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“Hey! Do you know what you just did? You’ve taken your first step into Kanto.”
It’s been 22 years since the release of Pokémon Gold & Silver, and this iconic line of dialogue has remained ingrained in my mind and soul as one of the great moments in gaming.
I have no idea how well-known the inclusion of a second region in the original Pokémon sequels was ahead of the release of Gold & Silver. I’m assuming people must have been aware, but as an eight-year-old kid who didn’t read video game magazines or internet message boards? Stumbling onto the shores of Kanto was the most incredible bolt from the blue, one that effectively doubled an already perfect game in size, scope, and adventure. It was my first real "oh shit" moment as a gamer, and I'll always cherish it.
I figured I’d seen everything the mysterious Johto region had to offer, which in itself was plenty. I explored ancient ruins and dusty tombs. Climbed to the top of the highest towers and soaked in the sights of sprawling cities. I was more than happy to take my party of six Pokémon and my eight gym badges, beat the Elite Four, and roll credits. But Nintendo and Game Freak had other ideas.
Surfing just a few inches to the right of where I started my Johto adventure in New Bark Town to find a whole lot more game... well, it was goosebumps-inducing stuff, and I know I’m not alone in that. This wasn’t just some random new location with no meaning or history behind it either, this was Kanto! This was the place many of our Pokémon stories had begun just a few years before. Returning there for the final battle had a sense of weight. Of importance. And if you were too young to have any idea what Kanto was? Heck, it was still an entirely new region for you to check out.
The way Gold & Silver slowly teases out Kanto is just as inspired as its very inclusion. The path to the Indigo Plateau to face the Elite Four is a long and grueling stretch filled with powerful trainers. We’re told it’s Kanto, but it looks like nowhere from Pokémon Red & Blue. Then, just as you become the new Champion and start to wonder if maybe your trip to Kanto was nothing more than a quick stopover for nostalgia’s sake, bang! The entire region is unlocked for you to explore, from Pallet Town to Celadon City - just as you remember it. Well, more or less.
Kanto in Gold & Silver remains, by some distance, the most impressive post-game content in any Pokémon game. There are eight new badges to pick up via some incredibly tough battles. There are new routes and towns to discover, and new Pokémon to catch. By “new” I mean relative to Gold & Silver, obviously. But Game Freak didn’t just recycle Kanto exactly as it was in Red & Blue; care was taken to ensure the world felt like it had properly changed since we last visited two years earlier.
This was partly because the region needed to be scaled down slightly from a practical standpoint, but it still resulted in the impression that you’d dropped back in on a world that carried on without you when you put down your copy of Red or Blue for the last time. There were entirely new gym leaders, and even a few returning characters who'd gone through whole-ass emotional arcs in between games. Much like the day/night cycle, it was a smart touch that lent Gold & Silver that little extra feeling of grandeur.
Incredibly, it’s something that might never have happened. As you may or may not know, Game Freak was having trouble fitting the Johto region and all its new Pokémon onto the Game Boy Colour cartridge. That's when former Nintendo president and late gaming icon Satoru Iwata stepped in, and was able to compress Gold & Silver so effectively that there was suddenly room for a second region.
It's a testament to both Iwata and Game Freak that Kanto not only appears in Gold & Silver, but feels entirely relevant to the experience. It's so much more than a quick nostalgia tour hastily stapled on at the end of the game, though Arceus knows it easily could have been just that and we'd still be impressed. Instead, it's a final test of skill, a victory lap around the world that will push you and your Pokémon to the absolute limit. And it all culminates in the most legendary battle the series has ever seen: an epic mountaintop showdown with a stupidly powerful Red, the protagonist of the original games.
Pokémon games have innovated, expanded, and improved in all manner of exciting ways in the years since our first trip to Johto. But in terms of sheer ambition and scale? The distinct regions of Pokémon Gold & Silver remain unmatched - and it's all thanks to one iconic return journey to Kanto.