After my list of the best and worst Fire Emblem games was published, I immediately began thinking of other Nintendo series to rank. With Pokémon Sword and Shield just around the corner, what better place to start than with the Pokémon series itself?
Of course, ranking every Pokémon game ever released would be a monumental task. Plus, it would be totally unfair – how do you compare Pokémon Channel to Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon, or Pokémon Snap to Pokkén Tournament? When it comes to the mountain of spin-off Pokémon titles, some of them have begat entire series and sub-genres of their own. I might put together a separate list for those games, but for now let’s keep this list strictly in the mainline series of Pokémon games.
Also, for the purposes of this list, if a game in the mainline series has a remake or some kind of remastered version of it, whichever version I prefer of said game will represent all versions of the game. So I won’t be pitting Pokémon Gold and Silver against Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver – as far as this list is concerned, they’re the same game. Now, let’s begin! Starting with…
8. Pokémon Black 2 and White 2
The first direct sequels in Pokémon’s mainline games both brought a lot to the table. In a lot of ways, they actually improved upon their predecessors. Still, a lot of the experience starts to feel samey as you explore the Unova region again. Sure, there are new locations, but the story is a direct continuation of Black/White 1 so it always feels like more of an expansion pack than an entirely new Pokémon game. Each generation generally has an enhanced version, but since Black 2 and White 2 were marketed as bonafide sequels, I expected more.
7. Pokémon X and Y
Taking place in the Kalos region, Pokémon X and Y marked the series first full-fledged mainline 3D entry (unless you count Pokémon Colosseum, which I’m not). The results were quite satisfying. Pokémon X and Y introduced many cool concepts to the series, such as Mega Evolutions, fairy-type Pokémon, and sky battles. Being the first 3D game in the series, it also pioneered how the series would generally look and feel in three dimensions, which was no small feat. Also, the two legendary Pokémon Xerneas and Yvelt just look plain cool with some of the most original designs in the series. Not to mention, X and Y inspired one of the better eras in the Pokémon anime’s history. Still, the games themselves felt like stepping stones. Necessary stepping stones, but stepping stones nonetheless.
6. Pokémon Black and White
Pokémon Black and White are the black and white sheep of the Pokémon family. Just kidding, they’re actually very good games. So good, in fact, that they spawned their own direct sequels (which you saw earlier in this list). Pokémon Black and White brought two new battle mechanics to the series; Triple Battles and Rotation Battles. The plot, featuring the mysterious N and Team Plasma, was pretty good as far as Pokémon games go. It was the first time the story focused on the philosophical implications of Pokémon training. Although they were misguided, Team Plasma kind of had a point – not too different from the real-world PETA. Well-meaning but misguided. Pretty deep stuff for a game marketed towards kids.
However, at the time of release Pokémon Black and White was somewhat controversial as it focused entirely on the 156 new Pokémon it brought to the series with very little attention given to older Pokémon from previous generations. The games were innovative in the least impressive ways, and lacking where they should’ve been really innovative.
5. Pokémon Ultra Sun and Moon (Definitive Versions of Sun and Moon)
Representing the Sun and Moon series for fifth-place on my list is Pokémon Ultra Sun and Moon. Ultra Sun and Moon improved on the original Sun and Moon by cutting out the extra fat and leaving only the tender meat of the original entries. The base releases held the player’s hand too much for too long while Ultra Sun and Moon gave you more freedom early on in the game. Ultra Sun and Moon also took the 3D gameplay introduced in X and Y to the next level. It ironed out some of the kinks and created a wonderful location with the Hawaii-inspired Alola region. The new region also introduced Alolan versions of classic Pokémon like Meowth, Sandshrew, Vulpix, and Exeggutor to name a few. This allowed classic Pokémon to return, but with a fun new twist that breathed new life into them and made them feel like new Pokémon altogether. The Sun and Moon generation also introduced 86 new Pokémon to the franchise, as well as cool concepts like Z-Moves and powerful Ultra Beasts.
Moreover, HMs and some key items from previous Pokémon games were essentially replaced by Poké Ride – a feature that let you ride and otherwise use your Pokémon in never-before-seen ways to progress throughout the game. This really made Pokémon feel real and helped immerse players into the Poké World. The story also gave us wonderful characters like Lillie and Samson Oak. On the controversial side, these games removed Gym Battles in favor of Trials on each island to test the player’s mettle. I, for one, liked the change. However, Ultra Sun and Moon’s post-game content is light. And, like many newer Pokémon games, it’s often too easy for its own good.
4. Pokémon Platinum (Definitive Version of Diamond and Pearl)
When the fourth core series of Pokémon games were released with Diamond and Pearl, they took the world by storm. Not only were they the first installments to grace the massively popular Nintendo DS, but they also brought a lot of new features with them, such as Wi-Fi Battles which we take for granted today, increased time periods, expanded Pokémon Contests, and more. Pretty much everything you loved about the Game Boy games was back and better than ever before. Plus, the storyline in the Sinnoh region was downright epic. I mean, the antagonists in this game, Team Galactic, were trying to create an entirely new universe! Then along came the updated version of these games: Pokémon Platinum, which kicked everything up a notch through major and minor updates to the base games. Platinum also contained arguably the best post-game material in the series. Just thinking about it makes me want to revisit Sinnoh one more time.
3. Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee (Definitive Versions of Red and Blue)
I can already sense some series veterans building up with rage as they see Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee on this list. For starters, it’s arguable whether or not the Let’s Go titles actually qualify as core Pokémon games. I would argue they do since they are remakes of the original Pokémon games that started the whole franchise. I also completely understand if you disagree with their placement, let alone inclusion, on this list. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but please hear me out on this one.
While LeafGreen and FireRed were the definitive versions of Red and Blue for the longest time, I believe Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee offered enough new features to surpass them in overall quality. Did a lot of the new features water down staples from the series? Undoubtedly yes. But for me, a lot of these new features need to become series staples in and of themselves. One of the things I have always, always, always wanted in a Pokémon game was the simple ability to just see Pokémon in the wild. I’m not a fan of random encounters. The mere introduction of that feature alone puts these games close to the top for me. Some people worried it would take away the mystery and surprise of encountering new Pokémon, but in my opinion it doesn’t. I still get a rise out of seeing a rare Pokémon strolling through a field. I also feel the same disappointment if it disappears before I can reach it. The beautiful thing is, either way I don’t need to waste time blindly running around hoping for a chance encounter. And if you really do like random encounters, you can still get them. Some of these wild Pokémon spawn right in front of you before you have a chance to evade them. I just like being able to see them first. It not only adds to the convenience but also to the realism. The game offers a healthy compromise between casual and hardcore players by allowing for both a streamlined Pokémon GO-esque version of battles when fighting wild Pokémon and the more traditional turn-based battles when going up against other trainers.
The graphics also received a huge overhaul, and while graphics alone don’t make a game, the modern-looking models sure don’t hurt. This is certainly the most visually appealing incarnation of the legendary Kanto region to date. Not to mention being able to have any of your Pokémon tag along behind you, and even being able to ride the bigger ones, adds an extra layer of fun to the proceedings. Admittedly, the post-game content is weak, and the online battles would’ve been much better if you could choose who you battle with more easily. Still, the Pokémon GO integration worked out better than expected, and there’s a lot more good than bad in these titles. They might receive some deserved criticism from the fanbase, but they’re still the best versions of Red and Blue available in my opinion.
2. Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire (Definitive Version of Ruby and Sapphire)
I won’t lie. Based on pure nostalgia alone I almost chose Ruby and Sapphire as my favorite Pokémon titles. I have fond memories playing them on the Game Boy Advance back in the day. The legendary Groudon and Kyogre are still some of the coolest Pokémon around. Not to mention Rayquaza, Jirachi, Latios, Latias, Deoxys, and a slew of others. The Hoenn region also introduced weather conditions as well as Double Battles. With its emphasis on brass instruments, the soundtrack is memorable in a series full of awesome music in general. The 32-bit graphics are still a wonder to behold, too.
Although sales of the original Ruby and Sapphire weren’t the highest in Pokémon history, the two were still popular enough to receive 3D remakes with Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire for the 3DS. While not perfect (they make things a little too easy), Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire retain most of what made the originals so great, while adding even more charm to the formula. The updated versions also took concepts introduced in X and Y and perfected them.
1. Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver (Definitive Versions of Gold and Silver)
Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver represent the heart and gold of the Pokémon franchise. Sorry for the cheesy remark, but it’s actually true. I’m still waiting for Game Freak to top their work in these remakes of the well-renowned Gold and Silver. The original games were already fan favorites, but HeartGold and SoulSilver went the extra mile to enhance the experience while not only including enough new content to attract new players, but also preserving the core of what made Gold and Silver so great to begin with. This is the best way to experience the Johto region.
Aesthetically, the game is very pleasing to the eye with a hybrid of 2D and 3D graphics. It also threw many features in the game that weren’t seen again until the most recent entires, such as allowing the player’s Pokémon to follow behind them. Gameplay and story-wise, HeartGold and SoulSilver don’t stray too far from their source material, which was a wise decision. The original Gold and Silver have long been considered the rare video game sequels that not only lived up to their predecessors but improved upon them in many ways. The remakes only update parts of the game that made sense to update, like the graphics and enabling Wi-Fi connectivity. That means the original difficulty wasn’t changed. That’s right, for once there was a Pokémon remake that didn’t compromise the integrity of the original by simplifying it too much. Honestly, HeartGold and SoulSilver really did right by fans of the franchise. It should be given its due credit whenever possible, as it is a shining example of a perfect Pokémon game – remake or not.
Pokémon prides itself on being a series that sticks to its formula well, while simultaneously offering new updates and features to that formula with every generation. Sometimes these new features work and become permanent, other times they are fun experiments that never quite catch on – but the games are always a blast to play. The upcoming Pokémon Sword and Shield, set in the Galar region, looks like it’ll offer more new features than any other title to date. With Dynamax battles that showcase giant Pokémon, to Wild Area zones that emphasize player exploration, to the first controllable camera in the series – I hope Sword and Shield will rank high on my list when I update it upon their release.