Pokemon Black and White: Game Freak speaks
We graciously accept a rare-as-Celebi invite to Game Freak’s Tokyo offices to see for ourselves just how Nintendo’s pocket monster has evolved…
Black and White. Where once stood evocative colours, precious metals and various gemstones for potential players to align themselves with, the fifth generation brings with it the most extreme branding yet. Light and darkness, good and evil, absolutes and nothingness… you’re no longer picking a point along a line based on personal preference, but picking an end of the spectrum to represent. And this shift isn’t just one of branding. It’s indicative of the biggest shakeup to the series to date, both in terms of differences between the pair of versions and in terms of changes between game generations. So, while the biggest difference between the two versions might previously have been whether or not you could catch Bellsprout, Black and White go as far as to offer exclusive areas, battles and characters, as they push the franchise forward and demonstrate just how much more the DS has to offer.
But before we get onto quite how so many of Pokémon’s staple mechanics have been improved, built upon and in some cases rebuilt entirely, it’s probably best that we tackle the biggest change first. Prior to Black and White’s additional 156 monsters, the Pokédex stood at an impressive 493 different creatures to catch and raise, many with variants and subspecies to discover. But have you caught them all yet? Because if you haven’t, Black and White are going to make you wait some time before the new games give you access to the old faces.
Ridiculous? Brave? Crazy? Pointless? Having worked so hard to cement Pikachu and friends as household names, Game Freak’s decision to use exclusively original monsters for the fifth generation of Pokémon games has been described as many things though having discussed the decision with the team, we’re more inclined to lean towards the complimentary. “In creating games that are very similar to one another, they’re usually going to look very similar too, so that was the first challenge we faced. We wanted to somehow make it very different to the previous games so we started to think about how to add new elements to the game and convey to the audience how new the experience is,” explains Ken Sugimori, art director and designer of the original set of monsters. “We got a mission from Mr Masuda, stating that every Pokémon in this game had to be brand new, so no existing Pokémon appear in the game. This was a huge challenge and, to support it, we also had to create a world that was completely different from the existing games. In the Pokémon world, there are monsters that look like dogs, like horses, like deer… it should be obvious that we always draw inspiration from the animal kingdom when creating new Pokémon. The research we did was to take the designers to the zoo to study different animals.”
This sounds like the kind of research we can get behind, and, going through the new monsters that have been added, we have to assume that everyone had ice cream as part of this lovely day out and one of the less switched on designers mistook it for an animal and based a Pokémon on it – Baibanira (who has yet to be given an English name) evolves from a blob into an ice cream cone and culminates as a double-scoop destroyer. Between the kitsch value of a newcomer like this, and the host of far more traditional and well-imagined monsters, it’s certainly a solid line-up, though we can’t help but ask Sugimori – whose skilled pen hand produced all of the official art for the new monsters – about the perils of leaving old friends behind. “I totally agree; it’s a risk. Often I consulted with Mr Masuda about it, as it was his idea to use only new Pokémon and we didn’t agree on it initially,” he reveals. “But in Japan, we’ve had great feedback from critics and the audience because it’s all fresh. In order to reduce the risk of having only new monsters, the design team would put each individual Pokémon up on the wall so we could see them alongside the originals. There are over 500 Pokémon now, and obviously they’re not all created by one person – more than thirty people work on that aspect of the game now and each one of them will have personal feelings or attachment to specific Pokémon that they created.”
It’s not as though the decision to big up the new monsters was made hastily, either. Black and White’s director, the aforementioned Junichi Masuda, explains a little about the genesis of the project. “The original concept began about four years ago but it was only myself on planning and seven coders at the beginning of the project,” he reveals. “The programmers were researching new functions and elements we could get out of the DS system and I thought that since a lot of people see Pokémon as a game targeted at children, I wanted to open it up to a broader audience. We know there will be players that have never played a Pokémon game before as well as those that have, so we wanted to target both groups equally. In order to do so, we decided to create an all-new set of monsters for these games.”
But this in itself did away with some long-standing traditions between versions, not least the introduction of new evolutions and baby versions of existing monsters. We’ve seen previously underused monsters like Magneton, Togetic and Rhydon offered a new lease on competitive life with powerful evolved forms, had further options for Pokémon like good ol’ versatile Eevee, and imagined corporate eyes turning to dollar signs as the hyper-cute likes of Pichu and Igglybuff join the cast, though Sugimori did suggest to us that while it might not have been possible with a brand new cast, further evolutions are still a possibility further down the line.