Pokemon Will Never Be As Ambitious As It Was In 5th Gen

Pokemon Will Never Be As Ambitious As It Was In 5th Gen

It’s a new year and a Pokemon milestone anniversary, which means it’s time for a fandom tradition: predicting that Diamond/Pearl remakes are TOTALLY CONFIRMED. It makes sense for fans to clamor over 4th gen–it evolved underpowered favorites, debuted online trading, and gave us the Underground. This expansion of features and transformation of old Pokemon laid much of the groundwork for the post-Game Boy era. But it was the follow-ups–the 5th gen Black & White games–that truly pushed Pokemon in a bold, new direction.

What? Pokemon Storytelling Is Evolving!

It has always been weird to me how much people love Team Rocket. A lot of that comes from nostalgia, I figure, but after many seasons of the cartoon, I grew sick of Jessie and James. Their recurring gags were lame, they rarely put up a fight, and they constantly slowed down Ash’s journey (and therefore plot progression). In the games, they’re similarly two dimensional. Rocket grunts are just bullies, and Giovanni’s master plan boils down to “get more money and power.” That’s great for a kids’ series, but is a decades-old franchise not allowed to go deeper? Team Plasma, the 5th gen antagonists, are the perfect answer to that question.

When you first encounter Team Plasma, it’s not because they were stealing something or attacking someone. Rather, their charismatic leader gives a speech to a crowd of townsfolk. He brings up a question that real-life Pokemon fans have asked for years: is it right to keep Pokemon? Should humans be capturing these intelligent creatures and forcing them to fight for our entertainment? A few NPCs call their Pokemon ownership into disbelief, and then Team Plasma leaves. No battles, no evil monologues, just a guy dropping truth bombs.

This encounter kicks off the first of many plotlines that embody the theme of 5th gen: differing perspectives. Later on, you’ll discover that your companion Bianca is forbidden from going on a Pokemon journey by her father. He chases her down to make her come home, afraid that her clumsy nature makes her ill-suited for venturing out in the dangerous wilds. However, Gym Leader Elesa offers another take on the idea, reminding him that travel is a way to challenge oneself and achieve understanding of all kinds of people. Through dialogue, the different parties come to see the other’s point of view. Bianca is allowed to continue her journey, but she promises to come home once she’s reached her goal.

Related: Pokémon Sword And Shield Give Fifth Gen Its Due Respect

Not all conflicts are resolved so easily, however, as we see in the story of N. Raised as the chosen one of Team Plasma, N comes to believe it is his purpose to free Pokemon from humans. To this end, he becomes a champion of Truth/Ideals (depending on the version) and takes command of a Legendary dragon Pokemon. He then flies right to the Pokemon League to destroy the Champion and establish himself as the strongest Trainer, thus allowing him to force all Trainers to release their Pokemon.

Here’s the thing, though: N is friendly towards the player. He recognizes you as a fellow Pokemon lover and forthright Trainer. In the end, however, you must solve your differences in battle. The deeper motivations of Black & White’s characters make the conflicts, ironically, less black and white than previous gens. The best part is that this is all achieved without sacrificing the all-ages wonder that Pokemon is known for.

Not Just For Kids Anymore (But Still For Kids)

There’s a strong division in the current Pokemon fanbase, one that spilled out into the general gaming scene in the lead up to Pokemon Sword & Shield. The 8th gen games represented the next big step for the series by presenting a brand new region powered by a home console. And yet, many longtime fans found compromise in place of progress, pointing to things like lackluster animations, the infamous cut of half the Pokedex, the rushed ending sequence. Others responded by pointing out how they enjoyed the cute new Pokemon, classic gameplay, and open world Wild Area. Like in Black & White, two perspectives saw no middle ground–Pokemon either needs to grow up or is fine to stay cute and simple forever.

When the argument found its way to Twitter, things devolved into simple hot takes as they often do. Either you’re actively harming the franchise by saying you’re okay with a phoned-in $60 game, or you’re an entitled capital-G Gamer who forgot Pokemon is for kids. The funny thing is that we already had a series of Pokemon games satisfy both ideas. Yup, you guessed it–5th gen was Pokemon showing growth and keeping true to its kid-friendly roots.

Pokemon Black & White still follow the formula–you choose a starter, beat down Gym Leaders, and encounter a lighthearted world full of cute creatures. Some new features keep up the fun. Pokemon Musicals let you dress up your critters with bows and top hats so they can dance on stage. It’s an adorable distraction made for those who aren’t as passionate about battling. Team Plasma does pose some interesting questions, but by the story’s end, a true bad guy reveals himself. If you’d like, you can put aside the moral quandary in favor of saving the day with your cool new dragon buddy.

Yet 5th gen offers a deeper story for those who do delve into the lore. They were the first games to offer true sequels instead of a third game. Black 2 & White 2 deal with the aftermath of Team Plasma’s attempted takeover. You discover that they split into two groups: one actually wants to do good and liberate Pokemon, the other stays true to the evil machinations of the first game. Furthermore, by linking a completed save file from Black or White, you unlock additional cutscenes in Black 2 or White 2. Seeing the direct effects of your actions in Black & White was a wonderful reward for the dedicated, and it’s something Pokemon hasn’t done since.

Will Pokemon Ever Aim As High As It Did In 5th Gen?

I could go on about the many other ways 5th gen tried to change Pokemon for the better. Here’s a few I couldn’t squeeze in elsewhere: the addition of an optional hard mode, the Pokemon World Tournament which let you take on fan-favorite Trainers from old games, and locking players to the native Pokedex until they beat the game. So why haven’t future Pokemon games adopted these elements? Instead, the stories have gotten more nonsensical and Charizard gets an eternal starring role.

I’m no businessman, and I certainly don’t have an in at The Pokemon Company, but the answer seems clear… money. Black & White made some bold moves with its Pokemon designs, and this turned off classic fans. Those who grew up with Pikachu and Caterpie hate the idea of living ice cream or a sentient pair of gears. But anyone, be they ’90s kids or Tiktok addicts, know and love Pikachu and Eevee. It seems smart to push the OG 151 rather than try and sell stubborn millennials on Tepig. And hardcore fans are going to buy anything with “Pokemon” on it, no matter how much they complain.

So it may be that we never see another Pokemon game challenge franchise norms the way 5th gen did. Then again, Sword & Shield’s Wild Area and DLC show that Game Freak are still listening to fans and willing to play with the franchise. In that case, those epic 4th gen remakes might just come this year and might just be everything we could ever wish for. This would be great, but I’d rather return to Unova so that others can see why 5th gen is the best gen. Help a Tepig fan out, Game Freak?

Next: How To Effectively Sell Your Pokemon Cards And Potentially Make A Fortune

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Sergio is the Lead News Editor for TheGamer. But usually he asks people to call him “Serg” because he wants to sound cool like the guy from System of a Down. He began as a convention reporter for FLiP Magazine and Albany Radio’s The Shaw Report to get free badges to Comic-Con. Eventually he realized he liked talking to game developers and discovering weird new indie games. Now he brings that love of weird games to TheGamer, where he tries to talk about them in clickable ways so you grow to love them too. When he’s not stressing over how to do that, he’s a DM, Cleric of Bahamut, cosplay boyfriend, and occasional actor.

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