For starters, Black and White establish quite quickly that the typical Pokémon narrative has received a major overhaul. On the surface it does remain a standard affair: we pick a starter Pokémon, face eight Gym Leaders and obtain eight Gym Badges, overthrow a villainous team terrorising the region, and become Pokémon League Champion. Yet all these components are woven into an overarching discourse about the morality behind catching and training Pokémon. At the heart of the plot is a mysterious boy known as N, who wants to change the world by having every trainer release their Pokémon from the prisons that are Poké Balls. He is supported by new villainous team, Team Plasma, who make appeals at various cities in-game for trainers to reconsider their relationship with Pokémon. Of course these are still games catered to a young audience, and the discussion never gets too in depth that we ever doubt whether catching and battling these creatures is fundamentally wrong, but the maturity behind allowing players to consider different opinions and world views keeps this particular adventure feeling fresh even after so many years. This all culminates into the biggest plot twist the Pokémon games have ever created, leading to a genuinely exciting ending to our adventure. Pokémon X and Y do continue this new narrative complexity, but it never feels as engrossing as it does in Black and White. Overall, these Pokémon titles provide the best narrative for players to experience.
Yet of course the biggest shake up to the series was removing 493 adored creatures from the main campaign, and instead relying on a brand new set of 156 Pokémon to carry the adventure. In an age where the designs of newer Pokémon are met with further criticism, it proved a bold step to rely entirely on new critters. But what this gives Black and White is an identity that feels decidedly different to its brethren. There are no Zubat crowding every cave or Pikachu stealing popularity, meaning every new location feels fresher, and every trainer is likely to have something new for us to battle. However not every new Pokémon has been met with such acclaim, and ignoring some unpopular designs (here’s looking at you Trubbish), it’s easy to pass certain designs off as copycats of the first generation. Roggenrola is our new Geodude, Pidove our new Pidgey and Throh/Sawk our new Hitmonchan/Hitmonlee. Nevertheless this is again only an issue at surface level; many of these doppelgangers are used entirely different in battle than those original favourites. Thus not only are Black and White using their new roster to allow the adventure to feel fresher, they also highlight how each Pokémon is indeed unique, helping us to ultimately become better players.
However Black and White aren’t perfect; with the Unova region leaving less of an impression than its predecessors manage. It is a region wholly separate from those we’ve explored before, with the numbered route system resetting to one instead of following the Hoenn/Sinnoh trend of numbering them in their hundreds. However unlike every region before it, Unova is painfully linear. The plot does its best to help us overlook this fact, but the main map the game takes place in is just a large circuit of routes that hardly deviate off the main path. The places we visit along the way are indeed interesting, particularly the cities (Castelia City is something else) which do a good job of feeling exciting and distinctive from one another. However the structure of the region is disappointing when compared to the maze like maps of former regions, because it doesn’t encourage the same level of exploration. Sadly this is only further exasperated in thanks to the sequel titles Black 2 and White 2, in which a whole portion of those games have us repeat the same linear routes all over again, making them seem tired before their time. Exploration is a big part of the Pokémon franchise, and it is something Unova doesn’t have to offer.