Pokémon Black and White | Principal Platforms: Nintendo DS | Developer: Game Freak | Publisher: Nintendo, The Pokémon Company | Genre: RPG | Year: 2010
Although Pokémon Black and White and its enhanced edition are my favourite Pokémon games released thus far, I had only played both of them once. Naturally this blog series about the Nintendo DS provided a nice excuse for a replay, which was good considering how well this fifth generation has held up in my affections.
Pokémon Black and White marked the first time that Game Freak based the design of their region on a real life location other than Japan. The fictional land of Unova draws heaps of inspiration from New York City and its surrounding American states, and you don’t have to play for long to appreciate how different this feels. The gorgeous bicycle trip across a 3D clone of Brooklyn Bridge is a perfect showcase for how Game Freak were advancing the series on from its 2D roots. Even little things like the NPC houses are more fun because they aren’t always identical buildings with windows and a chimney; sometimes they’re located in high-rise apartments, hangers, or converted warehouses. As the in-game tour guide says: Unova has atmosphere.
There are many sights that contribute to this splendor. The neon lights of Musical Theatre; the industrial breadth of Mistralton City airport; the daunting streets of Castelia City’s urban zones, to name a few. And Unova is notable for showing Pokémon in their natural habitat a bit more. The vivid sunshine and scattering Pidoves in Nuvema Town are flourishes that see the monsters at one with nature. It’s a theme which becomes especially significant to the story; the story being one of the things I like the most about Pokémon Black and White.
In previous games there has always been a common formula whereby the player’s juvenile protagonist leaves home on a journey to become champion of the local Pokémon League. Along the way they meet new friends and rivals, and usually foil an insidious plan hatched by megalomaniacal adults who plan to control the land by enslaving a legendary Pokémon as part of a generally sleepy sequence of familiar story beats. Pokémon Black and White on the other hand freshens up these clichés by offering up a welcome deconstruction of what Pokémon actually is.
If you have ever discussed this subject in the real world then chances are you’ve jokingly thought about how unethical it would be to stuff a bunch of poor creatures inside little balls before forcing them to battle to unconsciousness in the name of sport. Ludonarrative dissonance at its finest!
It’s exactly the sort of angle that you’d imagine Nintendo not wanting to take too seriously, which is why it’s so surprising to hear the antagonist in Pokémon Black and White beg the question: “Are the Pokemon really happy that way?”
He may look like a green-haired punk, but the game’s main antagonist (called “N”) is introduced pretty much immediately, and so the narrative becomes less about the player’s journey to become a champion, and more about this provoking concept of Pokémon liberation. It’s made better by “N” who makes many a salient point about humanity’s exploitation of Pokémon; always confident that he’s doing the right thing.
The actual foundation of the tale remains mostly the same, but the relevance of the Pokémon League and its championship title is refreshingly downplayed in order to give the wider plot more of an impact. Ironically though, this approach ends up giving the League portion of the game more relevance because Game Freak better connects it with what’s happening in the outside world. This is especially true when the antagonist lays waste to the Champion’s quarter during the game’s stunning finale. It’s a shame that a clichéd betrayal threatens to ruin everything during an unnecessary encore, but if we choose to ignore this “twist”, the rest stands as an effective marriage of old gameplay and new plot tricks.
Elsewhere Pokémon Black and White continues to make improvements to some of the wonky mechanics it has inherited. I’d admit that many of the most desirable tweaks would come from future generations, but I do think the trend began here. Being able to rest out in the wild; tweaking certain moves and TMs to be more useful; and the consolidation of Poké Marts and Poké Centres. All good stuff.
My favourite change is the fixed Pokédex that only permits capture of the new monsters from the Unova region until the main story is over. I love this because it encourages more experimentation whilst also giving Unova more of a demonstrable connection with its own bestiary. I really can’t it praise enough.
As the series now readies itself for a debut on the Nintendo Switch, it’s possible that my time following it will come to an end. Knowing this, I feel satisfied having played Pokémon Black and White one last time. Generation V’s subversive tendencies are not always looked upon with fondness by some fans, but for my money this was a surprisingly great time for Pokémon that, along with its Version 2 cartridge, has represented the series peak for me since 2012.