Make no mistake about it, when Pokémon Blue Version and Pokémon Red Version (Game Freak/Nintendo, 1996) were released in 1996, they didn’t just change the videogame industry; they redefined it completely.
While other videogame franchises were extremely popular, Pokémon was an unparalleled phenomenon. Literally, when I was a kid, there was nothing like Pokémon; everyone was into it, everyone played it, everyone wanted more of it. I remember wanting to buy Pokémon Blue so badly that I actually bought it brand new for £5 more than the Red Version just so I could play the edition I wanted. Once we had completed the videogames and traded as much as we could, we extended our experience with the various glitches in the videogames by using the infamous Fly glitch to catch Missingno or .M, obtain a whole bunch of Master Balls, Rare Candies, and vitamins, and also to catch the elusive Mew.
I remember playing my version of Pokémon Blue for well over 150 hours fighting the Elite Four over and over again and raise my team to Level 100 and to fully evolve every Pokémon. As we were playing the videogames, everyone was also deeply into the anime, religiously watching and following every episode, and even swapping and comparing their trading cards (though I never actually saw anybody battling with them).
With Pokémon such a huge hit among my generation, and my circle of friends, excitement reached fever pitch with the release of Pokémon the First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back (Yuyama, 1998) and when, during the anime, marketing, the film’s fun little short, Pikachu’s Vacation, and the movie itself, we all got our first glimpses of brand new Pokémon.
At the time, these Pokémon were referred to as Pikablu and Buru/Snuffle; though they, and Togepi, would later turn out to be rather inconsequential Pokémon in the eventual sequels, they caused a wave of controversy and speculation in the playground. People would catch Missingno’s and rename them “Pikablu” just to trade them into other people’s videogame’s and glitch them out and wild theories ran rampant about how these Pokémon could be caught in Blue, Red, and Yellow Version: Special Pikachu Edition (Game Freak/Nintendo, 1998).
Anticipation was so hot for the eventual release of Pokémon Gold Version and Pokémon Silver Version (ibid, 1999) that we rushed to download GameBoy emulators and Japanese ROMs of the videogames just to play them. We even saved them onto floppy disks (remember them!?) and brought them into school to play; it didn’t matter that we couldn’t read the Japanese text and had no idea what was going on, we just wanted the new Pokémon videogames that badly!
You have to remember that, back then, the Internet was still really new; where I grew up and went to school, I had the most basic of dial-up connections and was never allowed online for more than a few minutes at a time, meaning that our entire stream of information about Gold and Silver was based on speculation, videogame magazines, and the anime. So when we saw more of these new Pokémon appear in Pokémon the Movie 2000: The Power of One (Yuyama, 1998) and in the anime, anticipation was at an all-time high! In the end, I got a copy of Pokémon Silver from my best friend, who gave me a French copy of the videogame that was, as a European cartridge, in English and fully compatible with UK consoles and, let me tell you, the hype was entirely worthwhile.
The improvements in the new videogames were immediate; being on the GameBoy Color, the bold, cartoonish graphics were no longer hindered by the GameBoy’s always-primitive colour palette. In addition, the music and sound effects, already one of the most recognisable and enjoyable aspects of Pokémon, had improved dramatically. Having picked Squirtle in Pokémon Blue, I decided to shake things up and choose the fire-type Pokémon, Cyndaquil, for my new adventure in the Johto region (as a general rule, I stay away from grass-types as I feel they have far too many weaknesses and are ineffective as offensive Pokémon).
Unlike Blue and Red, your rival is not a fellow Pokémon trainer but, instead, a young boy accused of stealing one of Professor Elm’s starter Pokémon. After your first encounter with him, you’re given the option of naming him for the police, and run into him at various points throughout the videogame. Unlike the rival from Blue and Red, though, this aspect is not as prominent as it originally was; instead, the narrative emphasis is split across numerous objectives: in addition to bringing your rival to justice, you must also catch all the Pokémon and complete the Pokédex, stop the return of Team Rocket, defeat all of the Gym Leaders and the Elite Four to become the Pokémon Champion, capture the roaming legendary beasts Entei, Raikou, and Suicune, investigate the Ruins of Alph, and capture the legendary Ho-oh and Lugia.
Gameplay-wise, Gold and Silver remained relatively unchanged; alongside super-rare shiny Pokémon, two new Pokémon types were introduced, Steel and Dark, and the Special stat was split into Special Defence and Special Attack (these last three effectively gave players a better chance of combating the previously over-powered Mewtwo). One of the greatest additions to the series ever was a little bar underneath the HP meter that filled up after each battle, allowing you to visually see how many Experience Points your Pokémon had and how close they were to levelling-up; in addition, players were given a Pokégear, which acted as a map, telephone (allowing you to have rematches with trainers you’d previously beaten), and a radio (used for gameplay tips, to awaken sleeping Pokémon, and to pick up transmissions from the Ruins of Alph).
Other new features included a day and night system (which would not return until 2006), letting your mother save money for you (which would result in her buying you cool toys for your room), the ability to have your Pokémon hold items (including Berries) that could improve their speed, offensive or defensive capabilities, heal or cure status ailments, or to help them evolve, brand new PokéBalls that were more effective at catching specific Pokémon types, and perhaps the most significant gameplay feature: egg hatching.
Up to two Pokémon could be left at a Day Care Center which, if the Pokémon are compatible (or if one is a Ditto), will result in the player receiving an Egg. After walking around with the Egg for varying amounts of time, the Egg would hatch, producing either a brand new Pokémon or a Pokémon that knows a move it normally wouln’t. Egg breeding, for some dedicated players, became as instrumental as EV training to crafting the best Pokémon possible; personally, I just used it to fill up the Pokédex with the brand-new Baby Pokémon like Pichu.
What really made Johto stand out from Kanto, though, was the sheer size and variety the region allowed; not only could you walk, cycle, surf, and fly around the region, you could also travel up and down waterfalls and through whirpools to reach new areas and legendary Pokémon. Best of all, and unlike any other region ever, defeating the Johto Elite Four awarded players with the S. S. Ticket which allows them to board the S. S. Aqua and travel back to Kanto! This basically means that you get to revisit every area from Pokémon Blue and Red (excluding the Cerulean Cave) and rebattle not only all of the Kanto Gym Leaders (some of whom are new, including the previous videogame’s rival, and with new Pokémon) but also the Kanto Elite Four!
Make no mistake about it, this is still the greatest post-game feature in any Pokémon videogame. I don’t give a damn about the Battle Frontier or any of that noise and, while hunting down legendary Pokémon is fun and rewarding, nothing beats going back to the previous videogame’s region and, effectively, doubling the length of the videogame. The Pokémon in Kanto are a higher level than before, offering a greater challenge to your now-stronger team, and you can even acquire a Pass to take a train back and forth between the two regions. As no Pokémon videogame since has been as big as Gold and Silver, this, coupled with Pokémon being at the peak of its popularity among my generation at the time, means that Johto is, and will forever be, the greatest region ever seen in all of the franchise.
Not only can you battle with a friend using the Link Cable and then battle that friend again whenever you wish by visiting Viridian City, not only can you travel back to Kanto and rebattle all the old Gym Leaders and Elite Four, but, once you have completed this, you gain access to Mt. Silver where, after traversing a difficult mountain cave filled with high-level Pokémon and utilising a whole bunch of HMs, you reach the top of the mountain and are challenged by Red, the player character from Blue and Red in what remains one of the toughest Pokémon battles ever!
Finally, there was Pokémon Crystal Version (Game Freak/Nintendo, 2000), a third version of the videogame that, like Pokémon Yellow, expanded and improved upon the Gold and Silver experience. For the first time ever, players could now choose to play as a girl, Pokémon sprites had limited frames of animation to bring them to life, the first of the Battle Towers was included, and the videogame featured a brand-new side-plot involving Suicune and the Unown. Given that it contained the best of both versions, and more, Crystal was probably the preferred title to pick up at the time though, for me, its release coincided with a noticeable drop in popularity for the franchise that would not be rekindled for some time.
In 2009, Game Freak and Nintendo released upgraded and enhanced versions of Gold and Silver for the Nintendo DS; Pokémon HeartGold Version and SoulSilver Version brought Johto up to date with the graphical improvements made to the series since the release of Pokémon Diamond Version, Pearl Version, and Platinum Version (ibid, 2006; 2008) while also reintroducing gameplay mechanics not seen since Pokémon Yellow. While Pokémon titles between Pokémon Crystal and HeartGold and SoulSilver were fun, they paled in comparison to the experience offered by Gold and Silver; because of that, having these videogames updated and enhanced on the Nintendo DS was like downing a glass of sweet-tasting nostalgia and finally allowed me to re-capture that same level of excitement that can only be experienced through the eyes of a child.
With 251 Pokémon to capture, Gold and Silver’s Pokédex was nowhere near as impossible to complete as today’s 800-plus. Though the mystery surrounding Celebi never came close to that of Mew, and there was never quite the same amount of rampant rumours or glitches in Gold and Silver as in the previous videogames, Johto’s scope, coupled with the numerous new features that only enhanced the gameplay of Blue and Red, made Gold and Silver far superior to their predecessors in every way. While characters like Red and Blue have been semi-recurring throughout the franchise, Gold/Ethan, Silver, and Kris/Lyra have been cruelly overlooked and under-featured in everything but the long-running Pokémon Adventures manga.
Many of the innovative gameplay mechanics introduced in Gold, Silver, and Crystal carried over into later Pokémon titles; shiny Pokémon and egg breeding (and hatching) became recurring themes, hold items gained more prominence, interactivity between the player and non-player characters was increased through various Key Items, Battle Towers were expanded and made increasingly challenging, Pokéballs increased in their variety, and roaming Pokémon became commonplace. However, with each new iteration and expansion, Pokémon always seemed to be striving to recapture the magic of the Johto era. Admittedly, and obviously, a lot of this is due to nostalgia but, for me, Pokémon would never be as popular or as exciting as when Gold and Silver were released and, to this day, I would always choose to revisit Johto above any other Pokémon region, new or old.