Pokémon Crystal Turns 20: The First 'Real' Pokémon Game

Published: Monday, December 14, 2020 - 12:00 | By: Rhiannon Bevan
What Game Freak Could Learn from the Past

When was the last time you revisited the first generation of Pokémon? And I mean really played it—dusted off the Game Boy and everything, not play the remake or any other iteration of it. 

Sure enough, it’s a whole lot of nostalgia, but we can agree that the series has made strives since then. Initially, I put that down to the time and hardware limitation. But then, I finally picked up Pokémon Crystal on virtual console, and boy, was that perception wrong. 

The day-and-night cycle, the bug fixes, picking a gender, shinies, a post-game, fixing the balancing issues, hell, even a story—all new additions to the second generation of Pokémon, and all things a game would feel weird without today. But nevertheless, the series was without them for a time. 

Game Freak poured feature after feature into this generation, especially the third title, Pokémon Crystal, and in turn, created the backbone for the rest of the franchise. Twenty years on from the real birth of the franchise, is the Crystal mindset something we’ve ever seen since? And is there anything Game Freak could learn from this childhood classic as we leave the controversial Sword and Shield behind?

 
 

Pokemon Trainer Kris in a wild encounter with an Unown

 

If you grew up as a Pokémon fan, one comment you no doubt heard was that all the games are just exactly the same: you have six Pokémon, you battle gym leaders, then the Elite Four. Probably catch a God and take down a criminal organization along the way. Sure enough, those were all things in the first generation, but most of us appreciate that this “they’re all the same” comment isn’t really true.

Most new installments manage to have their own feel. But going back to Gen 1, it’s remarkably absent of much feel and heart, apart from nostalgia. It’s purely just laying down the technical groundwork. Pokémon Crystal, on the other hand, lays down the groundwork for the world of Pokémon, and it really does feel like a connected world—and quite literally, when you return to the Kanto region. 

Whereas Red and Blue could be somewhat static, here it’s alive. The passage of time is evident—Team Rocket have mixed up their plans, everyone has a phone, Kanto’s landscape has changed completely, Blue is a now a gym leader, and that’s not even the half of it. When the Game Freak team sat down and got to work, they made a true sequel, and it shows throughout.

Even little touches, like finding asleep Hoot-Hoots in trees during the day, make Johto feel like a living, breathing place, which—true to the day-and-night cycle—continues when you’re gone. Adding to that, this was the first title to focus on legendaries. It’s weird to think there was a time were legendary Pokémon weren’t part of the formula. Not only are they on the box art, but in Crystal, they’re included in the main story, as well as the mythology of Johto. 

 

There’s a theme here: Gold, Silver and Crystal didn’t throw out the rule book, but instead expanded it. It righted its wrongs, while confidently moving the series forward on its own path. 

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this: Game Freak could really learn a lot from their past. 

Starting the endgame in Pokemon Crystal, getting the ticket to the Kanto Region

Pokémon as it stands is having a bit of an identity crisis. If they keep things the same, there’s complaints. If they introduce something new, it’s out by the next game. Mega Evolutions got scrapped for Z Moves, gyms got scrapped for trials, before trials got scrapped again—and after the whole mess with “dexit," I think it’s safe to assume the full roster of Pokémon will make it into the next installment, maybe even without the Wild Area. 

 

What I’m trying to say is that new additions to the series generally don’t have a very long shelf life. Unless it was a new addition introduced during Gen 2, they all near enough appeared again. 

Game Freak had a certain bravery about it with Pokémon Crystal. It had become comfortable with the world of Pokémon, probably due in large part to the earth-shattering success of the anime proving that fans wanted an expanded world.

But maybe the bravery is because nothing was guaranteed? This was only the second main outing. Pokémon was explosively popular, but it was too soon to call it a cultural mainstay. This could have been the final chapter in a fad, like many before it. Sure, another game was certainly expected after all the success, but being the first sequel, there were no expectations beyond it being good.

Now, everyone knows the series is here to stay, and new entries are just expected. 250 new Pokémon are expected. Better models for the rest of the ‘Mon are expected. Somehow, Game Freak has to let go of those expectations. It needs to take its time, so it can justify dexit, so it can look like a next-gen game, and so the new features are the best they could possibly be. Maybe we wouldn’t have cared about the limited amount of Pokémon in Sword and Shield as much if more of the map was like the Wild Area—open world and full of things to discover, like almost every other RPG. 

In Gold and Silver, they put both regions into the game just because they could. In Crystal, they added a story because that's what other RPGs were doing. Let’s bring that energy back.

Kris about to fight Red and the end of Pokemon Crystal

Playing Crystal for the first time in my 20s was the most fun I had with the series in years. I’m amazed at just how much of a leap it is from Red and Blue. Sure enough, I was part of the crowd that loved Sword and Shield, but I’m going back to Gen 2 much more often, even 20 years on today. I’m not sure if I’ll be saying the same thing about the Galar region in 2039.

The music in New Bark Town, accidentally winding up in Kanto, wondering what was up with the Ruins of Alph, fighting Red—these things have stayed with players for decades now, as we think back to a time where these games were full of intrigue and discovery.

Game Freak needs to once again redefine what a Pokémon sequel can be. The Nintendo Switch is an amazing bit of kit, and if Skyrim can fit into one of its cartridges, then so can the greatest Pokémon entry yet.

The Game Freak of old looked at the free space on the Gold, Silver, and Crystal cartridges, and decided to include the Kanto region too just for the hell of it. Just imagine what could happen today.


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Rhiannon Bevan
Staff Writer

Rhiannon is a British journalist and University of Essex alumni. Loving all things gaming, she spends most of her time writing, and replaying Fallout: New Vegas for the billionth time. You may also hear her drone on about video games on BBC Radio and TV stations.