As we continue our playthrough of the mainline entries in the Pokémon RPG franchise, in anticipation of the upcoming Sword and Shield games, we’ve reached an interesting point in our journey: the release of Pokémon Black and White, in 2010, which now feels like a lifetime ago. Looking back, it’s clear that this was something of an in-betweeny point in the franchise’s development.
Diamond and Pearl had already mastered the move to DS, and we were still three years away from X and Y making the next big leap with the transition onto the 3DS. Without new hardware to showcase, this could have easily felt like a lull. Booting up Black in 2019, though, it is clear that this generation still holds up pretty well.
The big, bold choices from the development team at Game Freak have helped this game retain its fresh feeling. Take the central setting, for instance: the Unova region represents a major departure from all the previous regions. Rather than taking inspiration from a segment of Japan, this new location was based on New York City and positioned a great distance away from the old familiar places of the series. Unova also plays host to a whopping 156 brand new Pokémon, topping the previous record of newcomers that was set by Red and Blue’s 151.
Unova has some awesome locations in a visual sense, too. The massive Skyarrow Bridge area, for instance, where the camera zoomed out to give the Pokémon world its grandest sense of scale yet. The bridge leads Castelia City, the first locale in the franchise to adopt a three-dimensional circular feeling – a design decision that would later be built upon in X and Y‘s Paris-inspired Lumiose City.
The Unova region also hosts a fairly unique villainous team: Team Plasma, who dress like knights and have an obsession with freeing Pokémon from the oppression of human trainers. A key figure in the team is N, a trainer that is fondly remembered among fans of the franchise, not least because his belief that Pokémon should be used for friendship rather than battling is actually pretty reasonable. There are numerous points in the game where you have to defeat legions of Team Plasma goons in a row, which adds a nice level of difficulty to proceedings. And the final showdown with N, involving the legendary beasties Zekrom and Reshiram, is also pretty epic.
A lot of things feel fresh and new in Black and White, although there is a stronger sense than usual that you’re playing a game that’s on rails. After almost every gym battle, for instance, you’ll come outside to find a character wanting to speak to you or point you towards your next destination. That being said, though, there are points in the game when finding your way feels like a proper challenge: the mountainous take on Victory Road, for example, requires a fair bit of skill/memory/research to find a way through.
Black and White also find ways to wrongfoot the player and elongate the experience just when you think you’re nearing the end. For instance, when you think you’re about to defeat the Champ, you actually end up battling N and having to catch a legendary. You then have to go back and defeat the Elite Four again, before battling Alder and completing the main bit of the game. It’s a small thing, but an enjoyable twist on the expected formula.
The post-game fun in Black and White is also pretty significant. After defeating N and Alder, you get access to a whole new eastern section of Unova that features Pokémon from previous regions and cameos from Sinnoh champion Cynthia and Game Freak’s Shigeki Morimoto. There is also an exclusive section of the post-game for each different version: in Black, you get to visit the modern metropolis Black City; and in White, you can head over to the White Forest, where people and Pokémon live in peace.
This follows on nicely from the duplicity that runs through both games – the themes of the industrial versus the natural, and the idea of friendship as an alternative to battling – and it gives gamers a larger reward than usual for defeating the game.
All in all, then, Black and White still hold up for so many reasons. Unova feels like a really fresh region, and there are heaps of new creatures to catch and lofty themes to ponder. The difficulty level is also pitched pretty well, and there are plenty of rewards for battling through to the end. There’s a reason why so many people hold this generation close to their hearts.
What’s new? Triple Battles and Rotation Battles both make their debuts here, allowing players to pit more Pokémon than ever against each other at the same time. The Unova region also features four distinct seasons, which allows Game Freak to offer up graphics-based alterations (autumnal leaves and so forth) as well as featuring different Pokémon and possibilities at different times of the year.
Weirdest thing: Another new feature, Pokémon Musicals, comes across as a pretty barmy alternative to Pokémon Contests. With this new minigame, you can dress your critters up in special outfits and have them dance around to pieces of music on a stage. Because who wouldn’t want to do that?
Cutest critter: The Unova region’s Pokémon may not be the most beautiful bunch, with Black and White introducing some weird ones like the ice-cream-themed Vanillish and the cog-based Klink. Your cute options include Herdier, Emolga and Oshawott, but the fiery piglet Tepig might just be our favourite. The elemental monkeys are also pretty loveable.
Poké-Legacy: These games didn’t have new hardware to play with, but they still managed to establish a legacy that ranks up there with the most iconic instalments in the Pokémon franchise.
Great trainers like N have lasted long in the memory, so much so that fans were miffed when he didn’t show up in the Pokémon Masters mobile game. Even side characters like Looker have also stood the test of time, with Looker becoming a very handy Trainer card in the Pokémon Trading Card game.
And speaking of the Pokémon TCG, one of Unova’s legendary creatures was recently immortalised in the very-highly-sought-after Reshiram and Charizard Tag-Team card. Unova-originating critters also showed up in Pokémon Go this year, giving fans a new reason to jump back into the massive mobile game.
Black and White are also the only Pokémon RPG games to date that received numbered sequels: Black 2 and White 2 launched in 2012, allowing fans to return to the Unova region for a new adventure set two years later. These games introduced another new minigame (PokéStar Studios) and brought the total number of creatures in Unova up to over 300. They also added new areas to the western side of Unova and launched a big new contest called the Pokémon World Tournament, which brought together iconic trainers from previous games and served as a precursor of sorts to Pokémon Masters.
When you put Black and White together with Black 2 and White 2, it’s clear that the Unova years of the Pokémon franchise had a massive impact on the overall series and closed out the DS era on a high. Who needs a new console when you have this many new ideas?
While we wait for Sword and Shield in November, you can check out our previous Pokémon replay articles at this link.