Our very own Cian Maher recently wrote about how Pokemon Gold & Silver are some of the best designed RPGs of all time. I agree with his points about the games being near unbreakable through normal – and even slightly abnormal – play, but I think there is one glaring issue with Gen 2 that HeartGold & SoulSilver could have fixed, but didn’t: the Johto gym leaders don’t use enough Johto Pokemon – half don’t use any. There were loads of fantastic new Pokemon introduced in Gen 2, so it was a hugely missed opportunity when half the gym leaders opted for teams consisting exclusively of Gen 1 ‘mons.
Pokemon Gold was my introduction to the wonderful world of Pokemon, and I was hooked instantly. As I’ve grown up and played through most of the mainline games and many of the spin-off titles, I’ve come to realise that Hoenn is by far the best region, with Emerald or Platinum taking the spot for best Pokemon game. Something those two games had in common was regional gym leader aces. An ace is a gym leader’s best Pokemon, the one you should fear the most, the Nuzlocke killer. Norman has his Slaking, Winona has her Altaria, Roxanne has her Nosepass, Gardenia has her Roserade, Crasher Wake has his Floatzel – these are all Pokemon introduced in the generation the gym leader is from. This makes sense. The gym leader is supposed to be some sort of community leader, so making their ace a regional Pokemon helps to ground them within the community they’re supposed to protect.
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The most terrifying example of an ace – one that still causes many a Pokemon fan to wake up in a cold sweat, screaming in frustration as their starter is prevented from attacking due to flinching and attraction – is Whitney’s Miltank. It wasn’t really that hard to beat if you just traded a Drowzee for Machop in the Goldenrod Department Store, but we didn’t realise that when we were kids. Whitney is the third gym leader in Gen 2, and introduces what is probably the steepest learning curve in the entire series. She encourages us to try new Pokemon and new strategies, such as inflicting status effects. Future gens could use another Whitney. She’s a great gym leader, and the most mechanically interesting fight in all of Gen 2.
Unfortunately, this is where my praise for Gen 2’s gym leaders ends. I personally dislike the way Johto and Kanto are laid out so that you can take on several gyms in any order you like. The non-linear gameplay limits the gyms because each gym has to be beatable whenever you decide to challenge it – there’s no sense of progression if Chuck, Pryce, and Jasmine all have to be the same level so you can take them on whenever you fancy. Choice in games is nice, but not when it comes at the expense of experience.
You may be asking, “What has any of this got to do with showing Gen 2 Pokemon more love?” Well, my main gripe with the Gen 2 gym leaders is they don’t utilise Johto Pokemon nearly enough, despite introducing two new types and 100 new critters. Think about the very first gym leader, Falkner, the Flying-type specialist. He has a Pidgey and a Pidgeotto. Not only does he exclusively use Gen 1 Pokemon, he uses two from the same evolutionary line. Surely Noctowl, Gen 2’s Normal/Flying-type, would have been a better ace? Game Freak could have gone more left-field and went with Delibird, Mantine, or Murkrow – anything except for two birds that can be found on the first route of Kanto.
Bugsy, the second gym leader, also forgoes any Johto ‘mons. Scyther is pretty badass, and I refuse to listen to anyone who says otherwise, but imagine how cool it would have been if instead of a Metapod and a Kakuna, the sword-armed Bug-type was backed up by Ariados and Heracross? That would have been a proper gym leader team. As it stands, the only purpose the two cocoon Pokemon serve is to be lobbed at people by Scyther, lacrosse-style. Morty, the fourth gym leader, is Falkner but with the Gengar line – a Gastly, two Haunters, and a Gengar. C’mon, why not use Misdreavus? It’s bad enough that there were only two Ghost-types in Gen 2, but it’s unforgivable that neither were used for the Ghost-type gym. Misdreavus isn’t even available until Mt. Silver, the very last location in the game. I understand some things have to be kept back in order to make us work for them, but hiding the only other Ghost-type Pokemon at the very back end of the postgame seems a bit much.
Fortunately, it looks as though Game Freak learned from this misstep and corrected it in future gens where all gym leaders use regional Pokemon as their aces. It seems strange, then, that the developer decided not to alter the gym leader teams in the Gen 4 remakes HeartGold and SoulSilver. With the newly introduced physical and special split, possibly the biggest change in the series’ history, many more Pokemon were viable to gym leaders. Sneasel, the Ice/Dark-type with high Speed and Attack stats was useless in Gen 2 as all Dark-type and Ice-type moves were special. Now, Sneasel can reach its full potential, as it should have on Pryce’s team. Sure, he does actually use a Piloswine, but couldn’t his Seel have been replaced with Sneasel? There are enough Ice-types to diversify his team a little. Even his team in the fighting dojo, a place where you can rematch gym leaders with new, stronger teams, doesn’t contain a Sneasel or its Gen 4 evolution Weavile, one of the coolest (sorry) Ice-type Pokemon there is.
Pokemon gyms got off to a strong start in Gen 1 – some staff favourites include Erika’s underrated Grass-type gym, Blaine’s scorching Fire-types, and Brock’s neat little collection of rocks. The first gym in the Unova region responds to your starter choice, and the gyms in Galar have techno so good it feels like you’re off your face in the club rather than facing off against a master trainer. If you want to spice up your next playthrough you could even play as a gym leader. Gyms are great, which is why I’m so annoyed Johto’s are still terrible, even though they had a chance to be redone.