It’s hard to pinpoint the reason why the Pokémon franchise has remained a worldwide sensation for more than two decades. Maybe it truly is the desire to catch ’em all. Maybe it’s that the basic formula, of becoming the very best trainer, has remained largely the same since its debut on Game Boy.
A sense of comfort and familiarity, while implementing enough new features to evolve, keeps bringing gamers back in droves. No mainline Pokémon game has been anything less than great, and all of them have been commercial successes. Pokémon is one of the rare franchises that both kids and adults obsess over.
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Pokémon Sword and Shield were the first core Pokémon experiences for a home console. With the new Pokémon Sword and Shield expansion pack, The Isle of Armor, set to release in June, we decided to rank the mainline Pokémon generations from best to worst — worst being relative as even the last entry on this list is great. The mainline games are actually only a fraction of the video games in the Pokémon universe, so we also included our picks for the best Pokémon spinoff games after the main event.
1. Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal (Gen 2)
Starters: Chikorita, Cyndaquil, Totodile
Pokémon Gold and Silver added 100 Pokémon to the original 151, including arguably the best trio of starters Pokémon has seen. Beyond adding to the Pokédex, generation two made great strides in multiple areas over the original. For starters, you now had to think about the time of day when trying to catch new friends, as the day/night cycle smartly added a layer of depth to your time spent in the long grass.
Adding to the systems seen in Pokémon Yellow, generation two leaned into dual-types, allowing you to make a more varied and strategically diverse team to bring into battle. The Johto region happens to be our favorite to explore as well and has the best legendary birds (Lugia and Ho-Oh).
We’d be remiss not to mention HeartGold and SoulSilver, the enhanced DS remakes of Gold and Silver. HeartGold and SoulSilver added the Kanto region to the map, connecting Johto with the landmass that started the phenomenon. With 16 gym leaders to best, HeartGold and SoulSilver remain the deepest, lengthiest Pokémon games ever created. If we could only play one Pokémon game for the rest of our lives, it’d be HeartGold or SoulSilver.
2. Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow (Gen 1)
Starters (Blue/Red): Charmander, Squirtle, Bulbasaur
Starter (Yellow): Pikachu
Partly due to nostalgia, partly due to how these games still feel great today, generation one’s trio of excellent Pokémon games take our second spot. To this day, generation one has the best collection of Pokémon. The original 151 will never be forgotten and neither will Ash’s first adventure. From the opening moments in Pallet Town to choosing your first starter to racking up gym badges and defeating the Elite Four, Pokémon Red and Blue just feels right.
Sure, some of the deeper mechanics the series is known for now aren’t present in the original games, but there’s something about their streamlined identity that still brings a smile to our faces. Pokémon Yellow brought the series to full color and having Pikachu by our side made us truly feel like we were Ash, on a journey to catch ’em all. Generation one will always hold a special place in our hearts. It’s magical.
3. Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald (Gen 3)
Starters: Treecko, Torchic, Mudkip
Generation three is when Pokémon games really started to lean into natures, EV, and IV systems, placing an emphasis on not only the species but the specific member of that species in your party. The power of the Game Boy Advance made each model of the now 386 Pokémon more vibrant.
While we think the 135 new Pokémon as a group didn’t compare to the 100 added in gen two, Ruby and Sapphire had one of the neater regions. The Hoenn island region felt larger than previous regions and was generally a more interesting area to explore. A pair of stellar gen three remakes, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, are available on Nintendo 3DS.
4. Pokémon Sword and Shield (Gen 8)
Starters: Grookey, Scorbunny, Sobble
The latest Pokémon games are the first mainline titles released on Nintendo Switch, and Game Freak has finally realized our longtime dream of having a fully 3D Pokémon adventure on a home console. In the British-themed Galar region, you can venture into the new Wild area and capture monsters, or follow the set pathways from town to town that have been in the series since the very beginning. Either way, Pokémon are now just out and about instead of being hidden in randomized encounters, so frustration is greatly reduced.
With 400 Pokémon to catch and the addition of the Dynamax system to power up your monsters, Pokémon Sword and Shield can keep you busy for hours, though the removal of longtime monsters from the game, including Psyduck and Squirtle, does mean you can’t catch ‘em all this time.
5. Pokémon Ultra Sun/Moon (Gen 7)
Starters: Rowlet, Litten, Popplio
The most recent mainline games, Sun and Moon and the enhanced Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, switched up the standard Pokémon progression a bit. Set across the islands of Alola, Sun and Moon introduced players to Team Skull and the Aether Foundation, a group dedicated to protecting Pokémon. Rather than progressing through various towns’ gyms, you had to complete island trials, which typically included a small dungeon and a battle with a powerful Pokémon. Afterward, you’d be able to battle the island’s Kahuna.
The 80 new Pokémon were some of the most interesting to be added since the early games, and the Alolan versions of original Pokémon felt inspired. Z-Moves, Ultra Beasts, and an expanded take on Mega Evolutions added welcome mechanics into the fold. There was even a Pokémon Snap style mini-game.
6. Pokémon X/Y (Gen 6)
Starters: Chespin, Fennekin, Froakie
Pokémon X and Y marked the series’ first truly 3D experience. The camera perspective switched from top-down to a closer, behind-the-body angle, giving the world of Pokémon a sense of scope it hadn’t seen before. The France-inspired Kalos region had flair and style, and featured one of the largest mega-cities we’d seen thus far.
Though X and Y only introduced 72 new Pokémon, it did mark the beginning of Mega Evolutions. Though the storyline somewhat disappoints, the higher fidelity presentation provided by the Nintendo 3DS hardware made Pokémon models truly pop during battle sequences, allowing for crisper fighting animations.
7. Pokémon Diamond/Pearl/Platinum (Gen 4)
Starters: Turtwig, Chimchar, Piplup
Pokémon Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum served an important role in the evolution of Pokémon. They looked markedly better than gen three Pokémon, thanks to the Nintendo DS, but they mainly showed where the franchise would eventually go. Generation four brought a very important feature, though: Online trading and battling. This made filling out the Pokédex, which then neared 500 with the help of the new 107 pocket monsters, more of a global effort.
You didn’t have to know people with copies of the game to trade. Instead, you could just hop online and make a trade for what you needed. Online battling let you really see who was the best trainer for the first time in series history. Generation four is great because of its technological innovations, but it’s one of the more forgettable Pokémon time periods overall.
8. Pokémon White/Black and White/Black 2 (Gen 5)
Starters: Snivy, Tepig, Oshawott
Generation five was an oddity. It was the first in the series to get a direct sequel, with Black 2 and White 2 releasing a year after the originals. The sequels did retread familiar territory, but told a new story and featured some new areas and new Pokémon. Generation five also holds the record for the most Pokémon, with 156 new Pokémon to catch.
Even more so than Diamond and Pearl, though, gen five, especially the sequels, felt like a stopgap for the series’s next evolution. While we regard generation five as the “worst,” we still think it’s pretty darn good. It didn’t introduce much new at all, but the true sequel concept was intriguing nonetheless.
Best Pokémon spin-off games
Outside of the mainline games, there are dozens upon dozens of Pokémon experiences. Some of them diverge slightly from the core formula, and others are entirely different. Make no mistake about it, the Pokémon franchise has produced a lot of duds that felt like cash grabs. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series, anyone? But there are some Pokémon spin-offs that work quite well. Here are our favorites.
1. Pokémon Snap
An on-rails shooter about taking candid shots of Pokémon in their natural habits for Professor Oak? Sign us up. Pokémon Snap for Nintendo 64 focused more on the beauty of these magical creatures rather than their deft combat skills. We loved every moment of it, especially when we captured an absolutely perfect photo of a fire breathing Charizard.
2. Pokémon Stadium
Pokémon Stadium brought our friends to 3D long before the mainline series when it launched on Nintendo 64. The game used the standard turn-based battling system, rendering all of your favorites from the original 151 in the glory they deserved.
Working our way through the stadium cups and playing multiplayer against friends was a blast. The best part about Stadium, though, was the Transfer Pak. The N64 controller attachment let you insert your copy of Pokémon Red, Blue, or Yellow to use your personal collection in the game’s exciting 3v3 battles.
3. Pokémon Conquest
Pokémon Conquest for Nintendo DS spun the Pokémon formula into a wonderful tactics experience. Set in the new Ransei region, it told a wholly original story filled with warlords and waging factions. While the turn-based tactics gameplay wasn’t as deep or challenging as games like Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics, it was a perfect introduction to the genre and contained all of Pokémon’s patented charm.
4. Pokémon Trading Card Game
You know the Pokémon Trading Card Game. The physical cards that took the world by storm in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Maybe you just collected and traded them amongst friends, or maybe you created your own decks and battled.
Pokémon Trading Card Game for Game Boy Color took the trading card game and put it in video game form, complete with an engaging storyline and all of the nuances from the real thing. It was really, really good. If you’re feeling nostalgic or never played it the first time around, it’s available on the Nintendo 3DS eShop.
5. Pokémon Go
Pokémon Go is the most successful Pokémon game of all time in terms of player count. The mobile sensation lets you, yes you, be a real-life Pokémon trainer anywhere in the world. Using AR technology, Pokémon pop up whether you’re walking down the sidewalk or hanging out in your own backyard.
6. Pokémon: Let’s Go
Pokémon: Let’s Go for Nintendo Switch is incredibly close to being considered a mainline Pokémon game. After all, it’s a largely faithful remake of Pokémon Yellow rendered in beautiful 3D visuals, complete with battling, the gym badge progression, and the Elite Four. Where Let’s Go differs is the act of catching Pokémon.
Using Pokémon Go as an influence, a simplistic catch mini-game commences when running into a wild Pokémon. Let’s Go also depicts wild Pokémon roaming the overworld, so you always know what you’re getting into beforehand. Pokémon: Let’s Go is a wonderful melding of two types of Pokémon games.
7. Pokémon Puzzle League
Pokémon Puzzle League is essentially just Tetris Attack with a different coat of paint, but it’s still one of the most entertaining Pokémon games outside of the main series. The game is simple: the player’s board is on one side of the screen with the opponent’s on the other.
Both boards will fill up with tiles and players must rearrange the tiles to create lines of three or more in a row. Doing so will clear the tiles from your board and send blocks to your opponent’s, which they’ll have to clear out. The game is straightforward but challenging, and is particularly fun to play against another person. The presence of various characters from Pokémon also gives it a warm feeling of nostalgia.
8. Pokémon Pinball
Pokémon Pinball for the Game Boy Color is a surprisingly addictive for a game with only two tables. Hitting certain objects on the table would cause a Pokémon to appear, and players could then catch them by hitting them with the ball multiple times before the time limit ran out.
Despite the lack of features, the game was surprisingly fun and odd; its misshapen game cartridge, which contained a battery-powered “rumble” feature that added some haptic feedback, was a particularly odd novelty for a Game Boy game.
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