Poké-Revisit II: Pokémon Crystal
The original gem that raised the bar and went beyond
Pokémon Crystal falls under the Generation 2 of Pokémon games, and is the definitive and refined version of the generation compared to Gold or Silver. Yes, the generation that managed to slot in two regions in a single game (Game Freak were technical geniuses for sliding all that into the puny shell that is the Game Boy Color cartridge). This game was known for introducing the option to play as a female character and animating Pokémon battling sprites, breathing life into them. The game features 16 sets of Gym battles, a Pokémon League challenge, confrontations with Team Rocket making a return, the legends of the land, and a final battle of epic proportions waiting in the end.
Taking place three years after the earlier game’s events, the player starts of in New Bark Town of Johto, another generic starter town with a Pokémon academic Prof Elm. After receiving their Poké Gear, a multifunctional electronic device, the player is asked to run an errand past the next town for the professor and is given a rare starting Pokémon to do that. The errand turns out to be about the discovery of Pokémon Eggs, which the player is tasked to deliver back to our prof. On the way back, the player found himself locked in battle with a suspicious and harsh stranger with red hair (let’s call him Silver), who stole a Pokémon from Elm’s lab. This establishes Silver as the primary rival in this game, as he will show up to challenge the player time and time again in battle and training ideology, showing no regard for his Pokémon’s well-being. Meanwhile, the player inherits Elm’s vision to learn more about breeding and raising through kindness, and receives Oak’s validation to become a potential Champion through being bestowed a Pokédex.
This sets the player off into challenging the eight gym leaders of the Johto region. Mid way through, the player finds out that Team Rocket have not been gone for good and are staging a comeback, preparing to take over the Radio Tower so that they may search for Giovanni, who has gone into hiding. Once again, the burden to stop that from happening somehow falls on to our young protagonist’s shoulders, as the player finds themselves having to trace down Team Rocket underground hideouts and operations, and dismantle them one lowly grunt at a time. The pacing of the plot is rather slow (but steady) early on as most of the cities are also home to the gyms, but around the 7th gym city of Mahogany our character will have to dive headfirst into a very long series of Team Rocket activities. While this is where the plot escalates the most, the challenge isn’t quite there as most of the battles are more than manageable, without any true boss battles. However, it is quite thrilling to explore Team Rocket’s HQ in Mahogany with Lance, locate passwords, and disable the strange signal emitters. It was also pretty cool to venture into the undergrounds of Goldenrod, solve puzzles, and save the director while defeating the leftover executives.
The player will also find themselves exploring the myths of Johto region, such as uncovering the Ruins of Alph and awakening the Unown, waking up the legendary trio of beasts underneath the Burned Tower, and being singled out by Suicune. The player will meet Suicune a few more times in their travels, and after obtaining the Clear Bell, be granted an opportunity to fight and capture it in the first floor of the Tin Tower. The other two beasts will be available to capture in the wild as they roam endlessly, where their capture will unlock the Rainbow Wing, which in turn invites Ho-oh back to the Tin Tower. Meanwhile, the player will come across the Silver Wing in a later point after the main journey, which brings Lugia back to its Whirl Island lair.
So, after dismantling Team Rocket and beating the final local gym leaders, players can surf eastwards from their hometown to reach Kanto, which they need to travel to so that they may challenge the League based in the Indigo Plateau. After the player push past the Elite Four, Lance greets them at the very end to present one of the most challenging battle for Championship. After that, the game seems to end after registering the player into the Hall of Fame.
As our character returns to New Bark Town, we are given a ticket that actually sails from Olivine to Vermillion. Yes, the very same port city from the earlier game. Players are granted the passage to Kanto in its almost full glory after dealing with the main game. Here on, the player is invited to take on eight more gym leaders, each as powerful as an Elite Four member. There is also a small sidequest involving the suspension of the Power Plant due to a technical issue, which the player agrees to help investigate and solve. Completing this gives the player easy access between the two regions through the Magnet Train.
Time has changed Kanto, however. Some Kanto gym leaders have been replaced by younger upstarts. The bratty rival in the generation 1 games and Oak’s grandson Blue replaces Giovanni as the Viridian leader, while Koga’s daughter Janine takes over his gym leader post. The Safari Zone was shut down indefinitely, while Cinnebar was demolished by the eruption of its active volcano (forcing Blaine to set up shop in Seafoam). Kanto felt like a shadow of its former self, but at least they got their own Radio tower with an unique playlist.
With most of the subquests resolved and all the gym leaders beaten, Prof Oak congratulates you and decides to grant you access with his authority to Mt. Silver. This is an incredibly treacherous mountain barricaded by Pokemon League representatives which is already mapped onto the PokeGear’s and is technically based in Johto, but is only accessible through Kanto’s routes. Normally out of bounds even for your average elite trainer, this is the area where the previous protagonist Red resides. For the game to be truly considered complete, the player has to bring their best to take down Red.
Having what it seems to be twice the content compared to past generations, Crystal is chock full of exploration to be done. There are plenty of areas that may be backtracked to after the HMs or key items are obtained. For a region that isn’t based a lot on open waters, there are plenty of small bodies of water in various cities and routes, many of them holding different surprises. I remember being shook to the core on my first time casually surfing across New Bark Town just to find myself greeted with an incredible soundtrack and a ‘Welcome to Kanto!’ from the NPC waiting. Everything casually explorable in the past games are also available, with much less frustration and complexity. There are also plenty of optional areas to explore, such as Mt. Mortar which houses the Karate King who gives out a Tyrogue upon defeat. Other notable areas include the National Park with its nooks and crannies, basement of the Goldenrod mall, the forest surrounding Lake of Rage, and Union Cave which a Lapras shows up in on Fridays. Many of these areas have multiple objectives and entrances/exits, which make for a pretty interesting exploration experience.
Looking at the cons, there are some areas that are well-designed, but often don’t have much meaningful objective inside. The first is Dark Cave, a literal dark cave that requires Flash to not be frustrating and virtually holds nothing of importance. There is also the Burned Tower, which is important to visit but not at all important to explore aside from experimenting with the Itemfinder. Lastly but most importantly, the entire ordeal with the Ruins of Alph does not add much meaning to the narrative at all, aside from knowing that the letters are actual live Pokemon. They are well-designed levels, but unfortunately mostly optional with no real significance or benefits.
Some of the is held back by how HM dependent the game is, as I often have to make detours to the PC and dig out a Pokemon that can pick up a HM like Cut or Strength in a pinch. I cannot tell if this is a serious issue with this region or it gets worse later on, but on it own HM obstacles here weren’t too obstructive.
IV. Features, activities, and side quests
a. Bug Catching Contest.
In the grand scheme of things, this probably wouldn’t be game changing since most bug types are some of the least competent battlers in the game. But it is an interesting variation from the Safari Zone that is somewhat competitive in nature, with some interesting items as prizes. There is a strange allure in hunting for the rarest biggest bug type available, making decisions to keep or hunt for another, and pitting the final decisions against the NPC competitors. This is the only way to get the coveted Sun Stone. A non-significant feature that remains fairly interesting and engaging until the prizes become boring, quite the classroom material for game designers.
One of my favourite features in this region is the ability to harvest various Apricorns and have old man Kurt turn them into specialty Poke Balls, each for different scenarios. This gives us extra options when hunting for a specific species as we consider the other conditions beyond weakening it. Is my Pokemon outleveling it by a long shot? Is it of the opposite gender? Is it fast or naturally heavy? Can I catch it from a fishing rod? Does it evolve based on friendship? I also like that you can’t hoard these simply by throwing money at a shop. Revising these from the later generations, I have been missing old man Kurt and his specialty Poke Balls.
c. Friday Lapras
This is a simple but well thought out feature to demonstrate the new core mechanic: time and day. Follow some rumor about voices during Fridays in Union Cave, take the time to venture deep at the time, and find yourself an encounter with an exotic Lapras. Simple but enriching feature.
d. PokeGear Calls
The player gets an actual phone function in this game. This is a double edged sword: on one hand this can be an annoyance, forcing you to go through tons of meaningless scripted dialogue about how Pidgeys escaped from them, on the other hand your contacts can be an extremely useful resource. Some invite the player to re-battle them at higher levels with gifts, others give useful information about time specific events like Pokemon swarms, Bug catching contests, and bargain sales on the Department store. This function has been more polished in the later games, but in its current form it is still a decent function for convenient NPC dialogue.
e. Weekday Siblings
Also serving to illustrate the day function while encouraging players to explore the places in a different times, I really enjoy the Weekday Siblings. They designed to just surprise you with a useful type-boosting item on a given day at given locations, but their personalities are surprisingly likable and thought out for characters that serve a basic gift-giving function. I actually wished that there was more screen time given to them, with sidequests dedicated to them. It can be very easy to miss out on them as they are given generic NPC designs.
f. Buena’s Password
Buena runs this password show every night, where she announces a password on air, which you repeat to her through showing up to her setup in the Radio Tower. By tuning into her channel every night, you can accumulate points that can be exchanged for great items including Rare Candies. Overall a simple but functional feature that encourages use of the Radio function.
g. Headbutting Trees
One of the more understated features of this game. Headbutt is not only a great Normal type move that is very accessible as it is sold at the Department Store as a TM, it can also be used to invoke wild encounters by using it on pine trees. There are some exotic Pokemon that can only be encountered this way. An additional touch is that when you encounter Pokemon this way at night, they often pop into battle while asleep, giving you an easy time capturing them.
V. Pokémon Availability and Quality
There are 251 Pokemon coded in this game, only a small minority being truly unavailable in this game such as Kanto starters and legendaries. That being said, most of the Pokemon readily available are originally from Kanto. Crystal (alongside Gold and Silver) felt more like an extension of a Kanto game, rather than its standalone title.
It is actually quite difficult to construct a Johto only team, as most of the early encounters are the same common critters from Kanto such as Pidgeys, Spearows, Ratatas, Geodudes, and Zubats. In fact, for the most part of the game Johto native Pokemon are actually rather uncommon, and mostly pretty mediocre if not weaker battlers stats wise. To top if off, half of the Johto gym leaders do not even have use Johto natives in their battling roster probably due to how weak they are. Some of them such as Houndoor, can only actually be found in Kanto, which is an extremely questionable decision.
Setting aside the puritan spirit of building a team out of local species, there are still some options in terms of team building but somehow not more than. Most of the games notable battling powerhouses such as Kadabra, Machoke, Graveller, Scyther, Lapras, Nidoking, Jynx, and Dragonair are from Kanto.
Overall, Pokemon quality is one of the greatest pitfalls of this game. I did not feel motivated to slowly navigate the hordes of critters to look for rarer species, especially considering most of them aren’t great battlers. It also felt weird that Johto native Pokemon are so uncommon and might have received lesser game time than their Kanto fellows.
Overall, Crystal is a moderately challenging game. Most important battles don’t require a lot of grinding, but they can be quite challenging if the player’s fundamentals of the game isn’t solid as they have pretty solid tricks up their sleeves. There is the infamous Whitney Miltank with her Rollouts and Milk Drinks, and Claire’s team of dragons dropping paralyzing Dragon Breaths, which really pushed the region’s battling standards high up. Even Falkner with his level 9 Pidgeotto can pose a great challenge with unfairly high base stats.
Some grinding is needed for very powerful boss battles such as Elite Four and Red. Red was especially tough because he is about 20 levels ahead of the rest of the top trainers, including Champion Lance, Viridian Leader Blue, Cal from the Trainer House, and the other Kanto Leaders. This means that players would not have sufficient exp points to even have a competitive team against Red if no grinding was done. This is also an issue with the leveling curve in the game, as most of the wild Pokemon and trainers at those points were not even level 40. This encourages the player to go through mindless Elite Four reruns, until they get a team with some in their 60s to stand a chance against Red.
Battling aside, most of the dungeons and puzzles were not tough. Most of it were moderately challenging such as the Ice Path with its sliding floors bundled with strength puzzles, some are extra annoying like the Pokemon traps in Mahogany HQ. The overall difficulty in this game is actually average with most obstacles requiring minimal trial and error, only made annoying by the frequent wild encounters.
There is no way we are not mentioning this first. For the fresh player, being given an entire new region is one of the most awesome thing ever. Just when you are thought you are done with the game, you are given what it seems to be another game to continue on. You board a ship with its own share of content, and end up on the nostalgic shores of Vermilion. The Gym is open to challengers with decent trainers. The Pokemon Fan Club President hands you a Rare Candy in classic fashion. You see a Snorlax asleep and blocking your way to the east. This is going to be good.
However, for the seasoned player, revisiting Kanto loses its charm very quickly. The Kanto available in this region is incredibly stripped down, with most of the features in the cities gone such as Pewter Museum and Safari Zone. The Celadon Department Store has almost nothing to make it standout from the Goldenrod one, only with a different selection of TMs. Saffron’s Fighting Dojo is defunct, and Silph is basically one employee handing you a evolution-by-trade item. Cinnabar Island and Viridian Forest are effectively gone.
The worst parts? The wild Pokemon and average trainer battles. There is almost no distinction in the wild population here, and the trainers battling rosters all average around level 30 and above. I suppose this is keeping with some plot consistency to not have trainers being as good as Elite Four members, but this could have been a much better experience.
It doesn’t take long for mindful players to realize that Kanto is not a full region on its own any more. It is basically 8 more gyms, 1 radio tower, and a Snorlax. Perhaps the existential given that things changes with time is a core message that Game Freak tries to send.
b. Battle Tower
The franchise’s first ever proper battling facility. Unlike the Pokemon League which is challenged for training and plot purposes, the Battle Tower is where trainers demonstrate pure battling prowess without depending on level advantages or using inventory items. It presents the player a gauntlet of battles at a given level, which the player has to defeat only depending on their Pokemon and held items. The Battle Tower is one of the primary reasons that keeps players playing even after they are done. While the features are very bare bones, this is the foundation of all future battling facilities.
c. Mt Silver and Red
Silver Cave is effectively the game’s second Pokemon League, except there is only one trainer. The protagonist from the previous game has been mildly referenced to throughout this game as you take on Team Rocket. You get to visit his house in Pallet Town, and listen to Blue complaining about him. After getting Oak’s recommendation to enter Mt. Silver, you venture into the thick of the game’s most dangerous area, thinking that perhaps some legendary Pokemon is waiting at the summit. But you only find a lone NPC with his trademark red cap and jacket outfit. No words spoken, he challenges you and leads with a Pikachu in level 81. Boasting one of the most well-rounded team in the game that is also the most well-trained, this is widely considered to be one of the toughest battles in the franchise’s history. Beating him rolls the credits, which confirms your completion of the game.
d. Legendary Pokemon
The legendary Pokemon available in this game are alright. The game hands you a Suicune encounter as part of the main story, while Entei and Raikou roam the wilds after the Suicune encounter. Chasing after roaming legendaries is one of the most annoying experiences ever in this game, as your Pokedex does not register it until you meet them by chance in the wild. At that point in the game, there isn’t much reasons to train in the tall grasses of Johto (underleveled wild encounters) unless you are specifically hunting for Pokemon. What a bummer. On top of that, getting all of them is required to even have a chance to encounter the exclusive Ho-oh. Gold and Silver Version actually gave a better experience in this regard, as you can encounter the beasts the moment you awakened them early in the game, which gives you plenty of opportunities to meet them in the wild.
Meanwhile, you can hunt for Lugia once you received the Silver Wing in your Kanto travels, which is pretty sweet.
VIII. Player experience summary (how it treats the players)
Acknowledging its shortcomings, Pokemon Crystal provides one of the most well crafted experiences. While the main plot with Team Rocket 2.0 is only mediocre at making players emotionally invested, the process is pretty enjoyable. The game also gives you a rival that you really want to beat and gives you the satisfaction of witnessing him become a more compassionate person. There are plenty of choices to be made about team building decisions and the plot and dialogue wasn’t suffocating. Most importantly, the game gave us plenty of options to explore and stray from the main path until we are satisfied. It even showed us plenty of incentives to stay with the game longer with the Kanto region, Mt Silver, and Battle Tower.
The quality of life upgrades from Gen 1 is humongous, despite the need to still use the PC for item storage rather early on. The items are more well sorted, and players are not as starved for space as before.
The game would have been close to perfection if developers paid more attention to the leveling curve and gave us an actual decent selection of Johto Pokemon.
IX: Area of improvements
a. Johto Pokemon species
This is honestly irrelevant to the quality of the game itself, but for those who pay attention to their experiences across games or impose certain rules such as using local only Pokemon, this issue sticks out like a sore thumb. It just makes Pokemon Crystal overall not as refreshing, especially for those who just came from a Kanto based game. Just give the Johto species more screen-time and keep the common Kanto critters to a bare minimum.
b. Further missed opportunities with the plot
There is a lot of room to be desired with the plot, especially with two regions worth of content. This results in most of the game world looking bland due to the lack of depth and character in most of the areas. Having more fleshed out features and side-quests could really liven up the place a lot more, with some potential lying in areas like Dark Cave, Sprout Tower, Burned Tower, Cianwood, and Dragon Den.
I could go on and on, but at the very least this game could really use more substantial villains with real goals and plans, rather than banking on their former leader showing up. I felt that their evolution-inducing signal tech was a pretty compelling start, in fact too good to be irrelevant entirely after shutting down the power. It is such a shame that there is no followup on that. To add on, the fact that they did not have a good plan or firepower for the Radio Tower takeover makes solving the hostage scenario less significant. They could do all that and Giovanni could just not show up, what are they going to do?
c. Ruins of Alph
This might be one of the greatest letdowns in a game. I remember being extremely fascinated by it as a kid, spending hours solving the puzzles which unleashes more Unown into the ruins. In Crystal, there are further cryptic puzzles to solve, which opens up access to some rewards. The experience solving the puzzles are great, but unfortunately the rewards and Unown are uninteresting. If only these discoveries lead to more significant plot advancements, legendary Pokemon, or additional Pokemon training/battling utility.
d. No real closure with Silver.
While Silver’s character progression was pretty good, but if you remember that his acquisition of his starter was a crime, then it makes no sense that there was no reconciliation between him and Elm in the game plot. That our Prof Elm is left forever wondering what happened to the stolen Pokemon.
e. Leveling curve.
I think this has been stated enough in this piece. If the leveling curve was smoother throughout the game, with enough training options beyond the Elite Four, I think this game would have much more enjoyable despite the problems.
f. The emptiness of Kanto
Not many people share this opinion so I thought I could elaborate on this more. I found Kanto being a rather overrated postgame area, especially when most of the charming aspects of the region are defunct. I didn’t have a lot of fun beyond battling the gym leaders and reconnecting with the older characters, which really does get old.
A solid improvement over the last game with greater polish. It just has lesser content than it seems.
I know my tone has gotten more negative near the end, but that is because of the flaws of this generation aren’t discussed enough. In all honesty, this was a more engaging and lively world over the past games, and pretty much set the bar for future games. If I were to account for the amount of resources Game Freak had to work with (and that this might be the final generation of Pokemon as they were making it!), this is by all means a great game. The route design of the areas are great and interesting, the typings are more balanced, animated colored sprites, and the amount of content they squeezed into a GBC cartridge is staggering. I was pleasantly surprised by how little things about such an old game are actually frustrating, and how many little features turn out to be so engaging.
It just had flaws that became quite apparent near the end, and when its plot is put under scrutiny it really didn't have a lot to offer when you consider the scale of its game world. Some of the fundamental flaws, such as with the plot and Pokemon quality are pretty excusable when the game did not have all the expectations set by standards of future games to live up to.
My experience with Crystal was more than a net positive. Pokemon Crystal is easily my favorite title to recommend to newer fans who want to play an old school Pokemon game that actually feels solid and polished, but are willing to deal with some minor first-world frustrations. This might have been the title that solidified and polished the formula the franchise is well-known for, and pushed the standards of what a game can be far ahead of its time.