Over the course of Pokemon’s 20-year history, Game Freak has never released a duo of games that were as divisive as Black and White. For many, the game’s removal of all of the familiar Pokemon in the series’ past (from Pikachu to Garchomp) in favor of a brand new cast of foreign, strange-looking critters was a deal-breaker. The games also fall in a strange spot in the Pokemon timeline; Diamond and Pearl were the first games on the DS and are thus more prominent in many minds than their Gen 5 follow-ups, and X and Y completely changed the look of the series going forward. Even so, Black and White have always stuck out to me thanks to their development of an actual narrative that goes beyond catching them all and beating the Elite Four. And upon replaying them, the resolution is clear: these are the greatest Pokemon games ever created.
From the opening cinematic involving the crowning of an unknown king, many first-time players probably questioned whether they’d plugged in the wrong game. But it’s all a set-up for the reveal of Team Plasma’s N, a brainwashed young man who has more in common with Pokemon than humans. Isolated from the outside world from birth, N was bred to believe that humans who used Pokemon were evil, and his goal is to force every trainer to release all of their Pokemon so they can be free and no longer be forced to battle. It’s an interesting philosophical argument, and it’s a ballsy move for Game Freak to acknowledge and tackle the most prevalent criticism lodged toward their games. Philosophical questions surrounding how Pokemon are treated, as well as the clash between reality and ideals, are tackled throughout the standard-length 30-hour game, providing a substantially more fulfilling narrative experience beyond the typical addictive rock, paper, scissors formula the Pokemon series has perfected.
Outside of the main story, the core of the gameplay remains changed. The player is tasked with catching all of the Pokemon in the region and collecting all eight of its gym badges, which the player must wrest from the hands of the gym leaders who reside across the landscape. But there’s a layer of polish surrounding the whole affair to make this process much more engrossing than normal. Rather than one-off appearances, the gym leaders are actual, fleshed-out characters that reappear multiple times throughout the story. Each of them is built as an individual before, during, and after the player tackles them, and it’s a great change of pace from other titles in the series where gym leader’s are conquered, cast aside and forgotten. Another thing that’s noticeable about these gym battles, as well as many battles outside of their walls: they’re harder. Once you’ve gotten the hang of a Pokemon game, becoming skilled in battle is usually a pretty straightforward affair. But throughout this game, your skills will be tested. Opposing A.I. is more focused than normal, especially with the gym leaders and rival battles; these enemies utilize actual strategies seen in competitive play. Some even use held items, which is basically unheard of outside of this generation of Pokemon games. The uptick in difficulty is a welcome addition to the series, and is sorely lacking in X, Y, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, and doesn’t appear to be returning in the upcoming Sun and Moon.
While most Pokemon games tend to drag on the farther you get into them, Black and White build toward a mighty conclusion. The challenge is there, the new Pokemon are weird but fun to discover, and the narrative is stronger than ever. Black and White will probably never be accepted as the best in the series by many longtime Pokemon fans who look back upon the originals through rose-colored glasses. But the series has yet to reach an objectively greater peak.