The Top Twenty Original Pokémon Episodes - Part Oneby Jacob Chapman,
Twenty years ago, TV Tokyo began airing a very strange kids' show called Pocket Monsters, intended like so many kids' anime before and since to advertise video games and trading cards to excitable anklebiters. But unlike so many of its relatives, Pokémon became a sensation almost overnight, with many children who grew up on the series continuing to follow Ash's adventures (or Satoshi if you prefer!) well into their adulthood and its exuberant twentieth season: this year's Pokémon Sun and Moon.
While I have consumed a ton of the Pokémon anime, I'm afraid that I'm not at that level of superfan myself. I stopped watching the show for good around the end of Master Quest; over 250 episodes in and rounding my 13th birthday, I lost interest right before Hoenn and wouldn't come back to Pokémon until X&Y a full decade later. Honestly, my fondness for the anime is tied so firmly to the incredibly goofy and nostalgic English dub cast that I can't imagine trying to watch the show without those voices. So if you're looking for a comprehensive list of the best Pokémon episodes in the entire franchise, I wouldn't be the right man for the job.
Still, as the Pokémon anime reaches its platinum anniversary, I thought it would be fun to go back to where it all began and spotlight twenty of the best episodes from its very first season, the Indigo League that I originally grew up on. Revisiting the show as an adult, I was amazed at how well ye olde Pokémon has held up for a cartoon meant to sell Nintendo products, thanks largely to OLM and SoftX's classic '90s look and personality, back when the franchise had fewer corporate restraints on its style and more bizarre and downright anachronistic little touches were allowed to leak into the world of Pokémon.
Because the vast majority of these 82 episodes were memorable or entertaining in some way, I tried to diversify my picks by tone, focus, and placement in the show's run. Of course, some gems are bound to be left out, so if your own favorites didn't make the cut, make sure to tell us why you love them in the forums! Without further ado, these are my top twenty episodes of the original Pokémon anime!
20. "Bye Bye Butterfree"
While its reputation for snapping tiny heartstrings in two may be overshadowed by another episode much higher on this list, there's definitely something special about the first time we ever saw Ash say goodbye to one of his Pokémon. There was an unexpected bittersweet shock to seeing Ash release his first catch ever back to the wild, probably mirroring a lot of kids' first experiences with loss in some small way. It was the first time Pokémon had ever dealt with feelings of genuine sadness, so it struck a chord. While I wasn't as torn up about Butterfree's departure myself, the sparkly seaside sunset that closes the episode is definitely burned into my brain, and I've heard more than a few anecdotes from Pokefans of shouting "No Ash, what are you doing?!" at the screen for the first (but certainly not the last) time. So long, Butterfree! May you have many pastel babies with your unusually pink girlfriend.
19. "Showdown at Dark City"
Yep, this is the episode featuring Pikachu's whirlwind affair with a ketchup bottle. Honestly, it doesn't make much more sense in context. Pikachu takes an odd liking to a bottle of ketchup, Scyther accidentally breaks it to set up that he has a cartoon bull's response to the color red, and Pikachu is mysteriously heartbroken (and possibly traumatized?) in the process. Memes aside, Showdown at Dark City is one of Pokémon's most successful attempts at a plotline it overdosed on in early episodes: the "bad/abusive trainer" conflict. When early Pokémon took this premise too seriously, results were mostly forgettable. The cartoonishly harsh trainer had to either learn the error of their ways or get smoked in a battle to have their poor Pokémon rescued by Ash. Showdown at Dark City succeeds by expanding the stakes and fully embracing the consequences of such cartoonish villainy, as two rival gyms blow up their Hatfields-and-McCoys-style feud on a town so badly that it turns into a lawless wild west junction where the ketchup of anarchy is the only solution to preventing all-out war. It delivers the same lesson with more lighthearted creativity, giving us a meme that lives on twenty years later!
18. "The Misty Mermaid"
While most fans would probably cite "Princess Versus Princess" as their favorite Misty-centric episode, I gotta be the odd man out and tout "The Misty Mermaid" as the superior Misty adventure. (While the sentiments about the woes of being the youngest sibling are sweet and all, Jessie's childhood was totally destitute so I wanted her to win instead as a kid. And on rewatch, most of the episode is "women be shoppin!" jokes rather than the actual competition. Oh well.) After Misty succumbs to the pressure to perform in her sisters' underwater ballet, she uses her own talents to save the day and the show, giving us a rare under-the-sea free-for-all that necessitated more action choreography and clever fighting than most of the show's early speedline-driven battles. And if that weren't enough, this is also the first appearance of Jessie and James crossdressing in their amazing prince/ballerina ensemble that gives me life to this very day. From that episode onward, James could not stop wearing that tutu, and we're all the more blessed for it.
17. "The Fourth Round Rumble"
While kids had to accept early on that the Pokémon anime never really followed the rules established by the game (no, electric attacks don't work on ground types, what is happening?!), Ash's fourth match in the Pokémon League turned its weird rule-breaking into next-level entertainment. Both the cast and audience were baffled by the appearance of an itty-bitty Bellsprout with godlike combat capabilities, which used Bruce Lee-esque skills to evade or redirect every attack that got thrown its way. This is yet another of the very few battles in early Pokémon to feature a surprising amount of animation with the two combatants facing off hand-to-hand, since it would be impossible to make this little sprout seem threatening otherwise. Of course, the real crowning moment of the fight comes when Bellsprout finally meets its match in a tar-baby-like struggle with Ash's Muk. Seeing this happy sludge pile body-slam his little twig of an opponent is still hilarious, making this by far one of the most entertaining and memorable fights in the show.
16. "Here Comes the Squirtle Squad"
This is the earliest episode of Pokémon on my list, because on a rewatch, it kinda feels like the first episode to really discover the show's central tone. While there were plenty of charming moments in those first episodes, the series didn't really seem to find its flavor until it was willing to be overwhelmingly silly and heartfelt at the same time, rather than trying purely for one or the other in more lukewarm little ways. The Squirtle Squad themselves are a gang of prank-loving, shell-toting delinquents who've been abandoned by their owners and no longer trust humans. It's inherently ridiculous when the turtles succeed at kidnapping our heroes (and Team Rocket, who also act much sillier than ever before in this episode), but it's also heartwarming when Ash restores their faith in humanity, turning them from wanted criminals into the town's honorary firefighters! Above all else, it gave us those iconic Squirtle shades that Ash's water warrior can pull out whenever he means business.
15. "The Song of Jigglypuff"
As a kid, I often wondered why Jigglypuff had so quickly become the secondary mascot for Pokémon after Pikachu, getting a spot in Super Smash Bros., sitting next to Pikachu in so much key art, etc. I know I'd never used a Jigglypuff in most of my game playthroughs, and neither had most of my friends. Of course, rewatching the show as an adult makes it clear: Jigglypuff is easily the best part of any given Pokémon episode she appears in, and her debut episode is among the best. She's so sincere and yet so petty. She's so cute and yet so cruel. You feel so bad for her failed dreams of stardom and yet it's so rewarding to see her get angry. I mean, how would you feel if your dream was to become an international pop sensation, but everyone who listened to your voice instantly fell asleep? How long does poor Jigglypuff spend writing all her songs, only for no one to appreciate the second verse? I'd probably doodle on everybody's faces too! Combine her hilarious woe with a bizarre version of Las Vegas where no one can stop gambling long enough to get a damn nap in, and you've got the first of many great adventures starring this pissed-off puff.
14. "Tentacool and Tentacruel" or "Dig Those Diglett!"
In the interest of making the list as diverse as possible, I had to put these two episodes together in a tie for 14th place, because they're basically the same story with two oddly different tones. So, how do you like your ecological message tales? Big and loud and ridiculous and stupid? Or sweet and cute and nonviolent and heartwarming? Either way you choose, you can't go wrong, as pollution makes Tentacruel grow to a horrifying size and decimate a city in one episode, while Digletts galore practice civil disobedience to plant their gorgeous gardens in another. On the one hand, you have tanks and explosions and squids sending a psychic warning of apocalyptic destruction. On the other hand, Diglett and Dugtrio make the most musical and adorable little noises ever, and it's disgustingly precious how they politely return every Pokeball thrown to try and stop their planet-friendly crusade. Big or small, these two very different episodes are fine Earth Day entertainment!
13. "Pokémon Shipwreck"
I don't think I'm alone in saying that Team Rocket is my favorite part of the Pokémon anime, and this one-episode riff on The Poseidon Adventure is where they really came into their own for the first time. While there were hints of how comical their gross incompetence could be in earlier episodes, it isn't until James falls for a Magikarp pyramid scheme, forcing the villains to work with the twerps they so loathe to avoid a watery demise, that these goofballs really come into their own. This also marks the point where Ash and his friends stop seeing Team Rocket as a threat and begin to pity them as more of a nuisance, even saying a little prayer for them when they think the trio must have drowned (before shoving their bodies back into the ocean). There isn't much battling or discussion of new Pokémon or game mechanics in this episode (although fan-favorite Gyarados does appear at the worst possible time for the gang), but its more conventional hijinks and comedy of errors make it stick out in my mind as the episode that really made me start loving the show as a kid.
12. "The Ancient Puzzle of Pokémopolis"
With so many comprehensive wikis covering two decades of this franchise's history, there aren't many "unexplained Pokémon mysteries" left, but this is definitely one of the weirdest. The lost city of Pokémopolis comes up exactly once and then never again, as its feature episode starts like a take on Indiana Jones but ends up spitting out some incredibly weird imagery that hovers between Princess Mononoke and Godzilla vs. Ghidorah. Mystical items summon a blobular destroyer-of-worlds Gengar and a spoon-wielding Alakazam who swallow up our heroes while hurling blows at each other, with no rhyme or reason in sight as to where this idea came from and what it has to do with anything. Of course, this episode takes place in the oddly lengthy filler arc between Ash's badge completion and the Pokémon League, so the answer is "probably nothing." Most of those filler episodes run from shruggable to total duds, but The Ancient Puzzle of Pokémopolis ends with a gigantic Jigglypuff returning peace to the valley, so it's a winner by me. Frankly, I hope this truly inscrutable ancient puzzle is never solved. It's better that way.
11. "Volcanic Panic"
This is the last pure "battle" episode on the list and the only gym leader battle, because in my humble opinion, the actual fighting wasn't the most memorable part of Pokémon. Given the resources they had at the time, the best Pokémon could do for most battles was exchanging shots of speedlines and impact frames while attacks were shouted, concluding in one Pokémon being declared the victor for vaguely Pokémon 101 reasons. (This is especially funny considering the show completely broke game rules in almost every battle, but I guess they had to pretend to follow the game mechanics in dialogue.) But seeing the fight with Blaine as a kid was positively epic, as Charizard decided to play ball for once when faced with a formidable opponent, giving us an insane fight that ranged from the depths of a volcano to the stratosphere above. Pokémon battles usually take up half an episode at the very most, but the rematch with Blaine was preceded by a high tension volcano rescue sequence brought on by Team Rocket's antics, so it's pretty hard not to fall in lava with this one! (Thank you, thank you, Blaine would be proud.)
10. "Attack of the Prehistoric Pokémon"
As the second half of this list will definitely make clear, my favorite episodes of Pokémon are usually the weird goofy ones, and nothing says weird and goofy like a pack of underground dinosaurs who survived the Ice Age deciding to throw a tantrum because Ash interrupted their beauty sleep. Despite the strangeness of its premise, this episode is largely a fan favorite for more crowd-pleasing reasons. It's the first appearance of Charizard! It's got wild action and wacky comedy! (The shot where an exasperated Pikachu tries to stop the mountain of dynamite from going off by electrocuting it is priceless. Never before has Pikachu made such an "Oh god I'm so stupid" face.) But most importantly of all, it's got Jigglypuff solving everything by complete accident! I actually remember first experiencing this episode in book form, as one of the first Pokémon novelizations that Scholastic put out. It's definitely among the best episodes for sheer watchability, smart pacing, and satisfying setup and payoff, so even though it's an obvious choice, I can't help myself. What's not to love?
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