After the lack of interest I had in Pokemon Platinum, I can remember wondering if I’d simply reached the end of my time with the long-running franchise which I had followed since childhood. I passed the success of HeartGold / SoulSilver off as largely down to nostalgia, ready to accept that the next generation of Pokemon probably wouldn’t resonate with me any more.
I was very, very wrong.
Pokemon Black / White (DS)
Released Sep 2010 | Developed: Game Freak | Published: Nintendo
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 33 hours
If you’d asked me before Black / White what part of Pokemon I enjoyed the most was, I’m not sure what I’d have said. Possibly I’d have rambled on about the monster designs, or how solid the core mechanics have always been. But it was while playing White for the first time, way back in 2011, when I stumbled onto something that drew me into it completely. It was the fact that every single Pokemon in these games is brand new.
In fact, there are no returning Pokemon until the post-game. This means that every ‘mon you encounter comes with a sense of discovery and uncertainty as you question what types they might be or what abilities they have. It even continues after you catch them and begin raising them, as who knows when or how they might evolve. Obviously there’s an element of this in every generation since each one introduces new Pokemon but no game since Red / Blue / Yellow has had that feeling so pronounced as Black / White, and without meaning to sound too hyperbolic, the fact that everything was new was brilliantly engaging. The astute observer might quite fairly point out that surely this sense of newness can’t be sustained for subsequent playthroughs, and they’d be completely right; however, I’ve replayed Black / White a couple of times since that first golden playthrough and I’ve still consistently had fun with it. Even though the Pokemon are no longer new and exciting, the game around it is still one of the most consistent and well-built entries into this long-running franchise.
Part of Black / White’s efforts to bring in that sense of newness involves the setting. Unova is Pokemon’s take on America (or New York more specifically) and that immediately places it as deeply different to either the Japan-based settings of previous games. Where many of the locales in previous games were rural or steeped in references to mythology and history, Black / White’s region is decidedly more urban and modern. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Castelia City, the bustling downtown metropolis which acts as the flagship town for the region. There’s never been a location like it in the series to this point: the streets of Castelia push the DS hardware to the limit as well as playing with perception and depth in a way that the Pokemon games never have before. You enter the city via a massive drawbridge and as you cross it the camera angle detaches from the usual top-down view and begins to swoop around to give you the type of views that have never been possible in these games before. The city itself is huge, with vast streets stretching out like spokes in a semicircle, each one filled with loads of NPCs rushing about their lives so finding your way around it becomes overwhelming; even on revisits to the game I’m consistently impressed by it.
While Castelia is the best example of the huge work put in, the other parts of the game don’t slouch either, though most are far less ostentatious than Castelia. Lots of towns are bigger than before and all of them feature cool visual elements; I’m also a particular fan of the depth achieved in caves where you can see the lower levels if you’re on an overhang. Like a lot of these improved visuals, it’s subtle but does wonders for your engagement with the world, and goes hand-in-hand with added details like more common weather effects in certain parts of the map and the seasons, which change each real-world month and effect clear changes on the overworld. One area which has an unreachable point might become more accessible during winter, for example, when the snow piles up into a bank, and naturally it also changes the distribution of Pokemon. The graphics are also improved for Pokemon battles, with every monster now sporting fully animated sprites. Once again, the devil is in the subtle details, such as Pokemon closing their eyes when hit with the Sleep status; it doesn’t necessarily add anything, but it’s a smart choice to improve immersion.
Black / White was also a generation of games which saw an increased push towards greater online integration, with a slew of features based around online play. The bottom DS screen is now taken up by the C-Gear, a kind of hub for the game’s online applications but unfortunately the march of time is inexorable, which means that games inevitably lose support and Black / White is a fine example of this. The Global Link was a much touted feature that allowed access to the Dream World, an option where players could upload Pokemon to a special website to gain items, as well as catch rare Pokemon with unique passive Abilities that couldn’t be obtained anywhere else. These services are of course no longer functioning and so gamers who are patient with Black / White have to understand that these parts of the game are defunct. It’s a shame but it’s also a general part of games these days that functions will become unusable although the game itself is still very much playable without these options.
Of course the core mechanics of the game are the same as ever, and despite the all-new Pokemon any veterans of the series will be instantly familiar. Your character, a plucky young lad or lass, sets off into the world alongside a Pokemon and seeks to become the best Trainer in the region by beating every Gym and eventually the Elite Four. To do this you traipse around the place, catching new Pokemon and adding them to your party. As always, battles are conducted in a turn-based format and are built around the now-typical elemental types and taking advantage of them. A new addition to Black / White are Triple and Rotation battles, both of which involve sending out 3 Pokemon at once. Triple battles work similarly to Double battles, but with the added dynamic of the position of your Pokemon mattering as the leftmost and rightmost monsters can’t reach their opposite number without access to moves which hit the entire field, meaning you have to balance switching the position of your team. Rotation battles are a weirder affair as you deploy 3 Pokemon but only 1 at a time fight each other; the gimmick is that you can freely rotate which Pokemon is on the frontline. These are odd battle types and both are generally not hugely seen during playthroughs, which begs the question as to why even bother with them in the first place.
Along the way your character must contend with the local team of baddies, which in this case is Team Plasma. Plasma are a right bunch of oddballs; they all dress up in medieval knight outfits, carrying pennants and holding gatherings in towns during which they can espouse their ideals to the public. At first glance you might easily write them off as another Team Galactic or Magma / Aqua, a pointless gimmick team to largely ignore until they bother you, and in some respects that’s true. However, they bring an interesting nuance with them: their focus isn’t squarely on causing crime or wreaking havoc against the world (well, not initially). Instead they hold speeches about the unethical nature of Trainers who capture Pokemon and force them to fight, arguing that all Pokemon should be freed and humanity should stop making the local monsters into a subclass to rule over. It’s an argument which probably resonates with some folk given I can remember it being a long-lasting playground argument we used to have as kids. Still, I’m sure it’s not a spoiler to tell you that their true intentions aren’t quite as they seem; they are villains in a Pokemon game after all, but it’s nice to have even a brief change of pace.
One of their leaders, the sage Ghetsis, cuts a powerful presence, clearly inspiring fear in his followers, and then switching over to a more palatable personality whenever he’s called to speak to the public in an unsettling psychopathic display. The other recurring member of the team is N, a curious young man who seems to hold true to Plasma’s ideals more than anyone else. I like the touch that each time you battle N his team is made up of only Pokemon that can be caught in that area, selling the impression that he recruits and then releases teams only as and when he needs to. It gives him an earnestness that helps him stand out from the rest of the team, who quickly shed their idealistic stance and show themselves to be criminals and cowards. Following a trend in Pokemon games the story around the villainous team is more tightly intertwined with your progression through the game than ever and it peaks in an ending grander than any preceding tussle we’ve experienced in the series.
As always, Pokemon games have excellent music and Black / White is no exception. It is without a doubt one of the most creative soundtracks in the series, especially with its use of dynamic, diegetic music. For example, in the early location of Accumula Town by finding some local musician NPCs, the music is modified by the addition of the instruments they play, in this case drums and piano, and many other towns have the same feature. This contributes to the world feeling more alive than ever before; also, purely speaking as a musician it’s just really, really cool to hear it implemented. Dynamic music is also incorporated into battles, which is marvelous! Bringing a Gym Leader down to their final Pokemon causes the regular music to stop and an excellent, triumphant theme to sound off to push you to victory; conversely, going down to low HP also has an effect: in previous games the game started to beep at you but in Gen V it’s worked into a new song which is really clever. The dynamic music is also used in some of the caves, bringing the pitch down as you descend deeper into the cave; compare Chargestone Cave’s base theme to the same one once you’re at the lowest point.
Team Plasma’s theme captures their sinister undertones expertly through the eerie strings but especially through the melody which abruptly throws in off-key notes to unnerve the listener. Their leader, N, also has a really creepy theme although the eerieness is done in a different way: the use of a demented music box melody suggests an almost child-like mindset, which throws you off compared to the more obviously villainous wider Team Plasma ideals. N’s battle theme is similarly offbeat, with urgently rolling drums that take the aural centre stage over the melody for much of the song; the lack of consistent melodic lines and use of rhythmic stabs further unsettles you, as if N is an incomprehensible force for the main character.
Unwavering Emotions is an unexpected touching and melancholic moment; it’s partly why I love Gen V’s music so much given the soundtrack covers a massive range of musical styles and emotions. On a similar level, Relic Castle also manages to feel extremely distinct, even for a piece of Pokemon music; we’ve had mysterious and ancient-feeling themes before but none have captured it as well as this one. I also like that the melody that’s mixed in feels decidedly modern, giving it a drive and shape that might otherwise be missing. I’m not often bothered by the little encounter themes which play when you meet trainers of the corresponding classes but sometimes they hit differently; one example is Encounter! Youngster which has a cadence that is simply really satisfying.
Finally, Nimbasa City might not have alternative versions with dynamic music but it remains one of my favourite themes in the game; it’s hugely upbeat and immediately throws the exciting trumpet melody at you along with that bouncy bassline. It’s pretty close up against Driftveil City though as a favourite track, which features the smoothest bassline in the game and hyper-aggressive cowbell beats.
What to make of Black / White then? It would be easy to sympathise with anyone who thinks of them as just yet more of the same, given the franchise has a mould and was unwilling to deviate too far from it. And yet, that remains one of the big draws of the Pokemon games, and it’s part of why they continue to be incredibly accessible for each new successive generation of people who play them. Personally I enjoyed Black / White a lot, but some of that definitely comes down to how the game is built to appeal to people like me who’ve played all the preceding games, such as the all-new regional Pokedex. It is also still exciting to experience the Unova region on replays, if only to gawp in amazement at how well the developers pushed the DS hardware. It certainly has its flaws but Black / White continues to be one I think of fondly, and I’m sure I’ll return to it yet again another time.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.