Experience the entire series from start to finish.
There are a lot of Pokemon games. This should come as no surprise, given Pokemon is the largest media franchise in the world and has over 25 years of history. Still, if you haven’t followed the series since its first generation, deciphering it can be overwhelming.
The mainline Pokemon series is classified by “generations.” This is because many Pokemon games are virtually identical, save for a handful of differences or a few enhancements. For example, Pokemon Scarlet & Violet are similar enough that only hardcore fans will play both. This can get especially confusing once you include remakes and rereleases of past Pokemon games. There are over ten games that could be considered “Generation 1,” and you only need to play one of them!
To date, there are nine generations of Pokemon titles that make up the core franchise. This is not counting spinoffs, though there are oddballs that we’ll discuss below. If you’ve never played a Pokemon game before, any generation is a good starting point. That said, if you want to catch up with super fans and experience the mainline series from start to finish, here is your best route.
Generation 1 is the most well-known generation of Pokemon, yet ironically it’s now the most confusing. As the only Pokemon generation to be remade twice, you have a few options.
The easiest way to play Generation 1 is to get either Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu or Let’s Go Eevee on the Switch. These are the most modern versions of this generation and feature a slew of quality-of-life features that heavily modernize the original Game Boy games. If this is your first Pokemon game, the only caveat is that wild Pokemon battles are replaced by a Pokemon GO style catching minigame that isn’t found in later titles. That said, if you were introduced to the franchise via Pokemon GO, this is a perfect way to break into it.
Your second easiest option is to download the original Pokemon Yellow on the 3DS. This virtual console rerelease is functionally the same as the Game Boy original of the 90s, with a few tweaks to make them work on more modern hardware. Pokemon Yellow contains bonus content not found in Pokemon Red or Blue, so it is the most compelling of the Game Boy releases.
The last option is to play either Pokemon Fire Red or Leaf Green for the Game Boy Advance. These are superior to the original Game Boy Generation 1 games, but finding these games nowadays is no small feat. If you have access to them, these are a great way to experience Generation 1. Yet unless you want to pay a premium on the second hand market, you’re better off with one of the options above.
Your options for Generation 2 are like Generation 1, minus a Nintendo Switch remake.
The most accessible option is Pokemon Crystal on the 3DS. Like Pokemon Yellow, this is virtually identical to the Game Boy Color original with a few tweaks. This is also the “Special Edition” game of Generation 2 like Yellow was to Generation 1, which makes it superior to Pokemon Gold & Silver.
It’s honestly heartbreaking to recommend the Game Boy version of Generation 2 over your alternative. Pokemon Heart Gold & Soul Silver are widely beloved remakes of Generation 2 for the DS. It’s easily a series highpoint, but good luck finding a copy nowadays. These games are out of print and command massively inflated prices, and you’ll need to pay even more if you want the Pokewalker accessory. In the event you can access either of these versions, this will be your best experience. That said, $10 for Pokemon Crystal is better value than $100 for Heart Gold.
This Generation is thankfully more straightforward.
You can experience Generation 3 via either Omega Ruby or Alpha Sapphire for the 3DS. These are remakes of the Game Boy Advance originals that not only modernize the games but feature exclusive new content as well. You can still buy physical copies for a reasonable price, though they are available to download via the 3DS eShop as well.
Pokemon Emerald for Game Boy Advance is a fan favorite version of Generation 3. In fact, there are reasons to prefer this over the 3DS remakes. However, for players interested in a casual playthrough, it’s hard to justify the second-hand markup when the 3DS titles are easily accessible.
Your two options here are like Generation 3, though there is a bigger disparity in quality.
Pokemon Brilliant Diamond or Shining Pearl on the Switch are your easiest options. These remakes of Generation 4 are controversial, as they’re inferior to the original releases in some baffling ways. That said, they’re the same game as their core, and there are some quality-of-life improvements. Look for this one at a discount.
Pokemon Platinum on the DS is widely considered the best version of Generation 4. Despite being older than Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, this is the most content-rich version of this adventure available. If you can find an authentic second-hand copy at a reasonable price, grab this one.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus
While it’s not a “Generation” of Pokemon, Pokemon Legends: Arceus is still considered an official mainline Pokemon game. Though it’s a recent release, I’d start Legends: Arceus here if you’re playing the series in order.
Legends: Arceus takes place in the distant past of the world Generation 4 takes place in, so you’ll see many references to those games. Additionally, its more innovative gameplay will be a welcome break if you’ve marathoned the past four games. The only version of Legends: Arceus available is on the Switch!
Generation 5 is my favorite Generation, but the hardest to play today. Pokemon Black and White have only appeared on the DS to date, which means you must get these on the second-hand market. Be on the lookout for an acceptable price – either Black or White version will suffice.
Exasperating the matter further, this is the only Generation to receive sequel games in the form of Black 2 & White 2. Again, you’re stuck with scouring the second-hand market if you want to get these games. These do retread similar ground as the first games, so it’s up to you if you want to skip these. That said, these are fan favorite titles that are considered high points for the series.
The hard part is over, and everything is straightforward from here.
Pokemon X & Y were released on the 3DS and never received additional versions. Physical retail copies can still be found, and they are also available on the 3DS eshop. Pick whichever game has the prettier monster on the box and have fun!
There are two sets of games in Generation 7. Each are readily available for the 3DS via physical copies or the eShop.
Of these, you’ll want to pick either Pokemon Ultra Sun or Ultra Moon. These are expanded versions of the original games that feature more Pokemon, more content, and other enhancements. Some fans will vouch for the original Pokemon Sun & Moon due to the story. If that is no concern to you, you’ll be okay picking Ultra Sun or Ultra Moon here.
Pokemon Sword & Shield are readily available on the Nintendo Switch. You can get these physically or via the Switch eShop. Pick whichever game has the more appealing Pokemon on the box!
Though expanded versions of these games were never released, they are the first in the series to receive paid downloadable content. Both The Isle of Armor and The Crown Tundra can be downloaded in each game’s respective expansion pass. Just make sure to buy the pass that corresponds to the copy of the game you own!
We’re finally up to date! Pokemon Scarlet & Violet are available physically and digitally on the Nintendo Switch. The monster on the box of each version will play a prominent part in your adventure, so pick whichever looks more appealing. No DLC has been announced for these games as of writing, but it’s too early to tell if these will receive expansions or not.
We’re done with the mainline Pokemon series, but there are two titles that are close enough that they deserve attention.
Pokemon Colosseum and Pokemon XD: Gale of Darkness for the GameCube are technically part of the Pokemon Stadium spinoff series. However, these titles offered exclusive story modes which some consider to be the first “real” console Pokemon games. In fact, these games introduced concepts such as Shadow Pokemon that have persisted in modern games like Pokemon GO. Both of these games are stuck on the second-hand market, so most will reasonably skip these titles to save their wallets. That said, I am a firm believer that fans of these games deserve to be acknowledged.
That’s the entire mainline Pokemon franchise from start to finish! This is an expansive franchise that has seen sequels, spinoffs, and sequels to spinoffs. Covering every game in the franchise would require several more guides, but know that playing all these games will advance you right to the rank of “avid fan” within the Pokemon community. With the rapid release schedule of modern Pokemon games, be on the lookout for new titles and remakes of older titles on the horizon. Even if you gotta catch ’em all, make sure to do it at a reasonable pace.