In 1996, a game inspired by the old-fashioned hobby of insect-collecting improbably became one of Nintendo’s biggest franchises. Twenty years later, Pokémon has become its own media kingdom, spawning a long-running cartoon, movies, toys, and a theme park, among other things. Even with all that cross-media success, games are still the backbone of the franchise. With the incredible success of Pokémon Go, and a pair of upcoming 3DS games, Pokémon Sun and Moon on the way, it seems like as good a time as any to examine Pokémon’s long and winding back catalog, and see what they did well and what they did not.
Writer’s note: For the sake of simplicity, the remakes are not included in the rankings.
Ranks 1 through 3
Although many fans who played the original Pokémon games may swear that the first generation was the best, those games today feel like a rough draft. The series’ second wave of games, Pokémon Gold and Silver, built on that foundation and added several new features that remain with the franchise to this day. New features, such as a day and night cycle, not only made the world feel more organic, but gave players a reason to return to areas at different times.
The addition of 100 new Pokémon led to arguably the best lineup in the series’ history. The new roster added two new Pokémon types, Steel and Dark, which shook up the competitive balance of the game — Dark types added a much needed weakness to Psychic — and expanded the range of character designs. Perhaps the biggest gameplay change was the addition of breeding. Players could breed two compatible Pokémon to produce a new one with the species of the mother and the abilities of the father, allowing dedicated players to create Pokémon with otherwise impossible move-sets. Aesthetically, the second-gen monsters still felt fresh, without resorting to the overly complicated designs that would plague the series’ later entries.
And of course, the second generation games were massive. In addition to Johto, a starting continent with its own collection of cities and gyms, players could eventually return to Kanto, the setting of the first game. This allowed players to return to the classic towns and battle their respective gym leaders. The world of G/S/C was not only massive but deep, with several optional areas and dungeons to explore off the beaten path.
Five generations in, Pokémon needed to shake things up. Although its visuals had slowly improved with each pair of games, its core structure had not changed: pick a Pokémon, battle through eight gyms and an Elite Four, and thwart a costumed team of villains along the way. Nintendo was already leaning heavily on nostalgia, releasing remakes of both the first- and second-generation games. The series needed new ideas, and it got them in Black/White.
Black/White served as visual jump forward as well as a creative reset for the series. Developer Game Freak made the controversial decision to create an entirely new lineup of 156 Pokémon. Players could not catch or use any classic Pokémon until after beating the Elite Four (essentially the final section of the game). In an effort to add more variety to battles, Black and White introduced triple battles, where two teams of three Pokémon fight at once, and rotation battles, in which each trainer selects three Pokémon and may rotate through them freely. Though neither were used to great effect, they showed Black/White’s commitment to trying new things. All of these features, combined with some of the best character designs since the second generation, made for a fresh adventure.
#3. Pokemon X and Y
The first Pokémon games for the 3DS took full advantage of console’s distinctive features. Not only did these games include 3D environments, but, in a first for the handheld games, the Pokémon were rendered as polygonal models instead of sprites. The game’s setting, modeled after France, is also probably the lushest in the series.
Unfortunately, while it is a very nice to look at, X and Y is one of the shallowest game pairs the franchise. For the most part, players follow a straight path from town to town, cutscene to cutscene, without the strange diversions that past games had. Adding “Flying Battles” (in which only flying Pokémon can participate) and horde encounters (in which multiple wild Pokémon appear) spices things up occasionally, but neither feature feels substantial. Overall, X and Y make some smart decisions to keep the games looking and feeling modern, but a shallow story and setting ultimately leave them feeling hollow.