Turns out that Miyamoto’s famous quote was actually “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed Pokémon game still sells 10 million copies upon release”. To the surprise of no one who is even remotely plugged into the world of games, Pokémon fans are keyboard rioting again with the release of the new Scarlet and Violet games. What’s exhausting is that we’ve seen it go down like clockwork at this point:
- New game, designs, and gimmicks get announced
- Hype goes to a high
- Early reviews mention obvious problems
- Players notice the aforementioned obvious problems upon release
- Weeks pass and it becomes apparent that parts of the game that had less thought and effort put into it than others
- Neutrals and a small section of the fanbase point out valid criticism
- Most will shrug and say “it’s Pokémon” like its the ex you keep going back to despite the red flags
- The fringe shitty fans (also known as…well, gamers) who know absolutely nothing about product management will defend a billion dollar company and the 2nd largest global media franchise, and instead blame the devs who were probably crunched and given unrealistic deadlines (Legends: Arceus came out in JANUARY you guys…the Scarlet/Violet release seemed way too soon from the start)
- Nothing improves because Nintendo already cashed the checks
The Nintendorks have always been willing to defend their Nintendaddy for many of its scumbag business practices, but the way that Pokémon fans ride or die for their franchise has always just been something else entirely. It’s primarily so perplexing because you generally wouldn’t expect a fanbase to be so vehemently adamant about defending such noticeable decreases in quality, but here we are.
Look, I’m a millennial who grew up on classic Nintendo titles on the N64 and Gameboy Color, and I’m admittedly a Pokémon fan who has gone way too deep down the rabbit hole before. Those days are past me, but I understand why neutral gaming enthusiasts look at the Pokémon die-hards and wonder if Red/Blue/Yellow came with some sort of brain parasite. One that made its way into our heads as kids and has caused us to do the same thing over and over while expecting different results (which I’m told is the definition of…). At this rate, we’re going to be unable to tell the difference between adults (I’ll let kids be exempt from consumer criticism) who keep buying Pokémon games and people who buy the new FIFA or NBA 2K games every year.
All that being said, I’m still part of the damn problem because I bought this shit on day one! I didn’t buy Sword/Shield (Got to borrow a copy of Shield recently though) or the Diamond/Pearl remakes (I refuse to play these, more on that later), but I loved Legends: Arceus and was excited for more open-world Pokémon. A lot of my friends were also getting the game at the same time, so I figured I’d roll the dice. Where I once thought I’d be spending dedicated gaming time towards this, I realized that it was just going to be another portable Pokémon game where I can have some TV on in the background and just go through the game’s motions. I’m at the point where I might still play or nuzlocke janky Pokémon games, but the idea of them being an “experience” for me has mostly gone out the window.
So with all these thoughts in my head, I started wondering: After years of complaints and over two decades of games, which ones are actually…like…good? If fans of all levels and gaming enthusiasts without the PokéParasite wanted to have an immersive experience instead of something you play while listening to a podcast, which would be the ones to try? Which of these titles can a general audience actually just play and feel like it’s “a good game” instead of something meant for children & the adult crackheads of the gaming world?
Let’s start with the criteria I’ll be considering when thinking of the good ones:
- Performance – I feel like I don’t have to explain this one due to recent events, but if I can just comment on one thing; I’m so goddamn sick of hearing “It’s a step in the right direction” or “Well I’M having fun so you’re toxic” as an excuse for this. First off, we’ve been hearing the former for years now, and you can’t just keep stepping in a good direction but never seeing it through or crossing a milestone of some sort. I like fun too, but I’d like to have fun without a myriad of technical issues and Pokémon fans seem to think it has to be a “one or the other” situation when it…doesn’t.
By all accounts Legends: Arceus was “the step in the right direction” for open-world Pokémon, and before that they even tried the Wild Area in Sword/Shield!! Especially given the critical success of Legends: Arceus, what excuse is there that Scarlet/Violet didn’t have much more time and resources dedicated to it, with the goal being the true completion of an original vision? At what point is it simply insulting that you’re getting an unfinished and broken game that crashes on you while there is zero motivation to put more effort in, all because they’re confident you’ll spread your wallet open anyway??
- Story, Characters, and Setting – Yeah I know, I’ve heard the “playing Pokémon for the story is like watching porn for the plot” joke many times, but a handful of these games actually do interesting things with the game’s narrative elements. There’s one way of doing it where you can actually have a focused and overarching plot or antagonist, and there’s another way where you can have the world be built through lore and interesting tidbits you pick up as you progress. Both are good, and good things are important to have a good time.
- Progression & Difficulty – I will never be the guy saying that games need to “be harder” or have a brutal difficulty, but I’m also not a fan of hand-holding. Believe it or not, there are Pokémon games where you can experience a higher difficulty and where, despite the franchise’s linearity, you aren’t being guided through by the game itself.
- What’s Different or Unique? – I’m going to avoid venturing into “it was crazy for the time” territory, and I’ll try to keep it more current in terms of what games do differently compared to others in general.
- Gotta Catch ‘Em All? – I just feel like if you’re going to make this the series tagline and if it’s the thing every kid remembers from the anime, then you should somewhat be able to do this and be rewarded for it without any large barriers. The general variety of mons available in a game will also factor in here.
In regards to my qualifications…well, I’ve played pretty much all of the games. Many more than once, but also many very recently. The world shut down in March 2020, I went to stay with my parents back when we all thought it was going to be “better in two weeks”, and at my parents house was my Gamecube, my 3DS, and all my Pokémon games. Rest assured that there is a fair amount of recency to my super objective and totally undisputed picks.
Without further ado, here we are: 5 Pokémon games that are actually just good games you could, and should, play regardless of your experience level with the franchise.
#5- Pokémon Emerald
Take Ruby & Sapphire, polish and clean the parts that don’t work too well, add an iconic post-game destination that fans will remember for years to come, and you get all the fun that comes with Emerald. The Hoenn region has stuck with fans for a reason, and all the cool things the region has to offer really shine in Emerald specifically (arguably more so than Gen 6’s remakes).
- Hoenn itself – There’s interesting lore with how the region came to be and where the legendary mons fit in to it all. With two antagonist teams and two ridiculously strong legendaries clashing and trying to shape/destroy Hoenn in their image, you really feel like you’re a part of a larger story while still not being overwhelmed with anything too tedious to understand. When it comes to exploration, don’t give me that “too much water” crap. Diving and navigating currents to solve underwater puzzles and unlock legendaries is such a uniquely Hoenn experience. Throw in the desert and Mirage Tower, the routes near the volcano, Meteor Falls, and Sky Pillar…it’s a very memorable region.
- The Battle Frontier – Probably the biggest reason why Emerald is so popular with fans is a special post-game area with seven different battle facilities that each do something different to test a trainer outside of traditional battles. It shows a lot of creativity to do something like this for battles and make each facility/their boss have different vibes and rules. They’ve tried to replicate this since, but it always falls a little short of how impressive the original in Emerald was. It opens up a whole new world post-game that teaches you to consider different strategies other than the simple “18 option rock-paper-scissors”.
- Difficulty – Battle Frontier aside, the main game isn’t *too* challenging as a big picture. However this is even more true if you start with Mudkip, who eventually evolves into a powerhouse with an advantageous typing against most of the big battles. In every gen the three starters generally do represent slightly different experiences, maybe some tougher battles here and there…but running through Hoenn with Swampert is very noticeably an “easy mode”, you can stomp through the region without much contention. Consider Treecko for a challenging run and also a cool starter.
- Missing Pokemon – Not terrible but it can be an annoyance, see below for the list from Bulbapedia
#4- Pokémon Legends: Arceus
Honestly I wanted to put this one higher but tried to check my own recency bias. Again, THIS was the real “step in the right direction” for open-world Pokémon, which makes it even more annoying that the follow up was botched in a rush.
- A True Departure from Formula – Don’t want to do the dance of getting 8 gym badges, taking down a group of costumed terrorists, becoming the Champion, and taking your chances with the post-game? Then this is the one for you, as it is one of the most unique takes on Pokémon out there and possibly the biggest change-up of the status quo since the franchise’s beginnings.
- The “Research” element, exploration, and the Pokédex all actually matter – There’s so much good I can say about this game so I’ll try to stay focused; The general idea here is that you really take the role of “researcher” in this game. Walking around in the natural habitat of Pokémon as they roam the overworld and react to you in real time is already cool enough. Being able to do it in these cool settings that all have variety while also traveling on Guardian Pokémon’s backs whose trust you gain is even cooler. Filling out the Pokédex in this game by actually doing more to study a mon than just “catch it once and you get the wikipedia entry” is great, and you CAN catch ’em all in this game too!
- Less of a “Feeling of Attachment” to your Mons – The games have often explored the bonds formed between trainers and mons in battling, even citing things like Mega-Evolution as occurrences that only take place when a Pokémon and trainer are super attached. Since you’re constantly interacting with mons in Legends Arceus, and catching them in multiples helps you fill out the Dex, I found myself switching my team members in and out quite often (which might be a pro for some). On top of this, however, they introduced the concept of Alpha Pokémon which are naturally powered up and can still be caught. I tried not to, but by the end of the game I had my starter…and 5 Alphas. At most, I was attached to my starter and to my Hisuian Goodra (because I liked the Goomy line already and appreciated a cool regional form…and she was my team’s main pubstomper).
#3 – Pokémon Platinum
I didn’t even touch on all the cool “Past Sinnoh” lore expansion in the Legends: Arceus section, which retroactively makes Sinnoh an even cooler region, but this was the game where I fell in love with the region in the first place. It makes sense to me that if you’re going to effectively introduce “Pokémon God” in Sinnoh, then having a focus on “Pokémon Satan” as an antagonist checks out. Platinum puts the highlight on the mythical Giratina and his Distortion World, which is wicked cool…but so is fixing the numerous issues that Diamond and Pearl had.
- Sinnoh done properly – Most people are familiar with the Sinnoh region, and it seems fondly remembered today for all that it offers as a setting: Focus on the elements of space and time in the lore, new evolutions for classic Pokémon lines, vibrant cities and points of interest, etc. Yet in a lot of PokéConversations Platinum seems to be forgotten about or underrated to me, and I have a theory why: Because no one wants to admit that Diamond and Pearl were exhausting games.
Take your childhood goggles off, those games are such a mess in story, pacing, progression, and the variety of mons is so ridiculously limited (Platinum expands the Pokédex significantly). I understand that time has passed and that nostalgia is a thing, but I was genuinely shocked that so many people wanted the remakes especially with how low-effort they looked, and that they followed the originals for the most part INSTEAD of Platinum! Platinum probably sold less at the time because some fans didn’t want to slog through Sinnoh again, only to remember it fondly enough to want stupid remakes years later, but its vastly superior to Diamond & Pearl and their remakes in virtually every way.
- Difficulty Curve – Cynthia battle (but in a game that’s good enough where that boss fight feels earned). That’s all.
- Characters aren’t as Interesting – Admittedly, Team Galactic is kind of a dud. I think they’re done a little better in Platinum because of some rewriting, and because Giratina’s presence becomes the real threat, but they can still feel underwhelming. The Rival character can also be a bit much, and some of these Gym Leaders are comically flamboyant compared to previous gens.
- Being the best-but-least played Sinnoh game – I’m not over it, replaying Platinum this decade was genuinely some of the most fun I’ve had with this franchise. I had zero FOMO for the Diamond and Pearl remakes, I just played the better game, but as I understand it you’re not gonna hear that take from a lot of fans. This one needs to be revisited by people, and I will remain on this hill.
#2 – Pokémon Heart Gold & Soul Silver
Probably unsurprising that these are up here and up this high; Gold, Silver, and especially Crystal (they included the Suicune elements in these remakes!) tend to be the favorite games for a lot of fans. Then they updated them and made them better.
- Muh World-Building – Johto’s “story” is famously presented through its culture and its legends, there’s a lot of emphasis on mythology which is a cool lens to view a game’s story through. Just to name a few things, you have the: Ruins of Alph, the Whirl Islands, and the Two Towers of Ecruteak. The game also doesn’t particularly instruct you to seek any lore out, so it incentivizes exploration in that regard.
- Traveling with your Mons – I don’t understand why every game doesn’t do this, it was so fun to walk alongside the mon at the front of your party as you did things in the overworld. Simple yet elegant.
- It relies a bit too much on Kanto – Traveling to another region, battling those Gym Leaders, and facing off against the protagonist from the original game is such a great time. You do have to admit though, it goes super hard into another region for the entire post-game. Its a really cool feature, but it ends up being such a highlight that the actual region you and your party grow together in starts to feel less important.
- The Split – If you notice, Every other game I put up here is a solo release. I just prefer that to the dual releases because then you get version exclusives and other small changes that don’t “make or break” anything for me, but could be annoying if you’re playing Heart Gold and can’t rock with Skarmory (which is always a good time).
#1 – Pokémon Colosseum & Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness
It might be a bit of a cop-out to put them both here but they certainly deserve to be, they’re directly related to each other, and I NEED to talk about both of them. I played both of these recently and they definitely still hold up, there’s no competition for me that these are the best Pokémon games to ever exist. A lot of content-creators “don’t count” these in rankings because they *technically* aren’t mainline games, and that is such a bad take to me because these are two very fleshed out games with primarily mainline game elements (ask yourself, are these more related in gameplay to mainlines or to the other spin-offs like Puzzle League or Mystery Dungeon?)
- There’s an Actual Narrative? – Buckle up, I’m about to give you the full pitch:
The games take place in the Orre region, which has its peace threatened by two crime syndicates that decide to work together. One stole Pokémon from trainers and provided it to the other one, which then did a bunch of unethical science to “close the door to the Pokémon’s heart”, effectively creating Shadow Pokémon.
They use these mons for criminal activity because they’re vicious (even the cute ones), unhinged, and will attack people and Pokémon alike. Colosseum opens with the protagonist, who works for the former evil team I mentioned, deciding he can’t do it anymore and BOMBING THE BASE while stealing the snag machine used to kidnap Pokémon from trainers. Your mission then becomes to learn more about the latter crime syndicate, unravel their plan, and stop them…but there’s even more to it. You’re also tasked with re-capturing Shadow Pokémon, forming bonds with them via battle and other methods, and then seeking Celebi’s blessing to purify them. You’re opening up their hearts again to the trainer-mon-bond, and then Celebi helps you revert them back to their true selves
THAT’S a fucking game you can get into. Your character is a young adult who has so much investment in that storyline, as opposed to being an expressionless 10 year-old that rolls out of bed one morning and becomes a PokéProdigy. He’s living with the consequences of something he took part in and is now taking an active role in fighting them. Not to mention being able to build on the relationship between battling and the bonds formed with Pokémon. You feel extra affection for your mons because you’re trying to do right by them as well.
Plus, there’s the unique battle rules in this game that are really fun. The battles in this game from grunt to big bad are all double-battles, which opens the door to some fun teamwork and strategies. Additionally, since you’re catching stolen Pokémon BACK from Trainers, it becomes interesting when you’re battling a trainer, trying not to KO their shadow Pokémon so you can catch it, but also getting your ass kicked. It also should be noted that Colosseum is considered the hardest game in the franchise, but if you don’t believe me then watch this pro play the game for the first time and react accordingly. There’s nothing in the other Pokémon games quite like this.
Gale of Darkness is a direct sequel, taking place in the not too distant future after the antagonists have had time to rebuild and come back even stronger (but so have the good guys!). Its story can be seen as less compelling since you’re playing a protagonist without as much direct involvement in the plot (He’s a regular trainer, but his mother is a researcher at a lab dedicated to healing shadow Pokémon should they ever be a threat again). Nevertheless, it adds gameplay improvements and slots into the big picture well.
- The Music – Nintendo games rarely ever have bad music, and Pokémon indeed has some bops. I’m sure most of you can easily recall the tunes from the first few games if you heard them. So believe me when I tell you that the music in these games absolutely slaps. Case in point: You know how I referenced that a lot of Pokémon Youtubers that I’ve watched don’t count these games? Well they still use the music in the content they put out, and often too. Everything from trainer battles, to boss battles, to just cruising around Pyrite Town…bangers.
- The Limited Dex – After hearing me commend games that have a robust Pokédex, here I am having high praise for the games with the least amount of Pokémon available to catch. HOWEVER, with the story being what it is, every Pokémon caught and helped feels a lot more personal, and you only get the true ending if you catch AND purify all shadow Pokémon. The variety of mons available is also pretty well spread out, and it’s one of the easiest games to actually catch ’em all in so that feels nice to complete. Did I mention in Colosseum you start with an Umbreon and Espeon (plus your choice of Johto starter early!), and in Gale of Darkness its an Eevee that you can evolve however you want? Fuck yeah.
- Traveling the Orre Region – In these games, you pick a city on a map and then you fast-travel there and you’re in a different level. This takes out having multiple “routes” in the mainline games where you explore, fight other trainers, and catch wild mons. Here’s the thing though, that’s not always necessary. Especially when these locations are really fucking cool and the “dungeon crawling” is still present, albeit in non-traditional settings like an underground city or a volcanic island hideout instead of caves or fields. The different areas you travel to are detailed and unique, and for a game that’s almost 20 years old it looks and performs…well, see for yourself:
Phew. This, I think, is a pretty good Pokémon retrospective. Nothing will change in this era until and unless Nintendo actually decides to give Gamefreak the time and resources necessary to make a truly compelling game again, especially because we as fans blow money on these things so cavalierly. In the meanwhile this nerd has found that it is definitely worth it to re-visit the older games, because there definitely are some great ones for all players.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I caught a Frigibax with a beneficial nature before I started to get into writing this piece and haven’t picked up my Switch since then so…