How Generation 2 gave us the very best Pokémon games, that no games ever were.
When it comes to Pokémon, every generation has fans that will defend their respective games to the death. But statistically speaking, you’ll find a lot of people calling Pokémon Gold, Silver, and Crystal the best Pokémon games.
Okay, I don’t exactly have definitive polls to back that claim up. But after years of observing the Pokémon community, I feel confident in saying the Generation 2 games are most often brought up in discussions about the best Pokémon games. I myself am one of these people, in fact, so… is this going to be an essay of nonstop gushing about how good Gen 2 was? Let’s just say you should grab a comfy seat.
So let’s dive into it and talk about what makes Pokémon Gold, Silver, and Crystal the best Pokémon games.
1: Gen 2 innovated the Pokémon formula more than any game in the series.
At its core, Pokémon is a pretty simple concept. Catch a team of six monsters, level them up by battling other trainers, and keep on catching and battling until you beat the Elite Four. If you asked any Pokémaniac in the 90s what they wanted out of a Pokémon sequel, I’m sure you’d hear a lot of requests for more Pokémon, more trainers, and… well, more everything.
Here’s the thing: not only was Gen 2 all of that, it was loads of stuff that fans didn’t even know they wanted.
Seriously, do you know how mind blowing it was for a Gameboy game to have a functioning clock that affected the world around you depending on the time of day you played? You’d have to wake up early to catch a Ladyba, or you’d play the game on the weekend and find a new shop was open in Goldenrod City. This was insanely immersive and innovative, and that’s just scratching the surface. You could get the phone numbers of trainers so they could rematch you or talk about their super cool Rattata. You could run into Legendary Pokémon literally anywhere in the world after a certain event. And for the first time, you could breed Pokémon to make a specially designed super monster that learned moves it was never capable of before.
While many of these features became staples of the series, there was nothing like experiencing them all for the first time in Gen 2. Heck, Gen 2 pulled off all these features so well that they haven’t significantly changed since their original iteration. No matter how you look at it, Gen 2 was a technical marvel.
2: The series also got polished to a shine in Gen 2.
I don’t need to tell you that Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow were massively influential staples of pop culture. Heck, they weren’t even the first monster-collecting games ever made, but they continue to define the genre to this day. Still, as great as the first games were, they had a lot of rough edges. I’m not even talking about the endless variety of bugs; there are so many oddities in the core design that I’d be here all day listing them all.
Gen 2 takes many of the rough edges of the first games and polishes them to a shine. The added Dark and Steel type Pokémon add much needed balance to the game, preventing psychic types from dominating and giving a purpose to under-powered types like Bug and Fighting. Ghosts and Dragons actually learn relevant moves to their respective typings, and the Special stat is split into two separate stats to keep defensive Pokémon like Chansey from being accidental powerhouses.
All of these changes elevated the Pokémon series beyond being just a cool concept for a handheld system. Gen 2 turned Pokémon into a mechanically sound RPG that could easily stand toe to toe with any of its contemporary console RPG counterparts at the time.
3: The spread of Pokémon is (practically) just right.
As of writing, there are over 800 Pokémon in the official canon. That isn’t even counting mega evolutions or Alola forms. With a new Generation of Pokémon games coming out next year, we’re probably about 5 years away from breaking 1000 monsters.
That is a massive roster, and super overwhelming for players new to the series. It’s no wonder that Gen 2’s total of 251 monsters just feels “right” for many people by comparison. It’s not perfect, ’cause I mean… Dragonite is still the only fully evolved Dragon type, after all. But what’s there is still great and very consistent in design. I generally reject the argument that new Pokémon don’t hold to the older designs, but it’s impossible to deny there’s been a shift in the look and feel of new Pokémon. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does make Gen 2 more special in comparison.
Recent Pokémon games have made concessions to scale down the roster of Pokémon for their main adventures, but they still don’t feel quite as organic as Gen 2 did.
4: The remakes are also great
Even if Gen 2 did give us the best Pokémon games, not everyone has the patience to play through slow paced Gameboy games anymore. And that’s fine! Because the Gen 4 remakes of these games are just as stellar with a lot of modern amenities.
Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver certainly provide all the mechanical and aesthetic updates you’d want in any quality remake. But what sets these remakes apart is what they add to the core adventure. As ambitious as Gold and Silver were, they still made some concessions in their content due to the limitations of the Gameboy and the available cartridge space. Heart Gold and Soul Silver had no such constrictions on the DS, and the developers took the opportunity to make all those impossible dreams from Gen 2 a reality. This includes new battle music for Ho-Oh and Lugia, the ability to capture the original three legendary birds, rematches against the gym leaders, and so much more.
As good as the other Pokémon remakes are, the added material in Heart Gold and Soul Silver just feel like content that the developers would have wanted in the original games to begin with. And as a bonus, you can also play with the Pokéwalker, which was actually the most accurate pedometer for its time. And they say video games encourage laziness.
5: The post-game content is a historic landmark in gaming history and no one can convince me otherwise.
NOTE: From here on out, I’ll be spoiling the heck out of the post-credits content of Gen 2. This is all common knowledge among most gamers and Pokémon fans, but you’ve been warned regardless.
Look, as you can tell by this point, I really like Gen 2. I’ve spent all this time talking about it and there are still so many things I want to gush over (except Whitney’s Miltank, that thing can Rollout far away from here). But as great as the main adventure of these games is, what truly elevates these games above and beyond is the adventure you embark on after your adventure.
To illustrate the enormity of Gen 2’s post game, let me take you back in time. You are a kid during the height of Pokémania, and the first Pokémon games were these beautifully unique and ambitious titles that no other Gameboy game could compare to. You explored every nook of Kanto, you caught all the legendaries, and you probably played it over and over again while trading and battling with your friends after school. The Kanto region feels like a second home to you, and you can recognize when someone’s playing it by hearing the first three notes of the Pallet Town music.
Years pass, you’re a bit older now, and you’ve finally beaten Pokémon Gold and/or Silver. These games are just like the older games but better, and after a fierce battle with the Pokémon League champion, you want to see if there’s another bonus cave like the one you caught Mewtwo in during the first games.
… You’re boarding the S.S. Anne…
… And going back to Kanto!?
Yes, in a miracle of game design and engineering, you get to return to Kanto and explore its world all over again. You rediscover classic Pokémon, you fight all the old gym leaders, it’s the full works. Not only that, you get to see how Kanto has changed since your first adventure. The spooky Pokémon Tower in Lavender Town is now a radio tower. Your rival from the first game is now a gym leader. It’s like revisiting the place you grew up after being away for years. A lot of things have changed, but you cherish what stayed the same.
In terms of sheer scope and surprise alone, the only post-game content I can compare Kanto to is the upside down castle from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. But Kanto is more than just the amount of content it packs. It’s a nostalgic journey to the place where the series began, which all culminates in one of the most memorable encounters in the series’ history.
6: The true final battle
It turns out there’s another big reveal in the Kanto region. Mount Silver is a new location that opens after beating all the Kanto gym leaders. For first time players, there was no telling what you’d find in Mount Silver. There’s powerful Pokémon here to be sure, but what’s waiting for you at the end?
But then you get to the summit, and who’s there waiting for you?
Okay, not literally, but it is the character you played as in the first game. The one who, canonically, is the true Pokémon League champion. And without exchanging any dialogue, you have to fight off an onslaught of super high leveled Pokémon that seem to be inspired by Ash’s roster in the Pokémon anime. I don’t think there was a single person who survived this encounter on their first run without knowing about it ahead of time.
This is another one of those great surprises Gen 2 brings with its Kanto region. But what makes this encounter so thematically amazing is its sheer sense of finality. See, it’s a known fact among Pokémaniacs that Gen 2 was originally designed to be the end of the series. The team believed Pokémon would soon fade in popularity, so they went all out in making Gen 2 feel like a conclusion to the franchise. That’s arguably the reason Gen 2 is so crazy ambitious and innovative to begin with: this was the magnum opus of the series.
With this knowledge, you really feel the weight behind this encounter with Red. The series would have ended with you revisiting where it began, and its final battle is a test to see just how far you’ve come. Years of spinoff games, movies, toys, and anime episodes were anticipated to conclude in this moment. The fact that Red challenges you with some of the highest level Pokémon in the series’ history helps drive home the sense that this is the ultimate battle. Once you finish this encounter, you truly become the best that no one ever was.
Of course, we all know that Pokémon didn’t end after Gen 2. In fact, it might be bigger now than it ever was before. But still, Gen 2 was the end of an era. Even if the series continued, the Pokémania of the 90s would never be recaptured. The closest we came was the release of Pokémon Go in 2016, but even that felt intrinsically different than hearing the Pokérap for the first time. While there have been many phone-based Pokémon games, some of them groundbreaking and some more gimmicky, it’s a different world. The old days of Pokémon were over, and a new era was springing forth in its wake.
Still, before that first era ended, Gen 2 was a brilliant capstone to the Pokémania of our childhoods. It was everything we could have ever wanted in another Gameboy Pokémon title and so much more. Speaking personally, while most childhood fads I chased slowly faded into obscurity, I can’t think of a more deeply nostalgic game to me than Pokémon Gold. So yes, for all of these reasons, I think Gen 2 gave us the best Pokémon games. These titles were lightning in a bottle, and I wouldn’t trade the memories of playing them for everything. Even if I did scream at my ceiling after fighting Whitney’s Miltank.