On February 27th, 2016, the first pair of Pokémon video games ever released turned 20 years old.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green almost never hit the market in Japan after an extremely troubled development cycle. Originally conceived in 1990 by Satoshi Tajiri, development studio Game Freak narrowly avoided bankruptcy during the 6 year development cycle of the Gameboy RPGs. Tajiri himself even forfeited a salary to keep the company afloat. Once released, Pokémon initially received minimal media coverage, and the games were anticipated to fade into obscurity due to poor sales. However, once Japanese gamers caught wind of the titles among rumors of a mysterious 151st Pokémon inaccessible in the game, sales steadily increased until the games began topping sales charts on a regular basis.
Today, Pokémon is the second-best selling videogame franchise worldwide, only trailing behind Nintendo’s own Mario series.
To celebrate Pokémon‘s 20 year legacy that many of us hold fondly in our hearts, we’ve decided to go all out and do a complete retrospective review covering every main entry in the series to date. We’ll sort each set of games by their respective “generations,” as that’s how they’re properly referred to in the Pokémon community. This obviously excludes spin-off titles like Pokémon Pinball and Pokémon Stadium, as we’d be here all day trying to cover so many games (though we’ll be making one exception!). We’re also excluding the original Japan-only release of Pokémon Green due to it being largely the same as the international release of Pokémon Blue, just without many refinements that western audiences enjoyed.
Strap on your nostalgia hats, because we’re going to take you back to the past!
Generation 1: Pokémon Red / Blue / Yellow
It’s almost hard to talk about the Generation 1 Pokémon titles without saying stuff everyone knows. Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue are among the most beloved video games of all time, and gamers everywhere can recall even the most banal moments of the game by heart (“Smell you later!” or “I like shorts! They’re comfy and easy to wear!”). However, before we can even ask whether these titles have stood the test of time, we have to address how these games have shaped gaming culture ever since their release.
In the late 90s, Japanese role playing games had just started to take off in the international market. 1997’s Final Fantasy 7 was a smash hit that changed the face of the genre forever, and game developers raced to cash in on that game’s success with stylistically similar titles. Yet for the casual gamer, complex game mechanics and melodramatic stories of mercenaries and wizards could still prove to be a significant barrier of entry for the genre. Only a single year later, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue would make their international debut and appeal to this one remaining niche left by Final Fantasy 7′s release. Pokémon is certainly not the first monster collecting video game series ever made, but it was the first notable game of its kind to ever see an official English translation.
Right out the gate, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue were literally so simple that a child could understand them. Players are given the tasks of “be the best that no one ever was” and “gotta catch ’em all,” but from there the story doesn’t demand gamers to keep track of quest objectives or uncover side stories. The battle mechanics are introduced as a basic variation of “rock-paper-scissors,” only to slowly unfold their surprising complexity as the game progresses. However, as we all know, the greatest appeal of Pokémon was catching and training an elite team of monsters. Whether gamers preferred cute creatures like Pikachu or ferocious monsters like Gyarados, there was something to resonate with just about everyone. Not only was this genius design from a marketing standpoint, but this unprecedented level of party customization allowed players to personally bond with a unique team of six creatures that appealed to their specific tastes and interests. It’s no wonder that fans still talk about who their favorite Pokémon are to this day.
All of this is to say nothing of how vast the world of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue was. Though the games debuted on a system that was considered dated technology even when it was released, the first Pokémon titles sported a myriad of secrets among numerous memorable locations. Whether the player was boarding the S.S. Anne for the first time or exploring the gloomy Lavender Town, the game knew how to make each location pop amid limited graphics and sound. Modern statistics cite the initial Pokémon games as taking approximately 30 hours to complete, which is comparable to games like Final Fantasy 4 on the more powerful Super Nintendo. However, whether gamers wanted to complete their Pokedex or power-level their party to use in Pokémon Stadium, play times could easily exceed 100 hours. The fact that a single game could keep players engaged for so long was practically unheard of for the time, and the vast roster of monsters meant the titles could be replayed countless times in different ways.
Truth be told, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue haven’t aged perfectly. The slow paced gameplay and high random-battle rate (hello Zubats!) make the games feel a bit archaic, and quality of life improvements taken for granted in later iterations of Pokémon are sorely missed here. However, for those who can stomach those issues, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue are still just as fun to play today. Even if you’re not bringing your Gameboy to the playground to trade with friends, hunting rare Pokémon and battling gym leaders remains a fresh and invigorating experience. Plus, for those who still have Pokémon Yellow, players can even have Pikachu follow them while they battle Jesse and James from Team Rocket. In short, kids in the late 90s had every reason in the world to fall in love with this series.
Generation 2: Pokémon Gold / Silver / Crystal
With Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow starting one of the world’s largest multimedia phenomena, expectations for proper sequels to the first generation games were sky high. While Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver were bound to sell millions of copies regardless of their quality, Game Freak needed to prove to gamers that the Pokémon series wasn’t just a one trick pony. Thankfully, Pokémon Gold and Silver not only met the lofty expectations held of them, but they exceeded them.
Not only did the Generation 2 titles expand the world of Pokémon with the brand new Johto region and 100 new monsters, they added features that truly pushed the limits of what the Gameboy was capable of. The game’s real-time clock reflected day and night as it corresponded to the real world, and events such as the bug catching contest were held on specific days of the week. While these features are common in modern video games, seeing a game designed so intricately around the real world was unheard of for its time. This is to say nothing of the refinements brought to the core gameplay, such as the addition of Dark and Steel type Pokémon, the division of the “special” stat into two separate stats, and the ability for Pokémon to hold items that modify their abilities in battle. Combine this improved and innovative gameplay with a lovingly crafted world that even extends into the Kanto region from Generation 1, and you have yourself a pinnacle example of a video game sequel done right.
Pokémon Gold and Silver are considered by many fans to be the best games in the entire series, and Pokémon Crystal further built upon these timeless adventures with the challenging Battle Tower and a more involved story of Johto’s legendary Pokémon. While these games still suffer from some of the same issues that the Generation 1 Pokémon games do, they’re so well designed that the negative aspects are easier to overlook. Retro gamers owe it to themselves to play these classic titles if they missed them back in the day.
The third generation of Pokémon games represented a crossroad for the series. On one hand, new Pokémon games were inevitable considering the massive success of Generations 1 and 2. On the other, kids who picked up Pokémon during the days of Red and Blue were either approaching or well into their teenage years. While the brand was still massively successful, Pokémon‘s popularity died down from the unreal heights it once held due to its reputation as children’s entertainment. Either because of this or in spite of this, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire stayed faithful to the games’ formula for the most part, but they also made a few key changes to appeal to seasoned fans.
As the first mainline Pokémon games to appear on the technologically superior Gameboy Advance, the improvements to the visuals and audio were obvious. Though the chibi sprite art is faithful to the original titles, details like reflections in the water and footsteps in the sand bring the world to life in ways that weren’t feasible before. However, with this technological improvement came an unexpected change to how the new Pokémon were designed. Though Generation 3’s additional Pokémon featured a good mix of cute and cool monsters as the older games did, the new monsters looked noticeably more vicious than any Pokémon ever had before. For instance, while legendary Pokémon such as Lugia and Celebi had a majestic air to them, Generation 3’s Groudon and Deoxys really put the monster into the original Japanese title of Pocket Monsters. Pokémon designs from this era onward would become a point of contention for fans of the franchise, even though Generation 3 brought with it fan favorite Pokémon such as Skitty and Mudkip.
That said, key changes were made to the core gameplay as well. Generation 3 introduced the running shoes to the franchise, allowing players to circumvent the notoriously slow walk speed and navigate the world quicker than before. Double battles were also a heavily advertised feature, allowing trainers to fight 2 on 2 battles as opposed to the classic 1 vs 1 combat from before. While double battles turned out to be only occasionally utilized in Ruby and Sapphire’s main adventure, their inclusion was welcome nonetheless. That said, one of Generation 3’s most controversial additions to the franchise was “effort values,” also known as “EVs.” While little mention of them is actually made in the games, EVs actually influenced the stats of the player’s Pokémon depending on which kinds of Pokémon the player most frequently battled against. This system was designed so no two Pokémon would be alike, but players serious about competitive Pokémon battling now had to undergo vigorous and specific training to make their Pokémon the best they could be. Though this added a new layer of depth for serious Pokémon players, casual fans looking to dabble in competitive battling saw it as a barrier for entry.
With a host of technological improvements held up by classic Pokémon gameplay, there’s no doubt that Ruby and Sapphire are quintessential Gameboy Advance titles. However, Generation 3 marked a change in tone and style from Generations 1 and 2 that persists to this day. That said, not only did Generation 3 include the now-standard special edition game in the form of Pokémon Emerald, but Generation 3 also sported full remakes of the Generation 1 titles with Pokémon Fire Red and Leaf Green. Because of the technical limitations that plagued the original games, Fire Red and Leaf Green were very welcomed updates due to the addition of upgraded graphics and sound among other quality-of-life improvements. Though Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald remain popular entries, Fire Red and Leaf Green are among the most commonly replayed by the community.
With Generation 3 lasting a year longer than any generation preceding it, fans were eager for a new installment in the series. After all, the Nintendo DS launched as early as 2004, and the system was without its own Pokémon game for over 2 years. However, Pokémon Diamond and Pearl finally made their international debut in 2007, and fans were treated to a mostly traditional title that capitalized on the new features brought by Nintendo’s latest handheld console.
Generation 4’s most notable change to the series is the addition of online components. Thanks to the addition of the Global Terminal (replaced by the Global Trade Station in later games), players are capable of freely trading and battling other trainers from around the world. For a series that focuses so heavily on its social features, this was a massive improvement. Those interested in competitive battling could test their skills in ways they never could before, and others who just wanted to catch ’em all could do so with significantly greater ease. The Pokémon series continues to use the framework established by Generation 4’s online components to this day.
Aside from that, Generation 4 boasted modest generational improvements. As to be expected, over 100 new Pokémon were added with the all new Sinnoh region, and greater distinction in how Pokémon attacks were influenced by their respective stats further deepened the gameplay. Some critics were upset that the games stuck to 2D sprite graphics while only using 3D in the overworld, but in truth Diamond and Pearl still look good to this day. The new Pokémon designs continue on the trajectory set by Generation 3, though Generation 4 notably raises the stakes of what its legendary Pokémon are capable of. For instance, legendary Pokémon Arceus is – no joke – said to be the creator of the universe. It almost makes it silly to think that the player could tame such a hyperbolic beast by just throwing a Pokeball at it.
In short, Diamond and Pearl brought welcome changes to the franchise, but by this point the games were starting to feel routine. Even Pokémon Platinum, which brought more additional features than any special edition release before it, felt all but expected. The same cannot be said of Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver, which were remakes of the revered Generation II titles with many major improvements. Not only were the updates to the graphics and audio surprisingly robust, but the Kanto region was properly expanded with areas that had gone excluded from the original releases. The return of Pokémon followers a la Pokémon Yellow and the innovative Pokewalker Pedometer which awarded in-game presents for real world exercise acted as icing on an already sweet cake. It’s should be no surprise that both Heart Gold and Soul Silver are still extremely sought after titles to this day, with used copies selling well in excess of $50.
Generation 5: Pokémon Black / White, Pokémon Black 2 / White 2
With four fully realized Pokémon games and two remakes under their belts, it’s possible that Game Freak was afraid the Pokémon franchise would become stale. Even though Diamond and Pearl enjoyed greater international success than any of the Generation 3 games, the series had not been immune to criticism either. As a result, one month after Nintendo debuted the new Nintendo 3DS at E3, Game Freak formally announced Pokémon Black and White for the Nintendo DS. As the first generation of games to share the same platform as a previous generation (Pokémon Crystal was Gameboy Color exclusive), the developers took unexpected strides to switch up the formula for arguably the most divisive games in the entire franchise.
Although Pokémon Black and White featured few significant changes to the core gameplay, battle sequences went much faster and featured fluidly animated Pokémon for the first time in the series. Triple battles were added to the games, but similar to Generation 3’s double battles, they went largely ignored throughout the main adventure. However, Pokémon Black and White’s most controversial decision was to exclude all previous generations of Pokémon throughout the main adventure. To compensate, 156 new Pokémon were designed for Black and White, setting the record for the most Pokémon introduced in a single game. Though complaints about Pokémon designs had been around since Generation 3, Generation 5 saw even greater criticism for the alien and unusual designs of the new monsters. Regardless, the developers hoped to recapture a sense of awe and wonder by featuring only new Pokémon, and in that sense, Black and White succeed.
That said, Black and White demonstrated a surprising new direction for the series by targeting an older audience and expanding its story elements. For example, whereas past Pokémon protagonists were designed to be around 12 years old, Black and White’s cast are established as being into their teenage years. The mysterious antagonist N also asks the question that some consider an elephant in the room for the series: is Pokémon battling a form of animal cruelty? In truth, the story elements never go as deep as they could have, but this also means the game is still accessible for kids. Either way, it’s an unexpected but welcome change for the series to mature a bit to match its increasingly older demographic.
For those who play Pokémon to collect and battle all of their favorite creatures, it’s easy to see how Generation 5 didn’t do enough to expand the Pokémon Formula. However, for those who just view the Pokémon games as RPGs like Final Fantasy, Black and White delivered some of the best adventures the series had ever seen. The deconstruction of the gym leader / elite 4 formula leading to the bombastic climax of the game is unforgettable, and a robust soundtrack coupled with memorable locations makes this Pokémon feel new again. Generation 5 was also the only generation to ditch the usual special edition of the originals by debuting actual sequels in the forms of Pokémon Black 2 and White 2, which mixed new and old locations while expanding on the story set in the first games. While unexpected, getting a brand new adventure instead of a recycled one was an exciting twist for fans.
Generation 6: Pokémon X / Y, Pokémon Omega Ruby / Alpha Sapphire
We finally arrive at Pokémon‘s big release on the 3DS, and anyone who’s kept track of the evolution of the series should spot something new about Pokémon X and Y right off the bat: it’s in 3D! Gone are the 2D sprites from before, as we now have 3D characters, 3D Pokémon, and even 360 degree movement to an extent. As both the first Pokémon games on the Nintendo 3DS and the follow-up to the experimental Pokémon Black and White, it would be easy to assume that X and Y bring about the major evolution that fans of the series have been asking for all these years. However, though X and Y contain a slew of new features that appeal to modern gamers, Generation 6 primarily capitalizes on nostalgia for Generation 1 more than any game in the series (Fire Red and Leaf Green not withstanding).
The most widely advertised addition to Pokémon X and Y are mega evolutions, which give temporary super-powerful forms to classic Pokémon such as Charizard and Mewtwo. While this means the count for new Pokémon sits at a comparatively paltry 72 monsters, it’s a sensible approach when considering that we’re at over 700 Pokémon now. Other notable additions to the series include the new “Fairy” type that changes up many encounters, along with horde battles against 5 Pokémon at once. Players can also enable online modes that allow them to interact with other trainers in real time, which can be as significant as challenging someone to a battle or as minor as giving a friend a bonus that increases their Pokémons’ stats. The basic Pokémon gameplay does remain the same for the most part, but all of these changes make the games feel like true generational advancements for the series.
As for the main adventure itself, everything feels very familiar. Generation 1 starters are given to players early in the games, and even Generation 1 legendary Pokémon appear with the original gameboy music mixed into their battle themes. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, of course, but it does feel decidedly safe after Generation 5. This is not meant to undermine the giant world of X and Y, of course, as the games feature loads of secrets, minigames, and other side attractions to keep players entertained. X and Y also feel a little bizarre due to being remarkably easier than previous titles, especially considering how the heavy emphasis on nostalgia seems to appeal to longtime fans of the games. Of course, given how Pokémon has always appealed to kids, this was perhaps the result of feedback from Generation 5’s generally increased difficulty levels.
Generation 6’s fresh ideas and enhanced presentation have led to widespread critical acclaim and record breaking sales numbers, and we can’t dispute the quality of these games. Whether they’re among the best in the series is debatable, but regardless, the Pokémon series has miraculously managed to only feature strictly critically acclaimed games through its main series. As many fans predicted, Generation 6 has also brought Generation 3 remakes in the form of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, which feel more monumental than past remakes given the transition from 2D to 3D. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are also notable for adding brand new story elements that enrich the lore of Pokémon, which many fans across the internet have made sure to heatedly debate on message boards everywhere.
The Mobile Revolution: Pokémon GO
Pokémon’s 20th anniversary was filled with surprises. Between announcements that Pokémon’s 7th Generation games (Sun and Moon) were to be released before the year’s end, as well as news that the original Generation 1 titles were to be ported as Virtual Console titles for the 3DS (the first time any of the mainline games had ever been officially rereleased), fans couldn’t imagine how else they could be surprised in 2016. However, by the end of July, Pokémon had managed to take over the world with a level of buzz and popularity that it hadn’t seen since the franchise originally hit its stride back in the 90s.
Pokémon GO, available on iOS and Android devices, is a free-to-play augmented reality game that tasks players with exploring the actual outside world to catch Pokémon and find helpful items. Though the gameplay bares very few similarities with the classic Pokémon titles, the relatively simple mechanics helped both new and seasoned Pokémon fans adapt to what exactly Pokémon GO had to offer. Besides, this was Pokémon in real life! For many fans, the concept by itself was enough to make many childhood dreams come true.
As streets all over the world were flooded with gamers staring attentively at their phones in the pursuit of rare Pokémon, news shows and internet blogs covered the game almost daily. In fact, Pokémon GO dominated the number one spot as the most downloaded app on iOS and Android for weeks in a row! Unfortunately, though no one was particularly surprised that an augmented reality Pokémon title would get so much attention, the game’s creators, Niantic, apparently were. Server lag and connectivity failures became almost as synonymous with the game as its success, which drove away many players as the problems persisted. Add this to an uneven difficulty curve that made the game surprisingly difficult as players attained higher levels, and it’s easy to see why Pokémon GO became somewhat contentious with many fans of the Pokémon franchise.
Still, even if Pokémon GO’s popularity has since waned from its incredible heights during the summer of 2016, it continues to receive updates to appease its very dedicated following. Pokémon GO may not be a true “mainline” Pokémon title, but its impact on how the franchise is perceived by mainstream audiences is truly monumental. Whether Pokémon GO was a masterpiece of design or a serendipitous fluke is up for debate, but the memories Pokémon fans were able to share together by playing the game will be cherished for years to come.
Generation 7: Pokémon Sun / Moon
The year of Pokémon’s 20th anniversary culminated in the release of the 7th generation games, Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon. Though this meant Generation 6 would be the first time a mainline entry of the series wouldn’t receive a “special edition” version of some kind (wildly speculated to be Pokémon Z), fans couldn’t be happier to be playing a completely new game in its place. Sun and Moon takes players to the Aloha region, a string of islands full of all new Pokémon. In another first for the series, Sun and Moon strays from the usual formula of battling gyms and getting badges. Instead, the game tasks players with overcoming “trials,” which either involves defeating powerful Totem Pokémon or completing a minigame.
For extended thoughts about Pokémon Sun and Moon, check out our full review here!
What’s next for Pokémon?
As you can clearly see by making it this far, Pokémon has come a long way since 1996. There are so many things we weren’t able to talk about with each game, which just goes to show how much there is to see and do whenever a new Pokémon game comes out. We don’t know what’s next for Pokémon, but judging from the clues fans have been able to gather, there’s speculation that Pokémon Diamond and Pearl may be due for their own remakes. Rumors also point to a special edition of Pokémon Sun and Moon being planned for Nintendo’s upcoming console, the Nintendo Switch. However, like all rumors, it’s impossible to verify the truth until an official announcement is made.
One thing we do know, however, is that Pokémon is here to stay. If a single series can remain so incredibly popular after 20 years while staying faithful to its roots, then we can only surmise that the future is bright for this iconic monster catching franchise. Thank you Pokémon for 20 incredible, memorable years, and here’s to Pikachu and friends for 20 more!