Evolution of Pokemon Design — Generation 5
What’s up designers, and welcome back to Rempton Games. Today, I am very excited to present part 5 of the Evolution of Pokemon Design series, focusing on Pokemon Black and White. This generation has the most new Pokemon, is one of the biggest conceptual shifts in the series, and is one of the most controversial generations so far, so I have a lot to talk about.
Really quickly, before I get into that, I want to comment on another one of my recent videos — on “How I taught an AI to play Pokemon Emerald”. I was overwhelmed by the response to that video, with many people expressing interest in seeing more with that project. I just want to let everyone know that I do plan to do further work on that project, and possibly even put up pure gameplay videos to see how far the AI can make it on it’s own, but it will take some time. Stay tuned! And without further ado, let’s dig into Gen 5!
As I mentioned before, Generation 5 is a very interesting generation because it seems to represent a bit of a shift in focus for the series. In an Iwata Asks interview, Junichi Masuda explains that the development team was a bit worried about designing Black and White, because it was the first time a new Pokemon generation would be made on the same hardware as a previous generation. Up until this point, every new Pokemon generation has appeared on new hardware — Red and Green on the original Game Boy, Gold and Silver on the Game Boy Color, Ruby and Sapphire on the Game Boy Advance, and Diamond and Pearl on the DS. This change in hardware created an inherent distinction between each new generation. This time, however, there was no new hardware, and the team was worried that, unless they deliberately shook things up, the games would feel too similar to the previous generation. This attitude towards designing these games resulted in a number of changes beginning in this generation.
This can be seen perhaps most obviously with the choice of region. All four main regions in previous games — Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, and Sinnoh, were based off of specific areas in Japan. On the other hand, this generation’s new region — Unova — is based off of New York City in the United States. Choosing to base the region on the United States created a number of ripple effects on the design. First, it prompted the creation of several Pokemon with American influences, such as Braviary the bald eagle, Elgyem being based on the Roswell aliens, Bouffalant the bison, Sigilyph being based on native American artwork and the Nazca lines, and Maractus being based on cactuses found in the American southwest.
Although the region draws inspiration from many different parts of the United States, it is still primarily based on New York, and due to this is one of the most urbanized regions and contains the biggest city yet seen in a Pokemon game — Castelia city. Because of this, many Pokemon designs in this generation have a very “urban” influence, such as Watchog’s design looking like a crossing guard, the Pidove line being based on pigeons, the Conkledurr line being influenced by construction workers, as well as Pokemon like Garbodor, Vanilluxe and Scrafty.
Choosing to make a region set outside of Japan had a number of other effects on the design of the game. One was an emphasis on diversity. Japan’s population is very…not diverse. According to a 2018 census, the population of Japan is 97.8% ethnically Japanese. The United States is much more ethnically diverse, with large populations of European, African, Asian, Native American and South American descent. Because of this, these games have a much more diverse set of characters than previous generations, with characters like Iris, Marshall, Lenora, Alder and Marlon clearly not belonging to the light-skinned race of generic anime people.
This focus on diversity doesn’t seem to have had too much of an effect on the designs of the Pokemon of this generation, with one huge exception — the starters. Each of the Starter Pokemon in this generation actually represents a different cultural background. Serperior is designed like a European noble, while Emboar represents an ancient Chinese warlord, and Samurott of course is a Medieval Japanese samurai.
The last, and most impactful, consequence of choosing to set the game outside of a Japanese inspired region was the matter of distance from the previous regions. In the previous four generations it was totally normal to walk around and find Pokemon from previous regions in the wild. However, as a way to show just how far the Unova region was from all of the regions previously shown, Game Freak made the decision to not include any Pokemon from previous generations in the wild until AFTER you beat the game.
This decision had a huge influence on the direction of the game, and brought it very close to “reboot” status. The decision to not include any Pokemon from previous generations strongly influenced what sort of new Pokemon they could design. For the very first time, this generation doesn’t include any Pokemon that are evolutions or pre-evolutions of previous Pokemon. This means that certain designs that may have initially been designed as evolutions of previous Pokemon (such as Luvdisc evolving into Alomomola, or Tauros evolving into Bouffalant) ended up becoming their own single-stage Pokemon. This decision also caused the team to design a number of Pokemon that fill roles that are eerily similar to Pokemon from the past.
While certain types of Pokemon, such as starters and cover Legendaries get repeated pretty much every generation, Gen 5 gets much more specific than that. For example, in previous generations you could occasionally find a Pokeball on the ground, pick it up, and it turns out to actually be a Voltorb. This is similar to the classic idea of a mimic chest that can be found in a lot of RPG’s. Because the team decided not to use older Pokemon in this generation, they created a new mimic Pokemon — Foongus — to serve the same role.
Similarly, in the Anime, Chansey and Blissey are often shown assisting Nurse Joys at Pokemon centers. This generation needed a new Pokemon to fill that role, so Audino was born. Woobat and Swoobat were designed to fill the role of bats that you can find in caves instead of Zubat, while Roggenrola replaces Geodude in those same caves. You have a fighting type duo with contrasting fighting styles, a three stage fighting line that evolves by trading, a psychic dream-based tapir, and I could keep going. All of these designs are clear callbacks to Pokemon from generation 1, and are meant to fill a role that was left vacant by the lack of Pokemon from previous generations.
The decision not to include any older Pokemon also put certain requirements on the elemental types that could be included. This generation had to stand on its own, which meant that it had to include enough Pokemon of each different type. This led to several Pokemon changing types to create a better variety. Stunfish was originally designed as a Water / Electric type, but got changed to Ground / Electric. Similarly, the Frillish line was originally pure water, but the Ghost type was adding during “balancing”.
While being based in the US certainly had a huge influence on the design of these games, that wasn’t the only thing going on in this generation. Pokemon Black and White also had a thematic motif of opposites working together, and the concept of “Truth vs Ideals”. This can be seen most clearly with the cover legendaries of the game — Pokemon White gets the black legendary Zekrom, while Pokemon Black gets the white Legendary Reshiram.
This also connects with the origins of these Pokemon in the lore of these games. According to the legend there were two brothers who used an ancient dragon Pokemon to create the Unova region. However, these brothers soon came into conflict, because one strived for truth while the other fought for his ideals. In response to this conflict, the ancient dragon split into two — Reshiram and Zekrom. Reshiram, representing truth and “Yang”, sided with the older brother, while Zekrom, representing Ideals and “Yin”, sided with the younger brother. The leftover empty shell of the original dragon became the ice dragon Kyurem which represents the concept of Wuji — the absence of Yin and Yang.
This concept of opposites shows up in other places in the game as well. Certain locations in the game, such as Opelucid City, will have a more advanced, technological appearance in Black version and a more ancient, rustic appearance in White Version. There are also exclusive locations in each different version — Black City is of course exclusive to Black, and White Forest is exclusive to white. Unfortunately, this theme doesn’t really seem to show up in the designs of the Pokemon — aside from the aforementioned Legendaries. Even the version exclusive counterparts — Mandibuzz and Braviary, or Gothitelle and Reuniclus — don’t really seem to play up this theme of “opposites” any more than version exclusives in previous generations.
Aside from these themes, there were a number of mechanical and technological advances that had an effect on the designs of this generation. The first of these is the addition of in-game seasons that change every month. This mechanic has never returned in any other generations, but is responsible for the design of one Pokemon family — Sawsbuck and Deerling. These Pokemon are both grass/normal types that change form based on the current season.
Characters in the game often influence the designs of certain Pokemon, such as Volcarona being designed to be the Champion’s ace, but Black and White contains a very interesting example of this. The first gym is unusual because it has 3 different leaders — Cress, Cilan, and Chili — who specialize in the elements of Water, Grass and Fire respectively. Which one you face will depend on which starter you picked — you will always face the one whose element is super-effective against yours. The three monkey Pokemon Panpour, Pansage and Pansear were specifically designed to be used with these three leaders.
The way Pokemon were displayed in this generation changed significantly from previous generations. Although these games were made on the same hardware as Diamond and Pearl, they still found a way to not only increase the size of these sprites — from 80 * 80 to 96 * 96 pixels — but every sprite is also continuously animated. I think we have started to hit the point where the size increase will have diminishing returns on what Pokemon can be designed, but the continuous animation did help somewhat expand the designs that could be made.
Klinklang’s design, of many gears constantly turning, really needs to be seen in motion to work. Similarly, Scrafty’s animation really helps drive home the idea that it is wearing saggy pants made of it’s own shed skin, and Reunicluses animation make it seem more transparent — something that would not come across as clearly in a static sprite. Other designs, such as Kofagrigus and Cubchoo, maybe didn’t strictly need animation to work, but it really helps sell the design and personality of these Pokemon.
Now it’s time to look at some design trends in this generation that don’t necessarily fit into any of the above categories. I will say that Gen 5 is particularly difficult to characterize in terms of overall design style, for a number of reasons. First, it introduces more Pokemon than any previous generation, which means that for any particular trend you try to point out there will be several counter-examples that contradict that trend. In addition, Gen 5 also had more artists than any other previous generation, which means more people putting their unique spins on their Pokemon designs.
That being said, I don think there is one major trend that characterizes this generation as a whole, and that is the willingness to make Pokemon designs that are weird, goofy, and bizarre. For the first time since Gen 1 we get Pokemon with multiple heads like Vanilluxe and Hydreigon, or multiple bodies like Klinklang. We also get goofy designs like Stunfisk, which was specifically designed to be the flattest Pokemon, Trubbish which is a derpy bag of trash, and Sigilyph which is still quite possibly the strangest Pokemon design ever made.
It may also be helpful to note some of the trends that Gen 5 DIDN’T carry over from Gen 4. First is the lack of random or unnecessary spikes in the designs. It isn’t that none of the Pokemon have spikes, but more that the spikes seem more integrated into the design of Pokemon such as Pawniard, Ferrothorn and Gigallith, rather than simply pasted on like Rampardos or Lucario.
Similarly, while the designs of this generation aren’t necessarily less busy than in Gen 4, I think the details in this generation at least tie in more closely with the concept of the Pokemon — they feel less extraneous. Because of this, I feel like there are very few Pokemon in this generation that feel over-designed.
The big, glaring exception to this is the cover legendaries of the sequels, Kyurem White and Kyurem Black. Just looking at these Pokemon visually it is clear that they have a lot going on, but I think they are also trying to do too much from a conceptual level. These designs each represent Kyurem fused with either Reshiram and Zekrom, so clearly the design wants to represent the different parts of the fusion. However, it also wants to convey a sense of incompleteness, since the fused dragon is still missing a piece, and the designs also try to convey that this fusion is unnatural due to the artificial nature of the fusion. That is a lot to try to convey in a creature design, and ends up leaving the end result feeling extremely cluttered — although one could argue that this is intentional.
Finally, I just want to briefly touch on some of the controversy around the designs of this generation. There have been claims among certain members of the Pokemon fandom that Game Freak is running out of ideas for new Pokemon, and I believe that this all began, or at least really gained traction, around the time that Black and White was released. Some designs in this generation, including the Vanillite line, Trubbish, Stunfish, Klinklang, and the three monkeys, were very unpopular when these games were first released and were put forth as evidence for the idea that Game Freak was running out of ideas.
While I don’t think Game Freak will run out of ideas anytime soon, I do think some of this criticism is valid. With the three monkey Pokemon, their evolutions, as well as the Legendary Genies Tornadus, Thundurus and Landorus, this shows that the designers of this generation were willing to release Pokemon that were basically pallete swapped versions of eachother. On the one hand this is something that pretty much every other RPG with monsters does — for example, a game like Dragon Quest might turn their slime a different color to show that it is a little bit stronger now. However, I think that we have come to expect more from Pokemon and expect each design to be more unique.
On the other hand, I don’t have a problem with many of the other Pokemon that were listed. Garbodor, for example, is a being made of trash. He is a replacement for Muk, a first Gen Pokemon made of toxic sludge. I see no reason why, in the Pokemon world we have been presented, a Pokemon made of trash or that simply resembles trash wouldn’t make sense. True, it looks a bit derpy, but derpy Pokemon have been around forever as well.
Similarly, nobody really seems to like Klinklang since “it’s just a bunch of gears”. True, but I think gears are under-appreciated. You can make some really cool things out of gears, such as mechanical computers, and Klinklang actually makes use of a wide variety of different types of fun gears, like Sun and Planet and Bevel gears. So yes, the design may just look like a bunch of gears, but as before, I see no reason why that can’t be a Pokemon.
That being said, this Generation does contain what I consider to be the worst, laziest Pokemon design in the whole series. Place your bets on who I could be referring to — drumroll — it’s Basculin. Sorry if you are a Basculin fan, but I think it is an awful design and here’s why. First, it reminds me way too much of Carvanha, but I would say that Carvanha is more interesting because not only is it a Water and Dark type instead of just pure water, but it evolves into a Shark. Basculin, on the other hand, is a single stage Pokemon with below-average stats. Basculin was also ONLY DESIGNED because there was a shortage of fish Pokemon in this generation. However, not only was it added basically as an afterthought, but it was also given two different forms that barely differ at all purely as a way to increase the number of different fish that can be caught.
That being said, with a generation as big as this one you are sure to have some misses, and overall I actually think that Gen 5 is one of the most creative generations so far. What do you think? Are there any major trends that I should have covered that I missed? Do you strongly disagree with me about Basculin, or any of the other Pokemon I mentioned? Let me know in the comments down below!
That’s all I have for this week. If you liked this video please give it a like, and subscribe so you don’t miss more videos like this in the future. If you want to see more you should definitely check out the previous entries of this series, as well as my other videos on a wide variety of Game Design topics. And join me next week, where I dig into the religious symbolism that can be found in the Halo series! Until then, thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you all next time.
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Originally published at https://remptongames.com on July 20, 2020.