There’s been some variation of the Pokémon anime on television since 1998, typically corresponding to whatever the latest game release happens to be. With an iconic theme song, iconic moments and iconic memes spawning from the show, it’s definitely a quintessential part of the Poké-experience.
There are lots of good episodes, but as with any piece of media, there are standouts.
So in the order they premiered, here are the top 10 best episodes of the original Pokémon anime, as determined by us. Before you start getting angry about this list in the comments, we reiterate that the episodes are listed in order of airdate; they are otherwise unranked.
“Charmander — The Stray Pokémon”
It’s one of the first tastes of cruelty we get in the Pokémon world. It’s the second in a three-episode arc where Ash gets his Kanto starters, and perhaps the most heartwrenching encounter of all is Charmander.
The poor Charmander has been left to DIE by his old trainer, abandoned on a rock in the middle of a road with a weak tail. When Ash tries to catch it, Charmander refuses to budge. Even as a thunderstorm rages on, Charmander steadfastly waits for his jerk of a trainer, holding a leaf as a little umbrella to keep his tail-flame from extinguishing.
We know it has a happy ending, but man, this episode puts us through the ringer.
“Here Comes the Squirtle Squad”
This is the last of three back-to-back episodes where Ash meets the Kanto starters that become his Pokémon. “Here Comes the Squirtle Squad” stands out particularly because, well, the SQUIRTLE SQUAD. (Sorry Bulbasaur — your chance to shine comes later).
This gang of Squirtles wears sunglasses and wreaks havoc on a nearby town. They’re led by a Squirtle with sleek, winged sunglasses (very anime) — the very same Squirtle who will eventually join Ash’s team. They team up with Team Rocket’s Meowth to trap Ash and friends.
Ash’s Squirtle arguably has the most personality of all his Kanto Pokémon (save for Pikachu, perhaps, but that doesn’t count, because Pikachu is a constant lifelong companion), and this is a stellar introduction to its badass ways.
“Island of Giant Pokémon”
This is third episode in an arc where Ash and the gang (and Team Rocket) go aboard the Saint Anne, but eventually encounter a terrible storm that washes them up on this mysterious island.
The best part of this episode is that the Pokémon talk! Not in the “Pikachu has a creepy, cherubic voice”-type of way either; their normal Pokémon voices (Squirtle squirtle squirtle!) are given subtitles so that we can see how they communicate. It’s particularly heartwarming, because we get to see the Pokeémon’s different personalities — Charmander, who was left in the rain by his abusive trainer, is more timid, whereas Squirtle is bold and brash; Pikachu has undying loyalty to Ash, much like Ekans and Koffing do to Jessie and James.
It also includes the objectively best scene in all of television ever, namely when Bulbasaur and Charmander send Squirtle to talk to the giant roaming Blastoise, and he greets it with, “Yo! Brother!”
“Abra and the Psychic Showdown”
Ash travels to Saffron City and faces off against Gym Leader Sabrina. In the games, Sabrina is a totally standard Gym Leader who casually mentions her psychic powers and prophecies in the same way designated-type trainers mention their passions. In the anime, though, Sabrina is a totally emotionless, sinister woman who also happens to have a creepy childlike alter-ego with occasionally demonic red eyes sitting on her lap, like some possessed ventriloquist dummy.
When Ash inevitably loses this gym battle, he and his friends are shrunk and placed in a dollhouse, where they encounter dolls with soulless eyes staring at them. Meanwhile, Sabrina’s spooky child-self giggles in a manner befitting a horror movie and tries to play with them.
They’re eventually rescued, and over the next two episodes, Ash sets out on a quest to find a Pokémon that actually has a type advantage at the psychic-type gym instead of just using Pikachu.
This episode also receives a shout-out for Jessie and James’ fabulous hula dancer disguises.
“Ditto’s Mysterious Mansion”
The origin of “Ditto as ...” can be traced to this episode. It features a Ditto that cannot fully transform into other Pokémon; instead, its face is always the same silly Ditto smile.
Team Rocket kidnaps the Ditto in order to enact some nefarious scheme, but unfortunately for them — and hilariously for everyone else — this Ditto is a little shit.
“Transform into this!” says Jessie, pointing to a picture of a Dratini in a book.
And the Ditto transforms ... into a book.
“Bulbasaur’s Mysterious Garden”
Ash’s Pokémon really have a hard time when it comes to evolving. While “Electric Shock Showdown” dealt with Pikachu debating whether to evolve into Raichu, “Bulbasaur’s Mysterious Garden” quite appropriately deals with Bulbasaur’s potential evolution.
What makes this more endearing than the Pikachu-doesn’t-want-to-evolve episode is the mysterious gathering of Bulbasaur, where they all chant a song under the light of the moon.
The first episode to air after the infamous Porygon episode, Pikachu’s Goodbye is one of the saddest Pokémon episodes. Ash and the gang encounter a group of wild Pikachu and as Ash’s Pikachu spends more time with them, Ash ponders whether or not Pikachu would be happier in the wild.
This is a mature side of Ash that we don’t typically see, putting Pikachu’s happiness before his own. He’s all set to leave Pikachu with the group of wild Pikachu, but at the last moment, Pikachu runs back to him. Their bond is true.
“Beach Blank-Out Blastoise”
This episode brings back some classic moments, specifically Squirtle’s Squirtle Squad sunglasses, the ever-persistent Jigglypuff and Team Rocket’s mecha-Gyarados.
While trying to leave Cinnabar Island, Ash and his friends run into a frenzied Wartortle. Pikachu tries to communicate with it, but soon realizes that only Squirtle can handle the job. So the gang heads over to an island solely populated by Squirtle, Wartortle, and a lone Blastoise — only to find everyone asleep. The mystery deepens.
Much like “Goodbye Pikachu” and “Bulbasaur’s Mysterious Garden,” this episode centers around a group of wild Pokémon of the same species, which is always super adorable to see.
“Go West, Young Meowth”
The gang goes to Hollywood. Team Rocket — as usual — follows, and Meowth recounts the time he spent there. (We’re not going to question why Hollywood exists in the Pokémon world).
Meowth’s origin story is heckin’ sad. Inspired by a beloved (and well-fed) Meowth he saw in a movie, he journeys to Hollywood, only to strike out. He falls in love with a spoiled Meowth named Meowzie, but she rejects him because she prefers humans. So Meowth painfully learns to walk on his hindlegs and talk like a human (his first word is “Rocket” — which prompts him to join Team Rocket later). Meowzie isn’t impressed, though. In fact, she’s absolutely horrified.
Any episode that shows the secret inner lives of Pokémon when they’re not around humans is definitely top-tier, and this is an especially illuminating one.
“A Friend In Deed”
The episode that kickstarts Ash’s Pokemon League battles introduces us to his near-doppleganger Ritchie. The two share the same Pokémon ambitions, wear similar hats and even have nearly identical Pikachu. Ritchie’s Pikachu has a little poof of hair, a la Pokémon, Let’s Go!, and is named Sparky. Ritchie’s biggest difference from Ash, it seems, is that he actually bothers to name his Pokémon. His Butterfree is named Happy, and his Charmander is named Zippo. He also labels his Poké Balls so they’re easier to identify — heck, Ritchie is just Ash if Ash were an actual, responsible human being.
But no matter. The two bond and rescue their Pokémon from Team Rocket, striking up a solid friendship ... only to find out that they will be competing directly against each other. DUN DUN DUN.
The original Pokémon episodes are full of plenty of shenanigans and nostalgic laughs. Ash and the gang have since continued on from Kanto (and Ash found a new set of friends), but much like Pokémon, Let’s Go! is returning to the region where it started, it’s nice to revisit the original Pokémon anime adventures and belt out that theme song once again.