Pokémon Black & White: A Generational Shift for the Worse?

The start of some bad habits.

Pokemon Black and White 1
Pokemon Black and White 1

As a blockbuster RPG franchise, Pokémon has had innumerable sequels, remakes, and spin-offs since its debut in 1996. Each new pair of mainline games has heralded the start of a new generation, bringing with them a new region, new characters, new gameplay mechanics, and, most importantly for the marketing machine, new Pokémon. It’s commonplace in the gaming industry to expect sequels to be bigger and better than what came before, and as creators find their footing, many franchises evolve over time, leading to new experiences feeling very different from past ones, even in an established framework.

Yet despite the unfathomable amount of money that Pokémon makes, it’s hard to deny that newer entries have become progressively more divisive amongst its players. At a Metacritic average of 72, 2022’s Scarlet & Violet are the lowest rated games in the main series — and also the point where long-standing issues began to seriously plague the quality of the games. But this moment has been a long time coming, as a consequence of a gradual shift of the series’ design philosophy since the relatively well-received Pokémon Black & White.

The fifth generation of Pokémon marked a turning point for the franchise in a lot of ways. Unova was the first main series region not to be based on any part of Japan, and (in the original Black & White specifically) its native Pokémon were the only ones available to the player prior to completing the main story. There was a bigger emphasis on storytelling, with the local Team Plasma having more distinct and nuanced motivations.

Game Freak’s experience developing for the Nintendo DS also meant that these were the most technically polished entries in the series at the time. The slow battle engine from Generation IV was completely fixed, fights moved at a snappy pace, and all Pokémon had more dynamic sprites that remained animated throughout the whole battle. Dynamic camera angles added a level of excitement to exploring Unova’s towns and landmarks.

These improvements were not without caveats. Unova was far more linear in design, and while it still featured optional areas and hidden secrets, such inclusions would gradually decline until Pokémon Sword & Shield became the most linear entries in the mainline series. Fan-favorite features, like Pokémon following the player in the overworld and the post-game Battle Frontier area were also conspicuously absent, starting a trend of introducing beloved features, only to remove them in later titles.

And while Black 2 & White 2 introduced the Pokémon World Tournament as a bit of post-game content, these changes would still have far reaching consequences for the series at large. Pokémon X & Y introduced Mega Evolutions, only for them to be treated as an afterthought in Sun & Moon before Sword & Shield removed them in favor of the more divisive Dynamax. Likewise, Z-Moves and Dynamaxing were removed following the end of their respective generations. Outfit customization, first introduced in X & Y, was absent in Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire, and while it’s remained a mainstay since then, your options in Scarlet & Violet are far more limited due to only a few main uniforms being available compared to the much more varied outerwear options of past titles. The most infamous case, however, was in the announcement that Sword & Shield would no longer have every Pokémon to date included, a move that fractured the fanbase overnight.

At the time, this shift in design philosophy was more subtle, and in the short term at least, it worked out well for Pokémon Black & White. The more nuanced story was well-received, and the games were heralded as a solid refinement of what came before. And yet at this point, the series was already starting to lose some of its magic.

Take the aforementioned shift towards linear and streamlined world design, for instance. Players begin Black & White in Nuvema Town at the bottom right corner of the map. Though there are some minor detours along the way, the early-game has trainers proceed along a rather straightforward path up until hitting Nimbasa City. From there, they follow the western path and move towards the northern half of the region, ending at the Pokémon League.

This type of design helps reduce the amount of forced backtracking a player would go through otherwise, which is good — but it comes at the cost of a sense of interconnectivity that past regions had. I’ll never forget the moment where I obtained the Surf HM for the first time in Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire; it’s at this point that the player is expected to return to Mauville City and head east, using Surf to navigate a formerly impassable body of water. The second half of the region opens up at this point, and Hoenn gradually begins to feel more and more open and interconnected. It’s a magical feeling that Unova — and its successors — never quite managed to replicate.

This applies to the various caves and dungeons, too. While the designs and layouts of Unova’s caves still hew closer to the first four generations than it does to later games, there remains a sense that things have been streamlined. Puzzles are simpler, and there are less crazy hidden secrets. Hoenn had places like Shoal Cave, an entirely optional dungeon where different parts of the cave were accessible depending on the current tide level. The Sealed Chamber, meanwhile, was incredibly well hidden beneath the ocean, and kickstarted a series of puzzles using visual braille to unseal Regirock, Regice, and Registeel. Sinnoh had entrances to Wayward Cave (home to the powerful Gible line) hidden beneath Cycling Road, out of sight.

Unova just doesn’t really have anything as memorable in comparison. And, unfortunately, neither do any of the regions that come after it. Galar in particular took this to an extreme, being the most linear region in the series with no optional areas to speak of prior to its two DLC expansions.

Pokémon Black & White were able to get away with this due to their relative polish and the fact that these weaknesses were not yet severe enough that their strengths could not compensate for them. Later entries’ attempts to follow in Generation V’s footsteps, however, all fall short in one way or another. X & Y try to tell a similarly mature tale, only for the result to feel rushed and underdeveloped due to a key character’s backstory being presented with rather sloppy exposition. Sun & Moon, meanwhile, were derided for their high frequency of cutscenes slowing the pace down.

Over time, this has led to the series becoming stagnant, with attempts to shake up the formula having mixed results at best due to Game Freak’s decisions often taking things one step forward and two steps back between games. Pokémon Black & White leave a complicated legacy. In striving to streamline and polish the series, Game Freak sacrificed some of the very things that made it feel so magical in the first place. Though the later entries do have their own merits, they largely failed to replicate what Generation V got right, while still lacking what made the first four generations so special. While the shift to open worlds has proven to be a breath of fresh air, technical issues and lackluster world design means that Pokémon games still have yet to truly recapture that same magic.

READ NEXT: Will There Ever Be A New Rayman Game?

Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.