Longform

Part II: The Chapters of Unova

For the anniversary of the release of Pokémon Black and White, we continue our tribute to the games. Part II focuses on the main storyline and its synthesis of narrative and gameplay.

Return of the Champions

The mainline Pokémon series has sporadically featured “superbosses” for players to challenge. A superboss is an optional boss battle, generally of considerable challenge to defeat, hence the “super.” Pokémon’s first instance of such a battle is the iconic Red fight atop Mt. Silver in Gold, Silver, and Crystal. And as Pokémon tends to do, this laid the groundwork for the series’s future superbosses. These Trainers can be challenged only after clearing the main storyline, and their team boasts levels higher than any other in their respective game.

But while their teams pack a wallop, the Trainers’ narrative impact can be rather hit-or-miss, especially leading up to Black and White. It can be easy to take for granted now with the overdose of Kanto-based remakes, but for a child like myself who never played a video game before Crystal, the battle with Red felt like just another Trainer to plow through rather than the epic showdown to overcome my “past self” as it was meant to be. By comparison, Emerald’s ultimate challenge with Steven felt a lot more meaningful. Even if you hadn’t played Ruby or Sapphire beforehand, Steven is still an involved character in the events of Emerald. He’s even given an extra opportunity to shine in an Emerald-exclusive multi battle, teaming up with the player to take down both Team Magma’s Admin Tabitha, and its leader Maxie. Steven is built up throughout Emerald in a way that makes any player look forward to finding him in the deep recesses of Meteor Falls—and if they have prior experience facing him as Ruby and Sapphire’s Champion, all the better.

In what is now a recurring theme, Black and White gives players the best of both worlds even in this department through the inclusion of two notable superbosses, one who appeals to returning players and the other who serves as a narratively charged final challenge. The first of these Trainers infamously awaits the player in a private villa in Undella Town—the Sinnoh region Champion, Cynthia. For series veterans, walking into this unassuming abode instills both excitement and dread. For those unfamiliar with Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum, the imposing piano track is sure to build tension, while Cynthia herself makes reference to the nearby Abyssal Ruins. This directs the attention of players both new and established towards this optional yet intriguing spot… but they may not go there before the Trainer clad in black challenges them to a battle.

Using a combination of Pokémon introduced in Unova and members from her team back in Sinnoh, Cynthia’s entourage boasts levels mirrored only by the remaining superboss. She’s a force to be reckoned with for first-time challengers and a blast from the past for those who’ve traversed Sinnoh before. And even still, she fills a rather unique worldbuilding role when all’s said and done.

Black and White lack previous-generation Pokémon until after the credits first roll, but steady references to trade and travel with other regions makes the entire world feel unified. Even though Unova is so far away from the other regions that its route numbering starts back over at 1, the Pokémon world is still all connected. The produce cultivated in Mistralton is sent overseas, which Skyla herself helps transport, and other goods are sent to Driftveil to similarly be distributed all over the world. Icirrus City is filled with minor NPCs who keep the connection consistent, such as a pair claiming they were once a part of Team Magma and Aqua, an ex-Team Rocket member who now lives happily with a family, and a martial artist from the Kanto fighting dojo training in Brycen’s Gym. Before you can even embark on your post-game adventure, Sinnoh’s own Looker visits your home. All this culminates with the surprise appearance of Cynthia. The junior historian is a perfect fit to encourage players to seek out the Abyssal Ruins while also serving as a perfectly appropriate superboss—a fan-favorite Champion back again to assert her strength in battle.

And the connections don’t stop there, as it turns out Cynthia is good friends with the Elite Four member, Caitlin. In fact, the villa Cynthia stays at belongs to Caitlin, while Caitlin herself is actually from Sinnoh. Battle Frontier fans will recognize this Psychic-type specialist from the Platinum, HeartGold, and SoulSilver Battle Castle, albeit aged up to indicate the natural passage of time. Those who don’t recognize her are still clued in via dialogue, some that reference her past violent temperament, and others that directly reference the Battle Castles in both Johto and Sinnoh.

“This is my villa. I have villas all over the world, and I allow Cynthia to use them,” she says when she stops by to visit. After first defeating Cynthia, the region’s female Gym Leaders and Elite Four members, including, of course, her dear friend Caitlin, will visit on occasion, breathing life into these characters as well as the villa. Cynthia herself can be re-challenged during spring, but in the meantime, her inclusion in Black and White serves various roles that strengthen the games’ themes. As a result, Cynthia’s appearance is a delight for established fans and continues to connect Unova to the rest of the Pokémon world.

The games’ second superboss is none other than the Champion himself, Alder. Although N stood in his place the first time you tackled the League, upon returning the castle has crumbled and you’re free to challenge the Elite Four once more. Subsequent League challenges use the same initial format, except now the Elite Four boast full teams of six Pokémon, and they hail from a mixture of regions rather than only from Unova. And to top things off, their levels range from 71 to 73! Rather than easing up, Black and White keep the post-game challenging so players remain engaged. And because you didn’t get the opportunity to test your skills against Alder the first time around, there’s a practical reason to want to tackle the League again that isn’t just for gaining experience and money.

Since the Elite Four are no slouches themselves, the path to reach Alder is a formidable challenge in and of itself. The gauntlet is grueling, so you must be prepared for the worst. Those who can best the League a second time are able to face Alder, improved in both spirit and team since the events with Team Plasma. The music is filled with brass and percussion to reflect his high position as Champion, but still utilizing an upbeat rhythm and key to indicate that this is, deep down, a battle for fun. Unova has already been saved from the threat of Team Plasma, and, like other Pokémon titles, the battle with the Champion is mostly a formality. Still, reinvigorated, he challenges you at his full strength, his team ranging from Level 75 to 77 just like Cynthia.

Unlike the new-and-improved Elite Four, however, Alder’s team does not feature Pokémon from across the world. He instead uses Pokémon exclusively from his beloved home of Unova, not unlike what you would have faced had you battled him prior to the credits rolling like in past Pokémon games. Some of his teammates are Pokémon already associated with frightening fights. Bouffalant is also used by Ghetsis, Vanilluxe is shared with N; and even Druddigon is used by the final Gym Leaders Drayden and Iris. Accelgor and Escavalier are also powerhouses, and unique in being “trade evolutions.” Their pre-evolved forms can only evolve when traded, indicating through his team that Alder really did make many connections during his travels, going so far as to trade with some of the people he met.

His final teammate is Volcarona, the sun of Unova. Boasting fantastic Special Attack, Special Defense, and Speed stats, in addition to respectable HP, Volcarona can take a beating while dishing out some horrifying damage. Its attack Quiver Dance also raises its aforementioned non-HP stats all at once, meaning it can become very dangerous very fast if not dealt with intelligently. Overcoming Alder requires strategy in addition to proper levels, making this showdown with him well worth the wait.

Those who can best the restored Champion are given a more traditional ceremony as Alder escorts you into the room where your team is officially inducted into the Hall of Fame. Although the switch to N and Ghetsis as the final bosses was perfect for the story, Alder himself was still a crucial component of your adventure, helping Cheren to grow as a person and helping you to prepare for the showdown against Team Plasma. Undergoing his own struggles as he recognized he was not fit to save the region he so loved, Alder still stood as strong as he could to support you, making the moment you could finally challenge him worthwhile.

Whereas Cynthia serves as a wonderful battle to treat those who’ve already journeyed through Sinnoh, the battle against Alder is built up not only through the use of a beefed-up Elite Four, but throughout the entire game as his guidance and character arc intertwine. Finally getting the chance to challenge the region’s original Champion himself is just as touching as it is exhilarating. As the most narratively involved Champion in the series up until that point, seeing him return to his rightful place in the Pokémon League with a team indicative of both his newfound strength and of his time-honored values is incredibly satisfying. And while the fate of the world doesn’t ride on this battle, the fulfilling nature of it all truly goes to show that the real treasures of your journey were, in fact, the friends you made along the way.


Continue to Part III