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In The Beginning…
Time is a cruel mistress, one that simultaneously helps and hinders your success. Its effects are very apparent when seen through the lens of the Pokémon franchise. 4 generations, 493 creatures, and millions of unique and cherished experiences later Pokémon had all but conquered the gaming industry with only Nintendo’s most iconic hero and a pile of blocks standing in its way. While these franchises had either stuck to their guns since the very beginning or continued to branch out into as many genres as they could, Game Freak had chosen a path that involved a combination of the two, innovating when needed but keeping the core experience essentially the same. But how long could they keep this up. The same monsters, the same story, the same world, anyone wouldn’t be wrong to grow tired of this over time. While the creative mind and spirit of its creator, Satoshi Tajiri, had been kept alive throughout the years thanks to his successor, Junichi Masuda, and fellow colleagues they could only do so much with what they had. There was only one option, reinvent the Pokémon franchise or lose all that they had gained.
The Urban Jungle
Following Diamond and Pearl’s release it was apparent that the series had just inched by ever so slightly. 17 million copies sold was impressive by any stretch of the imagination but in the grand scheme of things it was clear to the developers at Game Freak that it was time for a change of pace. Their mindset had become so fixated on a certain type of experience for the Pokémon franchise after working on the series for so many years. They needed to break the fixed conceptions that Pokémon had gained and build new ones to replace those. Even the simple idea of always having to go to the Pokémon Center to trade Pokémon was in dire need of revamp. But simply changing their way of thinking wouldn’t be enough, improvements would have to be made across the board to appeal to old and new fans alike. A dark and thought provoking story, cutting edge elements that lent a cinematic edge to the experience, and more new Pokémon than ever before were required to appeal to their sensibilities. All of this would have to be done using the aging Nintendo DS as well, as even though the 3DS was on the horizon the user base for the console would be miniscule in comparison. With this reality in mind, they were determined to create the definitive gameplay experience for Pokémon for generations to come. It would be a long and hard fought journey to maintain this balance between originality and ingenuity, and the initial solution to this was not so black and white.
Masuda, once again the games director, began exploring new and intriguing ways to make their next title a game that was true to the series form, while also offering a sort of ‘soft reset’ to the brand as a whole. For the environment, his idea took form in the Unova region, a locale inspired by the vast urban landscapes and rural locales that make New York City what is, a metropolis. Masuda was inspired to create such a place when he made a trip to the inspiration himself during one of the many launch events for Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. The landscape of New York City, or perhaps anywhere in the United States in particular, was something entirely new to him, a fresh environment that wasn’t held back by the trappings of previous regions. Having mostly taken designs queues from the areas around Japan, Masuda saw an opportunity in deriving his work from another country, giving Pokémon an urban spin to things.
A Sprawling Affair
After developing his idea further, he quickly began talks with Game Freaks graphic designers to figure out how they could truly bring his vision to life. The team was to implement new and exciting features. The pseudo 3D view that Diamond and Pearl had constructed was to be further improved upon with more dynamic movements and angular views that just weren’t possible because of their previous unfamiliarity with the hardware. These effects allowed them to reveal a rich number of in-game perspectives, showing just how far the series had come since the flat, two-dimensional views of classic Pokémon titles. Players would begin to see longer, more panoramic views of the environment and enormous ever expanding cities, stretching from mile to mile. Their greatest feat with their enhanced prowess would be the games central city. Previous titles were only able to have small towns and slightly larger cities due to the graphical intensity required to build a metropolis, however, with their years’ worth of experience they were finally able to accomplish something amazing. A living and breathing city filled to the brim with lively and interactive NPC’s moving about in a refreshingly enlivened state. This liveliness extends into other areas of the game as well. Bridges stretch far and wide, camera angles dynamically shift to show off the immaculately crafted landscapes, and cinematic sequences during certain tense moments of the game reveal large, three dimensional renders of environments, and in rare occasions Pokémon themselves. A visual treat to say the least, the fifth generation was set to be a feast for the eyes in more ways than one, for the various locales at least.
For the character design, though, the execution was a bit mixed. Ken Sugimori had always been the main art director for the series and, at times, the only character designer on hand. This time it was different. He would lead a team of 17 designers, each crafting unique and original Pokémon of their own. While he would have the final say in the matter, many of these experienced and fledgling and experienced designers would make these pocket monsters their own, for better or worse. And he needed a team this large, as they had the job of crafting 156 Pokémon with no ties to any of their original creations; a feat that was bound to make some of the most bizarre Pokémon to date. All of them would be designed with the urban setting in mind. What kind of Pokémon would live in New York? What kind of Pokémon would be found in America? These thoughts flew through the minds of the designers as they worked tirelessly to bring this next generation of Pokémon to life. This general feeling of originality, or unoriginality depending on your point of view, also extended into the character designs. To appeal to older fans, the main protagonists were aged up to appear to be 16 year olds, letting players from the series past feel represented for once. The Unova region and its residents were being developed as an evolution of what Pokémon had come to be known for. While it certainly was still meant for a younger audience, adults had more reason to jump into the series than ever before. It was the dawn of Pokémon’s fifth generation, one that would hopefully exceed the rest. And they needed a name befitting off that, one that would push the Pokémon franchise to its uttermost extremes, black and white.
Yin and Yang
Releasing on September 18th, 2010, and later in 2011 around the globe, Pokémon Black and White were radically different from their past entries in more ways than one. Out of all of these, however, its story was the most apparent. At first it seems like business as usual. You play as a young boy or girl and begin in a small town with your standard selection of Fire, Water, and Grass starter Pokémon. Your goal is to defeat the regions 8 gym leaders, eventually conquer the Elite Four, be crowned champion, and collect a team of powerful Pokémon along the way. This was the foundation of the adventure, however, what Game Freak had built atop it was unlike anything the franchise had seen before. At its core, Black and White was about what it truly meant to be a Pokémon Trainer and whether we were justified in using them for battle. The enemy team, Team Plasma, was the mouthpiece they used to send their message, the first poignant one that Pokémon had ever attempted. Led by a king who believes all Pokémon should be freed from their masters, Team Plasma’s surface level goals were to follow this coda to a tee, saving them from supposed evil Trainers such as yourself. It was a moral conundrum to be certain. For the first time, Masuda and his team wanted to challenge players not only for their skill for battling but whether what they were doing was ethical and what the true spirit of Pokémon was. Black and White’s story was an important first step for Game Freak in breaking from their established traditions and crafting and adventure that organically fit in with the games design. Instead of running through a region in a set fashion, things were changed up ever so slightly enough that made the game all the more compelling. This, however, was only the first of the many changes to the formula they had perfected throughout the years.
For instance, the battle system that had defined the franchise for generations only continued to be improved upon. There were small tweaks here and there such as showing how a Pokémon’s nature affects its battle prowess to moves now being effective based on ranged or direct contact, a feature essential to many competitors in the genre. This, and more, not only added a greater sense of customization to the Pokémon and their moves, but also a new layer of depth and dimensionality to the battling process, as some moves could now even be influenced by a Pokémon’s abilities. However, Pokémon Black and White weren’t only trying to refine battling as a whole, but the sense and scale of it as well. Pokémon themselves were no greater examples of this. The classic sprites that had come to define them had their own sense of personality, of course, but lacked the liveliness that Pokémon were assumed to have. Black and White changed this by fully animating them in battle with a wide variety of unique expressions and mannerisms that set them apart from one another. The real-life Pokémon battles that players had wished for were ever so slowly becoming a reality. Variety was the spice of life for these versions and the new battle styles set out to prove that point, whether players wanted them to or not.
With the popularity of double battles during the past two generations, Game Freak decided to further exemplify this style of battling with triple battles. As the name states, triple battles pit six Pokémon against each other at a time, forcing players to come up with new and exciting strategies they would never thought of before. Simple on the surface yet complex underneath, triple battles could end up being one of the most compelling and equally confusing aspects of Black and White. But confusing wouldn’t be enough to describe rotation battles, the foil to triple battles. Again, players send three Pokémon out at a time, however, with a caveat. One Pokémon is used at a time with competitors rotating their Pokémon from the frontlines to the sidelines depending on the opponent at hand. It was certainly an eclectic twist that was a combination of prediction and most of all, blind luck; something that was rarely a factor in most Pokémon titles. Both were at odds with the tried and true battle system, offering some players a smart change of pace while others either felt they were unnecessary or just too plain complicated. In the end, Black and White’s updated battle system offered a savvier experience to players, updating nearly every element that players had been asking for while adding in new features that ultimately never hindered the experience fans had grown to expect.
The same could be said of the over-world and the rest of the games overall design. The patches of grass that Pokémon hide have always been a staple of the series yet never really changed. Black and White decided to mixed this up by adding in deep green grass where players could catch rare and powerful Pokémon and, on occasion, a duo of Pokémon may ambush the player. Rare Pokémon could also be found on other forms of terrain such as ripples in water, small mounds found in desert-like areas, and even shadows of them flying over bridges, making Pokémon seem like they were part of the world. Along with these new over-world mechanics came a whole suite of revamped online capabilities. Accessed via the C-Gear, these additions brought Pokémon into the modern age with an improved online battling experience and infrared communications that made challenging or trading with someone face to face a breeze. Black and White even introduced chat functionality to the franchise with the Xtranciever allowing up to four friends to communicate wirelessly albeit in a rudimentary sort of way. However, the most enticing new addition was the Pokémon Dream World. Usable by connecting to the Pokémon Global Link, Pokémon’s exclusive site for online leaderboards and anything Internet related, players could enter the dreams of Pokémon and play various mini-games to pass the time. While exploring the world, and beating the simple games players could encounter Pokémon with hidden abilities, ones that could make previously useless Pokémon immensely powerful. To be the best there ever was there was no other option then the Dream World to build the greatest Pokémon team imaginable. Pokémon’s online communication had been revamped for the better, steering Pokémon towards the future in terms of a more technologically savvy atmosphere.
New features, new Pokémon, new battle systems, new everything. This was the overall feeling that Pokémon Black and White were going for, a soft reset for the franchise if you will. But would fans accept the changes or reject them entirely? With a total 15.6 million copies sold worldwide, the answer was clear. Even on a declining console like the Nintendo DS, the name of Pokémon still held some worth. It didn’t matter what console it was on; it was Pokémon and that was all that mattered. Pokémon Black and White was the revolutionary title that the Pokémon franchise had so desperately needed for nearly a decade. Challenging, provocative, and utterly profound in its execution, the fifth generation of this decade long series was a caliber above the rest. Who would of thought that a franchise this old could have changed so much? Only a group of dedicated fans who had been there since the beginning could have had a chance of pulling this off and Game Freak was still the best one to fit the bill. But after this what could they do next? Was it time to switch over to Nintendo’s shiny new handheld or give the DS one final hurrah?
The Tides Are A Changin’
With the bar set high, all eyes were on Game Freak to deliver yet another memorable title. With the myriad of complaints and compliments they had received from their previous effort taken into account, their next endeavor would be something similar yet different. However, it wouldn’t be Masuda leading the project. Instead Takao Anno (Tak-ow Uno), a designer and art director who’s worked on the series for the past decade, took up the mantle in his stead. Although, his team wouldn’t be taking the traditional route with the usual third entry. The series’ first sequel was in order. Releasing on June 23rd, 2012, Pokémon Black and White 2 continuing the story from where it had left off. Set two years after the events of Black and White, you play as your usual new trainer, off on a journey to collect badges and defeat the Elite Four. Starting off in a different town and going through gyms both new and old, the story of Team Plasma continues as well with the newly divided team attempting to either save Unova from their former friends or send it into a new ice age. This was a monumental step in Pokémon history. For the first time, ever in the Pokémon franchise, we see an engrossing, continual plot and the establishing of a sort of canon, something truly never before seen in any of the Pokémon games prior to this point. This is surely the formula Masuda intended to introduce to the public, as a means of recreating the series in a brand-new light. Many characters and locales return from Black and White to continue the continuity and show fans how they’ve grown. But still there could be people who never played the first one and would be turned away by the two on the box art. To appeal to them the story followed a different route through the Unova region, staying vague enough on plot elements from the original title to make the experience fresh and inviting.
The sequels would still remain in the same light and shade as the prior versions, tacking on new additions and refining some of the former’s qualities. Nearly every single Pokémon from the series past was finally available, the C-Gear is back and fully functional, and the aspect of double battles, triple battles and rotation battles are still a major part of the gameplay and battle system. Even a feature they were never able to add before, a key link system that could increase or decrease the difficulty of the game significantly, was implemented. The graphics engine remained more or less the same, though Black 2 and White 2 added some smaller, peripheral functions in the game that would help bolster the amount of in-game content and replay value the game has to offer. Along with Pokémon Musicals, Pokestar Studios was added in for side-questing players, letting your character perform in movies and become a superstar, as well as Pokémon grottoes, hard to find locations that housed many powerful and extraordinary Pokémon. There was even sort of an achievement system put into place with medals tracking your progress and rewarding you for your effort. And as a final celebratory gesture, the Pokémon World Tournament was put into place, allowing you to fight against nearly every single character from the main series up until that point. All of these additions, both new and old, made Pokémon Black and White 2 what gamers had originally hoped Pokémon Black and White to be; something that reinvented the series core concepts while keeping its traditions, and Pokémon, intact.
They were both worthy successors to the revolution that fifth generation had started and even though they were technically the standard third version their uniqueness as sequels helped them stand out a bit. Splitting the game into two versions proved to be a brilliant move, as they would go on to sell 8.5 million copies worldwide and even become the series most successful launch in its home country of Japan of all time. What Pokémon Black and White had lacked, its sequels had made up for in spades. Game Freak had just changed the game forever. Their formula for releases? Thrown right out the window. They could create whatever they wanted and it still had the potential to turn into gold. After a successful breakthrough, such as this, fans of the franchise would then surely come to ask the question of longevity once more. Was it finally time for the series to transition into the much sought after third dimension? Would it stay as a turn-based RPG or become something completely different? Or would it be doomed to repeat itself forever?