Pokémon Generations: Best to Worst

It’s hard to believe that the Pokémon franchise has been around for over 20 years now (no, seriously, Japan got Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green in February 1996!). Kind of makes me feel old, as I was nearly three years old when the very first Pokémon game was released and about seven when Pokémon Yellow hit Europe!

So, as a sort of celebration of the franchise (and to serve as a counterpart to my review of Pokémon Moon), how about an article where I look back on the first six current generations of the franchise and judge how they all hold up? Now, I’m going to be honest here: while I WILL be critiquing the games as I go along, there’s no generation of the franchise that I feel is actually bad. Heck, even the worst generation of the franchise is still very much playable and enjoyable in my eyes and there’s still a lot that I think makes them recommendable. As such, this isn’t so much a “list from the great stuff to the horrible stuff” as it is “a list of the great stuff and the less great stuff”.

Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I have only played Pokémon Platinum from generation 4, Pokémon White from generation 5 and Pokémon Y from generation 6. I am very much aware that, as a result, I’m not really discussing the full list of gaming options from those generations of the franchise. Please bear this in mind if you think my criticisms of those generations seem to be missing something!

Anyway, let’s get started!

Pokémon Generation 1

This is the generation that I imagine most people will know Pokémon for. After all, it was this generation that started off the whole Pokémon fandom, with things like the anime and card game following in the wake of the games. While the games don’t look all that impressive now, one must remember that the games were first being released on the Game Boy, a system that was essentially like having an 8-bit gaming system in your pocket, or roughly like having a portable NES if you want to use consoles for reference points. For its time, though, the game was pretty impressive, with a HUGE world that is still pretty impressive now, a huge variety of creatures to train, a plot that, while rather basic, got the job done and a lot of depth to it. The creature designs were fairly simple, but highly effective, creating some of the most iconic creatures of the late 90s like Pikachu, Charmander and Zubat and even the sound design was rather spectacular for the time, with some great music choices and solid noises for moves. Sure, by today’s standards, the games look and sound pretty unimpressive, but, for the late 90s and on a handheld system, this was pretty impressive stuff.

There’s also a joy in the simplicity of the games that may explain why many have such strong nostalgia for it: there’s no rematch systems, there’s no battle frontiers, there’s no “be the best in the world” stuff, there’s no day/night cycles, there isn’t even a real tournament scene for people: it’s just the player, a team of monsters and a journey to capture all 151 Pokémon, stop Team Rocket and beat the Elite Four. This is the Pokémon experience without the bells and whistles, in other words.

Looking back at this generation, there ARE weaknesses to it, some of which can be fairly chalked up to it being the first installment of the franchise. For starters, the balancing of the types is pretty bad, with the psychic type being a pretty clear leader in the game and some types being pretty weak (bug types in particular get a bit of a raw deal in this generation). It’s also very easy, once you have cleared the Elite Four, to find yourself very bored with the game, because there’s nothing else to do in them aside from keep battling the Elite Four again, catch or trade the Pokemon you don’t have yet in the Pokedex and…that’s it. All fine if you have other friends with the games, but, if not, you might as well start the games over again, because there’s nothing else to do. The bugs and glitches WERE fixed in Pokémon Yellow, but it would take until the next generation for there to be anything to do as part of the post-Elite Four part of the game.

I think the worst I can say about this generation (whether because I’m a nostalgia blinded sucker or too kind is up for you to decide) is that it’s just dated in comparison to what came afterwards. It’s the same problem that hits stuff like Rush’s debut album: in its own right, it was definitely great for its time, but there was room for improvement and that is what happened as time went along, leaving them feeling like they are lacking core features when viewed from a more modern perspective. Still, there’s a lot to enjoy about generation 1 and the fact that the average person will still recognise generation 1 as the most influential generation of the franchise (just look at Pokémon Go if you want proof of that!) says a lot about how much of an impact it left upon most people.

Pokémon Generation 2

Making the step up to the Game Boy Color, the second generation of Pokémon is considered by many to be the best generation of the game. Essentially, it did everything that one would demand from a new generation of a game: an improvement in graphics, new additions that actually add new ideas to the mix, new characters (and a fairly good balance between old and new Pokémon, though maybe not as many new Pokémon as might have been liked), better balancing of types and moves, improved sound design (the music from the Johto region is among the best that the franchise has ever produced!) and even some additional story that both keeps the game interesting post-Elite Four and adds more to the game than the simple story. While it did still have a few minor issues that hamper it (for starters, the balancing of types still leaves something to be desired on occasion), the second generation of the franchise essentially took everything that was flawed about the previous generation and fixed it while still keeping (or, in a few cases, polishing) that which had made the first generation of the game so good.

Of course, time does reveal a few things that feel rather weird when you look at what the next generation did. One could only keep track of a small number of phone numbers and they would ring constantly (often without providing any useful information), making rematches somewhat hard to guarantee. The dragon type was somewhat overpowered (a trait which would continue until the sixth generation to various extents) and some gym battles can be ridiculously unfair unless you are prepared for them and/or are lucky (looking at you, Claire!). However, there’s a definite sense of improvement here and one can easily see that this generation is where the franchise truly became what it is known for today.

Pokémon Generation 3

Making the move up to the Game Boy Advance, this generation of the franchise was HIGHLY controversial at the time, as hard to believe as that might be now. With the strong focus on the region’s Pokémon rather than a more balanced take on the creatures in the franchise, features that received changes in ways that were less-than-impressive (the day/night system did not visibly change what the game showed, for starters), if not outright removed and several other issues that hampered the games (the heavy focus on horns for the music, while a decision that I personally liked, was a bit of a step backwards in terms of what the system was capable of).

However, the games still improved upon their predecessors in other ways (for starters, the graphics improved, though this might be expected when moving to a new generation of consoles) and it was the first Pokémon game (and, to date, the last) where the game you chose would also impact upon which team was your enemy (with Pokémon Emerald having BOTH be your enemy).

Surprisingly, I was actually very fond of the original game in this generation, to the extent that I was legitimately surprised to discover that so many had disliked it, while the remakes of the original generation were more fun curiosities to me at the time (although I did, and still do, have my copies of the original games, so some of this might just be my nostalgia talking there). I think the main issue with this generation is that, for all that it added, it was very easy to make the assumption that it was a reboot of the franchise because of how few of the older Pokémon could be found for a good amount of the game. Combining this with the fact that you could not trade Pokémon from the first two generations to this one (well, until the remakes of the first gen games came out), a FAR weaker post-game than the last generation (although Pokémon Emerald fixed that one, to some extent) and you could not visit the other regions of the franchise (a feature that is nowadays par for the course, but a big deal breaker back then) and the end result was a game that didn’t feel like it was a satisfying continuation of the franchise to longer time gamers.

Yet, truthfully, it’s still a solid game once you get past the expectations set by the second generation. Indeed, this seems to have gradually become the viewpoint of fans across the franchise after the remakes proved that the Hoenn region was still a great region in its own right. While not the best generation in the franchise by any measure, it is hardly a bad region and there’s a lot of fun to be had with it. If you’ve never dug into the region (either because you stopped following the franchise or just forgot to pick it up the first time around) and you have a 3DS, then check the remakes out: you might just be surprised!

Pokémon Generation 4

Taking the decision to move up to the Nintendo DS, this generation, surprisingly, was the worst received generation of the franchise when it first came out, but is arguably the generation where the franchise became what it is today thanks to a noticeable increase in the tactics required for tournament play (which HAD started to spring up properly in the previous generation, but the first proper tournaments started up during this generation’s lifetime) and the splitting off of attacks into physical and special stats (with appropriate defense changes as a result).

The flaws, surprisingly, are not just due to new additions to the games and changes from older games, but are technical in nature as well, as the original two games had frame rate issues which meant that they ran slower than they should have done (although this was basically fixed in Platinum: I still noticed a bit of it, but it wasn’t a major issue). However, a few flaws do come into the games here, with an app based system on a watch that, for the most part, doesn’t do anything of any real interest, a barely noticeable improvement in graphical quality (to the extent that I actually think that gen 3 looks better overall, though this might just be my nostalgia talking) and a general feeling of a lack of anything that’s particularly different from the previous generation (indeed, the only reason I don’t suspect that they were originally intended for release on the Game Boy Advance is that the DS came out almost two years before this generation was released, so this suspicion is very unlikely to be true).

Still, for what it’s worth, this generation DID make a few improvements. The improvements to the battle system due to the split between the types of attacks available add a new element of tactics to the game that really make the games, the gym leaders actually have roles in the game that aren’t just “sit in gym and wait for challengers” (something that had been done a bit in the second and third generations, but really became a proper thing here) and the games handle the balance between the old and new Pokémon a lot better than the third generation did. Platinum also has some really good story telling (by Pokémon standards) and it’s easy to see the influence it had on the upcoming generation as a result.

Ultimately, a poor launch with Diamond and Pearl produced the weakest games that the franchise has seen to date (for more reasons than mere personal opinion) and it is generally a game which feels like it is treading water in comparison to the previous titles. However, there is still a lot of fun to be had with the games if you’re a Pokémon fan and Platinum in particular holds up surprisingly well overall. A remake of this generation might not be an immediate option, as you can still trade up to the current generation of games if you have a second DS (or 3DS), a gen 5 game and have access to Pokémon Bank (which is a bit costly, admittedly, so perhaps a remake or re-release would be a sensible way to fix that), but I would certainly be interested to see what Game Freak could do with this generation of the franchise if given the opportunity to remake it. For the time being, though, this generation is probably best considered to be something for the die hard fan only, as, while it’s not awful, it doesn’t really impress much either.

Pokémon Generation 5

Launching on the DS (despite the 3DS being literally just around the corner: in Japan, the 3DS was released about five months after White and Black was released while, in the rest of the world, they came out in the same month as the 3DS! On top of that, the sequels came out in 2012, over a year after the 3DS had launched, so they were running on what most would have considered to be outdated hardware), the fifth generation of games in the franchise had quite the odd reception, as the first games were critically loved and had great fandom support at the time, but nowadays don’t get brought up much, while the sequel games were critically seen as quick and cheap sequels due to staying on the DS, reusing a lot of assets from the previous game and returning to a less deep and more convention style of storytelling for the franchise (although they WERE still critically well received overall), but were loved by the fanbase and are considered to be among the greatest games in the franchise in some sectors of the fandom.

While I can’t currently speak on the strengths of the sequel games (haven’t got around to that yet, as I haven’t fully beaten White yet), I will say that I can see why the original games received the acclaim they did at the time and why they have lost that acclaim nowadays. The game makes some interesting decisions that help to shake up the formula of the franchise a bit (for starters, you cannot catch non-region Pokémon until the post-game), but which also add to the frustration factor of this generation (the decision to have the experience be increased for Pokémon if they’re weaker than the opponent’s level and reduced if higher than the opponent’s level means that levelling up Pokémon can take a lot less time if you’re grinding up weaker Pokémon, but makes levelling higher level Pokémon a chore if you’re struggling against gym leaders, and isn’t helped by the Pokémon battles being harder this time around). These decisions, on their own, might not seem like much, but they do result in a game that can make even sensible tactical playing while levelling up become a grind and the focus on newer Pokémon, while one of the strengths of the game on launch, become a problem because no Pokémon from this region really stand out on the design front (indeed, some Pokémon have rather poor designs overall: as cliche as it is to bring this up among Pokémon fans, Trubbish springs to mind, being a living garbage bag) and the interesting decisions simply don’t pay off.

Still, one can definitely see some great potential in this generation if approaching it today. The story tackles some pretty interesting questions for a Pokémon game, thanks in part to the villain team being essentially a cross between a very hypocritical PETA and a terrorist group (get creative in your potshots, folks, I ain’t making one here!) and the franchise deciding to tackle the question of whether it is right to capture Pokémon to take part in battles (which is a valid question, considering that, in real life, doing this would be considered to be taking part in a blood sport). It also has a noticeable increase in graphical quality, thanks to some brilliant 3D modeling on the overworld in various places across the game, even if this does clash a bit with the 2D sprites of the characters. I also think that, while this decision did not pay off in the long run, the commitment to making the main game’s Pokédex be purely new Pokémon was commendable in that it showed a confidence on Game Freak’s part to try to not rely on nostalgia to help generate sales. It was a flawed decision when you consider that nostalgia is part of the reason that the franchise has gone on as long as it has, admittedly, but it’s not really a bad decision on paper and it could have worked had the decisions which ultimately dragged the game down not happened.

Interestingly, while the sequels are stuck with the decisions that plagued this generation (from what I’ve heard, at least), it also expanded the Pokédex out to include Pokémon from all of the previous games as well. While it did also return to a more conventional story, one could argue that the sequel is the best of both worlds, serving as the bridge between the original game of the generation and the previous generations as well as serving as the blueprint which the future games would use for how to perfectly represent all of the generations of the game. Whether the return to the conventional is a good idea or not is up for debate, but I can see why this decision was well received by the Pokémon fandom.

Honestly, if you had to ask me to pick a generation to label as the worst one in the franchise, this would probably be my pick, because the decisions made to try to shake up the formula and provide a better experience simply don’t pay off and the end result is a generation that is unnecessarily frustrating in the first game (despite some good ideas) and a second game that could have been far better had the decisions which drag the whole generation down not been made. This isn’t to say that I dislike this generation, though: the games are still perfectly playable and I appreciate what Game Freak were trying to do here. Unfortunately, it was marred by a poor execution and the result is that this generation doesn’t have the technical problems of gen 4’s Diamond and Pearl, but it also doesn’t really stand out in comparison to the rest of the franchise. Considering this is a franchise built upon excellent games, that’s not a good sign. This is more a generation for the die hard fans than anyone else, as, while it isn’t awful, it’s too frustrating in comparison to the rest of the franchise to really be worth giving to anyone else.

Pokémon Generation 6

The franchise’s first step onto the 3DS system (in the main series, at least), this generation is arguably the point where the gaming side of the franchise really turned around properly, as X and Y combined are the best selling games on the 3DS (with the third generation remakes combined being the third best selling games on the system as well) and the gaming side added quite a few ideas which actually make the games feel rather new in comparison to the last two generations. There’s a lot to talk about which is added and it honestly all works out rather well: Mega Evolution adds a new element of tactics to battles that, while somewhat overpowered, is a cool addition that adds something interesting to the series and breaths new life into Pokémon that are generally overlooked, the move to 3D graphics (despite being something that I was actually rather concerned about myself before I started playing the game) is very well done, the addition of the fairy type adds some really interesting changes to tactics…there’s a lot which is added and, while some elements could have been better (I think the fairy type is TOO powerful and still needs nerfing in terms of power in the seventh generation), there’s nothing that I feel is really bad.

The non-new elements are also well done, with an excellently balanced Pokédex that represents all of the previous generations of the franchise very well (although I do think that it panders a bit too much to fans of the first game and there’s too few new Pokémon overall).

That said, however, there are still issues. The story is rather weak overall (though some good moments do make it through), there’s a lot of features in the game which cause it to be ridiculously easy if used (to give one example, the Exp. Share which you get after beating the first gym can turn the entire game into a cakewalk if you turn it on and never turn it off) and the post-game is pretty lacking.

That all said, though, I do think that this generation is probably the strongest that the franchise has produced since the second generation if viewed on an overall level. True, it has its flaws, but there’s a lot which it does well and, if you don’t mind deliberately refusing to take advantage of several features to maintain some degree of difficulty (like the aforementioned Exp. Share), it’s a game which can be a lot of fun to play through.

So, how would I rank the first six generations if I was asked to provide some degree of statement on that front? Well, going purely by my experiences with the generations and ignoring nostalgia for the sake of being critical, this is probably what I would say is my personal ranking:

  1. Generation 2
  2. Generation 6
  3. Generation 3
  4. Generation 1
  5. Generation 4
  6. Generation 5

I am aware that this is a rather controversial ranking, but I feel that generation 1 is just too dated in comparison to the rest of the franchise to hold up particularly well, as it lacks too many features that are nowadays the rule to really warrant the highest of praise. While the same applies to generation 2 as well (to a lesser extent, admittedly), the generation DOES have an extensive post-game that helps swing itself back to the top of my list. Gen 3, while a generation that I wish I could place over gen 6, is simply a game that I find I enjoy slightly less on an overall level. Gen 5’s unusual decisions hurt it too badly for me to really enjoy it much, but gen 4’s only crime is simply being a bit dull in comparison to the rest of the franchise (which might just be the fact I have no nostalgia for it).

All of this said, though, there is no generation that I feel is outright bad. True, generation 5 is the generation that I like the least, but I would still say that it has its appeal and I can see why people might enjoy it, as the sequel games essentially do what the original games in generation 6 did while still being hampered by the questionable decisions which bogged down the generation.

So, now you know where I stand with the first six generations of Pokémon. Now only one question remains: where does gen 7 fit into this all? Well, I won’t spoil the whole review for those who haven’t read it yet, but I would honestly place it just under generation 6, as, while it adds a lot of new ideas and it handles them well, I think it just engages me a little bit less than gen 6 did overall. If you want the full details (and I imagine you do, since I’ve just made a fairly bold statement there!), head over to my full review here!