It’s fair to say few franchises have landed with such anticipation as Game Freak’s Pokemon. This was a series that not only transcended gaming, it pretty much-dominated pop culture throughout the late 1990’s. From toys to trading cards, TV series to movies – Pokemon was the merchandise juggernaut to end all juggernaut’s. By the time 1999 rolled around, gamers were hungry for more. They wanted a bigger adventure, more monsters and everything in between. Could Game Freak make lightning strike twice, or would Pokemon Gold & Silver prove to be a step too far?
It’s fair to say that the weight of expectation on Pokemon Gold and Silver was monumental upon release. This was the first official sequel to the original games (Yellow was largely a cash-in on the popularity of the TV series) and so more of the same wouldn’t cut it. Game Freak had to raise their game – and it’s great to report that they did.
Where Pokemon Gold and Silver succeeded was in delivering a more fleshed out experience. The original games kept things simple, telling the tale of a trainer on his quest to beat the Elite Four and ultimately capture all 151 Pokemon. For Gold and Silver, Game Freak elected to leave things largely unchanged – instead of focussing on refining the mechanics that underpinned the experience and turning what felt shallow into fully blown features. This means that when playing through Gold & Silver, gamers could be forgiven for feeling that little has actually changed between the two generations.
It’s little things like putting the XP bar in-battles – allowing gamers to easily see how far their Pokemon have to go to the next level. It’s the introduction of PokeGear, a device that allows you to not only communicate with NPC’s but also receive story updates at more intricate moments. The decision to split the item menu up was a God-send for gamers, who had suffered through the original games cluttered menus to much ire. Little touches like this helped to iron out the rougher edges.
Johto, the locale in which you’ll spend most of your time, still remains my favorite location Pokemon has settled in. The region is a lovely mix of woodland, open spaces and oceans that come together to work beautifully. Later games would try to recreate this, to various degrees of success, but realistically it’s here where the design of the cities feels big yet the smaller villages feel just as they should. The use of Game Boy Color and its palette also meant that we finally got to see the sprites in this game with more life and vibrancy.
It also helps that game introduced more ways to engage with this world. Events like the bug hunting contest, beauty pageants and even the ability to influence the happiness of Pokemon made training feel more like an event. You wanted to take part in such things, and thanks to the introduction of a day/night cycle – it meant that you always had a reason to come back and play at different times.
The full implantation of genders was also an understated if awesome feature. Pokemon breeding opened up a much more expensive way to trade and build teams – as players could now control their Pokemon from cradle to grave. Ditto’s currency as a runt of the Pokemon litter suddenly ejected as it became the most important puzzle piece in getting rare Pokemon.
It also helps that Pokemon Gold & Silver arguably have the best-updated roster of Pokemon outside of the original 151. While later generations wandered into bizarre territory when it came to designing Pokemon, here the ideas were still fairly logical and fresh. Old Pokemon got new evolutions, while others earned new baby forms. It was a revelation at the time and changed the way some people went about constructing their teams – with a host of new moves thrown in to boot. If you wanted to capture them all now, you had to be willing to play during the day and night.
If there’s one area where things don’t improve much, it’s in the story. The game ticks most of the same beats, awkwardly keeping similar to the tried and tested tropes established in the original games. Heck, even Team Rocket return and while their menace is less potent – the game insists that you deal with them in equally tedious manner. I will say, I enjoyed the whole Goldenrod Radio tower sequence – but it ultimately just disappears and leaves the remainder of the game feeling slightly hallow for the experience. In particular when you realize there’s oh so much more to do.
Let’s be honest, who wasn’t delighted when after completing the original eight gyms and defeating the Elite Four – you found out that you could return to Kanto and do it all again? It’s one of the biggest ‘wow’ moments for me in gaming – realizing that Game Freak had somehow squeezed two games of content into one cartridge. Obviously, the story in Kanto is less impressive this time around – but for sheer scope and ambition, it’s hard to fault the execution. It also leads to one of my favorite final boss battles of all time, squaring off against Red.
Pokemon Gold & Silver is arguably the point at which the series was at its apex, the moment where the franchise wasn’t just coasting on nostalgia, but delivering the goods. Once this game released, the series lost its way slightly. Game Freak’s tampering with the series has long been noted and it’s arguably in Pokemon Crystal, the third game to Gold & Silver that this first presents itself (With the addition of some questionable features). But let’s enjoy the second generation for what it was, a perfect marriage of what made the original games so great, combined with the delight of fresh ideas to make everything work better.