Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy franchises from the last several decades of gaming history. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be catching all the facts about Pokemon!
The article will be focusing on the core portable RPGs, and we’ll be leaving an overview of the numerous spinoffs for next week. I sourced extensively from Bulbapedia, especially their History of Pokemon, but quite a few YouTubers were instrumental as well; these include Tamashii Hiroka, Balrog and The Leaderboard. Dates are the American publication years of the initial releases in each generation along with their inevitable expansion, though the games often debuted slightly earlier in Japan.
Pokemon‘s development begins earlier than you might expect. Certain pre-requisites needed to be met – the release and widespread adoption of the Game Boy hardware platform and the addition of save-chips to cartridges among others – but the game’s concept had evolved over a long period of time.
At its earliest stage, the series was inspired by creator Satoshi Tajiri’s experience as a child in the suburbs of Tokyo during the 1970s. He loved exploring the outdoors, extensively collecting and cataloging local insects. In 1989, Tajiri formed the game development studio Game Freak with his friends Ken Sugimori and Junichi Masuda; the studio was named for a gaming magazine that Tajiri and Sugimori ran throughout the 1980s. Together, these three would be the primary creative force behind the towering Pokemon franchise – Tajiri framing the game concept, Sugimori leading the art direction, and Masuda composing the series’ iconic theme songs.
In its early years, this studio would develop games for Nintendo and Sega platforms, including Quinty (1989), Yoshi (1991) and Mario & Wario (1993). With the Game Boy’s release, however, a more specific path for Game Freak’s Pokemon had begun. Satoshi Tajiri saw an advertisement for the Game Boy’s link cable and imagined numerous small insects skittering across from one console to the other; around the same time, Tajiri was influenced by the television show Ultra Seven, which included a hero using monsters contained within capsules to help him fight his enemies. These ideas gestated and he took his concept to Nintendo. He was rejected several times, but would eventually succeed due to the intervention of Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto. Miyamoto had experienced a similar childhood, dreaming up adventures while exploring suburbia, and thought that Tajiri’s idea might bear fruit in the years ahead.
Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow (1996/1999)
Pokemon Red and Blue were originally published in Japan as Pokemon Red and Green; these first iterations were improved upon visually and the improved Blue version formed the basis of the Western release. Interestingly, the games were narrowly preceded in the United States by the debut of the popular Pokemon television series.
The games themselves are fairly simple, though their surface level simplicity hides a surprising amount of depth. They fall firmly into the well-trod Japanese Role Playing Game genre, as the player’s avatar travels around a world from a top-down third-person perspectives and engages in turn-based combat. The intriguing wrinkle is that combat is not carried out directly between the player character and enemies; instead, the player has a roster of cartoonish monsters that he or she commands in battle. If all of those monsters are defeated, the player must reload the game or return to the nearest ‘checkpoint,’ a Pokemon Center.
The first title’s setting of Kanto is rather unique. Human characters inhabit a world quite similar to modern Earth, though they are joined by sentient monsters known as Pokemon. Many of these monsters are cute and friendly, but others are fierce and terrifying; some are even equivalent to mythical figures in our own world. Humans have found a way to peacefully coexist with these beings, and Pokemon take on the roles of pets, livestock, machinery, tools and objects of worship. A touch humorously, their primary role in terms of the player’s experience is beating each other up at their owners’ request. The fictional Kanto region is based loosely on Japan’s Kanto region, though it would represent the only time that a Pokemon game’s region had a real-world analog with an identical name.
The monsters, of course, are the stars of the show. Ken Sugimori carried out impeccable art design, rendering the game’s 151 creatures with personality and charisma. The original game’s sprites are crude, and would be improved significantly in later installments, but Sugimori’s artwork populating supplementary materials helped audiences to fill in the gaps. Each Pokemon can have up to four combat moves – some damage opponents, some inflict status ailments like poison or sleep, and some alter either the user or opponent’s stats – and the player must choose old abilities to discard as new combat skills are acquired by gaining enough experience points in battle to level up.
This element of choice extends to all corners of the Pokemon games, and is likely a key factor in the series’ long-lasting appeal. Players first choose between two versions of the title (which are typically identical in all ways except a selection of monsters unique to each version). Players then choose a starter Pokemon from among three options – their in-game rival gets one of the remaining two, and will always choose one to whom the player character’s starter holds an elemental weakness. As the world opens up, the player has the option to choose new Pokemon by deciding to use his or her limited supply of Pokeballs to capture weakened wild monsters. In some circumstances, particularly later in each game, the player even has a choice about which direction to explore.
The aforementioned elemental weaknesses play a significant role in the games’ battle system. Each Pokemon falls into one of fifteen types, including Normal, Fire, Grass, Water, Electric, Ice, Ground, Rock, Flying, Psychic, Fighting, Poison, Ghost, Bug and Dragon; some Pokemon have two types. Each of these elements is strong against some types and weak against a handful of others. Moves also have a type designation and Pokemon are not limited to moves that match their type (though a move sharing its type with the user is more powerful). Consequently, the player must choose a roster of six Pokemon to travel along with him or her at any given time, along with four moves for each that represent the widest range of type combinations. Some moves, given to a Pokemon through the use of an HM (hidden machine), can never be removed, though they at least have the compensating virtue of opening up new routes in the overworld. Fans have gotten tied up in conversations over ideal type combinations throughout the years, and these decisions – unique to each players’ experience – form the basis of the series’ heavy orientation towards community and social interaction.
Reinforcing the community focus is the fact that the game’s core objective, catching all 151 Pokemon, is impossible without trading between cartridges. Red and Blue each contain only 139 monsters, with eleven being exclusive to each version. Mew, the 151st Pokemon, could only be obtained through promotional events or glitches (more on those later). Players were expected to link their Game Boy consoles with friends’ hardware to exchange Pokemon; some creatures are not even able to evolve – develop from one form to another – without being traded to another copy of the game.
Evolution is another key game mechanic that intersects with the series’ core principle of choice. Many Pokemon have the ability to transform into a distinct, more powerful form after achieving a specific condition. In most circumstances, the Pokemon must simply reach a particular level though acquiring experience points in battle. Other Pokemon must have an item used on them by the player – one creature named Eevee is able to evolve into one of three forms depending upon whether the player opts to use a Fire Stone, Water Stone or Thunder Stone! Of course, the player only gets one Eevee over the course of the game, so gaining all three evolved forms is only possible through trading with friends. Most importantly, Pokemon never evolve without the player choosing to permit their transformation. When Pokemon achieve the required level, they begin to evolve automatically but will remain in their un-evolved state if the player taps a button. Pokemon that require an alternate condition will never evolve without the player consciously using the relevant item. Evolved forms are stronger in terms of battle stats, but learn new abilities at a slower rate, again emphasizing that the player must make choices and accept the consequences.
All of this contributes to a game that is inherently engaging. Players are trusted to learn the rules of a world, explore it to the full extent of their abilities, make choices with long-lasting consequences, and reflect on their adventures outside of the diagetic space by trading and talking with friends. On top of this, the art design and music make the game appealing at first glance.
Of course, not every aspect of Pokemon Red and Blue is perfect. Several Pokemon types are laughably overpowered or underpowered. Psychic types are theoretically weak to bug and ghost attacks (representing common human fears), but the only available bug moves are weak and no ghost move does a variable amount of damage; Psychic types are, therefore, effectively without weakness in the series’ first generation. At the same time, Dragon and Ghost types are each represented by only three Pokemon in a single evolutionary line; they are very difficult to make use of, compared to the title’s numerous fire or normal type creatures. The slow pace could easily become tedious too, as characters move sluggishly and much of the game consists only of navigating around battle menus.
Pokemon Red and Blue are also notorious for their abundant glitches. Whether one considers this to be a negative or not is actually a matter of perspective, as none of the glitches prevent engagement with the game and some even enhance Kanto’s appeal. In particular, players quickly discovered the existence of Mew, a legendary Pokemon inaccessible in the course of normal play. With the internet in its early days as a repository of pop culture knowledge, theories and detailed instructions on how to obtain this beast quickly proliferated. While many were absurd, if charming, attempts to troll fellow fans, a handful actually opened up some odd avenues that the programmers had not intended. Through carefully sequence breaking an early in-game event, players could access a normally off-limits section of the overworld and discover a parked truck, not observed anywhere else in Kanto, under which Mew was rumored to reside.
Of course, nothing was underneath said truck, but the 151st Pokemon could instead be inexplicably fought by navigating to a coastline, swimming along it, then navigating to a specific other section of the overworld and entering a random encounter. Oddities like this are all over the place in the original Pokemon games, and I’d be a fool to attempt listing them all here. That said, my personal favorite is the existence of MissingNo, a glitched placeholder Pokemon bearing the otherwise-unused Bird Type designation and accessible only along a section of Cinnabar Island’s coast; one gets the impression that it’s a miracle this game is playable at all.
Not long after the publication of Red and Blue, the franchise became unavoidable. With its popularity ascending rapidly, in 1999 Game Freak published a pseudo-sequel set in the same region but featuring new mechanics and slightly updated visual designs. Pokemon Yellow was intended to capitalize on the success of the Pokemon TV show, and a handful of characters from that spinoff are present – the antagonistic Jessie and James of Team Rocket are a highlight, though little is done to integrate them with the narrative or mechanical flow of the game.
A minigame featuring series mascot Pikachu surfing had also been added, and the player character is no longer able to choose among three starters; instead, he receives a Pikachu which follows him around and can be interacted with in the overworld (Pokemon are typically confined to a palm-sized Pokeball when not being used in battle). This version of the series’ first generation is currently being remade for the Nintendo Switch as Pokemon Let’s Go! Pikachu and Let’s Go! Eevee.
The original two games were already remade in 2004 on the Game Boy Advance hardware as FireRed and LeafGreen. These remakes feature radically overhauled visuals, new areas to explore after the player has completed the narrative, and new game mechanics that became standard in the intervening years. Not surprisingly, they also cleared up a number of the original games’ issues, including battle balance problems and glitches.
Pokemon Gold, Silver, and Crystal (2000/2001)
The first true sequel to Pokemon Red and Blue would represent one of the most significant overhauls that the series has received. Following the precedent established in the first generation, two versions of the game were published – Gold and Silver; like the first generation, these are identical in most ways, with the exception of several monsters unique to each version and a late-game narrative development that leads the player to capture a legendary Pokemon (the colorful bird Ho-oh in Gold or the sleek gray Lugia in Silver).
The most immediately noticeable improvement was visual design. As it had been in development for much of the decade, the original pair of Pokemon games was geared towards the Game Boy’s monochromatic color scheme. Playing it on the Super Nintendo’s Super Game Boy peripheral or the Game Boy Color did little to alleviate this relatively bland color palette. The sequels, on the other hand, were built entirely for the Game Boy Color and reflect this in their more engaging landscape.
That landscape, in fact, is again inspired by modern Japan but with a significant distinction: Kanto had been based on the country’s technologically-oriented Kanto region, while Gold and Silver‘s Johto is instead based on the more traditional culture of Japan’s Kansai region. This is reflected in a number of visual flourishes, including Japanese temples and kimonos, along with the games’ emphasis on mythology.
The interface and character movement through the overworld are almost identical to Pokemon Red and Blue, but more significant mechanical changes quickly become apparent. Virtually all Pokemon now have a gender, and can consequently breed at a farm; this replaces the day care system from the first pair of games, in which only one Pokemon could be placed to gain experience while the player explored Kanto. Introducing the breeding system brought a host of more nebulous gameplay changes, particularly the ability to have two strong monsters mate and produce an offspring that had the potential to become stronger still. This would take time, however, as all Pokemon initially begin as eggs which hatch into a low-leveled monster after being carried a set number of steps. Breeding also permits the acquisition of new, un-evolved forms of Pokemon not normally catchable in the wild; Pikachu, it turns out, is the evolved form of a newly introduced Pokemon called Pichu!
Tying in with the games’ emphasis on history and mythology, time passage takes on an important mechanical role. A day and night cycle impacts the availability of certain Pokémon and the appearance of the landscape. The game tracks days of the week, which ties in to promotions featured on the in-game radio station. Later in the game, three legendary dogs (replacing the first game pair’s legendary birds) shift their position in the overworld after a specified number of hours have passed. These changes collectively add up to a more engaging, believable world.
The game pair’s structure is quite similar to its predecessor. Players choose from among three starter Pokémon, explore a world collecting and leveling up a team of creatures, and take part in eight gym battles which test the player’s strength. After completing these eight battles – one in each town the player visits – an apparently final gauntlet of powerful trainers called the Johto League must be beaten. In a shocking twist that would never again be repeated, the player actually has the opportunity to visit Red and Blue‘s Kanto region and take on its gyms following their success at the Johto League. Kanto has changed significantly in the time between the two generations, though, and much of the fun is in discovering what became of familiar places and characters.
Of course, the most important change is the addition of almost 100 new Pokemon. Many old ones return, but the titles’ emphasis is on the newly debuted monsters. Shiny monsters appear for the first time during an early story sequence featuring a red Gyarados – these would go on to take on a high value for players, as they are exceedingly rare color variants on standard Pokemon. In another major overhaul, two new Pokemon types were introduced as well, bringing the total up to seventeen. These new types were Dark and Steel, intended to reduce the supremacy of the Psychic type and improve the competitive value of Fighting type respectively. More moves were also introduced, making Ghost and Bug types more viable team members.
Interestingly, a very recent rediscovery of Gold and Silver‘s early Space World 1997 demo revealed that many more Pokemon were originally intended to appear in the game; included are baby forms of Generation One Pokemon like Meowth as well as unused evolutions for Pokemon like Qwilfish and Farfetch’d. Some would go on to influence later designs. It is unclear whether these were cut due to time constraints or for some other reason.
The most likely cause for deletion is the troubled development cycle that this beloved game went through. It took five years for Game Freak to develop the first generation, including numerous instances of unpaid labor and overnight work sessions, so it is unsurprising that the studio struggled to cram an even more expansive sophomore effort into about half the time. The team was small and required to split its efforts between Western localization of the first generation even as they worked on the sequel. Luckily, the much-beloved Satoru Iwata (President of studio HAL Laboratory prior to his 2000 appointment as CEO of Nintendo) stepped in to assist the four-man team struggling to develop Pokemon Gold and Silver. He seems to have been something of a coding whiz, managing to squeeze an only mildly truncated version of the Kanto region into the cartridge. I strongly encourage interested readers to check out Kotaku’s overview of this story, including the transcript of a charming interview between Iwata and Tsunekazu Ishihara of The Pokemon Company and Shigeki Morimoto from Game Freak. It’s hard to imagine what the final game would have been without Iwata’s intervention.
Pokemon Crystal, a third version of the second generation titles akin to the first generation’s Pokemon Yellow, was published in 2001. Few major changes were made to Gold and Silver‘s foundation, but a handful of key alterations exist. The most apparent is the player’s ability to choose a male or female character avatar. This would go on to become a standard feature in future games, and was much appreciated by players at the time. In a development that would be dramatically expanded upon later in the series, Game Freak also included brief animations for the Pokemon sprites on battle screens. They only move around upon their arrival on the field, but this presents an immediately more dynamic combat experience.
Ten years later, Game Freak would release remakes of this second generation. Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver were published in 2010 for the Nintendo DS, featuring a much more significant overhaul than had occurred to the original generation in its GBA remake. Quasi-3D was introduced to the Johto and Kanto regions, as characters were now rendered from above as sprites moving around a semi-three-dimensional world. Other changes introduced in Pokemon Crystal and subsequent generations were integrated; the most noticeable of these is the option to choose the player character’s gender, while less obvious changes include the split of Pokemon attacks into ‘special attacks’ and ‘physical attacks’ – more on that later – as well as an update to hidden values that determine Pokemon stats. Those values are known as IVs, and make my head spin; if you’re interested, you can read more here.
These changes function largely to make the second generation intersect with the fourth and fifth, as players can now battle and trade across these generations in HeartGold and SoulSilver after inter-generational interaction had been discontinued in the third generation due to major underlying programming changes. Less important to the gameplay, though still quite charming, is the fact that the first Pokemon in a player’s six-monster roster now follows his or her character on the overworld. This is a small update, but one that is believed to have led to the remakes’ popularity. Eight years later, Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver remain the most universally beloved entries in the series.
During development in the late 1990s, Pokemon Company President Tsunekazu Ishihara believed that Gold and Silver would be the final titles in the franchise. This led to a proliferation of Pokemon merchandise and spinoffs, including the still-popular Pokemon Trading Card Game. Luckily for fans, he could not have been more wrong about the series’ future.
Pokemon Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald (2003/2005)
In keeping with the reduced development time needed for each subsequent generation in this franchise, Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire were released in North America on the Game Boy Advance in 2003. The visuals remain entirely sprite-based, including characters and environments, but are distinctly more colorful and animated on the new hardware. 135 new creatures are added to the series roster, bringing the total up to 386. Notably, this entry represents the first game without Satoshi Tajiri as director; instead, former composer Junichi Masuda was promoted to that role and would remain in the position until 2013.
Following its predecessors’ examples, the third generation takes place in an entirely new region based on a real-world location. In this instance, the Hoenn region is based on Japan’s Kyushu island, though the developers rotated the landscape ninety degrees. This had a major impact on navigation, as significantly more of the overworld was comprised of water than it had been in past entries. Surf, an HM move introduced in Generation One would be critical to players’ movement, but equally critical was the new HM Dive; after being taught to a Pokemon, this move allowed players to explore beneath the waves. Over 25% of Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire take place underwater!
In terms of battle, a few interesting changes were made. Double battles make their debut, as players take on two enemy Pokemon simultaneously. This brought the series closer to competitors’ JRPGs, as players would now sometimes need to target specific opponents. Additionally, beneath the static sprites of Pokemon (Crystal‘s animations didn’t carry over to Ruby and Silver) are visual indications of the environment in which players are battling. Attack animations are dramatically enhanced, and weather effects have been introduced for the first time.
These weather effects are commensurate with the third generation’s overall theme: nature. Pokemon are oriented around the natural environment, rather than being more outlandish designs as players encountered in earlier titles. ‘Nature’ is actually a new characteristic applied to each Pokemon, as the each individual creature’s nature determines which stats are emphasized or enhanced as they level up. The legendary monsters pictured on the front of each game represent the deities controlling the land (Groudon – Ruby), seas (Kyogre – Sapphire), and sky (Rayquaza – Emerald). Even the plot emphasized humans’ relationship with the environment as the local antagonists, Team Magma in Ruby and Team Aqua in Sapphire, seek to establish control over natural processes by controlling the relevant Pokemon deity. Interestingly, fans speculate that these deities are rooted in Biblical legend, as Groudon corresponds to Behemoth, Kyogre corresponds to Leviathan, and Rayquaza corresponds to Ziz.
Sadly, Game Freak could not duplicate its coup in incorporating Kanto into Generation Two. Ruby and Sapphire represent a clean break with the past, as no alternate regions are featured and Pokemon raised in earlier titles can no longer be transferred to the new generation. This lack of backwards compatibility, and the fact that only a selection of Pokemon from the preceding generations could be caught in Hoenn, is likely related to the development and publication of Pokemon FireRed and LeafGreen in 2004.
A third version of the Generation Three games, Pokemon Emerald, would be released in 2005. The featured cover monster is Rayquaza, which had been catchable in the earlier games but held no plot significance. In the third version, all three legendary Pokemon of the generation are available for capture and take part in an uncharacteristically epic narrative. Additionally, wireless adapter supported was integrated after being omitted in Ruby and Sapphire. Finally, in a change bearing future implications for the series’ future, the post-narrative content is beefed up significantly with the inclusion of the Battle Frontier. This area presents the player with numerous challenges that can only be overcome through mastery of the game’s mechanics, and dramatically expands replayability.
As occurred with the preceding generations, a remake would eventually be released to widespread acclaim. Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were published in 2014 on the Nintendo 3DS. Each offer fully three-dimensional visuals like their immediate predecessors, Pokemon X and Y, and integrate overall changes made to the series between 2003 and 2014. They also follow the lead of FireRed and LeafGreen in presenting new areas not included in their source material.
In this case, the new areas take the form of post-narrative areas in which the player can capture legendary Pokemon from other generations. An intriguing mechanic in which the player is able to freely fly around the region on the back of creatures Latios or Latias and view it from above is also included. These remakes would lack the impact that 2010’s HeartGold and SoulSilver had, but would be generally well-received.
Pokemon Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum (2007/2009)
Pokemon Diamond and Pearl were released in North America on the Nintendo DS in 2007. In a major development, the series stepped out of the fully sprite-based design that it had perfected over the previous decade and into the uncertain world of three-dimensional graphics. Super Mario 64 DS had demonstrated in 2004 that console visuals of the late 1990s were possible in handheld setting, and Game Freak was eager to exploit the DS’ expanded processing power to make its beloved series more engaging. While characters and Pokemon were still rendered as 2D sprites, environments and many battle animations were now composed of 3D polygons.
Unfortunately, the fourth generation fell short of the series’ visual standards in other ways. The visual palette was expanded insofar as depth was concerned, but drawbacks are quickly apparent: tones are generally less vibrant compared to the preceding game, bringing the environmental design closer to Generation Two than Generation Three. More surprisingly, many of the newly introduced 107 Pokemon populating Generation Four’s Sinnoh Region are uncharacteristically colorful. This contrasts dramatically with the natural influences that permeated Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire.
That said, nature was no longer the focus of Pokemon in its first entry on the DS. Instead, the game emphasized the origins of the franchise’s reality-adjacent world. Legendary Pokemon pictured on the games’ covers are Diamond‘s Dialga, responsible for time, Pearl‘s Palkia, responsible for space, and Platinum‘s Giratina, responsible for antimatter. Generation Four’s narrative highlights these legendary creatures, like Generation Three, but the execution is less effective. The plot is appreciably higher-stakes than its predecessors – a charismatic demagogue is leading his followers to terrorist attacks in an attempt to erase existence itself – but the series lacks the emotional heft to support such a dark turn. Diamond and Platinum follow in the footsteps of Ruby and Sapphire, which offered gestures towards the apocalyptic with environmental devastation, but put the emphasis on a poorly sketched evil antagonist rather than an organization with a cause.
For better and for worse, the environment is appreciably larger in scale than earlier games. In seeking to remedy one of the most notorious criticisms of Generation Three, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl avoided setting the player adrift at sea.* Much of the game is instead set on a vast continent. Water is present – the player can only access certain island areas by teaching his or her Pokemon Fly or Swim HMs – but the majority of environments are based around the large, central Mount Coronet. Players appreciated the large scale of the game world, but this had consequences on the pacing.
The primary criticism of Pokemon Diamond and Pearl is related to its slow speed. Part of this is mechanical, as the upgraded visuals and (perhaps) Game Freak’s inexperience programming 3D games result in significantly slower load times. Pokemon had never been a sprightly experience, but twenty seconds to start a battle represented a newly sluggish pace. Similarly troubling was the slow game progression. Hours can occur between each town, and players are frequently expected to backtrack from one town to another through previously explored areas. Many areas throw up environmental impediments, including mud to slow player progress and foggy areas that require newly introduced Pokemon moves. All of this adds up to an adventure that feels slower than its predecessors, even as it wows with slicker visual presentation. This is in keeping with design trends of the 2000s – note that the notoriously slow-paced Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess had been released only a year earlier – but still drew criticism from long-time fans.
Happily, new fans were quite thrilled about the series finally beginning to step away from some of its arguably outdated elements. A 3D overworld was an exciting innovation within the characteristically conservative world of Pokemon design, and the higher narrative stakes could prove gripping to players looking for a bit more excitement in their Pokemon adventures. The addition of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, though only implemented in a bare-bones fashion, also permitted players to trade and battle with people outside the range of a link cable for the first time.
Finally, a major overhaul to how attacks work was welcomed by competitive players: attacks are now divided into special or physical categories. Consequently, Generation Four is often looked to as the first set of games to begin pulling new audience members to the series as original fans were aging out of it.
Pokemon Platinum (2009), the third version of the fourth generation games, was the most impressive expansion in the franchise’s history. It did much to remedy the problems in Diamond and Pearl, including a much-improved narrative, and also offered even more exciting opportunities after defeating the Elite Four. The Battle Frontier includes numerous battle-oriented challenges designed to test every level of player, significantly improving the game’s longevity. It would go on to achieve a reputation as the series’ peak in post-game content. Fans are still eagerly awaiting a remake.
Pokemon Black and White, Black 2 and White 2 (2011/2012)
Pokemon Black and White mark the first time a new generation had debuted on the same console as its predecessor. Players could reasonably have been anticipating a rehash of Generation Four, but they instead received an exciting revival of the franchise.
Notably, Black and White feature no returning Pokemon from previous generations until the post-game. Capitalizing on the success of Diamond and Pearl among newcomers, this upends the traditional conservatism of the series. Longtime fans would have to come to grips with all-new Pokemon at the same rate as people who had only recently joined the community.
For the first time, a region also looks outside of Japan for its influences. Unova is based on New York City and the surrounding area, favoring an urban landscape and a faster pace. With more experience under their belts, Game Freak programmers were able to leverage the DS hardware in pursuit of increasingly impressive 3D visuals – buildings tower above the player, highways loop around and bridges stretch into the distance. The Pokemon themselves are enhanced as well, becoming significantly more animated in battle.
Two interesting new mechanics spice up the game for old players as well. The first is a battle feature that expands upon the double battles that had become a series staple since their introduction in Generation Two – triple battles are now a possibility, though they are not over-emphasized during normal gameplay. During these instances, half of a player’s team is pitted against three enemy Pokemon simultaneously. Each combatant can only hit an enemy directly across from it, or one adjacent to that one; for example, a Pokemon on the left of the player’s three can strike the left-most enemy or the center one, while the center Pokemon on the player’s team has access to all three enemies but is consequently more exposed. Outside of battle, seasons appear for the first and last time in the series as of writing. These change over time and effect Pokemon distribution, the environment’s appearance, access to certain areas, and even the length of time that a day or night persists. A couple of new Pokemon – Deerling and Sawbuck – actually have their appearance altered by the season.
In a major departure, the games differ in more ways than simply Pokemon distribution. Black is more technologically-oriented, while White emphasizes more natural settings. Much of the games are relatively identical, but White has a forest area where Black features a distinct city. Unlike Generation Three, however, both games feature an identical enemy gang. Iterating on Generation Four’s willingness to grow darker in tone, Team Plasma serves a plot willing to question core tenets of the series, including the implications of capturing and battling wild animals.
Finally, the inevitable ‘third version’ underwent an update too. Rather than offering a series of fixes and small expansions, Game Freak presented a full sequel to the events of Black and White. Set two years after the events of their predecessors, Black 2 and White 2 offered many of the same charms that fans had encountered when returning to Kanto during the events of Gold, Silver, and Crystal. The pair of sequels was published in 2012 to much fanfare, and would go on to inform at least one future generation.
Pokemon X and Y (2013)
With the series making a leap away from the Nintendo DS platform and onto the 3DS in 2013, Pokemon took the opportunity to make some changes. Generation Six would represent the most significant upgrade that the series had undergone since Generation Three.
The most immediately apparent overhaul is the visual design. For the first time, the entire game is rendered in polygonal 3D rather than full 2D sprites or sprites overlaid on 3D environments. Instead, the characters are cell-shaded 3D models that would not look out of place in a PlayStation 2 game. As you can imagine, this offers a significant improvement not only to the basic visual experience but also to the player’s engagement with increasingly lifelike monsters.
To enhance this even further, the Pokemon Amie minigame is introduced for the first time. Players can use the lower screen of the 3DS to directly interact with their Pokemon between battles. They can groom them, feed them, and play with them in a manner reminiscent of Nintendo’s earlier Nintendogs franchise. Interacting with the Pokemon has impacts on their battle performance, as they become more loyal and more likely to survive an attack that would otherwise lead to defeat.
In keeping with the battle improvements, Pokemon can have their EV stats intentionally improved by the player for the first time. Like Pokemon Amie, this is done through a series of minigames designed to ‘train’ the Pokemon in specific areas. It heavily involves the touch screen, and is a welcome action-oriented diversion from the otherwise menu-driven Pokemon experience. This training system is easily ignored by players more interested in the series’ standard collection or narrative goals, but presents a simpler way for competitive players to improve their teams.
Battle is more important and complex than ever, however. In terms of multiplayer – long a core feature of the series – players can finally easily seek out opponents to challenge in online battles using the Player Search System found on the lower screen rather than needing to endure a lengthy wait at a Pokemon Center. In the single player experience, on the other hand, horde modes are introduced for the first time. These involve a single Pokemon from the player’s team taking on a group of up to five lower-leveled wild monsters.
The collection experience is also improved in a variety of ways. 72 new Pokemon are introduced, bringing the total to 721. These 72 include a new type for the first time since Generation Two: Fairy. A handful of old Pokemon have been given Fairy as a second type as well, along with new Fairy moves, forcing long-time players to adapt to new circumstances. Trading is easier than ever, as players can easily use the Player Search System to upload one of their own monsters with a requested trade, or search others’ available uploaded monsters. This is all handled via asynchronous multiplayer mechanics, permitting the player to go about his or her business while waiting for a trade to be completed online.
One final significant wrinkle is the addition of Mega Evolutions. These can be initiated during the course of battle rather than being a permanent evolution as all others are. Players can use a Mega Stone, typically acquired either through the plot or by exploring off the beaten trail, to transform their monsters into a more powerful form. This can reasonably be criticized as an overpowered tactic, but can happily only be done by a player once per battle.
With regard to the game’s environment and story, the changes were less significant. Pokemon X and Y are set in the Kalos region, based on the real-world country of France; the capital features a structure quite similar to the Eiffel Tower and the games highlight France’s flair for design, as the player can visit boutiques to dress his or her avatar in new outfits. Movement around the world is quicker than previous entries thanks to a set of rollerblades acquired early on. While walking or running the player now has the ability to move in eight directions rather than the four permitted in earlier games, but the rollerblades unlock the player from grid-based movement entirely. The narrative is less whimsical, exploring the impact of a long-ago war in which Pokemon were used as weapons.
Surprisingly, Generation Six is the first instance in the series where no sequel was published. Fans were long awaiting an announcement of Pokemon Z, but none came. Instead, Game Freak moved on to a 2014 re-release of Generation Three and then into an entirely new adventure.
Pokemon Sun and Moon, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon (2016/2017)
Generation Seven represents the second time that multiple generations were published on a single hardware platform. Like the earlier leap from Generation Four to Generation Five, this means that the visual update between generations represents more of a refinement than a major overhaul. Human characters are now proportioned more realistically, rather than the chibi designs that appeared in Generation Six, though the visual design remains cel-shaded and highly influenced by anime aesthetics. For only the second time in its history, the Pokemon series changed directors as Junichi Masuda was succeeded by Shigeru Ohmori.
The game is set in the island chain of Alola, which takes its cues from Hawaii. Exploration and collection are carried out across four major islands, each later home to a legendary deity Pokemon, and a high-tech boat. The plot is front-and-center in this installment, propelling the action forward rather than requiring a large amount of backtracking as Generation Four had done. After an easygoing opening section reminiscent of Pokemon Red and Blue, it hinges on the introduction of new multi-dimensional beings called Ultra Beasts. A sinister organization is attempting to harvest the power of these bizarre creatures and wreaks havoc across the otherwise laid-back island region. Unfortunately (or humorously), the player character’s face seems only able to express of mild amusement, so the narrative’s emotional impact falls shorter than it may have.
Three major mechanical changes have been made to the franchise. The first is the replacement of Mega Evolutions with Z-Moves. Rather than having a stone pertaining to a specific Pokemon, these require a crystal associated with an entire Pokemon type. Once said crystal is acquired, Pokemon of that type can be equipped with the crystal and utilize an overpowered attack once per battle. A handful of Pokemon – notably Snorlax – even have unique Z-moves that can be accessed through a crystal associated with their species only.
The second major mechanical update is the removal of gym leader battles. These had been a series staple since Generation One, and their removal would likely have been met with negative feedback if the Totem Pokemon sequences weren’t so engaging. Indeed, these represent unique challenges featuring larger-than-normal Pokemon in surprising environments like a haunted supermarket. At the game’s outset, no Elite Four has even been founded (though one is established near the conclusion)!
The third major mechanical update is the most important: HMs have been removed entirely. These had long been a source of frustration for players, since any given Pokemon can only have four moves at any given time and being taught an HM – primarily required for environmental navigation rather than battle – would leave a Pokemon with only three effective moves in its roster. HMs are replaced with Ride Pokemon; these are monsters gained at certain points throughout the story which do not take up space in the player’s team but do allow the player to fly, surf, move boulders, and more.
In addition to the new region, slightly improved visual design and mechanical updates, Game Freak reintroduced old Generation One monsters with new Alolan forms. There are only a dozen or so of these in the game, but they are clearly presented as an amusing treat to long-term fans in honor of the series’ twentieth anniversary. On top of these, players can catch 81 new Pokemon.
In general, these changes were met with overwhelming praise. Fans criticized the overly linear and intrusive plot, along with the title’s comparative brevity, but were overall thrilled with updates made to the now-venerable franchise. A pair of sequel games were released a year later, in 2017, though these were generally believed to fall short of the standard set by Black 2 and White 2. With Generation Eight planned for a 2019 release on the Nintendo Switch, fans will need to make due in the interim by revisiting Kanto in Pokemon Let’s Go! Pikachu and Let’s Go! Eevee, controversially featuring elements borrowed from the popular mobile spinoff Pokemon Go.
As it rapidly became one of Nintendo’s most beloved series during the late 1990s, Pokemon racked up a massive number of spinoff titles. I’m inclined to make this its own article, since the sub-series are so varied and intriguing. Please forgive the absence of my characteristic spin-off section and instead look forward to discussing those games next week.
What do you think? What is your favorite generation? How about your favorite Pokemon? Do you prefer to exploit glitches in the early games or trade with your friends using the smooth interface of more recent titles? Discuss below!
(*) Note: Yes, the “too much water” IGN review referenced the remakes of Generation Three rather than the originals. Still, many players (myself included, weirdly) felt this way after playing the GBA originals.