A Week With Pokemon Silver Version in 2017

I was a few paragraphs into writing this when the SNES Classic came out and ruined everything. I came back to the post afterwards and, naturally, it then turned into several thousand words.

2017 has been an insane year for new release videogames, a fact that has become even more true over the last few months. And yet my most anticipated release date of September 2017 was the 22nd, when Nintendo and the Pokemon Company would – at long last – release Pokemon Gold and Silver on the 3DS Virtual Console (Incidentally just about the only acknowledgement by the big N this year that such a service even still exists – sorry Switch owners). Patched up with wireless trading/battling functionality and wrapped in that gorgeous 3D-compatible faux-Game Boy Color shell, just like Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow last year, they presented a mouth-watering nostalgic proposition for me on paper. In fact as a testament to the sheer value that “comfort food” media can have, I even purchased and finished the VC version of Pokemon Red a couple of weeks earlier when it went on sale in anticipation of the newer re-releases, even though I had already given my full attention to Yellow in a similar manner in 2016.

Unlike Yellow, I no longer have access to my original Pokemon Silver cartridge, so I haven’t touched the original version in any form for almost fifteen years. In light of all the Pokemon generations that have come and gone in the years since, not to mention the glut of YouTube videos, podcasts and articles on the internet praising the second generation for all its once-groundbreaking qualities, I was more than ready to give Silver another go. And then write something about it, so i could feel less guilty about all the hours spent not doing anything else. This post will probably be a little scattershot in tone, and the “screenshots” will be poor and DIY in nature, but I’ll at least try to keep my thoughts aligned with the order of the game’s events.

I burned through to the (first) ending credits over four days and just under 20 hours.

I have both vague and specific memories about my first time playing Pokemon Silver. I remember the absolutely crushing feeling that came shortly after I bought the game at launch at age 11, hoping against all evidence that my copy of Pokemon Stadium on the N64 would let me play the game on the big screen via the “Expansion Pak” like it did for Yellow. My original lime green Game Boy Color had been stolen not too long before, and I knew asking my parents for another one wouldn’t go down so well. However, I was able to start the game up on a friend’s Game Boy Color and then continue on an entirely different friend’s Game Boy Pocket (in black and white of course, though I didn’t care). My parents must have seen these ulterior motives for friendly visits as a bit concerning, so it wasn’t long before they bought me that all-time Aussie classic green and gold Game Boy Color to better control my game time. Finally I could play Silver wherever I wanted. I still have that Game Boy in a drawer somewhere I think.

This thing was the best.

While some may remember the opening of Pokemon Silver for its meandering lack of urgency and frustrating backtracking, the elements that stand out in my mind are much rosier. The sheer, high-framerate smoothness of the first time my Cyndaquil used Tackle. The surprise when it recovered health automatically by using an attached berry. The jubilation at seeing that blue EXP bar fill from right to left, taking the guesswork out of levelling up. But nothing compares to the moment I first saw the screen darken along with the real-world sky, bringing new and different types of Pokemon into the long grass ready to catch. A day-night cycle, no matter how basic, was at the time pretty mind-blowing. Seeing a Hoothoot for the first time was enough to set my young mind alight with excitement at the possibilities – and consider that excitement doubled when I found out my Gold-playing friend had caught a cool-looking Pokemon that was both night-exclusive and version-exclusive, on one of the very first routes in the game no less. Pokemon Silver’s tiny world on that tiny Game Boy screen felt orders of multitude more immersive than the one from its predecessor as a result – even if in Silver‘s specific case, Ledyba offers a pretty underwhelming counterpart to Gold’s Spinarak – but more on that in a minute.

That Zubat is real scared.

Fast forward to 2017 and having finished Red just prior, re-playing Silver’s opening feels like a similarly impressive step forward. With much of the franchise’s biggest improvements still to come alongside the Generation 3 games and beyond, the well-crafted systems that accompany one’s adventure through the Johto region still offer a much more pleasant experience than the well-documented set of frustrations players take on in the Pokemon series’ debut games. Having more than one bag pocket is a very good start, as rushing to the in-game PC to deposit extraneous garbage is a much less frequent necessity than it was in Gen 1, and having a dedicated Technical Machine pouch – with move names immediately visible – feels almost like an undeserved luxury following the repetitive double-checking grunt-work that Red makes you do to find that pesky Bubblebeam TM. The graphical improvements that impressed us almost two decades ago seem a bit less significant nowadays, though at least pixel-wise, Pokemon Yellow Version was arguably just as much of a leap forward in the clarity of the series’ visuals as Gold and Silver, especially in still screenshots. The animation quality is where Pokemon’s second generation truly shines, especially inside of battle. Moves like Razor Leaf, Thundershock and Surf come to mind, with their added animation frames and distortion effects marking a clear improvement over their past incarnations.

Goes all wobbly.

But enough about the mechanical improvements of the Gen 2 games – What I was most interested to rediscover when I booted up the Silver re-release was the pacing and flow of the game in its original form. Pokemon games tend to have inherently high replay value among RPGs, because your party can be vastly different each time you restart, but some games in the series have better reputations than others in this regard. What’s more, I had a lot of fun last year with Yellow and this year with Red trying to use Pokemon teams I normally wouldn’t have throughout the story. And so my personal goals for this playthrough were set in stone on the day the 3DS eShop set Silver free:

  1. Play through the game’s story and see how it holds up in a Gen 7 world;
  2. Where possible, use Pokemon I more-or-less ignored in the past to do so.

The second goal would have to give way somewhat in the name of completing the game within a sane time frame, naturally, because some Pokemon are just objectively badly suited to the game’s main narrative through-line. Which brings us back to Ledyba.

The eyes of a champion.

Though I missed out on my game’s *ahem* beautiful version exclusive the first time I played way back in the day purely due to what time of day I was playing, on this occasion I made sure to pick up the dopey-eyed bug as soon as I could. Indeed I had one within an hour of starting up thanks to my morning train ride, and it set an immediate tone for my journey’s early hours. Much like the Magikarp of the Mt Moon Pokemon Centre, the Nincada of Petalburg Woods, or indeed Gen 2’s own Hoppip from Route 32, Ledyba is an early-game Pokemon that is on paper rather difficult to train up, and unlike the above Pokemon it doesn’t really run into much of a power spike later on in life. However, as I soon discovered to my great pleasure, Silver’s early moments seem weirdly custom-fit to Ledyba’s few strengths.

You see, despite having a laughable Attack stat, Ledyba just happens to have sky-high Special Defense and a quadruple resistance to grass-type moves. What part of the game attacks you almost purely with grass? Why, Sprout Tower of course, housed within the first Gym-packing city you come across in the story. Even if it takes 4-5 Tackles to take out one of the countless Bellsprout you face as you ascend the tower, that hardly matters when you’re laughing off every 1HP sliver of health that an enemy Vine Whips costs you. There’s a certain kind of deranged satisfaction to the process of watching a lowly Ledyba rapidly out-level the rest of your party, even if those climbing levels will (along with liberal use of Supersonic) only mediate the Pokemon’s shortcomings for so long. For what its worth, one of Gen 2’s greatest exclusive quirks – the handy accessibility of the elemental punch TMs – helped me keep its evolution Ledian relevant in my party for 80% of my journey, as Ice Punch allows it to hit opposing grass and ground types pretty hard while laughing at their attacks.

If only you could do more…

The other main curiosity of my team for this playthrough was Zubat, a Pokemon I had never once used in a main series game simply because the idea of doing anything but running from the irritating winged demon just did not compute at any time. However, the promise of a Crobat, Gen 2 debutant and all, seemed like something worth trying this time. Of course that necessitated being patient, as Zubat’s second form Golbat evolves via the invisible and divisive stat known as happiness. That meant being very careful to avoid letting the bat get knocked out, which at times was easier said than done considering the early-game Zubat strategy is even more tedious than Ledyba’s – use Supersonic and then hope the opponent hurts itself while you sloooowly steal its health with Leech Life, one of the weakest moves in the game. Weirdly, things got much easier when Zubat learned Bite, because in Gen 2 it counted as a Special move and several of Silver’s early-game foes are physically defensive ‘mons that like to spam Growl and such. Then the chance to make opponents flinch is always there to help out thanks to the Zubat line’s very high Speed, leaving you with a Pokemon that throws out confusion statuses and flinches like they’re going out of style and doesn’t let its opponents attack much at all. As you might imagine , this can be quite a bit of fun.

Matches the border nicely, no?

Despite all the novelty though, the best reason to use Crobat turned out to be the fact that unlike its pre-evolution, the mean purple speedster can learn the HM move Fly. I wasn’t entirely sure this was possible back in Gen 2 due to my limited experience with the Pokemon, so it was a bit of a pleasant double-pronged surprise. Not only did this mean I didnt’t have to go through yet another Pokemon playthrough with a Pidgeot or Fearow to fly me around, freeing up an extra slot in my party, but due to the Zubat family’s unique Gen 2 menu sprite (another thing I didn’t know existed before this re-release), every out-of-battle Fly animation felt extra cool.

Check it – That’s a bat instead of a bird icon. Edgy.

Naturally, if I had stacked my party with deliberately alternative Pokemon it may have been an even more interesting run, but I may also have added another several hours to my playtime, which wasn’t exactly an appealing idea given the circumstances of Silver‘s re-release. So the next pair within my team of six fell firmly in the nostalgia camp – choices deliberately meant to anchor this new experience in memories of my initial one, while also ensuring I had some more conventionally strong team members to fall back on if I got too cocky with the weird ones. Cue Cyndaquil and Mareep. There isn’t nearly as much to talk about regarding these two beyond the warm fuzzy feelings they gave me when I unleashed a Flame Wheel or Thundershock in battle, or perhaps how ridiculously easy Quilava makes most of the game if you over-rely on its services, or how slow Ampharos really is and how little that matters. What’s more interesting to me at the minute is the location where I and millions of other players caught Mareep – Route 32.

Yeah, actually, she is.

My highly-skewed, very nerdy fascination with the early stages of Pokemon games has been well-documented on this blog over the years, but it had been so long since I’d played a Gen 2 game that I never realised until now how little credit I gave to Route 32, which might just be one of my favourite locations in the entire Pokemon series. The mostly vertical corridor connecting Violet City with the Union Cave is long and narrow, featuring branching paths taking you over either water or land, as well as a cosy clearing to the west only accessible with Cut. The best thing about the Route, however, is its wild Pokemon listing, which to me is the absolute gold standard (if you’ll pardon the pun) for encounter stats – make no mistake, I wish every early-game Pokemon route had its attention to detail.

Route 32 ticks all the major boxes in this department – quantity of encounterable Pokemon, even split between new monsters and ones encountered earlier, wide variety of types, mild version exclusivity and some nuanced time-of-day exclusivity as well. With the inclusion of the Silver-exclusive Ekans – a rarely-seen Pokemon in terms of early options in its own right – you can catch seven different Pokemon on this route, three of whom are new to Gen 2 and have not been glimpsed at all in the game before you first set foot on the route. These three – Mareep, Wooper (the fifth member of my 2017 team) and Hoppip – each come with completely different typings and play styles, and to top it all off you can only catch Wooper at night (or, if you’re extremely lucky, the early morning). If Pokemon Diamond had just one route like 32 contained in its opening few hours, I would’ve had far fewer problems with its pacing.

This is one of the most boring shots I could’ve taken of the route.

Speaking of the early hours, I had forgotten just how good some of Gen 2’s music sounded on the limited Game Boy sound chip, and the Dark Cave tune in particular just seems to fit the restrictions of those beeps and boops like a glove, crafting a foreboding and claustrophobic atmosphere that seems to lose its impact on better hardware (such as the DS, where its remake landed). This is probably why it surprised me so much hearing it in its original form once more and why I’m mentioning it here at all. Pokemon Silver‘s soundtrack is certainly iconic, boasting several widely recognisable tracks that have been remixed to no end, but this one may just be best represented in its original 8-bit glory:

I think it’s fair to say that, strange team choices or not, Pokemon Silver‘s early pacing more-or-less holds up today. The repetitive visits to Professor Elm regarding the Togepi egg are quickly forgotten, the Sprout Tower can be tackled either before or after the first gym, and said gym is accessible with minimal delay and a nearby Geodude location slightly off the beaten path if you really have trouble with Flying types. Then you hit Route 32 and its team-building joys, roll through Team Rocket at the Slowpoke Well and, unless you picked Chikorita, you have two badges before long and end up where all the action happens: Goldenrod City.

No we aren’t going to talk about the constant mobile phone interruptions. I don’t want to.

Ah, Goldenrod City. One of the Pokemon series’ finest metropolitan locales. While the memorable historical Japan setting of Ecruteak City truly sprung to life in the Gold and Silver remakes, giving Goldenrod a run for its money in the memorability stakes, in its original form there is no contest. If you include the areas directly above and below it, Goldenrod arguably packs in more interesting things to see and do than any other equivalent megacity in the series save for and Y‘s Lumiose. With a massive department store, a well-hidden bike shop, the plot-relevant and goodie-laden radio tower, the Game Corner (thankfully Voltorb Flip wasn’t in the original Gen 2 games so I was spared a few hours there), Bill’s house and its accompanying Eevee gift, the series’ first breeding-ready Day Care, the visually and mechanically ambitious National Park and one of the most infamous gyms in all of Pokemon, you’re never bored in Goldenrod. Now let’s talk about those last two attractions, shall we?

A quick shout-out to the National Park, as not only does it house an alarming number of art assets you won’t see anywhere else in the game for some reason – a fact that stood out to me like a sore thumb this time around – but it just so happened to be my only brush with Gen 2’s day-bound event system. When I reached it, you see, it was a Saturday, and that meant I could participate in one single attempt at the bug catching contest – a fun diversion I remember getting really into back in the day. The idea, of course, is to catch the most impressive bug-type Pokemon you can and beat the AI’s meagre attempts at doing the same, hopefully winning yourself an event-exclusive Sun Stone and getting to keep your catch. So I take my Mareep in and would you believe it, the first Pokemon I see is a fully-evolved Butterfree. I go for the Thundershock and chunk its health quite severely, before it proceeds to use Sleep Powder to make my Mareep count sheep. I start frantically throwing Park Balls but it breaks out every time and hits Mareep hard with Confusion, knocking it out in two moves thanks to a critical hit. I’m disqualified and the NPC who wins the contest does so with a Butterfree. I hadn’t saved in ages. Nice.

Bastard.

Alright, the moment every second generation revisitation cannot help but dwell on – Pokemon Silver‘s third gym leader, Whitney, and her stupid Miltank. You know that feeling you get when you go back to a game moment you used to find excruciatingly difficult and suddenly, armed with the knowledge of hindsight and its accompanying confidence, you smash that moment to bits? Yeah, that didn’t happen with Whitney for me this time. My team just so happened to be mostly female – yes, even my starter, luckily enough – meaning that legendarily infuriating Attract spam was not much of an option for the heartless ninja cow demon. What was definitely still an option was using Rollout – a super-effective move on half my team, no less – to systematically tear through my ranks, outspeeding most of my Pokemon and mixing things up with a flinch-ready Stomp or a health-regenerating Milk Drink.

Oh no, not again.

Yep, the fight was a slog and a half to be sure, but the way I eventually won was as satisfying as they come. Giving her a taste of her own chance-happy medicine, I went with the strategy of using my Wooper’s Rollout resistance to hit Miltank with repetitive Mud Slaps, lowering her accuracy as much as possible – usually just three or four times, mind you – before taking one for the team. Then came various Tail Whips and Leers from everyone else to increase Miltank’s self-inflicted confusion damage, along with a stray Supersonic from Ledyba to get some early damage in (Supersonic, of course, missed most of the time). One Milk Drink opportunity was enough to significantly mess things up, so the defense drops ended up being key. Then, when Miltank had sent all but one of my team packing, my speedy (and female) Zubat came out to serve as final tormentor. Using the perfect-accuracy Confuse Ray, confusion was easy to keep in effect, so a combination of Leech Life spam to recover health off her weakened defense and Bite for the compounded flinch chance was just the ticket. Things ran close – especially when Miltank still managed to hit two successive Rollouts while both confused and lacking accuracy – but eventually, the fight was over.

The final triumphant moment.

Beyond that titanic struggle, Silver falls into the same comfortable-yet-unremarkable rhythm that just about every pre-Alola Pokemon game does. Gyms four to seven are reasonably straightforward affairs, with only the speed bump of the ocean-crossing medicine quest to heal the sick Ampharos in the lighthouse there to shake things up a bit. It’s not like this stretch of game time isn’t fun to play through, but there isn’t all that much to write about that couldn’t be written about the next four generations as well. You fight enemies, you build your team, you prepare for the final villainous organisation showdown. Here are some scattered thoughts:

Has anyone ever actually used Sudowoodo in-game for longer than a few hours?

“Ah geez I hope my ghost Pokemon can put up a fight ah geez”.

I have never, ever won anything good from this.

The first time I found this hidden beach way back when, my mind was completely blown.

Is this the simplest gym in the history of Pokemon?

Is this the most difficult to navigate?

We pick up again at the other most iconic moment within the Johto adventure – the encounter with the Red Gyarados at the ominously-named Lake of Rage. Shiny Pokemon were a big deal when they showed up in Gold and Silver and they remain so today, thanks to their ongoing rarity and seemingly endless novelty. Game Freak’s decision to put one directly in the path of every Gen 2 game owner was a devious one, giving plenty of completionists a taste of the kind of collection they might never be able to realistically complete. For the rest of us, a red Gyarados that made the screen flash upon entry into every battle was just really cool, and in the interests of time on my 3DS journey, I caught it once more and added it to my team. The gigantic serpent instantly began to wreck shop, as Gyarados tends to do.

What a moment.

Of course the mandatory shiny is only in the game because of its ties to Silver‘s story, wherein the returning Team Rocket (last seen in the game’s early hours beneath the Slowpoke Well) attempts to draw their former boss Giovanni out of hiding by using malicious radio waves to force early Magikarp evolution en masse. Due to its success, they then take over the Goldenrod radio tower in order to use its broadcast waves to take control of all kinds of Pokemon. This extended encounter with the Rockets takes you through three ostensible ‘dungeons’ in quick succession, following the lair beneath the lake with the radio tower, which itself contains a dive into the Goldenrod underground tunnels and their infuriating door switch puzzles. This intense dose of villainy comes with a certain sense of urgency after the team’s relative absence for several in-game hours, and given how future generations take after its example Game Freak must have really liked the way it plays out, but one has to wonder if the Red and Blue approach of spreading out the Rocket encounters more has been undervalued somewhat. I feel like it has. Throw in the fact that Giovanni never actually shows up in the original Silver release, leaving the Rocket endgame feeling a little empty, and you have a villainous team presence that on balance feels noticeably weaker than that of the generations either side of Gen 2.

Gah, is there even a pattern to this?

The general excitement of the game’s story does not drop off after Team Rocket’s retreat, however, thanks mostly to the prestige, attitude and difficulty of Johto’s final gym leader, Claire. With a vividly coloured gym layout, a dastardly Kingdra that refuses to lie down and a stubborn insistence that you visit the atmospheric Dragon’s Den before claiming your final badge, Claire stands as one of the Pokemon series’ most memorable gym leaders. Meeting her just after working with eventual Elite Four Champion Lance to dispatch Team Rocket lends the final moments of the Johto story a heavy Dragon flavour that feels like it’s trying to make up for the under-representation the type received in the first Pokemon generation.

Lava makes everything feel more dangerous.

What’s perhaps easier to forget (I certainly had) is how much Pokemon Silver treats its main legendary Pokemon as an out-of-the-way side project. In the days since Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire‘s centre-stage depictions of legendaries, every major Pokemon title has had its exclusive legend linked directly to the game’s narrative, usually involving the use of its power for nefarious ends by a villain. This might be less true for Gold‘s Ho-Oh given the prominent status of its resting place in Ecruteak City, but Lugia’s domain, the Whirl Islands, is certainly a completely optional location that’s kind of out of the way to boot, which brings the generation 2 games more into line with their predecessors than anything that came afterwards. You can go catch a legendary near the end of the game if you want to. If you don’t, no matter. It’s an odd state of affairs nowadays, although at the very least the lack of story significance allows Gen 2 to slip in each version’s opposing legendary much later in the game without breaking the story. That’s neat. Anyway, I didn’t want to have to grind for the Elite Four on this playthrough so I tracked down Lugia, threw a Master Ball at it, and finally benched my Ledian to allow the extremely powerful psychic-bird-thing to take its place. It felt strange using a legendary in my in-game party for the first time in over a decade, but at this point I was approaching the end of my weekend and needed to finish up.

Compare this to the cinematic intro Lugia got in Soul Silver.

All things considered, Johto’s Elite Four did not give me all that much trouble. Perhaps due to the fact they were about to throw an entire Kanto region revisitation at the player, Game Freak made the general level spread throughout Johto’s best astonishingly low, ranging from level 40 to level 50 and that’s it. On one hand it’s a smart move, allowing for more growth over the hours beyond the battle with Lance, but it can’t help feeling a little anticlimactic as well. Not as anticlimactic as Gen 3’s Elite Four, which had no justification for its low level spread, but anticlimactic nonetheless. Perhaps the fact I had so recently faced Lance in Pokemon Red at the time of playing contributed to this feeling. In any case my MVP was probably Quagsire, whose lack of weaknesses to the Elite Four’s biggest threats and early access to Earthquake combined to see off plenty of foes.

I had the most trouble with Koga, because my team was rather vulnerable to status effects.

At least his music is good.

My Elite Four team. Their levels were a lot lower than I thought they’d need to be.

Beyond the first end credits screen lies Silver‘s greatest and most enduring legacy – sending you back to the Kanto region three years after the events of Pokemon Red, Blue and Yellow. Given the amount of time I’ve spent in Kanto within Pokemon games over the last two years, my knowledge of the revisitation’s extremely straightforward structure and my limited time in the first place, I elected to stop playing right after that credits screen. I haven’t imported any of my Silver team over to Pokemon Sun via the Pokemon Bank yet, just in case I find the urge to go back and play through it anyway, but the focus of this playthrough was always Johto.

This was a pretty big deal back in the day.

After another 20 hours added to the thousands I’ve put into the Pokemon series over my life, I can say that going through Pokemon Silver again was well worth the effort. The experience gave me new appreciation for certain Pokemon families, particularly of the airborne variety. It reminded me just how much of a mechanical leap the series is capable of between generations. It reaffirmed my affinity for effective use of day-night cycles in videogames. It helped me better organise my thoughts on the series’ narrative pace, especially regarding villainous teams. But most importantly (maybe worryingly?), it confirmed that I am still seemingly incapable of getting burned out on this wonderful series. Despite having played through three Pokemon games in the last 12 months, I am still so excited to get my hands on Pokemon Ultra Sun this November and then to look ahead at the series’ Switch-flavoured future. Bring it all on.

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