There may not be such thing as a bad Pokémon game, but there have definitely been some great ones. With the franchise turning 20 this year, and with the impending arrival of the augmented reality mobile game Pokémon GO, we wanted to take a look back at the best games in the history of the franchise.
While we’ll be doing a more comprehensive ranking of every Pokémon game ever in the near future, you can start by checking out our list of the series’ most memorable entries: based on how they were received at the time and how they stand up today. Agree? Disagree? Leave your comments below.
2010/2011’s Pokémon Black and White were what movie producers might call a “soft reboot.” In the case of a Pokémon game that means downplaying the original cast in favor of an entirely new one—who you’ll be playing with for hours on end before getting a glimpse of familiar faces.
On the plus side, there are loads of new Pokémon to get acquainted with (156 in all!), the Pokémon have individual animations for the first time, the villainous Team Plasma are more interesting and active than previous adversaries, Triple/Rotation battles are plenty fun, and the addition of seasons builds on what Pokémon Gold and Silver did with the introduction of a clock.
On the negative side, the Black and White newcomers are my personal choice for worst Pokémon yet. Although a few fan favorites did emerge from it.
There was also Pokémon Black and White Version 2 which you can check out—although it’s worth playing the original one first to get the maximum out of it.
The first console entry on this list, 2003’s Pokémon Colosseum looked like a next-gen sequel to the two-part N64 series Pokémon Stadium on paper. In reality, it is very much its own beast: something signified by the fact that, in a departure from the main Pokémon games, it wasn’t developed by Game Freak. As opposed to established franchise norms, Colosseum was grittier than its predecessors, with angular 3D graphics, a redeemed villain as its hero, and the intriguing concept of Shadow Pokémon to capture. Definitely a bit different to the mobile games in the series.
Particularly when you consider how mind-bendingly great the Pokémon games were that managed to be squeezed into tiny Game Boy cartridges, a lot of the console outings have been disappointing. Instead of taking everything we loved about the franchise and adding (at the time) cutting-edge graphics, too often what we got were simplified cash-ins.
1999’s Pokémon Snap is a reminder that things don’t have to be that way. It’s an on-rails first-person photo simulator, in which you play a Pokémon photographer who travels the breadth of Pokémon Island snapping pictures of the elusive creatures. You won’t find every Pokémon on the island. In fact, there’s only 63 of the 151 first generation Pokémon introduced in Red and Blue. However, what makes up for the relatively small roster and (by today’s standards) extremely basic environments, are the chance to see great 3D models of your favorite Pokémon, reacting in their natural environment. The game itself is weirdly hypnotic too. Call this one a cult classic if you want—and a game I’d love to see a modern remake of.
The first Pokémon games for the Nintendo DS, Diamond and Pearl were released in 2006/2007—marking a full decade for the Pokémon franchise. The use of the DS hardware meant the introduction of semi-3D graphical elements, while the touchscreen added a few UI tweaks.
Diamond and Pearl’s big improvement, however, was the introduction of proper Internet play using a Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. Yes, the story was immersive. Yes, the arrival of 107 new Pokémon was all well and good. But it the chance to wirelessly battle or trade your Pokémon with other players was the ingredient that really made Diamond and Pearl shine.
For players with other consoles, there was also some neat compatibility with games like the Wii’s Pokémon Ranger and Pokémon Battle Revolution. In all, a worthy celebration of Pokémon’s first ten years.
Ruby and Sapphire introduced the world to the third generation of Pokémon. Arriving in 2002/2003, the games added another 135 Pokémon, bringing the total count to 386. While fun in their own right, Ruby and Sapphire were more incremental upgrades than a major X and Y-style overhaul. As a result, they sometimes get a bad rap that isn’t entirely deserved. The improvements added a decent amount, ranging from aesthetics like improved Game Boy Advance graphics to extra strategy in the form of Double Battles, in which tag teams of Pokémon could face off against each other. If Ruby and Sapphire were your first Pokémon games you would be blown away. If not, this was like middling pizza: not totally special, but—hey—even okay pizza is still pizza, right?
If you want to play these installments, the 3DS remakes Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby are the absolute best versions. Although you should check out (honorable mention) the enhanced edition Pokémon Emerald, too.
The easiest way to describe 2001’s Pokémon Crystal is to say that it is to Gold and Silver what Yellow is to Blue and Red. In other words, it’s a kind of expanded version of the game with a few improvements and tweaks—which, depending on how charitable you’re being, was either the ultimate Game Boy Color Pokémon or one last cash-in before the series jumped to Game Boy Advance. Personally, I’ll take a little from column A and a little from column B. The Battle Tower mode was great, though. As was the ability for players to finally pick a female character to play as.
Although there had been new Pokémon games every year or so since the 1990s, 2013’s Pokémon X and Y was clearly meant to be a jumping-on point for both lapsed players and newbies. It was the first Pokémon game to include polygonal 3D graphics, instantly updating the look-and-feel. There was also an emphasis on Wi-Fi connectivity, as the Player Search System let you battle, trade with or offer gifts to online players from around the world. Masterfully, all of this could be done inside the regular game so that it never feels like there’s a division between solo play and the vast multiplayer mode. On top of this there are some key strategic upgrades, including new Mega Evolutions, and the chance to fully customize your avatar—instead of simply picking a gender. In all, an excellent reminder of why we fell in love with Pokémon to begin with.
What is amazing about playing the original Pokémon games today is how well they still stand up. You’ll have to dust off your old Game Boy for the authentic gaming experience, but those hours of wardrobe-rummaging will be worth it! The series proceeded to build on all the elements which worked so well here, but what astonished me when I went back to play Red and Blue for this write-up was how much of the game’s brilliance was there from the very start.
And who couldn’t love the first generation of Pokémon? Sure, the series got other great characters later on, but the O.G. Pokémon will forever have a fond place in my heart.
Arriving a couple of years after the first wave of Pokémon games, Pokémon Yellow can be viewed in one of two ways: either as a cynical stopgap for players eager for Gold and Silver, or as the ultimate version of an already superb title. At least in retrospect, it seems clear that it is best looked at as the latter: a game which, while not revolutionary, built on all the absolute best parts of Red and Blue to create the then-greatest Pokémon game of all time. Changes include the addition of Pikachu as your starter Pokémon, more complex color palette for the Game Boy Color, greater fidelity to the look-and-feel of the animated series, added sound samples, and more. If you’re going to pick up one of the first wave of Pokémon games, I’d recommend starting here!
Pokémon Gold and Silver arrived in 1999/2000 at what was the absolute height of interest in the series. It builds on what made previous games work, but added another 100 Pokémon to the roster to bring the total number up to a then-giant 251. There were a plethora of tweaks in terms of game dynamics, such as the Pokégear, but the big one was the addition of a clock which meant that playing at different times of the day would let you access different Pokémon.
If you’re looking to pick up Gold and Silver today, I strong recommend the enhanced remakes HeartGold and SoulSilver, which were released for the Nintendo DS in 2009/2010. Adding in the 3D game engine from Diamond, Pearl and Platinum—and also a bundled physical pedometer device called the Pokéwalker a which let you take your Pokémon for a stroll in real life and utilize this data within the game—HeartGold and SoulSilver are the most perfect versions of Gold and Silver you’ll find.
Luke Dormehl has written for Fast Company, Wired, Empire, Politico, SFX, The Guardian, and more. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems… And Create More, published by Perigee.