Google “Pokemon is for kids” and you’ll get a plethora of links refuting the idea. Ever since its first incarnation twenty years ago, Pokemon has appealed to fans of all ages for various reasons that are the subject of many a thinkpiece. At the same time, Pokemon games, with its minimizing of violence, utopia-esque settings, and tie-in Saturday morning cartoon, are intended for younger audiences.
And then there was fifth generation.
Pokemon Black and White, and Black 2 and White 2, broke the mold Pokemon had been making for itself in multiple ways. Most Pokemon games release one generation for a particular console; Black and White were the first games that didn’t follow this trend, as Pokemon Pearl, Diamond and Platinum were released for the DS four years earlier. Black and White were the first to have direct sequels (following the consequences of the first plot, with the same characters and region) instead of a third version. They were the first whose region, Unova, was based on a place outside of Japan (specifically, New York City). And it was the first time that Pokemon aimed specifically beyond the tween audience, and grew up.
Black and White’s maturing started with its main character. While in the previous generations, the protagonists were eleven, Black and White’s pair of player characters are stated as fourteen (and prior to release of this fact, the fanbase judged them to be 16 or 17). This three-year advancement moves the characters out of the middle grade bracket and into young adult territory. In Japan, the change in age bracket was reinforced by Pokemon Black and White’s choice to offer the game text with kanji, a more difficult system of reading typically used by teens and adults rather than children.
And the storyline itself matured along with the player character, starting with its supporting cast. Pokemon is notoriously romance-adverse, but the interactions on the ferris wheel (particularly with N) of Black/White and the ongoing conversations with Curtis/Yancy in Black 2/White 2 got pretty dang close. And while the rival characters have been getting increasingly developed and complex through the generations, Black and White was the first one to also tune in to the gym leaders, the supposed pillars of the community, and give them all time and function outside of the gym. Unlike other regions, the gym leaders of Unova are shown to be aware of the actions of the evil team, and actively take steps to counteract them.
Speaking of that evil team… sorry, Rocket fans, but Team Plasma is the best evil team of all time, precisely because they aren’t entirely evil. Team Rocket was basically a crime syndicate. Later teams like Aqua, Magma, and Galactic had ideals, but their ideals were so unrealistic, it was hard to take them seriously. (Cover the earth in water/land? Uh, sure, I don’t see any logistical problems there….) Team Plasma was both—a crime syndicate running under the cover of an idealistic group.
And their ideal—the ethics of catching wild Pokemon, prompting them to encourage mass release—is an actual moral quandary, given that most wild catches are forcing them from their homes and Pokemon are often portrayed as intelligent and even sentient. Of course, being Pokemon, they didn’t touch on it too deeply: you still run around the woods willy-nilly depleting the local populations, but it was an interesting subject to see broached. And their complexity as an organization continues in Black 2 and White 2, when the idealistic portion splits from the straight-up criminal portion and has to come to terms with what happened under their name.
Black 2 and White 2, in addition to having the unique distinction of being the only true sequels to a Pokemon main series game, also are the only ones to provide the surprisingly mainstream game-esque option of difficulty levels. By syncing with other copies of the game, one could unlock both an easier and a harder mode for the main game. Both were useful to older players: the ones who wanted to blow through the game as quick as possible so they could battle other players without restrictions could choose the easier mode, while those who wanted an actual challenge from the main game that extended beyond muscling your way through every NPC on the way could choose the harder.
All the changes and risks seemed to be worth the effort—Pokemon Black and White sold about as well as the previous two generations, and would be comparable to the two generations that followed. But for some reason, the changes toward an older, more mature audience didn’t stick as Pokemon X and Y (and later, Sun and Moon) went back to a younger protagonist, a simpler story. (X/Y was particularly egregious in the “hey let’s set up story elements that might be cool and then do jack all with them” field.) Was the older target audience like so many elements, tried once and then discarded along the way? (RIP, Battle Pike, walking Pokemon, Pokestar Studios, and Join Avenue.) Was the sixth generation merely the generation they decided to stop chasing after the longtime fans from the nineties and start pursuing their children instead? Or did they hope to pick up the older generation with spinoff mobile games, like Pokemon Duel and of course, Pokemon GO?
As an older fan, I’m not about to insist that Pokemon stay relevant to me: like many series seeing current reboots, focusing on the future market instead of endless callbacks to the past is the way to creating a more solid, fresh game that both old and young can enjoy. But for me, Black and White focusing on an older audience was that freshness that the Pokemon main series franchise, seven generations in, is starting to be in desperate need of. Anecdotally, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon were met with the least amount of enthusiasm and fanfare I’ve seen from the fandom since… well, Sun and Moon. If eighth generation leaves me behind in favor of the kids, that’s okay. But as someone who’s been playing Pokemon for literally over half her life, I hope they don’t.
(Alternately, Game Freak, if you’re listening? A RPG spinoff a la XD and Colosseum would also be great for capturing the older players, thanks.)
Longtime writer, temporary office minion, and nerd of all trades, tiakall is a fan of lengthy subordinate clauses and the Oxford comma. She enjoys plants, cats, puns of varying quality, and making cannibal jokes before it was cool.