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Holism: When Pokémon Gold & Silver Went to Kanto

Thanks to Soma for notes.

It’s 1999 in Japan, or 2000 in North America. You’re an avid fan of Pokémon Red & Blue, a niche pair of Game Boy games from 1996 that have managed to become a massive worldwide phenomenon. Maybe you’ve seen Mewtwo Strikes Back or The Power of One in theaters (perhaps you’re even American pizza mogul Herman Cain, and would call back on that memory at the collapse of a hilariously misguided 2012 presidential campaign), or enjoyed Hey You, Pikachu! or Pokémon Snap. After spinoffs, adaptations, controversies, and Pokéraps, Nintendo and Game Freak finally come out with two sequels. And Pokémon Gold & Silver weren’t merely “Pokémon 2,” but what became known as a new “generation,” a short epoch in which a new set of games add a new region, new monsters, and a cavalcade of new ideas.

Gold & Silver were incredibly inventive, adding so many unique and important ideas, mechanics, and concepts that it’s easy to see why so many fans consider them the series’ zenith. Genders, breeding, two new types to balance what had been a wildly broken selection of fifteen elements, a day and night cycle, and the abilities to befriend Pokémon or give them items are just the ones off the top of my head (and its third, “director’s cut” version, Crystal, also added the very appreciated ability to play as a female character). Pokémon generations are pleasingly iterative – Abilities in Gen III, online play and the wonderful “Physical/Special Split” of Gen IV, a second type rebalancing in Gen VI – but Gold & Silver were, if not truly “revolutionary,” at least very close. On top of all that, they were the games that added a strong sense of style and flair to the series; the rustic forests and mountains of Johto were caught in a stark dichotomy between mystical, Shinto-esque philosophy and encroaching technological wonder. What they added, and what of Red & Blue they codified, have almost all become series standards.

But while virtually all its mechanical additions were met with great acclaim, what put Generation II over the top for fans was something special. After defeating the series’ prerequisite eight gym leaders, you’re sent to fight the Elite Four, the final gauntlet of the first games. With the ability to use the Hidden Moves Surf and Waterfall, you can finally discover what was at the other end of a small body of water next to your hometown. You cross it, quickly move through Tohjo Falls, and see a small spit of land. And once you step onto it, a man comes by with exciting news: you have crossed regions into the land of Kanto. And while the name wouldn’t mean much by itself, looking at the in-game map would reveal that this was the region of the original Pokémon games (Kanto is loosely based on the actual Kantō region of Honshu, but its name came up only once in the first games, and only in the Japanese versions. Most western fans simply called it “Indigo,” or “the Pokémon world”). But it’s all there on the map, a taste of a massive post-game in which players would be able to explore Kanto in full, once again.

A returning Kanto, circa Gen. II.

It’s honestly so unreal and bizarre from the perspective of the original games. Kanto in Red & Blue was large, and Johto in Gold & Silver – which were on very similar hardware – was almost as large. The idea that the original region could somehow fit in it was impossible, and it very nearly was. One of the more famous stories about the late Nintendo President Satoru Iwata’s programming prowess was about how he was able to get Kanto to just fit on the Game Boy cartridge, only adding more to the semi-mythical nature of the concept.

But Pokémon has always had that about it, the sense of mystery and the bizarre (to be honest, that was the original topic of this article). Consider all the weird glitches of Red & Blue that led to the obsession over MissingNo. or the “Mew truck,” the endless rumors floating around Pokémon GO, the recurring “ghost girls” of multiple games, or how a few scraps of flavor text from games a few years ago led to an intense mystery about what “Azoth” secretly meant in the series’ lore. It’s a franchise that’s playful and friendly, but also filled with odd enigmas, and whether deliberately or not it has managed to develop a huge culture of constant theorizing, guessing, and outright hoaxes. I was not part of the hardcore Pokémon crowd at the time, but I remember reading errant scraps of news and misinformation about the games. And amongst the claims about a mysterious bridge of the dead (a somewhat exaggerated description of one of the gyms) and outright nonsense like finding secret new Pokémon through ridiculous methods, there were reports that yes, you would be able to go back to where the series began. And that was crazy!

It’s also worth noting that there was not really a baseline for what was “expected” in a Pokémon game. The only games players knew were Red & Blue, and they had a very basic structure: you schlep across the land, defeat the gyms and Elite Four, and hit the credits, with the legendary Mewtwo available only for players who finished the story. Since Gold & Silver, every generation has put in effort to add different kinds of post-game content, but in 1999, the idea of what that entailed for this series wasn’t codified at all. People could assume a similar narrative structure, but this was something of a game changer, suggesting the series could do almost anything – except get rid of those pesky Hidden Moves. Those lasted all the way until Sun & Moon.

Beyond just adding content, the return to Kanto is part of a core theme about returning to your origins. I’m not sure if producer (and future Pokémon Company president) Tsunekazu Ishihara’s assumption that these would be Game Freak’s last Pokémon games infiltrated the development, but there’s a definite sense of finality to the games. You beat the new region, only for the old one to appear as yet another challenge. There are new monsters, but most of the time you just catch the original 150; it’s telling that there’s this whole new Dark type, but almost all the Pokémon who have it are exclusive to Kanto. And even the true “ending” isn’t winning some trophy, but from climbing a lonely, intimidating mountain and fighting the player character from Red & Blue. The battle against Red is both incredibly tough – he’s packing what was easily the highest leveled team in the entire franchise by that point – and appropriately anticlimactic. There’s no indication he’s there, no reward other than some money and bragging rights. It’s just a story of a trainer conquering their predecessor – or, for older players, themselves.

Though all this extra size did come with a cost. While very much the largest postgame content of any Generation, Kanto is quite a bit smaller and emptier than it was in the original games, and Johto is a little scrawnier than other regions. This is due to those huge hardware limitations, but it’s more exciting for the prospect of being back than the quality of the environment (this was something their remakes, HeartGold & SoulSilver, did help somewhat, alongside just adding ideas in general). It’s reminiscent of the Inverted Castle in Symphony of the Night: a genuinely brilliant twist that adds so much, but is ultimately more interesting for being there at all than its specific content. But the lack of depth isn’t so bad; this Kanto is built around the idea that your team has already faced down the Elite Four, and it compliments that with tougher fights. The structure, and access to all the Hidden Moves from the get-go, allows you to barrel through the region with zeal, something you don’t get to enjoy nearly enough in other games.

And even up until today it’s never been topped; the only other Pokémon games to do it were those remakes. Part of the reason for that comes from that issue of Kanto being somewhat scanty; putting in a whole second region some players won’t even see demands a huge amount of time and work that may be better spent on the main region. Plus, it’s possible Game Freak may not want to just do it again for its own sake; even for a series as iterative as Pokémon, the return is such an iconic moment that trying the same thing might not be exciting. But the spirit of sizable postgame content has remained, just in less overtly massive ways. Diamond & Pearl had a large island to explore with multiple cities and unique biomes. Black & White and its sequels cordoned off a good chunk of Unova until after finishing the main story, with those environments drastically improving the region’s size and quality. I doubt postgame content wouldn’t have existed without Gold & Silver – after all, there was Mewtwo in Gen. I, and the series’ multiplayer aspect demands extra content – but it was a model, and a useful one at that.

The Fighting Dojo of the remakes, now on Nintendo DS hardware.

More abstractly, I think part of its iconography comes from how that sheer spectacle appeared so early in the franchise’s history. For earlier and younger fans, the idea of of “doubling” the content made it seem like anything was possible, that there was no limit to what a Pokémon game could be. That’s not plausible, of course, and it did make the next games, Ruby & Sapphire, feel like a letdown for some fans. Their variety of mostly good changes to the formula came with a removal of many well liked features (almost all of which would return), and they lacked both a second region and the compatibility to bring in Pokémon caught in the original games. While a number of these things ended up being important and needed in the long run, for many players it felt like a repudiation of that size, scope, and imagination. Having two regions in Gold & Silver was very much a compromise, but it rarely felt like a compromise. With how large and full the franchise has gotten, it’s unlikely that feeling can ever be fully reproduced.

Through the more and less imaginative periods of Pokémon, and amongst its most bitter fan infighting, the move to Kanto has always been held in high esteem, something universally respected. It was a way to add a wealth of new content, a sense of tangible size, and themes of conquering older memories and histories. In Gold & Silver, you can indeed come home again, but only if you’re willing to overcome and challenge yourself. Every Pokémon game is circular in some fashion, from revisiting your hometown near the end of Red & Blue to the huge geographical loops in Black & White, but never has that been stronger or clearer than in the road from quiet New Bark Town to the hellish peaks of Mt. Silver.