In 1996, Japan was once again dominated by monsters, only instead of giants like Godzilla and Mothra, it was smaller, pocket-sized beasts that held the island nation in a vice-like grip that has not only endured to this day, but also spread around the world. Pokémon Red and Blue hit American shores in 1998, introducing another continent to the multi-billion dollar craze. Of course, like all good cash cows, Pokémon would go on to be milked for numerous sequels, spin-offs, toys, cartoons, and anything else that could be marketed to wannabe trainers.
Even though dozens of games have been produced in the franchise, the main entries in the series have always garnered the best results, commercially and critically. However, very reasonable criticisms can be leveled against Pokémon, despite being around for so long, the games have evolved very little from entry to entry. Considering this, the question of which Pokémon sequel was truly the best becomes rather interesting to ponder. Diamond/Pearl deserve admiration for bringing the series online as well as giving Pokémon the closest thing it has had to a major visual improvement, but the absolute greatest enhancement to the series came with Gold/Silver.
The original Pokémon was a great concept that offered plenty of gameplay for gamers of all ages, but Gold/Silver were the games that made the series what it is today, refining the formula more than any of its successors. This second set of games introduced a variety of gameplay tweaks and additions that flushed out the game and made it more balanced and presented the world in a way that made it feel more alive. The changes made in Gold/Silver is the reason why Pokémon remains alive and well today.
Putting all that aside for a moment, though, the first and most notable addition to the series in Gold/Silver was the batch of new catchable creatures. Compared to all future versions of the game, Gold/Silver added the greatest number of Pokémon, bringing the Pokédex from 151 to 250; and this was arguably the best of all the batches. When it comes to creating and naming Pokémon, the designers of the series obviously look to real-world animals, plants, and items for inspiration, which means that after a while it becomes harder and harder to create new creatures. This is an entirely subjective matter, but while every generation has added its fair share of great creatures to the series, Gold/Silver did a brilliant job of coming up with new Pokémon that looked cool and didn’t rehash ideas used in the previous game.
While the batch of new Pokémon added to the variety of the game and gave pokémaniacs even more to do, the developers also threw in a couple new things that are probable the biggest addition made to the series to date: steel and dark types. At the core of Pokémon battles is the type system. Every creature has one or two types, every type has a handful of strengths and weaknesses and knowing the ins and outs of the 15 types was essential to achieving victory. Gold/Silver brought the total of types up to 17 and in so doing drastically altered the balance of the game to make it much more even. In the originals, psychic types were without a doubt the strongest Pokémon; they were often very fast and had the highest special attack stats in the game, allowing them to hit fast and hard. Furthermore, the only type with an advantage over psychic was ghost, of which only three Pokémon belonged, and all were part poison, which made them weak to psychic. The new dark type Pokémon had an advantage over psychic, along with high attack stats to easily exploit the generally low defense of most psychic Pokémon. All of this might sound like gibberish to those uninitiated in the cult of Pokémon, but rest assured, it was a major change to the series.
Outside of the core gameplay elements, the biggest improvement made in Gold/Silver over its predecessors was the life it breathed into the world of Pokémon. In Red/Blue, the game world was big but rather devoid of life. Sure, there were plenty of NPCs, but very few of them did anything for the game outside of giving gamers an opponent to battle. Even Giovanni, the villain, didn’t have much going on besides ambitions for world conquest. Gold/Silver turned this around by making something happen in every town that would give an identity to a few people, with the gym leaders often being the central focus. For example, Jasmine, the steel type gym leader in Olivine City, is too busy caring for a sick Pokémon to battle the player at first, forcing the player to find a cure before battling Jasmine. Also, there is Clair, the dragon type master of Blackthorn City’s gym. Clair is revealed to be the cousin of Lance, the Elite Four champion who also stretches his legs a bit in Gold/Silver by making several appearances during the story and assisting the player in the fight against Team Rocket. Another major addition bringing the experience to life was changing times of day synced up to real world time. Not only did the time change in the game, but the game’s world reflected it, growing darker as night arrived and certain creatures only being active at particular times of day.
Yet what really pushes the world in Gold/Silver well beyond the original is that the entire original world is included, with all of its gym leaders, familiar locales, and numerous allusions to story events in the first games. Veridian City Gym is now run by Blue, the player’s rival in the first game, while the main character from Red/Blue is the reigning Pokémon master and is tucked away in Mt. Silver, the home of some the highest level and rarest creatures in the game. Altogether, this adds up to create a much deeper expereince than the original, and the overall largest world ever presented in a Pokémon game.
If somebody were to put together a list of all the elements necessary in creating a truly brilliant sequel, Pokémon Gold/Silver would probably check off most of that list. The world was bigger, story and characters were better developed, gameplay was refined and expanded, and the graphics even saw a substantial improvement thanks to the added power of Game Boy Color. While every Pokémon sequel since Gold/Silver has marginally improved upon the formula, none have added more to the series. Gold/Silver effectively proved that Pokémon was more than an interesting fad; it was a serious game with plenty to offer gamers of just about every age and skill level.
Of course, a new set of games are now on the horizon. Black/White will be out in Japan this fall and though much remains a mystery at this point, the current information suggests it will be another big leap for the series, with a greater focus on polygonal graphics, drastically improved battle animations, three-on-three battles, villains who want more than just world conquest via Pokémon, and a great deal more multiplayer options, including co-op adventures in addition to the classic trading and battling. Gamers outside of Japan will have to wait until 2011 to see how all of these new elements to come together, but until then, Gold/Silver remains the king of Pokémon sequels.