990s. Such was their zeal that when they learned the frequently delayed Mother 3 would finally debut on the Game Boy Advance in 2006, they started a petition to convince Nintendo to give it an international release. When their pleas fell on deaf ears, a fan project immediately began in order to get the game translated. The project was notably helmed by professional translator Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin and they finished their work by 2008.

Because Earthbound took some time to be recognized as a classic and the original Mother wouldn’t see a release in the West until 2014 whereupon it was redubbed Earthbound Beginnings, Pokémon Red and Blue allowed Nintendo’s overseas fans to indirectly experience Shigesato Itoi’s work due to being spiritual successors. Indeed, there are many similarities between Mr. Itoi’s games and Pokémon. They were especially obvious in Red and Blue – the first of which stared newcomers in the face as soon as the games began. That is, protagonist Red bared more than a passing resemblance to Ninten and Ness. Even with the different art styles, the inspiration was obvious. The commonalities only increased in number as the experience went on. To complete his quest, Red needed to return a pair of dentures to an otherwise incomprehensible old man, enter a manmade habitat containing wild creatures, and collect eight important objects – all of which Ninten ended up doing as well. Even some of the Pokémon resembled creatures from Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound. The clearest example was the artificial Pokémon Mewtwo, which looked very similar to Gigyas – the main antagonist of the first two Earthbound installments.

With Pokémon Black and White, the inspiration comes full circle. Both Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound took place in pastiches of the United States. The land was called America in the former, but the sequel renamed it Eagleland. Conversely, the first four generations of Pokémon were all set in different regions, yet their inspiration was far more domestic. Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, and Sinnoh were all based off of regions in Japan. Unova, on the other hand, takes the series overseas.

Anyone versed in geography can take one look at Unova’s unique geography and deduce that it is the Pokémon universe equivalent of New York City. Aspects of American culture permeate throughout the experience, for the region features gridiron football players, southern belles, and breakdancers. Furthermore, many characters talk about the greatness of diversity, which is a distinctly American theme. The localized name of the region, Unova, begins with the same syllable as “united”. The addition of “nova”, which means new, could be seen as a reference to the series exploring hitherto uncharted territory.

However, like the four regions that preceded it, there are a few creative liberties taken with the source material. Whereas the entire island of Manhattan barring Central Park has been industrialized, Unova features plenty of areas untouched by humans. Furthermore, there are still quite a few Japanese influences evident in the region such Shinto shrines, enka singers, and clerks who are based off of salarymen. One of the starters, Oshawott even evolves into a monster resembling a samurai.

The region’s Japanese name, Isshu, has another interesting interpretation. The work translates to “one variety” in English. According to Mr. Masuda, this is a commentary on how while the region is diverse in both species and race, they are all the same as other living creatures when seen from a distance. This further enforces the theme of unity, which the player will become all too familiar with before the credits roll.

Over the course of the four preceding generations, the designers placed more of an emphasis on story. All of them featured a team of criminals for the player to stop, and their actual importance scaled proportionally with the amount of thought that went into the games’ respective backstories. In Red and Blue, Team Rocket was introduced as unceremoniously as a fact of life. Red handed them a sound defeat, but this plot was disconnected from his main goal of becoming Kanto’s new Champion. His successor in Gold and Silver, Ethan, fought them as well. While they managed to be more proactive than they were three years prior, they fell off the radar screen a little before the halfway point, taking with them any semblance of a plot.

Ruby and Sapphire marked a shift in the series’ formula when they made the villainous organizations world-class threats. Depending on the version, they would find themselves facing off against Team Magma or Team Aqua. The former wanted to create new landmass while the latter sought to expand the oceans. Both factions were ultimately driven by a sense of misguided altruism, which was, in turn, taken to a disturbing extreme in the form of Cyrus and Team Galactic. While Team Magma and Team Aqua wanted to improve life for the creatures inhabiting the Pokémon universe, Cyrus stopped at nothing to create a world without spirit. However, even if the stakes had been raised steadily over the course of four generations, these developments were still, at the end of the day, subplots. Doubtlessly did the protagonists need to stop these villains, but once they did, there was nothing stopping them from achieving their intended goal of becoming the new Champion.

Black and White then proceed to signpost to players that things are going to be different for this generation. Before you’re even afforded an opportunity to challenge the brothers running the Striaton City Gym, you meet an imposing man named Ghetsis. He is the leader of an organization named Team Plasma. It doesn’t take an especially observant person to realize that they will serve as the scenario’s primary antagonistic force.

Team Rocket mostly concerned themselves with organized criminal activities while Team Magma, Team Aqua, and Team Galactic all wanted to improve the world using decidedly destructive methods. How does Team Plasma distinguish themselves from their predecessors? They deconstruct the very premise upon which the series has always operated. It is clear that this universe is far removed from our own despite numerous superficial similarities, yet these games openly challenge the morality of Pokémon battles. While it’s just a sport in this universe, it could easily be read as institutionalized animal abuse – albeit of a variety never causes lasting harm. This is where Team Plasma comes in. They believe that Pokémon would be better off without humans to order them around. Although many Pokémon have a mutually affectionate relationship with their Trainers, unfettered humans use them to commit heinous crimes. Indeed, it’s a running theme throughout the series that there are no bad Pokémon. They merely follow the commands of their Trainers – for good and for ill. In response to these numerous transgressions, Team Plasma will stop at nothing until all of the Pokémon have been liberated from humans.

Before the end of the first act, the player meets a mysterious boy who goes by the name of N. Upon meeting the player character, he requests a battle with them. N is an eccentric individual, having limited social skills and rambling about the strangest of topics. He also speaks very quickly – as though he assumes the listener is keeping up with him at all times – regardless of how bizarre his ramblings become. To convey this, the game always scrolls his dialogue at the fastest speed possible. If you already set it to its maximum speed, his dialogue is scrolled even faster.

Halfway through the experience, N reveals his true colors. As unlikely as it may seem, he is the leader of Team Plasma. To make matters stranger, N proves that his subpar social skills don’t extend to Pokémon. Upon defeating one of the Gym Leaders, he demonstrates the ability to communicate directly with these creatures when he asks one of your Pokémon what the player character is like. He is genuinely confused when the Pokémon expresses happiness about being a part of their team. By speaking with many other Pokémon growing up, N concluded that they should be separated from the humans who abuse them.

Like three of the villainous organizations that preceded them, Team Plasma’s machinations involve powerful, ancient Pokémon. These creatures tie into the backstory of the entire Unova region. A long time ago, there was a pair of twin heroes who, with the assistance of a Dragon Pokémon, created the Unova region. The brothers were on good terms with each other, but an ideological difference drove a wedge between them. The older brother sought knowledge and truth while the younger pursued his ideals. A fierce battle ensued between the two of them, and their Pokémon split into two creatures: Reshiram and Zekrom. Though both fought with all of their strength, the conflict ended in a stalemate. It was through this fight that the two brothers gained an appreciation for each other’s point of view and declared there to be no truly right side. Unfortunately, the peace did not last, for their sons resumed the fight as soon as they came of age. Their fight resulted in the destruction of the entire Unova region. Everything the brothers worked so hard for was forfeit.

Conceptually, Reshiram and Zekrom represent the Taoist concept of yin and yang. Reshiram’s white color scheme and fire affinity suggests it’s a being of nature. Conversely, Zekrom’s black color scheme and electric typing make it resemble an automaton – a being formed from technology. Within each portion of the famous symbol depicting these concepts, there is a circle of the opposite color. It is meant to show that, while the two forces are fundamentally different, one cannot completely exist without the other. How the artists reflect this aspect in the dragons’ designs is very creative. Reshiram is decidedly feminine in appearance despite such a trait usually being associated with “yin”. Meanwhile, Zekrom’s masculine design is deliberately at odds with the concept of “yang”.

N’s plan is to summon one of these dragons so he can create separate worlds for humans and Pokémon. Further reinforcing the yin/yang dichotomy, his revival of one of the brother’s Pokémon allows the player character to receive the other. Fittingly, the Pokémon your character befriends is of the opposite color of the version you’re playing. While previous generations had your character become a hero, this is the first instance in the series’ history in which it feels as though fate itself brings all of these pieces together. It’s the kind of development that wouldn’t feel out of place in The Legend of Zelda.

In light of this series’ origins, it’s highly fitting that when the writers of Black and White decided to step up their game, they would take cues from Mother 3. Although the plots are distinct from each other, there are a lot of similar story beats. These games explore the human condition while touching upon themes such as animal cruelty tied together with the age-old debate between nature and technology. The main antagonist of Mother 3, Porky, sought to corrupt an idyllic community close to nature by introducing concepts such as money, technology, and other common fixtures of modern life. While N doesn’t go that far, the crux of his motivations is similar to Porky’s: disillusionment with human nature. N and Porky are unabashed misanthropes who believe it is in a human’s nature to destroy.

However, as much praise as Mother 3 received for tackling these concepts, I honestly have to say that Black and White provide a much more sophisticated take on them. Esteemed film critic Roger Ebert’s axiom of a work being only as good as its villain isn’t correct, yet N being a much better-written villain than Porky does count for a lot. Porky’s plan to corrupt the remaining humans in the world before ending all of existence was ridiculously convoluted, which suggested an equally grandiose motivation. Nothing could possibly suggest he did what he did out of boredom, but if you sought a deeper meaning behind his actions than that, you would never find it. I won’t deny that it fit his character, but given the sheer emotional weight his processor Gigyas possessed, to call Porky’s motivations trite and petty would be a grand understatement. In the end, he was written in service to the game’s central messages. Diegetically, his actions made no sense whatsoever.

Meanwhile, N has a motivation that is far more understandable. A returning player knows full well what happens when Pokémon fall into the hands of criminals. Team Rocket in particular, despite many players perceiving them to be incompetent dullards, have committed serious crimes throughout Kanto and Johto – up to and including extortion, hostage taking, and killing certain Pokémon. Then, of course, there are organizations such as Cipher or Team Galactic, who committed various crimes that would legally be considered acts of terrorism in the real world. Even the genuinely well-meaning Team Magma and Team Aqua aren’t completely exempt from this criticism when considering their actions would have done more harm than good.

Newcomers are also likely to grasp where N is coming from when they observe what goes on in the average Pokémon battle. Shallow deconstructions of the series fail to grasp that it is repeatedly stated that Pokémon enjoy fighting, and there is nothing in the text or other clues to suggest otherwise. N is summarily taken aback when he speaks to one of your character’s Pokémon only to learn of the deep bond they share. If he intended to lie, he would have claimed the Pokémon in question sought freedom. The takeaway from this is that while these fights seem violent, it is ultimately not tantamount to animal abuse.

What this caveat doesn’t change is the fact that even low-level Pokémon are capable of breathing fire, causing earthquakes, and hitting rocks with enough force to shatter them. Even if Pokémon Battles are not considered animal abuse, the average Trainer is effectively wandering around with up to six different weapons – many of which put conventional firearms to shame. Although it is rarely outright stated, the power these Pokémon have can easily kill a human. Granted, the humans in this universe are shockingly resilient, but the danger is present nonetheless. Therefore, it stands to reason that N would want to separate Pokémon from humans if for no other reason than to preserve the safety of both.

However, as you progress through the game, you’ll notice there is something seriously off with N’s assessment of humanity. The greatest counterargument to N’s beliefs is staring at you in the face for your entire playthrough. Namely, the fact that you’re exploring a vibrant world and not a post-apocalyptic wasteland proves the humans in this universe have accepted the great responsibility joining forces with these powerful monsters entails. Sure, there are some unrepentantly boorish or even outright evil people in this world, but the fact that the citizens aren’t oppressed by the world’s strongest Trainers demonstrates a sense of universal virtue guiding everyone.

Although this interpretation appears to rely on a lot of circumstantial evidence, it frequently manifests during gameplay as well. Indeed, anyone versed in role-playing games can attest that the NPCs of the Pokémon universe are some of the most generous in the medium’s history. Upon winning battles, Gym Leaders will happily award the player a TM. This generosity extends to ordinary Trainers as well. Doctors will offer to heal your character’s Pokémon, rangers give them berries, and socialites award a lot of money upon defeat. Oftentimes, NPCs will give them a helpful item just for shooting the breeze. These facets seriously call into question the validity of N’s viewpoints.

This makes the ultimate reveal all the more fitting. In the final leg of the campaign after your character defeats the Elite Four, they are set to take on the resident Champion, Alder. Unfortunately, much like in series’ debut games, N has already done just that. To reinforce the emphasis on story, the final battle isn’t a friendly duel between powerful Trainers, but rather your character attempting to save the Unova region from the machinations of a madman. Once your character triumphs over N, his father reveals his true colors.

With an appearance that would make an evil overload proud, anyone looking at Ghetsis can deduce he is not a good person. Instead, what the writers hide from the audience is the sheer depravity of his character. Maxie and Archie were ignorant individuals with genuinely altruistic goals. Cyrus at least had the basic affectations of altruism; even if his actions would permanently make the world a worse place, he genuinely believed he was doing the right thing. Ghetsis doesn’t even have that going for him. In fact, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that he is the single most evil villain the mainline games had ever seen by this point in history. Giovanni was an unapologetic crime boss, but had few, if any, aspirations to change the world one way or the other. He was instead content to rule the criminal underground and cause comparatively small-scale damage.

Ghetsis, on the other hand, is shown to have no scruples at all. He needed someone pure of heart in order to resonate with Reshiram or Zekrom. To this end, he kidnapped N as a baby and raised him in an environment completely isolated from humans. Ghetsis only ever let N interact with hurt Pokémon, leading the child to believe that humans are inherently evil. From there, N would use the power of the Dragon Pokémon to separate them from humans. Ghetsis himself engineered his plan in a way so that he could retain his own Pokémon. Without a Trainer to oppose him, he would have little trouble conquering the Unova region or the even the entire world. In spite of his insufferable arrogance, Ghetsis has the skill to back up his words, boasting an extremely powerful team capable of taking on both Reshiram and Zekrom. Consequently, it’s easy to deduce through gameplay mechanics alone that, despite berating N for losing to the player character, Ghetsis intended to backstab him from the beginning; their victory merely changed his target.

This ties into what I feel ultimately allows Black and White to outshine Mother 3: it has actual, genuine nuance to the themes it explores. One of the biggest failings of Mother 3 was that it turned the nature versus technology debate into a strawman argument. The ways of old were superior to anything modernity had to offer, though the latter got the final laugh when you consider the medium upon which Mother 3 was released. Black and White acknowledge that both sides are equally valid for different reasons and going too far in either direction would be detrimental for society as a whole. I also give these games a lot of credit for how they treat its human characters. Mother 3 spoke – at length – about humanity being beyond redemption and the characters outside of the protagonist’s circle of friends were never given a chance to prove otherwise. This gave way to a plethora of unfortunate implications because the narrative clearly wanted the audience to emphasize with the protagonist and the absolute hell he went through while also condemning his entire species.

Black and White appear to go through the same motions before taking a few steps back to think through its implications. The character who espouses similar beliefs as Porky was deliberately raised in a way so as to form them in the first place. The narrative makes a sound case that those who believe humanity is irredeemable never had the cause or chance to see what life truly has to offer. Ghetsis’s ambitions and abysmal treatment of N could reinforce the latter’s dim view on humanity, but in light of the average NPC’s demeanor, he is a very clear outlier. Love triumphs over hatred when the player character defeats Ghetsis in battle, putting an end to his selfish ambitions. N, seeing the partnership between the player character and their Pokémon when saving the world, realizes the error of his ways and departs from Unova on a new journey.

The titles preceding Black and White all had varying degrees of postgame content, but I feel this generation handled the concept in a much more interesting fashion. In the midst of these story beats, one might overlook the fact that they never got a chance to challenge Alder and become the new Champion. It’s true that the player character managed to defeat N, but unlike the case with Red in the first generation, they’re not automatically inducted into the hall of fame. Instead, they must enter the Pokémon League and challenge the Elite Four a second time.

Doing so immediately is ill-advised, for the members of the Elite Four are significantly more powerful than the first time you fought them. What can you do to strengthen your Pokémon? The answer is simple: you can now explore the eastern section of Unova, where you can fight stronger trainers until your team is powerful enough to face the final challenge. Considering these games’ propensity to play around with expectations, it’s fitting that they would effectively render the single goal uniting every single protagonist in the series a postgame sidequest. While this content is usually there to tide players over until they move onto a new game, facing off against Alder is a perfect epilogue to an epic adventure.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Great music
  • Surprisingly compelling story
  • HM move management is made much easier
  • Memorable cast of characters
  • Good world design
  • Engrossing lore
  • Significant presentation upgrade
  • Improved programming
  • No need for level grinding
  • Good amount of post-game content
  • TMs can now be reused
  • Better experience point distribution
  • Triple and rotation battles introduced
Cons:

  • Ability to explore is drastically hindered
  • Cannot refight ordinary trainers
  • New battle formats are underutilized

From the very beginning, the Pokémon series had always, to some degree, been stuck in the shadow of its spiritual predecessor, Earthbound. Obviously, in terms of its sales and cultural impact, Pokémon absolutely dominated Earthbound. However, while the series had little trouble finding an audience, those who experienced both series concluded that although the gameplay of Pokémon was novel, the story beats were far less sophisticated. Artists would take more than two decades to catch up with the kinds of ideas Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound pitched in their respective final acts. For those who had experienced both series, Pokémon, while boasting more intricate gameplay, was commonly seen as deficient in terms of storytelling. Compared to contemporary JRPGs, Red and Blue featured a story that wouldn’t have been out of place in the third console generation. This isn’t to say it was terrible, but it clearly took a backseat to the games’ primary appeal – catching, raising, and battling Pokémon.

Even as Game Freak began tweaking the formula for each new generation, their scenarios didn’t even come close to toppling what Shigesato Itoi accomplished with Earthbound Beginnings and Earthbound. Although its own story doesn’t experiment with the medium’s unique properties like those two games, I feel the fifth generation of Pokémon marked a significant turning point for the series. By offering such an engaging story in a series that has consistently provided solid gameplay-heavy experiences, Junichi Masuda and his team provided the series exactly what it needed to remain relevant in the 2010s. Before this generation, Pokémon had been relying heavily on the nostalgic sentiments of its older players while Nintendo’s other properties such as Mario and The Legend of Zelda continued to be lauded for providing timeless experiences. As of the fifth generation, Pokémon managed to finally grasp that timeless quality for itself, thereby proving its omnipresent popularity in the late 1990s was not a mistake.

With this project, Mr. Masuda and his team set out to create something that could appeal to newcomers and returning fans alike, and I can safely say he succeeded. One could argue that many of these story beats can only be fully appreciated when having seen what led up to it, but I wouldn’t agree. In fact, I can say that if you are at all interested in the series or have been away from it for some time, Black and White are absolutely worth looking into. Between these games and Super Mario Galaxy 2, Nintendo demonstrated they had more than enough talent to retain their credibility going into the 2010s.

Final Score: 8/10

15 thoughts on “[GAME REVIEW] Pokémon Black and White

  1. One of my favorite details about the story is that N never keeps any Pokemon he captures, everytime you fight him he uses a team of Pokemon you can find in the vicinity and once you fight him again it is a whole new team, again of nearby Pokemon, once I learned that It really floored me just how seriously they were taking the story aspect of the game. Makes me think that if they have had the resources, N wouldn’t even use pokeball and would’ve had companion Pokemon with unique “summon” animations of his own.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, this is a major reason why I feel Black and White marks the instance in which the students surpassed the master. The amount of story beats implied through game mechanics is really something I’d expect out of the Earthbound trilogy, and with the games having more intricate gameplay, they have the best of both worlds. I also like the touch that N uses every single type in the game (sans the Fairy type, natch). I’ve heard some people dismissing these games’ plots as shallow, but it’s clear the writers put a lot of thought into crafting this scenario.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Black and White came out during a time when I was a bit down on the Pokemon franchise. It’s not that I had stopped liking it, but it’s just that having played all games since the very first versions was starting to, let’s say, take its toll on how much I was enjoying the new titles. So I never really played through those games with very kind eyes, but I am glad to hear you like them quite a bit.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. These games were the only Pokemon games I nearly never finished – I dropped my copy of Black when I was literally at the final gym and didn’t go back to it until almost a year later. I hated this gen. I didn’t like a lot of the Pokemon designs, and for whatever reason, I could not get into the story. I really appreciated all the mechanical/quality of life improvements that these games made, but they’re my least favourite of all the series so far. Purely personal reasons, but yeah… I’ve gone back to almost every old gen for a second playthrough, but I know I’ll never touch these ones again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • While I do see why only being able to use Gen V Pokémon would be annoying to some and I do admit the sequels are better partly because you’re not railroaded into doing so, I stand by my conclusion because the story beats are quite sophisticated. It’s too bad you quit just before finishing the game.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Your review is definitely fair! I think these games were more of a “me” problem and nothing to do with the actual game. It just didn’t jive with me. I did actually go back and beat the elite four/champion but never went on to any post game content (if there was any?)

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Things on the XIIIth: August & September 2019 – Livid Lightning

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