With Pokémon anime protagonist Ash Ketchum (or Satoshi, if you’re watching the Japanese version) finally becoming World Champion, one gets the sense his 25-year journey to be the very best, like no one ever was, has reached a sort of climax. It’s been a long time coming, and since the prodigal son of Pallet Town first set off on his quest, he’s traveled through many regions, met many new friends, and caught loads of monsters.
However, not all of his adventures are built equally despite, on the surface, the whole thing seeming like a pretty simple exercise in constant, effortless rebooting. So if you’re thinking of going back and catching up on Ash’s various tours through the locales of the Pokémon world while playing Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, just know some are better than others.
7. Black & White arc (2010-13)
Dub seasons 14-16: Black & White, Black & White: Rival Destinies, Black & White: Adventures in Unova and Beyond
Ash’s trek through the Unova region mostly suffers from comparisons to the video games it’s based on. The fifth generation, Black/White and Black 2/White 2, offers some of the most engaging bits of storytelling ever found in a Pokémon game. They feel like actual attempts to craft narrative and character arcs on a relatively wide scale, rather than presenting the entire place as a vague obstacle to be conquered. You don’t get this sense in the Black & White section of the anime, which translates even the most inspiring bits of Black and White into a dull grind.
A lot of this is due to the nature of the show itself. The villainous organization of the region, Team Plasma, has built its public mission statement around the idea that Pokémon should be freed from their eternal captivity in the grip of battle-hungry players. In a format like the games, where the lead character’s motives are entirely player-oriented, this can be thoughtful at times. In the anime, though, it simply crashes against the rocks of Ash and his friends’ endless enthusiasm.
Unova is also a fairly diverse region, and the anime just isn’t up to the task of conveying its wonder in a new medium. The two pairs of Nintendo DS games pushed the visual limits of the series and depicted Unova as the most lively place in the franchise at the time. As such, a fairly rote representation immediately gets the consolation prize of seventh place.
6. Ruby & Sapphire arc (2002-06)
Dub seasons 6-9: Advanced, Advanced Challenge, Advanced Battle, Battle Frontier
Ruby and Sapphire served as the first real soft reset of Ash’s journey. When heading to Hoenn, he left behind all but his best pal Pikachu. The animation style fully switched from hand-drawn to digital and, just before the final section of the arc, longtime licensor/localizer 4Kids Entertainment dropped the rights to it. Thus, a whole new stable of voice actors was introduced, bringing a new sound to what had been a tradition to a generation of fans.
The Advanced arc doesn’t bear the weight of its superior video game counterpart as much as Black & White, but much of it does seem to be a series spinning its wheels as it works through the kinks of its new formats. It only really gets a shot in the arm during the last bits in the Battle Frontier, the fourth and final season of this arc, where the show changes to a combat- and contest-focused scale for its main characters’ triumphs. The fact that Ash beats the titular challenge is also neat, and a nice change of pace from a series where he typically never gets to see first place.
Pokémon’s Advanced arc is available for digital purchase on Amazon.
5. Diamond and Pearl (2006-10)
Dub seasons 10-13: Diamond and Pearl, Diamond and Pearl: Battle Dimension, Diamond and Pearl: Galactic Battles, Diamond and Pearl: Sinnoh League Victors
If the Advanced arc was marked by its aimlessness, the Diamond and Pearl arc is a distinct course correction. While the Pokémon anime has never been praised for its succinctness, the emotional stakes are shoved to the forefront with this new series. This mostly comes in the form of Paul, a rival trainer to Ash who only believes in dealing with pure strength. Previous rivals, even the infamous Gary Oak, at least had empathy for their monster crew. Paul, on the other hand, is a borderline Poké-warlord.
The battle choreography is kicked up a notch, and it goes hand-in-hand with Ash and Paul having intensely opposite ideals regarding training. Another boost comes from the way the villainous organization, Team Galactic, is handled. The machinations of this cult (whose leader, Cyrus, wishes to create a new world and establish a utopia in it) come off as an actual subplot rather than a messy collection of video game references.
In fact, Galactic’s plans here might outdo how they’re framed in Diamond and Pearl (the games). Thanks to clumsy pacing (which is thankfully rectified in the updated “third version” Pokémon Platinum), a lot of Diamond and Pearl’s overarching story feels cobbled together and then rushed in the last half. In the anime, Team Galactic’s scheme gets an appropriate build and climax, ending with the oddly grim demise of Cyrus as he rushes, alone, into his new dimension.
4. Journeys (2019-present)
Dub seasons 23-25: Journeys: The Series, Master Journeys: The Series, Ultimate Journeys: The Series
The most recent Pokémon arc is quite a departure from previous ones, tackling its corresponding video games (Sword and Shield) while also blending in other elements that make it fit as both sequel series and (for now) grand finale. The results aren’t perfect, mostly because it aims to accomplish so many things at once. It juggles big-time monster-of-the-week tasks with a nostalgic world tour and various video game tie-in obligations. It’s also replete with Pokémon Go-esque missions, and it all builds to the World Coronation Series.
As such, one is often left in one of two moods after a Journeys episode: “OK?” and “OK!” It is refreshing to see a Pokémon arc with such a reverence for its own mythos, building on the 25-year history rather than sweeping it away to target the new additions that will sell the most video games. It makes you imagine what a series would be like if it just got to focus on that, rather than the framework the anime has locked itself into since its inception. Regardless, Journeys’ highs are some of the best in the series, and by carrying over a version of the more simplistic design style from the Sun & Moon arc (allowing for crisper, more dynamic animation), it often looks beautiful.
3. XY (2013-16)
Dub seasons 17-19: XY, XY: Kalos Quest, XYZ
Inside of the Pokémon fandom, there are two wolves. Or two Lycanrocs, I guess. One Lycanroc believes Sun & Moon to be the best arc in the anime, thanks to its wonderful animation and character development. The other believes XY to be the best, a status it earns partly due to its portrayal of Ash Ketchum as a more competent competitor rather than the perpetually naive 10-year-old whose aptitude for Pokémon is rebooted with every series.
This, along with more obvious attention paid to romantic possibilities between Ash and his female companion Serena, gave XY the air of the “mature” Pokémon series that some fans had always craved. (Before this, a relationship between Ash and his partner was typically left to the realm of fan shipping, but XY concludes the show with a heavily implied kiss between the two.) That reputation is not entirely without merit, and after Black & White, it was nice to have a show with at least some semblance of atmosphere.
2. Original Series (1997-2002)
Dub seasons 1-5: Indigo League, Adventures in the Orange Islands, The Johto Journeys, Johto League Champions, Master Quest
Spanning from the first episode to Ash’s preparations to leave for Hoenn, the original series is broad and ultimately uneven. The first portion of it, set in Kanto, is undeniably nostalgic but also bubbling with energy. It reeks of a series still figuring out its own rules and how it will adhere to the franchise it’s swiftly becoming an important pillar of, so its breed of storytelling remains fun. Plus, the opening theme, with its rallying cry of “I WANNA BE THE VERY BEST, LIKE NO ONE EVER WAS,” still remains the closest thing to an anthem that the franchise has ever devised.
From then on, it gets unwieldy. Its diversion into the Orange Islands, a setting not based on the games that was concocted to buy the video game creators some time as they worked on the sequels, is hit or miss. And Ash’s traversal through the Johto region can feel downright laborious, so stuffed as it is with an indiscriminate cycle of events that play little to no role in the overarching story.
That said, the story it does try to tell — that of an overeager boy from Pallet Town who yearns to be the greatest Pokémon master and learns to rely on and help others — is the most emotionally effective seen in the anime until the last few years. By the time Ash separates from his traveling companions Misty and Brock, one does feel like Ash has grown up a bit from the loudmouthed kid we saw hiking to Viridian City and arguing with his own Pikachu.
1. Sun & Moon (2016-19)
Dub seasons 20-22: Sun & Moon, Sun & Moon: Ultra Adventures, Sun & Moon: Ultra Legends
The Sun & Moon arc isn’t a reinvention of the Pokémon formula. Ash still wants to catch new monsters, win more battles, tackle new bad guys, and conquer whatever particular region he’s currently walking around in. But thanks to a few aspects, Sun & Moon is a refreshing watch and the best arc in the overall series.
First and most obvious is the overhaul in the animation style. Both the human and monster designs are simplified, allowing for a bouncing vigor in battles and action sequences. Ash wins his first regional championship in the Sun and Moon region of Alola (well, second if you count him winning the Orange Islands League), and his final matches are more gorgeous than anything previously attempted in the series.
There’s also a wider ensemble of main characters, which allows for a greater variety of interpersonal dynamics. Ash’s companions always tend to have their own goals or struggles, but Sun & Moon tries to realize them in a way that’s more personally satisfying. Finally, Sun & Moon has a focus on humor not seen as strongly since the original series. Pikachu perhaps benefits most from this, its spirited personality receiving a jolt that presents it as more than just a recurring brand mascot.
In the end, one of the benefits of a 25-year anime with multiple arcs is that, if you want to dive into it, you just pick the portion with the attributes you prefer the most. Or you just start from the beginning. How many episodes are there? Over 1,200? Huh. Well, that certainly complicates things.