RIVALS — A Pokémon Retrospective Between Friends — Crystal Version

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Art by Jade (@mintxdrop)

INTRO

Our retrospective adventure continues as we venture from the bustling Kanto to the humble region steeped in mythos, Johto. We opted to play Crystal this time around, wanting the more “complete” experience, since there is only an addition of scenes, rather than significant plot or structural changes. Plus, we both wanted girlies. Lastly, we’re going to be trying a new format, hopefully one more conversational and fluid!

Jade: I actually had a Crystal cartridge back when I was a kid! Though the battery is long dead and the game no longer saves, I had my first experience with Crystal when I was around 8 or 9 playing with the oversize GBC cartridge sticking out of my GBA SP. I remember reading up a lot about it on Bulbapedia before playing and also being weirdly enamoured with Kris, thinking her design was really cool. Johto’s dex is rather small but in my opinion it has one of the proportionally cuter selection of Pokemon, even though a lot of them are redundant in battle their designs are very colourful and fun (ones like Natu and Phanpy come to mind, alongside the numerous baby Pokemon, a class of Pokemon introduced in this gen). I remember finding the gameplay to be challenging but the graphics and music to be very cute and engaging. Though I would’ve liked to have played on the original hardware, I opted to play it on Virtual Console like I did for my Blue Playthrough.

By the way Charli I remember you saying you didn’t really like Gen II prior to this, why is that?

Charlotte: So, yeah, I’m not sure I had a good idea in my head of Gen II; I played HeartGold in sort of a lull with the franchise, I guess, and while I liked a lot of it as an experience, I wasn’t paying strong attention to it, and really, the actual gameplay itself irked me. The distribution of Pokemon really frustrated me, and the general challenge level felt erratic (Whitney and Claire felt frustrating, but everyone else felt like complete push overs, and the level curve was really unbalanced to my memory). I also have maybe less fondness for the dex than most; there’s some of my all time faves in here, but a lot of them felt unmemorable on the periphery. Or if not immemorable, maybe just not special; Dunsparce has a funny design, but, like, what’s the point? Same with Stantler or Girafarig. My history with this gen otherwise is mostly vicarious, watching my cousin play it on his GameBoy Color, watching the anime. For this playthrough, I ran it on my girlfriend’s DS Lite, through a flash cart, so I actually also had a slightly different experience to you (no Celebi, for instance).

Charlotte: So my name in the game was Beato, and my team nickname theme was characters from the “When They Cry” franchise, of which I’m a huge fan :) My final team included:

Natsuhi [F] — Xatu
Amakusa [M] — Heracross
Ryugu [F] — Lanturn (Jade’s Pick)
Battler [M] — Typholsion (Starter)
Rudolf [M] — Piloswine
Shion [F] — Umbreon (Eeveelution Jade said we should pick)

What about you? I know we just battled but I already forgot what your teams names were ;-;

Jade: So forgetful… My in-game name was Ami and my nickname theme was characters from “Revolutionary Girl Utena”, which I actually need to finish… My final team ended up being:

Anthy [F] — Meganium (Starter)
Utena [F] — Espeon (Eeveelution I suggested we include :) )
Wakaba [F] — Donphan
Juri — [F] Crobat
Chuchu [F] — Mantine (Charlotte’s Pick)
Souji [M] — Houndoom

And an honourable mention to Nanami [F], my Clefable who I ditched for Houndoom once I had access to it in Kanto (I’m sorry…). This also meant my team was no longer all girls, but whatever…

Charlotte: A fail for feminism. Ok, also, yes, as an aside, the Gender as determined by Atk DVs was probably the most asinine mechanical decision in the game. Anyway… I also ditched a Skarmory; I think she would have been good, but, Drill Peck and Pursuit feel essential for her, and both had to be bred from a Fearow, so I never got to it. Also, Ryugu was my second Lanturn; my first was named Jiro haha.

Charlotte: Okay, so, shit, I really was rolling my eyes when you suggested Lanturn, because while its design and typing are fun, I just never remembered it being an especially effective Pokemon, and after Arbok made my run sorta difficult, I dreaded her.. But she is easily my MVP. Specifically Ryugu; once I found out about the Wednesday/Sunday move tutor (Bill’s gambling addicted dad), her BoltBeamSurfWave combo was easily the most useful moveset I developed. Plus, even Jiro was great, a useful HM-equipped mon. Heracross was my MVP for the Red fight though; Reversal at 2HP against Red’s Snorlax was the deciding move, and we were both on our last Pokemon (and I was thirty levels under him). How about you? Also, how did you end up liking Mantine?

Jade: I love that Lanturn was so good for you! I think you underestimated her potential massively. She definitely caused me trouble in our battle — that we’ll discuss later — as her moveset was so versatile and she was hard to counter. For me rather fittingly Anthy and Utena (my Meganium and Espeon respectively) were my MVPs, though honestly all of my Pokemon were useful. People go on and on about how Chikorita is the worst starter, but who else is going to Reflect + PoisonPowder Whitney’s Miltank to death? Or break down Red’s Snorlax’s defences with Toxic while still tanking its hits at Lvl50? Not Totodile or Cyndaquil, that’s for sure.

Charlotte: I have long been a Chikorita skeptic and I don’t think this has convinced me otherwise, BUT I do concede its toolset and pure Grass typing make a lot of sense for Gen II. I think the pure typing starters are really boring to build around but I’m glad she was so useful for you.

Jade: I can almost sense the resentment from those words… But anyways, Chikorita is really good despite what the haters say! Utena (Espeon) was a pain to get (involving a lot of clock changing for haircuts and endless cycling), but it was definitely worth it for the amount of raw power she provided. Also Chuchu (Mantine) was really useful! Unfortunately her moveset was plagued by Water HMs for the most part but her Sp. Def is ridiculously high and she was a great special tank. Was definitely useful against Lance. I wouldn’t have picked her otherwise so thank you for doing it for me.

Jade: I knew I would enjoy Gen II from the beginning, so much that I kinda rushed my Blue playthrough to start it, so I was really looking forward to playing Crystal. I think coming in straight from Red/Blue made me appreciate it a lot more; simple quality of life changes made the experience so much better. The music for instance was really nicely arranged, making much better use of the GB soundfont than RBY, and has some of my favourite tunes in the series. All trainer sprites, poses and animations (which were new and genuinely exciting to see!) had a good consistent quality unlike in RBY. I remember messaging you, Charli, about how nice it was to actually have colours in the game.

Charlotte: The colors were… absolutely a huge gain for the series. More than that, the coloring as done by the Day/Night cycle. Having different hues and shades gave the world a lot more texture, and with the more polished but still lo-fi sprite work I think the texture of the world was really appreciable even within just a few hours. I think, too, the Day/Night was indicative of my interest in this game as something much closer to a formal RPG, or even perhaps even a “life-sim” game, than RBY were.

Jade: I agree! I think a lot of changes introduced in Gen II made the game feel a lot more lived-in world rather than a battle simulator. Whilst Gen I had some elements that added to its immersion, Gen II really took them a step further. In RBY it was hinted that a trainer who treated their Pokemon well would always do better against one who didn’t (a theme against both your rival and Team Rocket), GSC took this further and made it into an actual mechanic which affected if your Pokemon could evolve, perform better in battle with Return, etc. We also had additions like the radio, calling trainers/important NPCs, better themed locale and general mythos which made Johto at least feel so much more ‘real’. You could still fill in the gaps, but I feel like Gen I’s Kanto left too much to the imagination almost?

Charlotte: Yeah, absolutely. I really appreciate what you said about the friendship mechanic offering some kind of numeric incentive to the game. Plus, the breeding mechanics offer a much easier way of getting “good” Pokemon beyond randomly trying to capture whatever is around and not much else. In general, the world of Johto feels very lively; daily berry trees, daily apricorn balls, little calls from your pals, radio towers playing tunes and having goofy, simplistic talk shows to tune into. This isn’t my own observation, credit to YouTuber Tama Hero for this one, but the pacing of the game almost presupposes “lifestyle” games like Destiny 2, where you’re expected to log in for dailies, do a little bit each day, even when you’re not grinding by yourself. The world reflects this better sense of pacing and better integration of player into the environment; the sidequests include things like healing an ill Miltank with the berries you collect regularly, going to and fro Kanto via a boat ride only available two days a week, the day and night cycle adjusting catch rates and dex availability in a given area, battling against young trainers who grow a little bit each time (though never that much), and the Eevee line necessitating playing at certain times to raise your Pokemon optimally. There’s a greater interest in the environments too; Ecruteak (sort of traditionally Japanese, very steeped in mythology locally) has a distinguished ecology and sensibility from Blackthorn (a little more arid and rough and tumble, sort of like a canyon town), and both are infinitely more pastoral than Goldenrod (metropolitan, with the most gameplay of anywhere, and the most modernity), giving you a little bit of everything, and a little more specific something throughout.

Jade: Johto’s environments actually really impressed me. Like you said each city felt very distinct even when similar in theme, whereas in Kanto cities like Viridian and Pewter just kind of blend together. It feels like they consciously employed environmental storytelling in Johto as well, with a particular interest in respect for nature and Pokemon. You can see that with the reverent monks in Sprout Tower (which was like, random and poorly designed gameplay wise, but fun nonetheless), Slowpoke Well, the shrine in Ilex Forest, and just the prevalence of mythology and legendaries that Kanto simply didn’t have. I really appreciated it.

Charlotte: Slowpoke Well is the best. God tier location.

Jade: I agree. Also just like random stuff like the myth in Azalea about droughts being ended by Slowpokes yawning. That’s so fun! It adds to the general sense of appreciation and respect for Pokemon that the games were really trying to put across.

Charlotte: The themes of the game have, even here, biased towards an interest in the natural world, exploration of said world, and an interest in respect and companionship with animals, and the line about Satoshi Tajiri’s interest in bug collecting and entomology is much more apparent here than in RBY. It’s very sweet; Team Rocket has less grand ambitions, and they’re less effective here than before, but they’re arguably crueller, because they’re so awful to everyone’s Pokemon. And the same can be said of Silver, your rival, who has a much clearer purpose here than Blue did, as he illustrates a trainer who doesn’t respect his Pokemon.

Jade: Speaking of rivals and Team Rocket, how challenging did you find Crystal to be?

Charlotte: Ugh… So, yeah, this is where I presume we get negative. Or at least I’ll be more negative, not totally sure. This game is much more polished than RBY mechanically, less outright broken moves and behind the scenes mechanics (critical calculations, for instance, or Wrap preventing moves from happening, or toxic/leech seed combo), but it has, to me, still a terrible level curve. This is a steeper issue in the post-game, which we’ll get to, but throughout the main game even, everything is still so low level. There’s a less clear “everyone is level 24–34 for 3 or four gyms” range like in Kanto (there’s three gyms of similar levels but Pryce is a bit higher), but every gym leader sans Whitney (who is a Spike, but is a fair challenge) and Clair (who is only difficult due to Dragon’s defensive statuses and lack of availability of counters beyond really weak ice types) is a push over. Morty is a complete waste! There’s only two Ghost type lines in the game, and he doesn’t even use one.

Jade: Yeah actually the level curve is one of the more frustrating parts of the game for me and it’s especially annoying because there isn’t a real reason for it. I’ll admit that Bugsy gave a little bit of a challenge for me because my team was Chikorita, Phanpy and Zubat at the time (don’t use this as an excuse to insult Chikorita btw) but after Whitney the Gym Leaders were relatively a nonissue. I get they were trying to do a, like, choice thing with Chuck, Jasmine and Pryce being available to be battled in any order, but it didn’t really like, add anything to the game? It just meant that areas like the Rocket Hideout were filled with trainers who had level 25 Pokemon that you can steamroll through. And as we discussed before, attrition =/= difficulty. I thought they would’ve evened levels out by the Rocket takeover of the radio tower but they just… didn’t? And then Kanto is just like… I found a Level 5 Goldeen while surfing on Route 24. Why?! It’s so easily fixable! And it meant that grinding for gym leaders and the Elite 4 just took a long time because wild Pokemon levels were so low. I don’t get it.

Charlotte: My solution was to not grind; I didn’t really grind until we came up to Red, and even then not nearly enough for a comfortable sweep, but at least the decision to not grind made the Elite 4 a challenge. I worked against them three or four times before winning to finally actually grind, and being underleveled helped a bit with making it more engaging.

Jade: I actually won against every gym leader/E4 member (Except Bugsy) first try… just saying.

Charlotte: To be fair! I didn’t have any great offensive Pokemon beyond Lanturn and Typhlosion, and Lanturn isn’t even an ideal sweeper. I had the Umbreon you assigned and Umbreon can only function defensively, and a Skarmory who did nothing, and then a very fragile (if sometimes decisive) Piloswine… Not my best team! (I am saving faves for the replay in HGSS). The Elite 4 was the only real challenge for me, though, as I was quite underleveled and dealing with weird team comp; Red turned out to be pretty approachable. My level range was between 45 and 53 and it took me two or three tries but given how underleveled I was it was a good challenge. Heracross pulled through for me in the end…

Jade: Yeah Red was surprisingly.. Okay? I approached him with Lvl50 Pokemon and I think only one of my Pokemon fainted. I wouldn’t have battled him any lower but you really don’t need to grind that much. Also, watching a lot of Pokemon solo challenge runs has given the confidence that I can win any battle if people can beat the game with only a Shuckle, for instance. Speaking of Shuckle, and rare Pokemon… how did you find the distribution of mons? At least compared to RBY?

Charlotte: Pretty poor. There’s ideas in the distribution I like, the aforementioned cycling, but having so many interesting mons being restricted to Kanto sucks, and there’s so many Hoothoots, Pidgeys, Rattatas, and generally unexciting mons, that like even the more interesting, if not useful, mons like Stantler, remain more rare even though they’re not better. Johto’s dex doesn’t include a lot of good, interesting to use Pokemon until late. There’s also just very little variety for so long; again, only two ghost types? Two of the five steel types being restricted to post game? Umbreon being one of the only dark types available before post game? It’s just.. it’s not as bad as Gen I’s, but it’s still very boring to see Gravelers and Golbats and Onix and nothing else in this games Victory Road, and the same Goldeen, Magikarp, and Tentacruel while surfing, etc.

Jade: I think I agree to an extent? I think the problem lies with a lot of Johto mons; while they’re visually interesting, they’re not super useful in battle. The distribution is a stark improvement from Gen I’s I have to say, I think I remember counting the amount of Pokemon lines you have access to before the first gym and it was around 30? And that’s including Pokemon like Poliwag, Growlithe, Bellsprout, Teddiursa, Phanpy… I think also Gen II’s approach to new Pokemon wasn’t to have them as ‘regional’ Pokemon that are exclusive to Johto but rather ‘newly discovered’ Pokemon that simply weren’t found three years ago in-game, explaining why we see fun Pokemon like Houndour and Slugma restricted to postgame. I honestly don’t mind that some Pokemon are hidden away and are rare (like Marill, Dunsparce, Miltank) as I think looking for them and stumbling across a rare Pokemon makes it all the more exciting. Additionally, route-to-route Johto has more varied species than Kanto, getting types like Snubbull, Ditto, Abra and Drowzee on a suburban place like Route 34. So I’d say it’s pretty mixed. I’m not really sure if really varied distribution is something they properly address until, like, Gen V, though.

Charlotte: No, yeah, that’s definitely true about the early game, I take that back a little. There’s a lot of access early on, and they’re a lot of good, early game finds… Few remain super viable or competitive, but for the early game, for the “Catch Em All” spirit, it’s better up front. There is also the issue of movesets; they’re rarely improved or more interesting than Gen I’s, which I think does contribute a bit to mechanical staleness, even as it is more polished. I think, though, my frustration is more the back end; it gets stale, and, Good God, Kanto is boring, especially since its largely sooo low level.

Jade: Yeah Kanto feels like an empty shell rather than an actual region anymore, which I get was due to space issues. Alongside the low level and lack of level curve, a lot of routes and cities were downsized — Fuchsia for example was stripped of its Safari Zone and even its zoo, which is kinda sad.

Charlotte: The one post game cut down I liked was Seafoam Islands and Cinnabar Island being lost to a freak volcano event. Blaine and Blue deal with it in simplistic, if fun, ways, and I like that it further drives home this sense of things bigger than we can understand; through Johto we get little moments like that; the mysterious lightning-burnt Bell Tower in Ecruteak, for one.

Jade: Yeah I thought the Cinnabar development was neat, also added to the whole respect for nature theme and adapting around it a little bit? I will say I wish Cinnabar wasn’t destroyed purely for the reason that it had an interesting history in Gen I and it would’ve been cool to see it be developed further. But I guess that shameful history with experiments on Pokemon and playing with nature being wiped away by an eruption from a volcano is rather fitting.

Charlotte: Yeah, there’s just a general interest in preservation and conservation, and any places where disrespect is found, often gets wiped out (such as Cinnabar cosmically, or Lake of Rage/Slowpoke Well with intervention by the morally good, if simplistic drawn, heroes). It’s sweet. It’s very much a game about place and being in it and a part of it, which is one of the most valuable types of game to me.

Charlotte: Ecruteak was my favorite as an environment, for that aforementioned mythological streak and focus, followed by Olivine, which just has my favorite theme and sells the salty shoreside wharfs and lighthouse pretty well (and was right next to a lil cow farm :)), but Goldenrod was the one I found myself returning to most often. It’s so useful, and much less boring than the comparable Celadon.

Jade: I think I remember you saying in DMs that Goldenrod has more character than both Saffron and Celadon combined and I’m inclined to agree. It is functionally very useful but also has a nice theme song, a bike shop, an underground with quirky shops, a dept. Store, game corner, radio tower… I could go on! The pink and gold colour palette is also very sweet. I think choosing a favourite locale in Johto is very hard though, every location is imbued with so much character and environmental storytelling.

Charlotte: They really killed it here!! I thought I didn’t like Johto as a locale, but honestly, it was just that I had never truly engaged with it on its own terms. It’s quite charming.

Jade: Even as an already-converted-Johto-liker I found myself reading into the environment a lot more and having a lot more to get out of it in return. It was a lot of fun to explore than I remember it being.

Jade: Putting aside Kanto, I think Cherrygrove was probably the least engaging town. It just kinda screams tutorial city, lacking any kind of character. But I don’t know if that’s a cheaty answer…

Charlotte: I kind of agree. Even New Bark has more charm. Not as a cop out, but yeah, it is probably my least favorite as well, though I also did not enjoy the Victory Road in this game either, especially due to the dex distribution.

Jade: Yeah, and Victory Road didn’t even have any trainers?! Which is so weird. They definitely could’ve cut some from other routes and put them here instead.

Jade: Azalea Town, Game Corner, and the Kanto Route 3 rearrangement.

Charlotte: Intro Demo track (lol), National Park, Unown Frequency, Ecruteak Dance Theater!

THE BATTLES

Jade: Again we battled with our final teams using Pokemon Showdown. We had some issues with validating our teams as Gen II’s programming meant that, misogynistically, female Pokemon can’t have Attack DVs that are too high or they’re classed as male. Sickening. Anyways, putting feminism aside for now, we got to battling. The first one I won but the second I lost, much like last time.

Charlotte: This time, though, instead of a play-by-play write up, we had the foresight to save our actual matches through Showdown. So, we’ll be linking that here :)

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Trans writer currently based in Maryland.

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