Can we catch ‘em all?: Generation V
“The past is brought to the present, and the present to the past; both inform and explain each other, raising questions and pointing to futures that may or may not be.” – Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications
Generation V is often considered the oddball Pokémon core series, one where all rules of platforms and order of release were discarded to try something new. The decision to change the rules of release, however, were not solely a creative one but rather deeply situational in a technical and cultural context.
In an interview on the generation, Tsunekazu Ishihara noted, “It has been the series’ destiny to transfer to a completely new platform every time a completely new generation came out.” While the Game Boy system had a remarkably long life cycle, Generation I was only released late into that cycle. Some have even speculated that the games may have extended the lifecycle past expectations. Regardless, the late introduction of the franchise to an aging system created a situation where it was only natural for Generation II to progress to a newer system, the Game Boy Color. The Game Boy Advance as well as the Nintendo DS were introduced to the market with a few years between the systems, a more standard model of release within the video game industry, ensuring that Generation III and IV core series games were each released on a new system.
The unexpected popularity of the Nintendo DS threw this model of release into disarray, leading to a “second-generation for Nintendo DS by, from the point of view of development, making effective use of already-existing resources.” Unlike previous generations, Nintendo had no reason to stop selling the Nintendo DS. It was a remarkably popular system with sales only increasing over time. Waiting to release a new Pokémon core series generation on a new system would have either resulted in an unneeded new system on the market or a long-delayed game release. Neither of these options appeared to have been pursued. In a complete break from the past, Generation V was forced to compete with a generation already released on an identical platform.
To make matters even more difficult, Generation V was competing with the most popular releases in the franchise’s history. Pokémon Diamond and Pearl were intended to serve as the ultimate Pokémon generation, placing heavy pressure on the developers for these new titles. Tsunekazu Ishihara, in particular, noted these concerns throughout several interviews: “You run the risk of people saying, ‘You call this a completely new game, but…’ We were really worried about that.” The balance of new and old, reinvention and nostalgia, became a critical focal point of Generation V and one with significant consequences on the included titles.
Generation V began traditionally enough with the release of two paired titles, Pocket Monsters: Black and White, for Japanese audiences in 2010. The first break in tradition came with the order of localization. As explained by Junichi Masuda: “We totally changed the scheme of the organization. This time we translated directly from Japanese to all other languages. Before, we localized from Japanese to English, and from English to other European languages.” The result was a remarkably fast-paced release schedule for Pokémon Black and White, which released in North America, Australia, and Europe throughout 2011. One month after the final release within this group, South Korea received its own localizations of Pocket Monsters: Black and White.
What followed was unique in the history of the Pokémon core series. According to Junichi Masuda, a key system game mechanic required a pair of sequels rather than the standard release model. This increased the number of titles to follow, but it does not explain why the second pair was developed as a narrative sequel rather than a reinterpretation of the previous paired titles. Regardless of the rationale, Pocket Monsters: Black 2 and White 2 were released to Japanese audiences in 2012. Renamed Pokémon Black 2 and White 2, the games were quickly released in North America, Australia, and Europe. South Korea followed soon after, retaining the original Japanese title.
According to Nintendo, then, the diagram to the right demonstrates the release pattern of Generation V.
On playing the games, one is immediately struck with the newness of these titles. In some ways, Generation V is a disruptive force, one that challenges and discards a rather large number of previous expectations. Perhaps the most radical decision was found in Pokémon Black and White. Previous core series titles included a mixture of old and new Pokémon in their roster, blending fan expectations for new creativity with a desire to preserve the nostalgia of older favorites. Pokémon Black and White were the first to discard all previously seen Pokémon entirely, instead building an entirely new roster to collect. In one interview, Junichi Masuda explained the rational behind the decision was “to level the playing field so that when they all start playing the game, none of them will know what’s strong or who has what moves.”
This decision is far more symbolic than merely an appeal to players. In Generation IV, Nintendo representatives saw Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver as a way to communicate across generations. These remakes were meant to symbolize a passing of the torch from the players that came before to the players of today. In Generation V, there is no longer an attempt to speak to that past. Erasing any trace of previous Pokémon in many ways divorces Pokémon Black and White from the shared past of the core series. Some argue that this is not entirely the case, as Pokémon from Generation IV do eventually become accessible with the Poké Transfer feature. However, this feature only becomes available once the main storyline completed and grants the player no strategic advantage. It is merely an afterthought to catching them all, if the player so chooses.
The decision to include an entirely new set of Pokémon, and to limit access to older Pokémon, does not grant newer players an advantage over older ones. What this decision accomplishes is a removal of the last advantage older players hold over newer ones. In essence, these titles signal that catering content to older fans is no longer a priority, and that is a radical departure from the past.
Another significant aspect of newness can be found in the introduction of sequels to the franchise. Prior to Pokémon Black 2 and White 2, all titles followed the same general patterns. Third titles such as Pokémon Crystal or Pokémon Emerald were constructed as versions of their respective generation’s original paired titles. As such, players came to expect similar gameplay between versions, though elements were often added to entice the player to purchase the third title.
With Pokémon Black 2 and White 2, those expectations quickly fell away. Press and advertisement materials repeatedly noted that these titles were sequels. This altered how players approached the titles. Stand-alone games are often constructed so that a beginner with no prior experience with the game is able to progress without significant difficulty. In a sequel, the player is expected to approach the title with some prior knowledge of gameplay and how to progress. The result is that gameplay elements that were previously included in each core series title were no longer required. For example, players would first encounter a Pokémon Center in the second city of each game rather than the first. In Pokémon Black 2 and White 2, there is a Pokémon Center in the first city. According to Takao Unno, this was deliberately intended for new players to “learn about the gameworld and do so in a short period of time, so the story moves along smoothly as well.” Sequels require prior knowledge, therefore Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 chose to do away with old traditions of gameplay and acclimate new players as quickly as possible, once again bridging the gap between older players and new.
Finally, the introduction of Unova Link is a radical departure from structure by making explicit the connections between the first and second set of releases in Generation V. Previously, the links between the first set of paired releases and the third title are not spelled out. All three titles are merely versions of the same narrative. More importantly, the titles are all independent of one another. Version-exclusive Pokémon rosters do link different versions for the purposes of catching ‘em all, but there are no narrative links between each title. It is not necessary to complete one title in a generation to access features in another.
Unova Link’s Memory Link is a departure from that former independence. First, a player must complete either Pokémon Black and White. Second, a connection is created between either a completed Pokémon Black and White game and Pokémon Black 2 and White 2, whether through Pokémon Global Link or Nintendo DS Wireless Communications. This enables a series of narrative flashbacks in specific game areas. Such flashbacks aren’t critical to a gameplay perspective, but they do provide an enriched narrative by demonstrating what has occurred between the original paired set and its sequels. For the first time, playing a previous Pokémon title gives the player something more than general knowledge. Having played a previous title now grants a tangible, physical result that affects the in-game world.
What’s more, Unova Link usurps the previous equality of the games by creating two distinct gameplay modes: Challenge and Easy. Rather than create a game that is difficult enough for experienced players but easy enough for newer players, the separation of mode creates two distinct experiences for the separate groups. When added to the Memory Link, Generation V moves away from the universality of previous generations towards nuanced gameplay tailored to multiple, distinct groups.
At the same time, media archaeology cautions us to consider that even the newest of artifacts retains connections to its past. Generation V is no exception to this concept. Digging into the code reveals an oldness or sense of past in the present within Pokémon Black and White as well as Pokémon Black 2 and White 2. Rather than exist as completely new titles, the basis for all these games and their versions is Generation IV. For reasons discussed below, it is not possible to narrow down the exact title further. What is known is that Generation IV forms the basis of the code within Generation V, and an excavation within the layers of code proves this.
Numerous ties to various Generation IV titles exist within the code of Pokémon Black and White. For example, the original logos of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl remain. These logos were not retained in any version of Pokémon Platinum or of Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver. Hidden in the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection screen are graphics first used for the Japanese Pocket Monsters Platinum but later included, though hidden, in all versions of Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver. Also included is an unused tileset from Pocket Monsters: Diamond and Pearl that was left in all further Generation IV releases. Without further information from Nintendo, it is impossible to know which if any of these titles is the basis of Pokémon Black and White.
In contrast, digging into the code of Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 reinforces Nintendo’s descriptions of the titles. They are indeed sequels or, at the very least, the code is based on the paired titles that preceded them. Unused audiovisual code from Pokémon Black and White remain hidden, though unused. For example, the opening title screen music from the earlier games is included. Three maps associated with Route 10, an area removed for the addition of Humilau City, partially remain even though scripts, text, and wild Pokémon data have been removed. Taking all of this data into account, connections between all of these versions are quite different from the official Nintendo descriptions. The diagram on the right demonstrates a far more accurate version tree.
Reconciling these extremes of newness and oldness is a challenge when studying these games and their versions. From the perspective of most players, those that engage with a narrative and rarely hack into a game’s code, Iwata was correct in stating that Generation V contains a “high degree of newness.” Pokémon Black and White and, to a lesser extent, Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 certainly feel entirely different from previous Pokémon games, similarities notwithstanding. This opinion wasn’t limited to players. Several critics praised the titles for its fresh approach and new takes on familiar content. Still, regardless of that surface experience, the framework of Generation V is far older, even if most players never witness this ancient skeleton. The titles rest in a much longer historical timeline of titles across multiple platforms. How, then, to reconcile?
Media archaeology asks us to look to the past to understand the present, to consider the newness of a media object’s future in regards to its past. In many respects, newness is a state of being that requires comparison to exist. What is new is only new compared to what is determined to be old. If Generation V is new, that is only in comparison with Generation V through IV. That is to say, Pokémon Black and White as well as Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 cannot break fully from their past as they necessarily stand apart from, and therefore require the existence of, that past. They are objects whose essential features require a contextual analysis and mediation between all the pasts, presents, and futures inherent in the franchise.
Like all Pokémon core series games, there is no way to easily categorize Generation V. It is a combination of all that came before and a promise of what will follow. In this is the cyclical beauty of Pokémon: games that always retain just enough nostalgia for those that have always loved it but enough newness to bring new players. And as each subsequent generation converts a new sense of players into old, the cycle will only continue.
|Can we catch ‘em all?
- Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, Introduction to Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, edited by Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (Berkley: University of California Press, 2011).
- Winnie Forster, Games Machines 1972-2012: The Encyclopedia of Consoles, Handhelds & Home Computers (Utting, Germany: Gameplan, 2011).