The Greatest Games: Pokemon Gold and Silver (1999)

Pokemon Gold and Silver (1999)
Developed by Game Freak

Note: While I have been listing the original versions of games during this project, the assumption should be that I am talking about these games in their ‘definitive’ form. Pokemon Gold/Silver have both the Crystal version and the 2009 remakes. Though HeartGold and SoulSilver are quite improved thanks to the mechanical evolution of the Pokemon series, the original versions are perhaps the most important games in my experience with the medium – if I treated them all as different entities, I would have put them in a tie like the Super Mario Galaxy games.

While I had grown up with a Sega Genesis, my family purchased that console a year after the Nintendo 64 was released. Similarly, we never owned many great games for it beyond the Sonic series and Street Fighter II – no one in my family actually knew enough about video games to know which were actually good. I played most of my favorite Genesis games a decade later on the Wii Virtual Console.

Thus, Christmas 2000 was a real game changer when I received a Game Boy Color with Super Mario Bros. Deluxe and Pokemon Gold. I would soon pick up a copy of Pokemon Red, but that earlier game was a bit hard to get into after experiencing all the improvements in the sequel. For most of my childhood, Pokemon was the big thing, but no future installment would hit me in quite the same way until Gold’s own remake.

So part of my love for this specific generation is nostalgia. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people’s favorite Pokemon games were the first they played. This is because the experience of playing through a Pokemon adventure has a very unique charm, and the first experience with that charm, no matter the form, will be heightened above those which follow. So even if one can recognize objective improvements in concepts like battle mechanics, it’s hard to negate the personal experience.

But that isn’t to say Pokemon Gold and Silver have no legitimate merits when discussing the most important Pokemon games. While Red and Blue laid out the basic structure, the mechanics were a bit too simple. But as a kid, I didn’t know anything about the special stat or the lack of bug and ghost attacks making psychic Pokemon overpowered.

What I did notice, however, was how needlessly difficult it was to truly catch them all in Red and Blue. Without the breeding system introduced in Gold and Silver, getting all three stages of the three starter lines pretty much required having a friend with a spare copy to reset the game and trade them over. Fully evolved Pokemon were useless in helping to complete the Pokedex. Breeding is as essential to the experience as catching and trading, and it’s bizarre to think this wasn’t included initially.

But the changes and improvements don’t stop there. Dark and steel type Pokemon were added for a bit more balance. Hold items were introduced, which have become an essential variable in competitive play. Splitting the special stat into special attack and special defense helped level the playing field. Even minor changes like the introduction of shiny Pokemon and alternate Poke Balls have become series staples. The jump between the first two generations was simply astronomical when compared to any future changes.

While many of my favorite RPGs view bigger as better, I enjoy Gold and Silver for its almost quaint atmosphere. The first two games in the series really do capture the feeling of a child going on a small adventure. Future games would introduce more dangerous Teams, but I truly feel like the introduction of ‘save the world’ narratives detract from the unique traits of the series. There are a few big moments like confronting the red Gyarados, but that is relatively small scale.

In fact, let’s use the red Gyarados as a jumping off point to discuss how the series uses legendary Pokemon. Starting with Ruby and Sapphire, confronting the cover legendary Pokemon became part of the central narrative. But in the first two generations, these legendary Pokemon were truly legends. There’s something about finding Mewtwo hidden away in Cerulean Cave or Lugia deep inside the Whirl Islands that leaves a bigger impact than being forced to face Kyogre. Having the legends be something to seek out simply gives more reason to explore. Later entries tried to have it both ways, and now the series is bloated with forgettable ‘legendary’ Pokemon. Even the remakes of Gold and Silver unfortunately force these encounters.

All of this is to say, even if later games improved upon the central battle mechanics, Gold and Silver stand as the epitome of design choices. It’s not that these choices are flawless – the return to Kanto is a neat idea without great implementation. But this all adds up to a uniquely cozy experience which few games truly offer. After all, the most iconic confrontation in the series isn’t capturing one of the many cover legendaries or beating the evil team leader. No, the big moment is stumbling through a cave and happening across Pokemon Trainer Red at the end of Gold and Silver. In a series where the selling point is its massive variability, the best moments are rarely forced.

So, Gold and Silver may not be the ‘best’ Pokemon games on a mechanical level – but they are the ‘most’ Pokemon games. With HeartGold and SoulSilver benefitting from most of those mechanical improvements and also improving the Kanto revisit, this trip through Johto still feels like the definitive Pokemon experience.

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