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.
Pokémon Sword and Shield, the first core Pokémon experiences for a home console, arrive on Nintendo Switch later this year. With that in mind, 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 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 land mass 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 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. Afterwards, 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.
5. 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. 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. The storyline somewhat disappoints, though. The higher fidelity presentation provided by the Nintendo 3DS hardware made Pokémon models truly pop during battle sequences, allowing for crisper fighting animations.
6. 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 generation three 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 with. 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.
7. 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 as well as 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, generation five, especially the sequels, felt like a stop gap for the series’ 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.