Pokemon Gold and Silver were supposed to be the last in the series. With Pokemania waning and programmer Satoru Iwata set to take a leading role at Nintendo, Game Freak was set to move on to other things.
Knowing this, Game Freak decided to throw everything it had into making Pokemon Gold and Silver into the biggest and best sequel it could. The result was perhaps the biggest and most technically ambitious Game Boy game of all time. In many ways the series has still yet to top it.
Pokemon Gold and Silver famously moves the story to Johto, which serves as the Kyoto to Kanto's Tokyo. Compared to the high-tech Kanto, Johto is steeped in ancient tradition and mystery. Many of the characters dress in traditional Japanese garb, as exemplified in the battle with the Eevee trainers in Ecruteak City, all of whom are wearing kimonos. Its centerpiece is the Burned Tower, a mysterious building where three Pokemon were said to have perished in a fire, only to be revived by Ho-Oh and turned into Raiou, Entei, and Suicune.
In its starters—the mouse-like Cyndaquil, the crocodile-like Totodile, and the dinosaur-like Chikorita—Gold and Silver has the tricky task of following up on some of the most beloved Pokemon ever. It's one area in which Pokemon Gold and Silver can't quite top its predecessor. The Johto starters certainly have their fans, but they suffer from being sandwiched between two of the best sets of starters in franchise history. At least their designs are nice.
Pokemon Gold and Silver does match Red and Blue from a rivalry perspective by introducing the truly vile Silver: a cruel and abusive trainer who is willing to go as far as to steal Pokemon for his own gain. He was such a nasty piece of work that Game Freak wound up making the rivals that followed into friends rather than foes. It's too bad: Silver was the last really memorable rival. Pokemon has played it relatively safe ever since.
On the mechanical front, Pokemon Gold and Silver dramatically expanded upon the original Pokemon Red and Blue. It introduced the day/night cycle that would become common in every generation to follow (except Gen 3 for some reason). It introduced timed events and vendors who would only appear on certain days. It introduced breeding, thus condemning trainers to forever ride back and forth on their bike looking for the Perfect Pokemon. It addressed the overwhelming strength of Psychic Pokemon with new Dark and Steel types, adding corresponding evolutions for Eevee and Onix.
Remarkably, even with these new additions,, Game Freak was able to retain compatibility with the original Red and Blue. Using a time machine, it was possible to send monsters back and forth between the two games, albeit with certain restrictions. Doing so granted access to certain exclusive moves. It was the first instance of Pokemon being a connected platform that kept all the versions relevant.
Pokemon Gold and Silver was to be Game Freak's ultimate mic drop. Its final battle would have been the perfect coda to the series: a duel with Red, the hero of the original game. But of course, that's not what happened.
The Best Game Boy Game Ever?
I actually had to think pretty hard about which Pokemon generation I wanted to represent on this list. I initially considered Pokemon Emerald, which does an incredible job of fixing Gen 3, and adds the wonderful Battle Frontier to boot. Then I thought about Black 2 and White 2, which is still my personal favorite Pokemon game of all time thanks to the Pokemon World Tournament, the Join Avenue, and other marvelous surprises.
But Gold and Silver still stands apart from all of them. Its lack of connection to the subsequent generations—Game Freak hit the reset button with the GBA—ends up being an unexpected blessing. It's still the most replayable of the old games, inviting you to get lost in its vast world and not worry too much about training or competitive play. With only 251 monsters to catch, the Pokedex actually feels somewhat doable, which isn't something that can easily be said for the 800 strong Pokedex of today.
The return to Kanto, which serves as Pokemon Gold and Silver's big reveal, is still one of the greatest delights in series history. With each subsequent game I've always hoped and prayed that my character would get on a train back to Kanto, Johto, or some other region. And I've always been disappointed.
The return to Kanto was supposedly only possible because of Iwata's programming genius, and I can see why. It packs a whole set of new locations, battles, and even music into Pokemon Gold and Silver's comparatively tiny cartridge. It's one of the few instances of a true sequel in Pokemon history, moving the timeline forward two years and elaborating on the whereabouts of Red, Blue, Team Rocket, and the Kanto gym leaders. It brings everything full circle, and could have served as the perfect conclusion to the series.
As it stands, Pokemon Gold and Silver is still the peak of the series. No entry since has been bigger, more ambitious, more willing to push its platform to the absolute limit. The only addition bigger than breeding and the day/night cycle is perhaps online play, which began the process of pushing the series in a more hardcore direction.
It was the end of an era in many respects. After Pokemon Gold and Silver, the series changed dramatically. Even the anime hit by reset button by having Ash Ketchum finally defeat his rival, Gary, leave his Pokemon with Professor Oak, and strike out to Hoenn to begin anew. Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire began a new cycle that still continues to this day, controversially making a multitude of monsters inaccessible out of the box (even though their data was still on the cartridge). It represented a defined split in not just mechanics but style. Starting with Ruby and Sapphire, the monsters began to take on a more toyetic look, with sharper corners and brighter colors.
The second generation would retain a fond place in the hearts of the fans, but its lack of connection to the subsequent games made it feel like something of a relic for a time. It spent many years stuck under the shadow of Red and Blue, which inspired more nostalgia and was thus more likely to make the various Top 100 lists. It wasn't until the release of Pokemon Heart Gold and Soul Silver, and the much-loved PokeWalker, that Pokemon Gold and Silver got the reexamination that it deserved.
With the advent of the 3DS eShop releases, Pokemon Gold and Silver, as well as its third version, Crystal, have been reconnected to the broader Pokemon landscape. Thanks to the Pokemon Bank app, you can now transfer Cyndaquil, Tyranitar, or Lugia to the latest entry, Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, with ease. It's actually easier to transfer monsters from the Game Boy games than it is the Heart Gold and Soul Silver remakes these days.
With that, I'd say that Pokemon Gold and Silver has a strong argument for being the best Game Boy game of all time. Certainly no Game Boy remains as relevant today as Pokemon's second generation. Other developers have tried to match Pokemon's ridiculous success over the years, but none have come close to succeeding. Its competition have all been too kiddie, or too shallow, to last very long. Pokemon has managed to hold up not just because of nostalgia, but because of its iconic designs, weirdly dark world, and shockingly deep gameplay. I've always said half-jokingly that we don't need a Pokemon MMORPG: it's had a persistent connected world since at least 2000.
That makes it an easy choice to put Pokemon on our list of the Top 25 RPGs of All Time. And as the best Pokemon generation to date, Pokemon Gold and Silver gets the nod.