Welcome Back, Trainer
Part 4: The Black/White Album
For the first decade-and-half of Pokemon’s existence, it was not a franchise about deep storytelling. The games were meant to be an escapist fantasy in which the player could control an avatar of themselves. Rather than deliver a clear or compelling message the games were meant to convey the joy of exploration, the excitement of personal growth, and the exhilaration of writing your own legend.
The fifth generation changed the tried-and-true pattern of pure escapism. Pokemon: Black and Pokemon: White did their best to deliver on all of the joy associated with past generations while also provoking thought in those working their way through the story.
Black and White
Black and White’s defiance of tradition is clear even from the packaging of the games. Each of the previous generations had the “colour” of the game align with the legendary pokemon pictured on the box. For instance, Sapphire’s mascot was the blue Water-type pokemon Kyogre. In the fifth generation, the games and their mascots contrast rather than complement; the White box has the black legendary pokemon Zekrom, while the Black box has the white legendary pokemon Reshiram. The contrasting of the mascots and their games ties into the theme of balance – which is the idea that drives the story of the fifth generation.
The desire to have these Pokemon games mean something permeates every facet of Black and White’s design, but nowhere is that more apparent than in the storyline.
The typical narrative beats of the Pokemon franchise have been scrapped. In place of the usual formula, the writers crafted a compelling arc with a focus on personal conflict. The central theme of balance is addressed through an examination of the relationship between pokemon and their trainers.
The franchise looks the common criticism of “Pokemon is just glorified dog-fighting” in the eye, gives that argument validity, and then refutes it with a surprising amount of nuance. The games manage to craft interesting characters on all sides of the argument. Even the hammy, cartoonish arch-villain is a believable and charismatic megalomaniac.
But I could write a whole essay on Black and White’s plot alone, and that’s not why we’re here. I’ll set aside the story for now but leave you with this: If you are playing through Sun and Moon and want to explore Pokemon further – see if you can find a copy of the fifth generation games, because they are easily the ones most worth your time.
Now that we’ve established the fifth generation as something special on its own, let’s take a look at what it brought to the franchise as a whole:
156 New Pokemon
Yeah. That’s a big number. The fifth generation is responsible for unleashing more new pokemon than the first generation. Not only are there more new critters than ever before, but the old, familiar faces are totally absent from the games during your initial climb to the title of Champion. Only once you receive the National Pokedex upgrade and gain access to the most easterly regions of the map are you able to capture your favourites from past generations.
By now, the introduction of new pokemon was expected with each generation. This immersion in the new faces was welcomed with much more warmth than when the same experiment was tried during the third generation.
While on a meta level, so many new introductions was a great way to shake up a franchise that had been around for thirteen years, the games also provided an in-universe justification for the deluge of newcomers. For the first four generations, the games took place in regions adapted from areas of Japan. In contrast, the Unova region – the setting for Black and White – is an adaptation of a large swathe of New York and New Jersey. It would make sense that a total change of geography would mean a total change of ecology.
While bringing new additions to the series, Black and White also tweaked some old favourites:
The major gimmick of the fifth generation was something called the Dream World. The Dream World was a complicated feature that involved logging onto a website run by the Pokemon Company and playing through a variety of mini-games. The website and the Dream World were only used in the fifth generation and have since been decommissioned.
While the expansive Dream World has been wiped away, the feature is still relevant. The reason it remains relevant is because its main attraction – the chance to catch pokemon with an ability they couldn’t otherwise have – was incredibly popular with fans. Since the demise of the Dream World, these rare abilities have become known as “hidden” abilities.
While not all hidden abilities are strict upgrades over the one or two options usually available to a given pokemon, they add an extra layer of depth to each species. Not wanting to remove such a compelling part of their game’s mechanics, Pokemon’s designers have included ways to obtain hidden abilities in each iteration of the series since the fifth generation.
Usually, these access points have tied into another feature introduced in the fifth generation:
Unusual Wild Pokemon
Before the fifth generation, encountering wild pokemon was pretty straightforward. If you were in a cave, or some other “dungeon” scenario, it was possible for wild pokemon to appear at any time. If you were out and about in the world at large, you encountered pokemon in patches of tall grass. If you walked into the tall grass, you ran the risk of bumping into one of the species of pokemon that inhabited the area.
In the fifth generation, variations on this pattern were introduced. Patches of darker, longer grass are present in many areas of the game. In these patches of grass, you are more likely to encounter pokemon of greater power, or pairs of wild pokemon fighting you in a double battle. Outside of the open areas, burrowing pokemon would erupt from the ground while you traveled through cave systems.
Ever since Black and White, the newer games have expounded on this idea. In newer games, pokemon can attack you in large groups, ambush you while you’re walking, drop from the sky to attack, or rustle the underbrush – warning you that something special is approaching.
Since the demise of the Dream World, these “random encounter – plus” scenarios have been used to deliver wild pokemon possessing traits you wouldn’t otherwise see in their species. Sometimes the trait in question is a special move, other times the ambushing pokemon possess the hidden ability of its species.
While wild pokemon battles were made a little more complex in the fifth generation, one of the most annoying systems from the previous games was streamlined and simplified:
Infinite Use of TMs
TMs – or Technical Machines – have been present in the Pokemon franchise since Red and Blue. From their introduction, they have functioned as canned moves. Each TM has a specific number, and that numbered TM can be used to teach a specific move to a pokemon.
For the first four generations, when a TM was used to instruct a pokemon in the use of a move, that TM would be destroyed in the process. As you can imagine, this “one use only” limit for TMs was extremely irritating for most players. A lot of good moves could only be taught to certain pokemon through the use of a TM, and having to pick and choose among potential candidates was a headache.
Starting with the fifth generation, TMs ceased to be a single-use item. Now you can use them as many times as you like to teach your pokemon the moves they contain.
Like the newfound durability for TMs, many of generation five’s upgrades were all about convenience:
Pokemon Center and PokeMart Merge
In the first four generations, the Pokemon Center and the PokeMart were two separate buildings, necessitating the player make two stops when arriving in a new city. Sometimes the two buildings would be quite a ways apart, making backtracking and hunting for each something that needed to be done.
In Black and White, the PokeMart was transformed into a kiosk that could be found inside the Pokemon Center. Instead of healing your team and then hunting for a place to buy more Ultra Balls, you can now complete both chores in the same place, allowing the game to flow much more smoothly.
Trading Right out of the PC
Trading pokemon has been a part of the franchise’s appeal since the word “go”. The fun of collecting monsters that were a little different than those of your friends and then swapping definitely captured my ten-year old imagination.
Despite how cool trading seemed, the lead up to a trade was often very annoying. Since you were unlikely to be trading away your lovingly raised party pokemon, you would have to take your avatar to the nearest city – which could be a pain, depending on where you were adventuring – then you would have to deposit a member of your party into the storage system and withdraw the pokemon you wanted to trade. And then the trade could take place.
Black and White made your PC accessible as soon as you opted into trading with a friend. You can now send a pokemon straight from your storage system and replace it with the one sent by your trade partner. You don’t even have to leave whatever area you are exploring in order to make a trade possible.
Black 2/White 2
I have been sloppy in calling the follow-up games from the previous generations sequels. In one sense they are; they take the story of the originating pair of games and retell it in a way that adds more detail and nuance, advancing the events of the world by tweaking the narrative approach. However, Crystal, Emerald and Platinum are more retelling than follow-up.
Black 2 and White 2 are not retellings, they are sequels in the purest sense of the word. They begin after the events of the previous games and focus on the reemergence of the villainous Team Plasma. Instead of the subversive, seemingly altruistic group of the first games, they have become an outright terrorist organization with a very clear objective. Of course, this objective revolves around the legendary pokemon Kyurem, the third member of the triad formed with Reshiram and Zekrom.
Black 2 and White 2 are usually held up alongside Heart Gold and Soul Silver as supreme examples of everything that Pokemon can be. The fans deeply appreciate the way the fifth generation sequels not only keep the focus on the story but also enhance the mechanics of the games, markedly enhancing the experience of the games overall.
Unfortunately, not all of these well received features were carried on to future games. In fact, the only permanent fixture to be introduced in Black 2 and White 2 is another small convenience feature:
Moving Held Items Between Party
It was always possible to remove an item from one pokemon and give it to another. But it involved taking the item away, putting it back in your bag, and then rifling through your bag to give it to its new recipient. Starting with Black 2 and White 2, switching an item from one party member to another could be done while on your party status screen, making it as easy to rearrange your items as it is to change up your battle roster.
Perhaps We Should Rest Awhile?
This fifth generation article is a little truncated when compared with my discussion of generations three and four. There is a reason for this – the fifth generation did not include any remakes of past games. The redo of Ruby and Sapphire was set to take place, but another event took precedence: the launch of the 3DS handheld system.
The change-over to the next iteration of Nintendo’s handheld system happened very hot on the heels of the North American release of Black and White. This sudden technological upgrade meant that there was little point to releasing another pair of Pokemon games on the basic DS system.
Next time, we jump into the brave new world of Pokemon in 3D. We will unlearn some of the lessons we thought the fifth generation taught us, and we will make a whole host of new mistakes. Put on your kiddie gloves, because generation six is upon us.
Jackson is a content writer for AYBOnline, and host of The Player’s Guide podcast. His opinions are his own.