Johto: Flawed Nostalgia
Analyzing the famed region of the Pokémon world
When I was first introduced to the franchise of Pokémon in late 2001, it was actually on the Game Boy Advance, not the Game Boy or the Game Boy Color. While I did acquire these consoles at a later date, I jammed a copy of Pokémon Crystal into the top of the handheld first. I wanted the cartridge because I thought it looked cool. It was a different color than most cartridges and stood out to me. This shiny blue cartridge with what I later knew to be Suicune on the cover… looking at the cartridge just oozes nostalgia.
After playing Johto, the region of the Pokémon world where Crystal takes place, I went and further educated myself on the Pokémon series by playing the original Pokémon Red next. From then on, I was hooked to the franchise. So I owe it to Crystal for starting me on that path. Is Johto is as good as I remember, though?
Johtonian Games Include:
- Pokémon Gold and Silver (October 14, 2000)
- Pokémon Crystal (July 29, 2001)
- Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver (March 14, 2010)
Welcome to Johto
I’ll always appreciate Johto for what it was at the time. It’s a very long experience that’s not quite like any other Pokémon game to this date. These were GameFreak’s first sequels, so I don’t blame them for trying to go all out with them. Coming off Red and Blue, they had big shoes to fill.
For many though, they did deliver. These games were meant to be played on the Game Boy Color at the time. They were a full-on new entry in the series with a new storyline, region, and new Pokémon at that. Gold, Silver, and Crystal were the first games to feature legendary Pokémon on the covers in Ho-Oh, Lugia, and Suicune — a trend that has been continued in a majority of Pokémon games since.
Pokémon had a small development team at the time, and the Johto games were delayed further than their initial planned release in 1998. However, with those delays came a plethora of features. These included Pokémon breeding, held items, the PokeGear with a phone-like call system, a way to save your cash in-game, and even an in-game clock that the player can set.
Because of that real-time clock, Johto was the first instance of Pokémon encounters being time-based. Hoothoot, for example, only appeared at night — while a Pokémon like Pidgey was impossible to find during the evening hours.
Of course, this was also the generation to introduce Shiny Pokémon— Pokemon of an alternate color that were extremely rare and highly sought after by many in the community. They still are, to this day, and being dubbed a “Shiny Hunter” is a common term nowadays.
I mention all this to give appreciation to a region and set of games that introduced many features that we take for granted today.
In many ways, I consider the Johto games sequels to the Kanto games. While not explicitly stated to be sequels by GameFreak like Pokémon Black 2 and White 2, the Johto games clearly take place in a post-Red/Blue world.
As a result, Johto does an excellent job at building off the first set of games. It maintains a sense of familiarity for old players, while also being interesting enough to drag new players in as well. When you explore Johto’s routes, you see plenty of new Pokémon from the Johto region such as Sentret, Spinarak, Ledyba, and more. However, you see old classics early on such as Caterpie, Pidgey, and Rattata. I feel as if this was entirely intentional. They wanted people coming back to the series to feel some sense of the old mixed in the new region they have to explore.
Kanto’s region structure was enough to be beginner-friendly, but it was also possible to do Gyms out of order. In Johto, this is expanded further as many of the Gyms in the mid-game can be done in any order the player desires. Added freedom is a rare but welcome addition in a Pokémon game, that I feel many players want to see more often. It’s why we’ve been hoping for a Legends: Arceus type of game for years now.
Johto itself is very distinctly based around a Japanese-themed mythos and motif. Out of all of the four regions that are based around real-world Japanese regions (Kanto, Hoenn, and Sinnoh being the other three), Johto is the only one of them to actually feel like Japan. The motifs of Johto shine through in its many towns. Ecruteak City feels very traditional and rooted in Japanese culture, while Goldenrod City captures the air of a modern city in Japan, contrasting Ecruteak to the north.
To this date, Johto is the only region to be linked up with another in Kanto. It’s the only time players were allowed to revisit a previous region in the post-game. Being able to visit two regions in one game is something fans have been wanting since Johto’s initial introduction in 2001.
Revisiting Kanto is where it becomes obvious that Gold and Silver are actually sequels. Upon returning there, players realized that a few years have passed since the events of Red and Blue take place. Cinnabar Island’s volcano has erupted most notably, forcing its inhabitants to take refuge in the Seafoam Islands instead, where the Fire-type Gym Leader Blaine now operates his Gym.
Many of the Kantonian Gym Leaders sport a redesign as well, more notably in the remakes of HeartGold and SoulSilver. Misty has a more sporty swim instructor look to her, while Sabrina is wearing something less modest as if she’d gained some confidence over the past few years. Koga has since been promoted to an Elite Four member, while the player’s very own rival in the original games, Blue, has taken over the helm of the Viridian Gym!
Of course, we have the game’s grand finale and final twist with its last boss battle — Trainer Red, the canon version of the protagonist from the original Red and Blue. To date, this is the only instance of a protagonist’s canon team of Pokémon being defined in the mainline games. It’s a bit disappointing that we’ve never seen this concept revisited with other previous protagonists in later Pokémon games, but this is fine enough. Having Red be canonically mute to represent the player’s lack of dialogue in the original games is a great touch — and I actually dislike any attempts by fans to give Red dialogue. It just feels wrong to force words into the mouth of this mysterious legend that they want to portray.
While revisiting Kanto is indeed a cool addition and concept that needs to be revisited in future titles, it could for a little more. Years have passed since the original games and yet Kanto remains largely the same. The main plot of the Johto games has been mostly wrapped up by the time you arrive here, so there isn’t any overarching conflict that drives the player through Kanto. Kanto largely feels like a nostalgia trip, and nothing more than that. Locations like Cinnabar Island and Lavender Town feel largely different, reflecting the passage of time. More changes that are significant enough for players to notice would have been appreciated in Kanto’s towns beyond making their Gym Leaders appear in different outfits.
Speaking of Kanto, Johto’s over-reliance on its predecessor is very obvious throughout the game. Many of the aces that the Johto Gym Leaders use are either from Kanto (Chuck with his Poliwrath, or Falkner with his Pidgeotto) or those that are evolutions of Kanto Pokémon (Clair with her Kingdra, or Jasmine with her Steelix). The lack of originality is quite disappointing for a new generation. Many of Johto’s new Pokémon added to the evolution lines of Kanto, and some of them feel unnecessary as a result. Did we really need a baby evolution for Clefairy and Jigglypuff?
Thankfully, those are a minor problem in the midst of many issues that Johto has with its available Pokémon. There are less than 20 Johtonian Pokémon that are either pre-evolutions or evolutions of Kantonian Pokémon. Johto introduced 5 single-evolution Pokémon that are largely gimmicks or useless: Wobbuffet, Unown, Smeargle, Delibird, and Shuckle. However, the biggest issue is that Johto’s 100 new creatures are largely not present in the base Johto region. A total of 33 Johtonian Pokémon are actually available in Johto itself. That just feels… wrong.
The usage of Kantonian Pokémon provides some familiarity to the Johto region as stated earlier, but other regions handle this inclusion much better. You can find Pokémon like Pikachu, Gastly, Zubat, and Geodude in regions like Hoenn or Sinnoh, but they’re implemented in a much smarter way, without putting the region’s own on the backburner. Some of Johto’s best designs like Tyranitar and Houndoom aren’t available until the post-game in Kanto.
So unless you’re settling for a weakened team through the game, you’re likely going to be using at least one Kanto Pokémon during your Johto journey. Since many of Johto’s Pokémon can tend to be lackluster, you’ll likely be settling for a Kantonian counterpart instead.
The level curve of Johto is also an issue. Because the gyms can be done out of order, the levels of the Gyms were lowered enough to allow players to do so. However, this causes Johto’s level curve to fall off a cliff halfway through the game. While the highest leveled Pokémon that a boss has in Johto is only Level 50, grinding gets extremely tough after that.
While the atrocious level curve is manageable in Johto, Kanto is where it becomes more noticeable. You’re going to be facing Gym Leaders who have Pokémon in the 50s range, while all of the wild ones you’ll be encountering are in their 20s-30s range. This is extremely problematic to keep your team at the right level range against the Kanto Gym Leaders. The best way to grind is to face off against the Elite Four after finishing Kanto’s Gyms, whose levels are in the 60s range. Champion Lance’s team is in the 70s range at this point.
As a reminder — the final boss of this game is Red on Mt. Silver. His Pokémon are in the 80s range.
Johto’s level curve becomes a pain to grind through towards the end of the game and is a complete chore. While HeartGold and SoulSilver are applauded as outstanding remakes, and I do agree, it is a case of GameFreak playing it too safe. Many of Johto’s issues, including the level curve and distribution of Johto’s own Pokémon could have been resolved in the remake. Instead, they went for a faithful remake in all aspects, which is commendable, but I believe that Johto’s gameplay suffers as a result.
Johto’s final flaw comes from its storyline. The region has a very good aesthetic and mythos based on Japanese culture, but none of that plays into the actual story. Team Rocket appears yet again from Kanto in an attempt to get Giovanni back as their Leader. However, unlike other Pokémon games where the antagonists actually manage to almost complete their goals, Team Rocket doesn’t actually do anything in the Johto games.
At first, it seems like the story will do something interesting and unique in HGSS by having the player disguise themselves as a Team Rocket member in order to infiltrate the Radio Tower that was taken over. You even get some cool unique dialogue in the outfit when you speak to NPCs in town while wearing this outfit.
The hopes of a cool infiltration are quickly dashed by your rival, Silver, interfering. He sees through your disguise immediately and tears it off of you, leaving the player to fight their way through Team Rocket instead of sneaking in. When you finally get to the boss of the new Team Rocket, that’s it from there. You’ve essentially ended Team Rocket’s core structure, and they don’t get even close to accomplishing their goals. It feels like a lukewarm climax to the game.
Perhaps the most interesting bit of story in the game is featured only via a limited-time event. Obtaining the GS Ball and Celebi allows the player to travel to the past to get more backstory behind Silver and Giovanni. Still, not a lot of people experienced this in their games. The event eventually led to a false theory that Giovanni drowned after departing the cave above, due to a splash sound effect heard in the game. This was later disproven in Pokémon Black 2 and White 2, where Giovanni reappears once again at the post-game Pokémon World Tournament.
Pokémon games don’t have the most amazing or compelling stories, I’ll be the first to admit that. However, the stories of the Johto games are absolutely at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to Pokémon plots since the plot barely exists whatsoever. You fight some bad guys who do some bad things, and they don’t really have any goals at all. Although the remakes gave Team Rocket’s Admins unique designs, they have no interesting defining features whatsoever.
When it comes to Johto, I appreciate where it is in history in regards to my exposure to the franchise. I owe Pokémon Crystal a lot for introducing me to this franchise that I know and love today.
Johto has a lot of inconveniences and things that hold it back compared to other Pokémon games in the series. I see many fans hold Johto in very high regard for having such a large amount of content. However, I think playing these games in 2021 will show that Johto is not quite the spectacle that Pokémon fans make it out to be. I implore readers to give HeartGold and SoulSilver a try in 2021 while looking at them objectively. These games are excellent remakes, but are not the helm of greatness that they are proposed as, especially compared to many other entries in the series.
I’ll always respect Johto — but much of its praise is merely flawed nostalgia.