Pokémon. It’s the biggest multimedia franchise on the planet. Everyone knows what a Pikachu is. The Pokéball, a red-and-white sphere bisected by a black line, is immediately recognisable to even your most out-of-touch aunts and uncles. But it all started with a game: 1996’s Pokémon Red and Blue versions, for Nintendo’s original Game Boy.
In the two-and-a-half decades since, the Pokémon games have maintained the same core formula. You capture magical creatures and level them up through turn-based battles, which are rooted in a scientific system of matching types. (Water beats fire, rock succumbs to fighting, and so on.) Your goal is visit the various type-specific “Pokémon gyms” throughout the land, wherein you face off against gym leaders — essentially, dojo masters — to earn that respective gym’s “badge.” There are (almost) always eight Pokémon gyms. Once you collect all eight badges, you can take on the Elite Four: a gauntlet of five intimidatingly strong trainers. Beating them more or less means beating the game. Oh, and along the way, you always have to deal with some sort of sidelined nefarious group who’s up to no good.
Pokémon games have tweaked things with every iteration — or generation, to use official parlance. Games following Red and Blue have introduced new features, like day-and-night cycles or customisable avatars, and even shaken up that type-matching chart. Each generation expanded the compendium of catchable Pokémon, which started off at 151 (“the original 151!”) and has ballooned to nearly 900 today.
The easiest way to rank Pokémon games is to order things by these generations, but that’s neither fun nor fair. There’s usually a quality discrepancy between a generation’s flagship game and the remake released during the same generation. Are Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver (fourth-generation remakes of the original second-generation games) just as good as Pokémon Diamond and Pearl? How do Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen stack up against their third-generation counterparts? Which is the very best, like no one ever was? Read on to find out.
Pokémon X and Y (2013, 3DS)
Pokémon X and Y were held back by one thing: Mega Evolutions. In these generation-six games, you could evolve Pokémon into souped-up versions. Not all Pokémon could do so, and the effect only lasted for the duration of a battle. Choosing to put a Pokémon through Mega Evolution also came at the expense of allowing it to use other stat-boosting items. Still, it granted a near-insurmountable stat boost, throwing the entire battle system out of balance.
A new feature called Super Training also sucked the joy out of raising Pokémon. All Pokémon have six stats (attack, defence, speed, special attack, special defence, and HP). These stats are governed largely by a figure known as effort values (EVs). For the first five generations, EVs were hidden; you’d have to know which Pokémon granted which EVs, and then mentally calculate which Pokémon had earned which EVs. In X and Y, this system was brought into the open, which is good for the sake of clarity. But with that clarity came Super Training, an almost offensively simple system. Instead of battling other Pokémon, you could…tap the bottom screen of your 3DS, causing the Pokémon you were training to literally hit a punching bag. It took an intelligent system and reduced it to a touchscreen grind.
Also, the game’s horde encounters — battles in which you’d have to take on not just one or two but five Pokémon at once — were also a total slog.
On the plus side, these games introduced the new fairy type. Like scientists discovering a new entry on the periodic table, it shook things up majorly — and added some necessary checks and balances against the reign of terror that, before then, dragon-type Pokémon wrought upon trainers. C’mon, you really think ice-type Pokémon stood a fair chance?
Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow (1996–’98, Game Boy)
With respect, the games that started it all do not hold up. It’s hard to look at the original Red, Blue, and Yellow versions and say that their de facto third-generation remakes — which do hold up — aren’t better in every way. But nostalgia counts for something, as does the fact that this batch of games paved the way for so many more. And their sheer staying power is nothing to scoff at. Remember Twitch plays Pokémon? What a blast.
Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 (2012, DS)
Screenshot: Nintendo / VGMuseum
Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 picked up two years after the events of Pokémon Black and White. Usually, Pokémon games round off each generation with a third game, an enhanced version of the flagship duo. Black 2 and White 2 were the first true numbered sequels in the series. It was neat to see what characters from the first game got up to. Exploring new parts of Unova was a treat. But these games just didn’t innovate much over their predecessors. A game like Pokémon Emerald can be weighed in consideration alongside its counterparts (Ruby and Sapphire); Black 2 and White 2 cannot. The fact that they were full-blown sequels that didn’t quite go all the way was somewhat of a letdown.
Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire (2014, 3DS)
Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are to-the-letter remakes of the third-generation flagship games (Ruby and Sapphire), done up with modern bells and whistles. Bringing a Game Boy Advance game to the 3DS obviously introduced some new delights. The graphics were prettier, of course, and seeing Hoenn, the third-generation’s setting, rendered in sparkling 3D offered a stunning new perspective of an old world. You could also fly around said world on the back of one of the game’s legendary Pokémon, a travel method that never got old.
But Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were ultimately hampered by the same things that hampered X and Y, the other sixth-generation games: Super Training and Mega Evolutions. Living with these features in new games was one thing, but seeing them in a remake of a true classic was a lot like watching the Gus Van Sant remake of Psycho. Everything that made the original so great is all still there, but somewhere along the way, its soul got left on the cutting room floor.
Pokémon Black and White (2010, DS)
The Unova region, as seen in promotional art for Pokémon Black and White. (Illustration: Nintendo / MobyGames)
Each generation of Pokémon games is set in a region broadly inspired by a real-world setting. The most current games, Sword and Shield, take place in Galar — basically, the United Kingdom. Kalos, from X and Y, is a take on northern France. They’re all terrific and inspire some degree of travel envy. But few compare to Unova, the main setting of Pokémon Black and White, which centres around a Poké-fied version of New York City. Like the real thing, it’s magnificent and overwhelming and transformed the idea of what a Pokémon city could be. Rather than a top-down perspective, you could see these spaces in something resembling a three-dimensional perspective — an indication of what could be possible.
Black and White also, as with each game before it, introduced some fun new features, like the new triple battle system. Unlike double battles (more of the significance of those in a bit), in some cases, each trainer could have three Pokémon on the field. Black and White was also the first game to feature seasons, which, alongside changing how the game world appeared, also shifted how some Pokémon looked. Both were examples of well-considered incremental changes that freshened up the long-standing formula without breaking it.
Pokémon Gold, Silver, and Crystal (1999, Game Boy Colour)
Pokémon Gold and Silver — and the 2000 followup, Pokémon Crystal — proved that Pokémon could be so much more than a glorified version of rock-paper-scissors. For one thing, the creature compendium of Pokémon was expanded, for the first time, past 151, and added two new types to the mix: dark and steel. For another, the in-game clock actually changed alongside the real-world clock, even dictating when some Pokémon would or would not appear. (At the time, this was mind-blowing.) It also started players off in a brand-new land called Johto — complete with its own eight-gym circuit — before sending them to the original game’s Kanto, where they could see a slightly remixed version of that game world. Simply put, Gold and Silver were enormous.
But, at the end of the day, they’re still Game Boy Colour games. They’re still clunky, hard to play, and lacking in modern-day quality-of-life features. They certainly don’t hold up in light of the 2009 remakes, HeartGold and SoulSilver. Standard-setting only goes so far.
Pokémon Sun and Moon (2016, 3DS) and their Ultra counterparts (2017, 3DS)
Pokémon Sun and Moon were a swerve from established formula in many ways. Rather than gym battles, you’d have to tackle various trials that culminated in a fight against a super-powered Pokémon. There were still eight of these challenges, and you still fought an Elite Four, but bucking the long-standing “gym leader” format was a refreshing escapade.
Sun and Moon also introduced the idea of region-specific Pokémon, which was initially confusing but ultimately neat, particularly for those who’ve been with the series since day one. For instance, Vulpix, a fire-type Pokémon who’s been fire-type since the Clinton era, was turned into an ice-type Pokémon. This made sense. Like real-world fauna, of course Pokémon would be different from region to region. That such a world-building decision had ramifications for gameplay — chiefly, that you now had to reassess the various types of various Pokémon you’d committed to memory — was a cherry on top.
The only major drawback was the addition of Z-Moves. You could only use them once per battle, but they more often than not guaranteed victory, type matchups be damned. It was like playing a friendly match of rock-paper-scissors, flipping the bird, and declaring yourself the victor. Combine that with the fact that, later on, you could unlock Mega Evolutions (more on that in a few slides), and the notion of a fine-tuned battle was something you could point and laugh at. Also, the follow-up games, Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, added precious little to Sun and Moon. Sure, there were new quality-of-life features (an autosave, a photo mode) and some new Pokémon, but the core experience stayed largely the same.
Still, all four games have one thing no other Pokémon game can rightfully claim: Litten, the cutest first-form starter in series history. (Sorry, Popplio!)
Pokémon Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald (2002, Game Boy Advance)
Screenshot: Nintendo / MobyGames
The third generation of Pokémon games — Ruby, Sapphire, and 2004’s Emerald — aren’t exactly held in high esteem by most Pokémon fans. Here’s the case for why they were terrific:
- Double battles were totally game-changing. Rather than one Pokémon on each side, in some cases, each trainer could now have two, leading to some seriously complicated strategies (at least in versus battles). For instance, Earthquake, a high-damage ground-type move, would strike all three other Pokémon on the battlefield. Was it worth hurting one of your Pokémon to also hit both of your opponents? For the first time in the series, trainers had to formulate new strategies outside of mere type-matching.
- The introduction of natures — unalterable aspects for each Pokémon that dictate stats — made EV training more accessible. You could look these natures up on niche guide sites, like Serebii, and get a better sense of how that Pokémon’s stats would progress. Casual players could ignore this stuff and get by just fine, but series diehards received another complex layer to sink their teeth into.
- Pokémon abilities added another wrinkle to the combat by bestowing Pokémon with permanent benefits that weren’t ever game-breaking.
- You could dive underwater.
- Secret bases.
Pokémon Sword and Shield (2019, Switch)
It’s long been a dream of Pokémon fans to play Pokémon games on a home console. Any imperfections that exist in Pokémon Sword and Shield — and there are plenty — are secondary in light of that.
Let’s talk about the stuff these Switch games did right. For one, yes, exploring a Pokémon world done up in true 3D is a legitimate dream come true. It also streamlined the Pokémon experience. Autosaves made it so that an accidental loss of progress was a thing of the past. (It was more common than you’d think.) The ability to access all of your Pokémon at any time, rather than returning to a Pokémon Centre, probably saved collective hours for time-pressed players. The customisation options were also at the top of their game. Putting an impudent gym leader in their place was a joy. But dressing your trainer up in Vogue-worthy moto jackets and tapered joggers that belong in GQ was arguably more of one.
The bad? Well, gigantamax — or dynamax, or embiggenifyamax, or whatever the Arceus they’re calling it — is a silly system. It also had the worst ending of the series, by far. Pokémon plotlines are generally insubstantial to the point they can be ignored. The ending sequence to Sword and Shield, meanwhile, was so cheesy it might as well be sold at the Whole Foods charcuterie kiosk. There’s no forgetting that one.
Pokémon Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum (2006, DS)
Screenshot: Nintendo / VGMuseum
Pokémon Diamond and Pearl (and the 2009 counterpart, Platinum) exist at the apex of Pokémon games. In the fourth generation, things were more user-friendly than they were in earlier games. The Pokédex was at a manageable level, with mere hundreds of Pokémon to collect and train, rather than nearly a thousand. There also weren’t any extraneous features — let’s take another second to rain on Super Training and Mega Evolutions — to distract from the core formula. It was all about the battles. The only thing Diamond and Pearl lacked, through no fault of the games, was the nostalgia factor.
Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen (2004, Game Boy Advance)
Screenshot: Nintendo / MobyGames
Flawless remakes of the original games, Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen took all of the third-generation improvements and applied them to the classics that sparked Pokémania. Walking around Kanto in the late ‘90s was an exercise in imagination. You could make out what the pixels were going for, but sometimes, it was tough knowing whether a boulder was a boulder or a panel of water. Seeing Kanto in a full spectrum of colour was like witnessing a great novel receive a faithful big-screen adaptation.
For the most part, FireRed and LeafGreen are a shinier, friendlier redux of the originals. But once you beat the Elite Four, you were able to visit a whole new area called the Sevii Islands. After clearing that area, a handful of second-generation Pokémon were let loose in the world — sparking a tricky hunt-and-catch quest — and you were also able to trade Pokémon with Ruby and Sapphire versions. FireRed and LeafGreen established that Pokémon could get with the times, marrying old and new in one slick package.
On the flip side, Gary was still just as much of a dick, meaning this one’s the Lugia to the next slide’s Ho-Oh.
Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver (2010, DS)
Screenshot: Nintendo / MobyGames
Everything FireRed and LeafGreen did right, HeartGold and SoulSilver did better. For starters, Gold and Silver (and Crystal) are just generally better than Red and Blue (and Yellow). For another, the fourth generation is better than the third. As mentioned, that’s when Pokémon was at the height of its powers — and getting to use the modernised battle system elevated the original games to new heights.
In Gold and Silver, the difference between physical attacks (dictated by the attack and defence stats) and special attacks (dictated by the two “special” stats) was broken down largely by type. All water moves, for instance, were categorised as special attacks. So if you had a Feraligatr with a sky-high attack stat, they’d be more or less useless. With these fourth-generation remakes, though, whether or not a move was a physical or special attack was determined by the actual move itself. All of a sudden, that Feraligatr with a sky-high attack stat could level battlefields — well, if it had some physical-attack water moves.
And that’s to say nothing of the other things we rattle off when discussing remakes: better graphics, more features, the ability to use more Pokémon. Pokémon, apparently, is at its best when marrying old games with new features, drumming up nostalgia while introducing innovation. This potent combo was at its max with HeartGold and SoulSilver. That’s why it’s the Ash Ketchum of mainline Pokémon games.