A bold title, but one I fully believe in. Furthermore, I will go on to say that Crystal is the best in the entire series. Crystal exemplifies the prime aspect that makes a sequel good: a response and respect for its predecessors while acknowledging forward movement and, heh, necessary evolution.
Especially so in the case of Crystal, in particular because of its themes, it’s important to place it within a historical context. Pokemon exploded in the mid-late nineties with the initial release of Red and Green in Japan, followed by the release of Red and Blue in the west (with these versions based primarily on the Japanese Blue version, their ‘third’ that in the west would be normally associated with Yellow, Crystal, Emerald, and so on). The games were a global cultural sensation, essentially extending the lifespan of the Gameboy into the new century.
With the release of the Gameboy Color, the first generation took advantage of colour palettes representing their namesakes, but it was not until the release of Gold and Silver in 1999 in Japan (and 2000 in the United States) that the series truly took advantage of an expanded cache of colours. This is of important note.
The original Red and Green versions are notorious not only for their bugginess, but for the wonkiness of their sprites. Compared to Ken Sugimori’s illustrations, these were highly exaggerated, sometimes barely recognizable as the Pokemon they were meant to represent. Personally, I adore them and find their goofiness endearing. Many were redrawn for Blue, those being used in the western releases, but still maintained a cartoonishness and playfulness to them, the limitations of sprite size an encouragement to experiment with straying off-model.
Gold and Silver present a more refined spritework. The sprites are cleaner, with more consistent proportions, and are better representations of each respective Pokemon. However, they are still often exaggerated forms. They recognize they are cartoons, meant not only as a literal 1:1 representation of a subject, but also of personality and mood. These sprites are doing the primary aesthetic heavy lifting in the games, and they burst at the seams with character.
Also of note is a further dedication to translating Sugimori’s unique watercolour style to 16-bit. Instead of start, highly saturated colours, Gold, Silver, and Crystal use a soft pastel palette. The games teem with soft pinks and purples, creamy off-whites and muted golds and warm blues and greens. The games are simply soft and pleasant to look at, like walking through a garden. They are friendly, reminding you that hey, this is a game. Enjoy yourself. Take your time. There is no need for such anger and aggression.
Crystal further plays with the freedom of the sprites to be joyful with their representations. It’s the first in the series to have animated sprites, each Pokemon having a short, unique animation when it first appears in battle to further express the character of each critter. It’s delightful.
It’s here that I must bring up the much-maligned third generation of games, Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald. Unfortunately, I have to continue in that line of criticism: I’m not a fan of this generation, in particular because of its visuals. The Gameboy Advance brought Pokemon into 32-bit, allowing for more detailed sprites, but at a loss of expressiveness. The sprites are aggressively on-model to Sugimori’s illustrations, stiff and devoid of personality.
Emerald’s animations go just as far as squashing and stretching the overall sprite like someone playing around with resizing in MS Paint. It’s boring and lifeless, and that inflexibility continued on to future generations. Of course there are certain constraints to consider, such as sheer processing power on the 3/DS for 500+ individual models, but it’s still disappointing after experiencing Crystal and just how much fun it is to look at and inhabit.
The pastels aren’t just visually pleasing though. Crystal, more so than even Gold and Silver, is a bittersweet love letter to Red/Blue/Green. Our memories, much like the towns and forests of Johto and Kanto, are rose-tinted. Crystal takes us not to a region more advanced, more futuristic than Kanto, but more traditional and rustic. It’s a region steeped in folklore, history, and culture. There are creaking, aging towers maintained by dwindling numbers of monks, a lone craftsman singlehandedly maintaining the art of crafting unique Poke Balls, dancers dressed in traditional garb, moving to the unmistakable sound of an ancient instrument, and local gods inhabiting every nook and cranny, caught only in glances if you’re not fast enough.
And then there are the people. There are Gym Leaders that are young and spry, and those that are old and hold onto tradition. There is Clair, part of a long line of respected Dragon-type users, a young and powerful woman that nevertheless respects ritual and lineage. There are the neo Team Rocket Administrators, desperate to bring back the glory reach of an old school mafioso, reluctant and unwilling to accept that those days are over, that even criminals must adapt to the changing times. There is Eusine, forever chasing legends told to him by his grandfather, centering self-worth and esteem in acknowledgement from that with which he grew up.
And there is the player, you. Having played Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, any of those really, beating Clair, beating the Elite Four, and having the shock of many young Pokemon fans’ lives:
Kanto. You’re back in Kanto.
It’s the Kanto you knew, and yet, not. Things are different. There’s new construction. There’s new Pokemon. Some areas aren’t available. With Giovanni gone, Green is now the Leader of the Viridian Gym. You journey to Mt. Silver and battle Red, the very avatar you embodied in the original games. Kanto, a young player’s home, changes with the times. You can’t go home again. But that’s alright, because look at the adventure that took you close to it.
There are mechanical changes to consider as well. Gen 2 simultaneously expanding the competitive depth of battling while putting at the forefront friendship as critical to real growth with your team. The literal usage of time, events that you can participate in, people you can meet, a living ecosystem reacting to night and day. Cellphone contacts.
While Gold and Silver had all these, Crystal truly brings the generation’s thematic and mechanical elements to their conclusion. The games came out at the turn of the century, with Crystal in the 21st. Crystal looks back fondly on its past, tenderly and with love, while accepting that everything will move forward. How it changes, we may not always know, and like. But it will.