Pokémon. It’s the biggest multimedia franchise on the planet. Everyone knows what a Pikachu is. The Pokéball, a red-and-white sphere bisected by a black line, is immediately recognizable to even your most out-of-touch aunts and uncles. But it all started with a game: 1996’s Pokémon Red and Blue versions, for Nintendo’s original Game Boy.
In the two-and-a-half decades since, the Pokémon games have maintained the same core formula. You capture magical creatures and level them up through turn-based battles, which are rooted in a scientific system of matching types. (Water beats fire, rock succumbs to fighting, and so on.) Your goal is visit the various type-specific “Pokémon gyms” throughout the land, wherein you face off against gym leaders—essentially, dojo masters—to earn that respective gym’s “badge.” There are (almost) always eight Pokémon gyms. Once you collect all eight badges, you can take on the Elite Four: a gauntlet of five intimidatingly strong trainers. Beating them more or less means beating the game. Oh, and along the way, you always have to deal with some sort of sidelined nefarious group who’s up to no good.
Pokémon games have tweaked things with every iteration—or generation, to use official parlance. Games following Red and Blue have introduced new features, like day-and-night cycles or customizable avatars, and even shaken up that type-matching chart. Each generation expanded the compendium of catchable Pokémon, which started off at 151 (“the original 151!”) and has ballooned to nearly 900 today.
The easiest way to rank Pokémon games is to order things by these generations, but that’s neither fun nor fair. There’s usually a quality discrepancy between a generation’s flagship game and the remake released during the same generation. Are Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver (fourth-generation remakes of the original second-generation games) just as good as Pokémon Diamond and Pearl? How do Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen stack up against their third-generation counterparts? Which is the very best, like no one ever was? Read on to find out.