Generation 5 (Black, White, Black 2, White 2)
- Insane Refinement and Ambition - Gen 5 was the first generation of Pokemon since Gen 2 to have a second game release on the same system, meaning that the team at Game Freak could build on their existing engine and spend more time on the finer details which would otherwise get overlooked for time reasons. Such things include:
- On the smaller end of things, there are the quality of life improvements such as no longer taking damage from poison outside of battle and that Pokemon Centers and Pokemarts are now combined into one handy location! HMs have also been reduced in both number and importance, and TMs can now be used infinitely.
- On the bigger end of things, the ambition of Game Freak in this generation was insane - 156 new Pokemon, tons of new moves and abilities (including new Hidden Abilities for nearly every existing Pokemon), dynamic camera angles in the overworld and in battle, and the music is also context-based. I mean, just read this description of the music from the Gen 5 article on Bulbapedia to get an idea of how insane the design was on this game: "The overworld music also changes in certain circumstances. Almost all the routes now have instruments that differ between the seasons, and layers that activate and deactivate when the player walks or stops, respectively; while music that plays in some towns and cities have layers that can be added by talking to citizens. These people can be seen playing different musical instruments like piano, guitar, etc."
- Animated Sprites - All battle sprites are now animated, change based on battle conditions (eg, low health or status conditions) and the camera can pan and zoom around them. This is just an insane amount of ambition because, by this time, there are now 649 Pokemon that have to be individually animated. You can certainly understand why it wasn't done earlier (and why they dropped sprites after this game), because the amount of work that this must have required is mind-boggling.
- Best Story in the Franchise - If there's one thing that Pokemon Black and White are known for, it's their really strong emphasis on story. At times, the emphasis on story makes the Gen 5 games feel closer to a traditional RPG than any other Pokemon game. Previous entries in the franchise had made some attempts at a story, but Gen 5 makes their attempts look completely half-hearted. Team Plasma are probably my favourite villainous team in the franchise, with a plan which is actually somewhat morally grey, as they want to free Pokemon from being caught and trained (there's more to it of course, and their ultimate leader Ghetsis is a truly sinister bastard). The biggest highlight of the game's story though is your character's foil, N. He's your antagonist, but he is not an evil person by any means. He is legitimately fascinating in his conviction and in how willing he is to change if you can prove that your convictions are stronger. Also worth noting is that all the gym leaders and major characters you meet are given personalities and, by the end of the story, they will have come back (including one epic showdown with all of the gym leaders coming to your side).
- Major Version Differences - Each of the games in this generation have some pretty big thematic and aesthetic differences which go beyond the character and palette swaps that Gen 3 experimented with. Gen 5 goes so far as to include wildly-different version exclusive areas and Pokemon, with White's region appearing more rural and "traditional", while Black's region is more urban and even futuristic. It can feel like you're missing out if you don't have both versions, but at least it makes it feel like you're not just playing the exact same game if you do get both.
- Alternate Formes - Pokemon that can change their "forme" have been around since at least Gen 3 with Castform and Deoxys (or even Gen 2 if you count Unown), but Gen 5 really cranked this feature up a notch. Nearly every legendary and mythical Pokemon gets some sort of alternate forme that they can activate, which change up their designs, stats and options in interesting ways. It's a creative way to fill out the roster without having to rely on new Pokemon or evolutions.
- No Classic Pokemon - In Black and White, you can't catch any non-Unova Pokemon until after the main quest is completed. On the one hand, I kind of like that it forces you to use different Pokemon than you might have otherwise, but this is obviously going to piss off a lot of people who don't care for the new Pokemon and it does restrict your options a fair bit on each playthrough. Black 2 and White 2 do open up the roster a fair bit earlier though.
- Linearity - Basically every Pokemon game is fairly linear, with only Gen 1 having any real freedom in the later stages of the game, but Gen 5's emphasis on story takes this to a new level. It's certainly a worthwhile payoff in my opinion, but it does make replays a bit harder to get into.
- Seasons - I'm mixed on the season feature in these games. The day/night cycle in previous games was fun and wasn't too inconvenient for players to get around. However, having your seasons cycle once every month is just painful at times, especially because certain items and optional routes are only available during specific seasons. That said, it is (again) ambitious and visually stunning to change many of the areas in the game every month, so I'm a bit mixed on it. Also, Deerling and Sawsbuck's visual design changes in each season, which is quite striking to witness.
- The Pokemon Are Polarizing - Sure, Game Freak were super ambitious introducing 156 new Pokemon in one game and if it worked out well then it could potentially recreate the feeling of discovering Pokemon all over again from back in Gen 1. However, I can't help but feel like this actually resulted in a design philosophy of quantity over quality, which has resulted in some major issues which undermine all of the technical refinement this generation brought us. Plus, considering that Pokemon design is the backbone of this series, the fact that this generation's roster is so mixed is an absolutely crippling issue:
- Many of these new Pokemon just feel over-done and straight-up ugly at times. Kyurem and its fusion formes especially look awful and are pretty much emblematic of the cliche at the time that Gen 5 came out that the "Pokemon are starting to look like Digimon". Some players may feel like Zekrom and Reshiram fit into this issue as well, but over time they have become straight-up two of my favourite legendaries in the whole series.
- In general, the Pokemon designs themselves are extremely hit or miss this generation. Some evolution likes are just incredibly dumb or lazy, rehashing some of the absolute worst aspects of Gen 1 design (eg, anthropomorphizing a random object [Vanillish], or adding another piece onto the Pokemon to make it "evolve" [Klinklang], etc). Like, as much as people like to complain about Garbodor*, which is literally a Pokemon made of a pile of trash, it's far from the worst-designed Pokemon in this generation. While a number of the Pokemon in this generation have since grown on me (such as Conkeldurr, Ferrothorn and Litwick), this generation still has by far the most Pokemon designs which I straight-up dislike (see: the shittiest Pokemon of Gen 5 below).
- There are also a lot of new Pokemon which are clearly just meant to pay homage to classic Pokemon, which just makes the generation feel more uncreative and even makes Gen 5 feel like one of those wannabe knock-off Pokemon games at times. Without making too much of a stretch, it's pretty clear that:
- Woobat line = Zubat line
- Audino = Chansey
- Conkeldurr line = Machamp line
- Sawk and Throh = Hitmonchan and Hitmonlee
- Gothitelle = Jynx
- Ferroseed line = Pineco
- Klink line = Magnemite
- Bouffalant = Tauros
- Power Creep - It is generally acknowledged that power creep really noticeably set in in this generation, with many of the new Pokemon being straight-up stronger or, at least, better optimized than their older counterparts (many of which were designed for a time before the physical/special split was a thing and when the movepools were significantly more limited). This also marked the point where Fighting and Dragon-type Pokemon began to run rampant and making weather conditions last indefinitely made "weather wars" a defining aspect of the competitive scene.
- Mini-Games Still Suck - Contests have finally been dropped this generation, but in their place we instead get Pokemon Musicals, which are arguably even more throwaway (although, on the plus side, they changed how Feebas evolves now, making acquiring Milotic less of a hair-pulling experience).
- Dream World/Dream Radar - This key feature allowed you to play mini-games online in order to acquire rare Pokemon with hidden abilities... however, the servers for it have been shut down for years now, which rendered many Pokemon's hidden abilities unobtainable outside of trading or breeding for years before Game Freak made obtaining Hidden Abilities possible again. Back in the day, I'd probably have considered this a plus, but the fact that this important addition was so time-limited and not something you can go back to really rubs me the wrong way as someone who likes to go back and replay old Pokemon games.
- No Auto-Levelling Online - Just... why? Gen 4 had auto-levelling in online battles, meaning that all of the Pokemon would be scaled to a fair level, but for God knows what reason, this was removed in Gen 5. This is probably why the competitive scene tends to be at level 100 in this generation, but that means you have to get each and every one of your competitive Pokemon up to level 100 to do anything.
- XP System - Gen 5 made a weird change where Pokemon gain more or less XP when a Pokemon is defeated based on the difference in their levels, rather than static XP gains based on the Pokemon. On the one hand this means that it's very difficult to get over-levelled and means that lower level Pokemon will catch up faster. However, I feel like this isn't nearly enough to make up for the fact that it makes grinding so much worse. Doesn't it make more sense to just have lower level Pokemon's XP yields suitable for lower levels, but trivial for higher levels like it is in basically every other generation?
Shittiest Pokemon of Gen 5: Watchog, Simisage, Simisear, Gurdurr, Palpitoad, Throh, Sawk, Scraggy, Gothitelle, Reuniclus, Klinklang, Cryogonal, Kyurem (particularly its fusion formes), Basculin
Tune in soon for the next entry where I'll cover Generation 6.
*For what it's worth, I kind of love Garbodor.