Best Pokémon games: ranking from Gold to Sword and Shield

Looking for the best Pokémon games? Then you've come to the right place. Like that one person in your office that is always bouncing around energetically, Pokémon has been around for more than 20 years – since 1996 to be exact.

This evergreen franchise currently runs across eight generations, each of which stands on its own, but also improves on the last. 

The best Pokémon games will bring in new Pokémon, stories, villains, heroes and exciting new lands for players to explore and immerse themselves in. Now, 24 years after the series showed up on the Game Boy, there are around 30 mainline titles in the series, the most recent releases being the Gen 4 remakes, Shining Pearl and Brilliant Diamond, on the Nintendo Switch.

In order to help keep everyone up to date with where the series is, has been, and is potentially headed, we here on the TechRadar editorial staff have compiled this list of the best Pokémon games that you can buy in 2021. We’ve also taken the liberty of ranking them from best to worst. That’s right, we make the calls here.

This is certainly going to be at least a little divisive, but we want to make ourselves clear: we really don’t think there’s a single bad Pokémon game. (It’s kind of hard to make a bad game when you basically stick to one proven formula.)

But, unfortunately, we can’t avoid that some of the new regions and new Pokémon additions stand out more than others, and it's a given that some of the generations saw more significant and rewarding changes than others, and that’s really what we’re going to explore here.

Generation I may have been what introduced us to the wondrous world of Pokémon, but it’s in Generation II where Game Freak really got into a rhythm and brought the world to life.

In Pokémon Gold, Silver and Crystal we saw the implementation of a day-to-night cycle, days of the week and breeding. These features brought an exciting new depth to catching and battling Pokémon, and made it worth exploring at all times of day, especially as certain Pokémon could only be encountered at night. Increasing the number of Pokémon to 251 was a good move too, especially as one of them was Cyndaquil. No bias here.

Apart from these interesting and game-changing new additions, Generation II allowed you to explore the new region of Johto as well as Kanto from Generation I, which was not just a great gift to fans of Red and Blue, but made the game feel like it had a really big world. 

Gold and Silver released at the same time, as is tradition with Pokemon games, between 1999 and 2001, depending on which region you lived in. Later, though, Crystal released and managed to improve on Gold and Silver in major ways by adding a new subplot, the ability to choose your gender, and the Battle Tower which allowed players to try and fight as many battles as they could before taking a loss. 

HeartGold and SoulSilver were enhanced remakes of Gold and Silver released in 2010 that also included all of the the changes made in Crystal. If you ever get the chance to pick up these versions you definitely should, because even though they’re essentially remakes they are better than the originals, making it possible for Pokémon to visibly follow your character as Pikachu does in Pokémon Yellow. 

There are many other improvements introduced in HeartGold and SoulSilver which, combined with the power of nostalgia, make these two of the most exciting games in the series.

Nintendo also released ports of Gold and Silver on the 3DS virtual console on September 22, 2017, as part of their 20th anniversary celebration. 

Game Freak was hustling across Generations II and III of the Pokémon series, as Generation III saw the introduction of more interesting and necessary changes. Continuing from Gold, Silver, and Crystal, Ruby and Sapphire gave us better animations, double battles, contests, secret bases and (to the relief of everyone) the ability to run.

At the time, a decent amount of these changes were divisive, and Ruby and Sapphire aren’t really the most beloved Pokémon games. Still, many of the new features, including secret bases and individual Pokémon natures, had a very positive influence on the direction that future games would take. Contests also added a new competitive dynamic that wasn’t entirely focused on battling. 

The music in Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald was amazing, and the Hoenn region felt like a really dramatic change for the series, bringing in a lot more water to the map. 

There were quite a few problems with these games, though, including the confusing change to the day and night cycle after it had worked so well in Gold and Silver, not to mention the frequently odd new Pokémon designs.

One of the biggest reasons that Generation III is so high on this list, is the release of the remakes Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire back in 2014. These remakes were great, not because they drastically changed the story, but because they added some new features and quality of life improvements that were successful in X and Y. Plus, seeing the Hoenn region in 3D was inspiring. 

When you play these remakes, you get a better sense of why Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald were such indispensable additions to the series.

Generation VII encompasses Sun and Moon as well as Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. These games have changed up the series more than any other generation has in a very long time. 

Sun and Moon and their Ultra follow ups are the most graphically intense Pokémon games on the DS platform, and you can really tell they're pushing the 3DS console to its limits in their successful efforts to bring the Pokémon world more to life.  

Sun and Moon introduce the region of Alola, a region which is incredibly different to any other region not only in terms of visuals but also in gameplay structure. Gone are gyms – now there are island trials, and Totem Pokémon and themed challenges surrounding them. Even HMs have disappeared. 

Sun and Moon take Generation V’s attempt to craft a more involving story and Generation VI’s attempt to be more of a traditional RPG, and bring them together in a way that almost hits the mark. There is the drawback however, in that there are more un-skippable cut-scenes than ever before, and unfortunately they’re not always interesting, but you can tell Game Freak is working towards something good here.

Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon continue what Sun and Moon started, but rather than simply rehashing the same story in the kind of director's cut, they're more of an attempt to recreate the sequel structure we first saw with Black and White 2 in generation V. There's a brand new story involving dimensional wormholes, brand new legendary Pokemon and an attempt to continue the tale of Sun and Moons rather than re-tell it. 

Intriguingly, Game Freak took its foot off the pedal when it came to introducing new Pokémon in this generation, which is probably a good idea. With so much changing in Sun and Moon, it’s kind of nice not to have to contend with a frankly excessive number of new creatures. Instead, Game Freak focused on introducing Alolan variations of the original 151 Pokémon, which is an excellent compromise and something we wish had been done for previous regions.

Sun and Moon are the most unique Pokémon games in years, and breathe some much-needed new life into a series that was slowly beginning to stagnate.

Pokémon Sword and Shield are the first mainline Pokémon games to be released on the Nintendo Switch and expectations were high from the initial announcement. They certainly had the most tumultuous pre-launch period of any of the Pokémon games when it emerged that Game Freak would not be including every single Pokémon across the eight generations' National Pokédex and would instead limit the number to around 400 in a Regional Dex. 

Despite the furore, the eighth generation seems to have weathered the storm and both titles have gone on to have great critical and commercial success. They introduce the personality-filled Galar region which is charmingly inspired by the United Kingdom and many of the best Pokémon designs in years make their debut in these games, making up for some of the lacklustre designs in generation VII and helping to establish this generation as one of the more memorable ones. 

There are a few important issues that keep Sword and Shield from being the very best (we delve into those in our full review) but these games are undeniably fun and make many convenient gameplay changes that we've been crying out for. Unlimited Escape Rope use; an open world area; autosave for crying out loud! 

For this reason, Sword and Shield are pretty hard to place. They lack the depth that's been so important in making our more favourite Pokémon adventures as great as they are and we're honestly not taken by the whole new Dynamaxing thing. But the Sword and Shield gameplay is extremely enjoyable - plus the optional DLC really expands the game world. And then there's the charm. The charm people! We certainly can't say they're the best ever but we're more than happy to say they sit somewhere in the middle of the mainline releases.

Not sure whether Sword or Shield is better for you? We've broken down the version differences.

Pokemon Let's Go is hard to classify. It's not quite Generation I as it incorporates game mechanics from Sun and Moon, a pair of games that wouldn't debut until 20 years after Red and Blue hit American shores, and it's also somewhere in between a main entry and spin-off, a hybrid that blends the best of the franchise's hit mobile game, Pokemon Go, with the nostalgia factor of the Kanto region.

The resulting mix elicits different responses from different gamers. Some are put off by the lack of competitiveness of the entry - without the ability to breed Pokemon, there's no way to pass on moves or modify stats and there's no battling wild monsters at all - while others enjoy the simpleness of the new direction. 

The idea behind the games is to streamline everything and reduce the parts of the game that frustrated audiences. Personally, we hated using a valuable move slot for a worthless HM like Cut or Flash. In Pokemon Let's Go, HMs no longer exist. 

We hated walking through caves just to be bombarded by Zubats. Again, that's just not a problem in Pokemon Let's Go now that random encounters are gone and you can see where the Pokemon are in the map. Sure, that takes away some of the joy of running into a rare Pokemon like Pinsir out in the Safari Zone, but it also means less of the tedious grinding that wasted precious hours of our lives in the '90s.

So, where does the Let's Go franchise fit in the pantheon of Pokemon games? Ultimately somewhere in the middle. It's not the perfected version of the formula, but it's also not the aberration that people are making it out to be. For us, it's a small twist on the franchise that makes the games less grind-y, more fun and a bit less competitive. 

Now can we get a Pokemon Let's Go Togepi? 

Generation V was the first Pokémon generation to have, instead of an expansion, a direct sequel, and it was also the generation that most notably dabbled in a different kind of storytelling.

The Pokémon games aren’t exactly known for their storytelling, but Black and White and their sequels did actually do a fairly good job of creating something that felt different and engaging, particularly after the fairly stagnant Generation IV.

In this generation, we went well over 600 Pokémon, and as a result some of the new additions here are pretty perplexing in terms of design. These games also made the controversial change of making it possible to use TMs more than once. This was a change that, while not unwelcome, did start to create the feeling that the Pokémon games were pandering slightly and becoming less challenging. 

The particularly great thing that Black and White 2 managed was that, although they were direct sequels, they still managed to hold their own as individual games. 

It was therefore easy to play Black and White 2 even if you hadn’t played the originals – or any other Pokémon game for that matter. Managing a level of depth that’s engaging while maintaining accessibility is a commendable achievement for Generation V. 

Pokémon X and Y were a visual revolution for the Pokémon franchise, being the first games to be released on the 3DS console with truly 3D graphics.

Graphics in this entry were more gorgeous than they’d ever been, and we think we’ll always remember our first-ever time in Lumiose City. Additionally, we got a new type (fairy type), Mega Evolution, Pokémon-Amie and new character customization settings to go along with them.

Let’s not get too far, though, as X and Y do have the problem of trying to feel more like traditional RPG games without the compelling narrative to back them up.

You certainly get the sense the series is heading in a new directions with X and Y but the game still doesn’t quite know how much of the past games it should maintain. What you get, despite this, is a generation that’s a perfect gateway into the Pokémon series for those coming to it through Nintendo’s smaller mobile console. 

Now, while it may be near the bottom of this list of generations, that certainly doesn’t mean generation IV is bad in any way. Diamond, Platinum and Pearl came at a precarious time for the Pokémon series. It almost felt like the series was beginning to grow stale, and Game Freak was using these titles as something of a transition point before generation V’s changes. 

As a result, they’re games that play very well and offer a lot to enjoy, but they also don’t particularly stand out in memory for any particular reason. The Sinnoh region wasn’t really fresh or exciting, and the story and its legendary Pokémon aren’t exactly series high points. 

That said, Platinum did improve a lot for this generation, not just by adding numerous new Pokémon and improving the story, but also by refurbishing some of the cities and locations to make them a little more visually exciting. 

We’d definitely recommend picking up Platinum if you want to experience this generation on its original platform. But, the easiest way to experience Gen 4 is definitely the modern Switch remakes: Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. 

Now, these remakes aren’t the work of Game Freak (they’re by the studio ILCA) but they’re pretty damn faithful. There are positive and negative aspects to that. If you’re visiting Sinnoh for the first time then it’s the perfect way to do so but it’ll maybe a slightly less spectacular experience if you’re re-visiting and hoping for something fresh and utterly revitalised. They’re not the most ambitious remakes in the Pokémon series but a lot of affection for the originals clearly went into them and that does wonders for the nostalgia factor.

Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl do also bring some of the series’ more modern innovations to a classic game and they work in a great many instances. HMs are drastically improved and a much less irritating experience. The Grand Underground is also well worth a visit. Most of the modernisations are more subtle quality of life changes that make for a smoother and more user-friendly experience. The always-on Exp. Share is likely to be the one that grates. 

Whether you’re playing the original Gen 4 releases or the more recent remakes, you’re going to have a fun time in Sinnoh. 

They may have been the originals, it’s difficult to call the Generation I games the best. They’re the first Pokémon games we played, and they serve as a great introduction to the series. When they were first released they were consolidated into the anime, movies and merchandise very well. Now, however, it’s hard to deny that they’ve aged. 

Don’t get us wrong – they’re still completely wonderful, a gold mine of nostalgia and frankly essential to play, but we’re trying to tear off our rose-colored glasses here. They’ll always hold the title of being the originals, but next to later generations they appear kind of dull. It’s hard to imagine that someone new to Pokémon in this day and age could be convinced to continue playing by Generation I alone. 

For those of us who love them for the nostalgia, though, we’re glad to say Nintendo has made Red, Blue and Yellow available on the virtual console. 

Generation I will take you back to basics with a limited color palette, the original 151 Pokemon and the comfortable region of Kanto. These can be good or bad things. 

Though the overall Pokémon story and gameplay haven’t actually changed too much over the years, there have been many quality-of-life features added since that you may not even have noticed dramatically improved gameplay.

There’s also the fact that though the original 151 are great Pokémon, there really are some great additions in the later generations, and going back, 151 can actually feel a little limiting. They're not all great, either. Ekans is a snake, and its name is snake backwards; let's not fool ourselves into saying the Pokémon series was at its creative peak here. 

FireRed and LeafGreen are now likely the best way to experience this generation in terms of adding new features and improving visuals, but they’re not the easiest games to get your hands on for a decent price. 

This release on 3DS is far from the usual Pokemon fare. Like other spin-offs in the Pokemon franchise Detective Pikachu doesn't follow the route of asking you to catch 'em all and it completely stands on its own. It's also one of the most unique spin-offs we've seen from the series in years.

Here you'll play a young boy called Tim who joins up with the eponymous Detective Pikachu (no direct relation to Ash's Pikachu as far as we know) to solve a wide array of cases a'la the Ace Attorney series and unravel an overarching mystery around Tim's father. A word of warning here: Pikachu speaks in this game but his voice is so gruff and his attitude so snarky that it's completely welcome. 

Detective Pikachu isn't a challenging game by any means but its character relationships and completely fresh take on the Pokemon universe make it well worth playing. 

It’s not all colors and gemstones in the Pokémon game world. Outside of the mainline handheld titles, there are myriad side games released on both home and handheld consoles. 

Unlike the core games developed by Game Freak, these titles cross a variety of genres and come from a range of developers…

We're being gently nudged with our nostalgia with this choice, but we will say that we replayed Pokémon Snap on Nintendo 64 and were shocked by  how well it held up. 

Pokémon Snap was an amazing spin-off because though the premise is weird on paper, in practice it just clicks. Pokémon Snap let you enjoy the Pokémon world and the creatures that fill it in a way that didn’t focus on battling, and its pace was very soothing

The goal of the game was to be guided around a variety of highly thematically specific locations on Pokémon Island, and take photos of the Pokémon that inhabit said areas for Professor Oak’s latest research project.

Though the game was simple on the surface, for those willing to dig deeper it had a noticeable degree of depth and replay value. To this day it’s one of the most interesting and memorable Pokémon games, spin-off or not.

Pokémon Conquest is another Pokémon spin-off that stands out thanks to its unique approach and a knack to make a strange concept work against all odds. 

Made for Nintendo DS, Pokémon Conquest is essentially a game where the core Pokémon games meets the Japanese series Nobunaga’s Ambition. What you get from this meeting is a turn-based strategy title set in a Pokémon-populated feudal Japan.

In Pokémon Conquest combat still involves the tactical element of Pokémon types being strong and weak against one another. 

However, it demands another layer of planning, as rather than trainer-versus-trainer battles you’ll find battlefields that can have up to six Pokémon on each side. Each Pokémon is matched to its own warrior trainer, and it’s up to you to build the best team here to make victory more likely.

It’s not just battling in Conquest, either – there’s a story, and it’s a good one. In fact, Conquest offers some of the best writing and world-building across any of the Pokémon games, mainline titles included. 

Pokémon Ranger is a different take on the core series’ RPG gameplay for Nintendo DS in that it allows you to explore a different way people in the Pokémon world live and work with Pokémon. 

In this collection of games you play a ranger who temporarily captures and tames wild Pokémon, both to help them and to use their unique abilities to complete objectives and explore. Rather than training to be the very best, you’re solving ecological problems and defeating criminals; really, you’re much more of an obvious force for good in these games. 

The Ranger series makes good use of the Nintendo DS’s touchscreen in the capture process, which doesn’t involve any of those restrictive PokéBalls, and the graphics and environments are always bright and generally delightful. 

This is a series for altruistic Pokémon players, and it only grows in scope with each release.

Mystery Dungeon is an interesting spin-off in that it has you play as an actual Pokémon rather than any kind of human character. If you love taking Hogwarts house quizzes you’ll love the start of these games, as you're asked to take a short personality quiz in order to determine which Pokémon you should play.

When you start playing as your designated Pokémon you form a small team with other Pokémon, and take on missions across Mystery Dungeons. Your team is largely autonomous, but you can guide them slightly for strategic purposes.

Gameplay is turn-based, as is the Pokémon way, but battles and exploration aren’t as distinct here, so whether you’re taking a step, attacking, or using an item it counts as one turn. Though the games are repetitive, they’re still fun, and it’s refreshing to be able to have adventures as a Pokémon with other Pokémon in the way that a small number of anime episodes showed. 

Pokken Tournament is another Pokémon spin-off that puts players in the shoes of a Pokémon rather than a trainer, but here the focus is almost entirely on Pokémon battles alone. 

Essentially, Pokken Tournament is like if you took Pokémon and Tekken and combined them into one game. The combat mechanics will be very recognizable to anybody who's played games like Tekken or Street Fighter, but naturally, if you’re a Pokémon fan, there’s the added bonus that you could be fighting as your favorite pocket monster. 

But, unfortunately, there’s a catch: the number of Pokémon you get to choose from is kind of limited, but this does mean that each character feels distinct as a fighter, which makes forming a strategy much easier. 

It’d be pretty difficult to put the 800 Pokémon we now have in a game like this without making choosing one an exercise in torture (not to mention the balancing), but you can’t help but feel disappointed when you can't play as your favorite. 

For players who are interested in the more competitive side of gaming, Pokken Tournament certainly seems to be finding its feet in the area of eSports, which makes it an interesting game to watch as well as play. 

Before Pokémon Stadium launched way back in 1998, there were innumerable calls to bring Pokémon to Nintendo 64 in thrilling 3D. When it eventually happened, it wasn’t entirely what everyone expected or even wanted, but at least we still got a great game.

Pokémon Stadium strips away the RPG and story elements of the main series to focusing on battling, and becoming the very best Pokémon trainer there ever was. It’s Pokken before Pokken, and it was extremely successful. Though Stadium mostly focused on battling and rising through the ranks, there were also enjoyable mini-games to play. 

It was legitimately exciting to see your favorite Pokémon from Red and Blue battling in 3D on the big screen – and things only improved when the sequel added Generation 2 creatures a few years later.

It would be easy to assume that Colosseum was just going to be an ill-disguised update to Pokémon Stadium for Gamecube, but it actually ended up being more than that. Naturally it had something similar to Stadium’s arena battles, but it also included some of the RPG elements that Stadium opted to leave out. 

Rather than capturing Pokémon through random encounters, players were able to ‘snag’ corrupted shadow versions of other trainers’ Pokemon. The player could then save these corrupted Pokémon by purifying them through continued battling. It was as dark as it sounds.

This was definitely a different way to capture Pokémon, and it didn’t appeal to everyone. That said, Colosseum was otherwise a pretty solid offering with great graphics. Battling had never looked better, and there were several modes to be enjoyed in single and multiplayer.

A follow-up titled XD also focused on shadow Pokémon, but it added the ability to capture wild Pokémon in the way we were used to. This was, however, only possible in a small number of designated spots in the game world, which kind of took some of the randomness out of the idea of random encounters. XD also re-used a lot of content from the original Colosseum, which drags the games down in our estimation.

Hey You, Pikachu! is like Pokémon meets Nintendogs. It was developed for Nintendo 64, and used the console’s relatively under-utilized voice recognition unit to allow players to interact with their pet Pikachu.

Throughout the game you tag along with Pikachu, taking part in a variety of mini-games that range from fishing to picnicking, building your friendship as you go. It was simple (perhaps overly so) but it was fun, and we still think the game should be re-made for the Nintendo 3DS. Give us the choice between a Pikachu and a dachshund and we're not even going to hesitate, Nintendo. 

Pokémon Go is a more recent spin-off, and it’s also probably the most recognizable to those who aren’t already Pokémon fans. After all, it would’ve been hard to get through the summer of 2016 without seeing someone with their eyes glued to their phone playing this game. 

Pokémon Go is a great game because it’s so accessible, and it takes you out into the real world to catch Pokémon in a way we dreamed of throughout our childhoods. It’s not without its problems, and interest has definitely waned, but it’s being constantly updated by Niantic, and we can see it continuing to improve over the years. It’s definitely more than a Flash in Dark Cave. 

Trozei is pretty much Tetris for Nintendo DS that’s been modified to include Pokémon. Instead of colored blocks you have small Pokémon icons falling from the sky, and using the console’s touchscreen you order the characters to clear the space against the clock. It’s not groundbreaking, but Trozei is a fun puzzle game, and it made nice use of the different Pokémon types to introduce bonuses and combos.

The first Pokémon Pinball was the earliest Pokémon spin-off, coming out not long after Red and Blue, and it’s still one of the best. We all played the pinball game that came on the old Windows systems, we're sure, and we all loved it (we're also sure), so meshing this kind of gameplay with Pokémon was always going to work – especially since the ball was a PokéBall.

Colorful, fast-paced and fun, Pokémon Pinball is a spin-off classic.

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