The Top Twenty Original Pokémon Episodes - Part Twoby Jacob Chapman,
9. "Holiday Hi-Jynx"
I mentioned before that early episodes of Pokémon were often more idiosyncratic than the more corporate-managed content we get today, and nothing illustrates this quite like the episode where Team Rocket attempts to steal Christmas. I mean, Santa exists in the Pokémon universe?! For some reason, this seems just as weird as seeing regular old animals appear in the world of Pokémon, like some element of reality that's not meant to cross over into fantasy—except Santa Claus is also fantasy. I'm so confused! We almost didn't get to see this episode in the west because of Jynx's potentially offensive character design, but I'm so glad we did because it's one of my favorites. Everything about this holiday special is weird and wonderful, from the psychic talking Lapras to a revisit of Jessie's hilariously depressing childhood to Jynx's seemingly involuntary desire to smooch things. (Is that why Santa keeps so many of them around? I mean, I don't see Mrs. Claus anywhere...) By the end, Christmas is saved, and Team Rocket once again walks away with nothing, which doesn't seem to fit the yuletide spirit, but who am I to judge Kris Kringle and his elf-wives?
8. "The Flame Pokémon-athon!"
Pokémon battles aren't the only kind of heated competition you can drive a whole episode's plot around. "The Flame Pokémon-athon!" gives viewers their first Pokémon footrace, with an eclectic blend of monsters (some much easier to ride than others, props to the dedication on Electrode-guy) giving their all to be the first across the finish line. This episode is mostly memorable for the wacky combination of wildly different monsters using their various talents to try and pass the others. Even Pikachu joins the fun on Squirtle-back and does surprisingly well! (I was baffled by Pikachu's choice of mount until I realized it was a tortoise and the hare joke.) In classic Wacky Races fashion, Team Rocket tries to sabotage the marathon with nonsensical traps, although this wide selection of racing animals reminded me more of Disney's old Swiss Family Robinson movie than anything. Then we get the cherry on top of this whole exciting adventure when Ash's Ponyta evolves into Rapidash mid-gallop in the last leg of the race. It's great fun from start to finish, cartoony and simple enough to enjoy even if you don't know anything about Pokémon!
7. "Go West Young Meowth"
I think I can speak for most Pokémon-loving kids of the '90s when I say that I was never expecting to get a backstory for why Meowth knew how to talk. Truth be told, his character was probably conceived without this backstory in mind, since he and his flamboyant friends are meant to be a riff on Yatterman's Doronbo gang. But there was a long spell of filler to fill up before Ash could close the season out in the Pokémon League, so why not come up with an explanation for Meowth's gift of gab? Whether you love Meowth or hate him, his origin story is surprisingly well thought-out and heartwarming, as we see him grow from alley cat to amateur criminal, learning to walk on two legs and speak human language so the girl of his dreams will look his way. Tragically, his efforts to become a wealthy "human" only make him a freak in his beloved's eyes, forcing him to embrace the love of his fellow Rockets instead. Ash and his friends may be the normal everykids of the story, but I always related to Team Rocket more as the gang of misfits who get by in life by supporting each other's weirdness, failure after failure, but always together.
6. "Primeape Goes Bananas"
Okay, this episode is just extremely dumb. Sometimes extremely dumb is just what the doctor ordered, and I can never get enough of this nonsensical Looney Tunes romp through slapstick violence and monkey business. After a mischievous Mankey steals Ash's hat, we know we won't be moving on to the next episode until he gets it back, so hijinks ensue for the next twenty minutes as the gang runs around like chickens with their heads cut off, and the newly evolved Primeape gives everybody in range a black eye or two. Much like the Diglett episode, this one's memorable solely on the adorable charm of its starring Pokémon and the ridiculous noises it makes while causing trouble for our heroes. Oh, and this is also the episode where all those "onigiri = donut" jokes come from. It would be one thing if 4Kids just swapped the food names casually, but Brock and company call the obvious riceballs in front of them "donuts" so many times in so many different ways that it almost seems like they're trying to convince themselves that it's true.
5. "The Ghost of Maiden's Peak"
Nothing says kids' show comedy like a story about a ghost bride luring young men to a watery grave! For some reason, a superpowered Gastly who can not only talk but conjure up just about anything from a fire extinguisher to a horrifying fusion of Venusaur and Blastoise (Venustoise!) has decided to spend his evening seducing Brock and James with a romantic ghost story. (Notably, Brock falls in love with the titular ghost of maiden's peak, while James seems traumatized by the idea of matrimony, which makes a lot of sense once you reach #3 on this list.) This anime always seemed to have a great deal of fun with ghost Pokémon in general, and Gastly makes a great pseudo-villain for one of the show's few Brock-centric episodes. Its spooky sequences and weird sense of gallows humor stand out strong in the first season, further proving that Brock just can't say no to a pretty face, even if that face is hollow-eyed and see-through.
4. "The Ultimate Test"
While there's less complex worldbuilding in Pokémon's first season than most of the material to follow, I always liked it when the show detailed all the alternate routes that trainers could take to becoming Pokémon masters. In lieu of taking the world tour like Ash and friends, maybe you could pay a lot of money to get into an academy like Pokémon Tech, or you could take a rigorous practical exam to win your ticket to the Pokémon League and move forward from there! Of course, quiz questions like the one pictured above seem almost criminally unfair, so it's no wonder Ash decides to drop out and stick to badge-collecting by episode's end. Along with delivering some of the best gags in the series, The Ultimate Test is mostly memorable for its "random battle" portion where James has to use a mix of Ash's Pokémon and Ash has to use a blend of Team Rocket's. That's right, Team Rocket wanted to win their ticket to play in the League too! Unfortunately, they fail so miserably that it's anyone's guess how they would have placed in those Poké-lympics.
3. "Holy Matrimony!"
Once you know that my favorite Pokémon character is James (with Jessie in close second), this episode's placement should come as no surprise. It's just too unbelievably weird. James's childhood as a spoiled little rich boy was quite the opposite of poor Jessie's, which probably explains his flouncy demeanor in contrast to her schoolyard bully disposition. But then we find out that his parents have faked their own funeral to force him back home and straight into an arranged marriage with a dominatrix named Jessiebelle (who looks just like Jessie). What? To make matters more baffling, Jessie and Meowth are immediately down to sell him out for the dowry despite his distressed wailing, while Ash and friends just stand by, completely unable to process it all. In the end, both heroes and villains alike come to their senses and rescue James from a fate worse than death, along with his long-lost pet Growlithe, who happened to be one of my favorite Pokémon as a child. It was like an episode catered to tickle me specifically! Whenever I'm in the mood to binge some Pokémon for whatever reason, this is always the episode I start with, if only for James' fabulous screams.
2. "The Tower of Terror" (or The Sabrina Trilogy)
This is the only other "tie" on this list, since while the specific episode I picked is the strongest of the three, it only really makes sense as the connective tissue in a trilogy for Sabrina's badge. The Tower of Terror is another perfect example of the staff having way more fun with ghost Pokémon than most other types, as Ash infiltrates a haunted mansion to try and catch a match for the terrifying Sabrina's powers. Since these ghosts get their kicks by playing tricks, this episode features some of the most fun and bouncy animation in the first season, with the wackiest faces and the silliest slapstick following Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar's idea of a house party. In fact, they throw such a wild bash that Ash and Pikachu almost get squashed by a chandelier, turning them temporarily into ghosts themselves! This episode oozes personality from start to finish, and it's sandwiched by two of the other best episodes in the show! Of course, the match and rematch with Sabrina are a good deal spookier than the actual ghost episode, which is part of its charm. These specters just want to have a good time, and it's easy to get caught up in their enthusiasm.
We're almost to #1, but before that, here are a few dishonorable mentions that didn't hold up so well on my Pokémon rewatch.
Dishonorable Mentions: "The Kangaskhan Kid", "Clefairy Tales",
and "To Master the Onixpected!"
While most of the Indigo League's digressions into goofiness worked better than the battles played straight, "The Kangaskhan Kid" is a real dud, following a cringy "wild boy raised by Pokémon" plot through tired jokes and idiotic character decisions to a pretty lame conclusion. Pretty much the only funny moment in it is also its laziest; the Kangaskhan Kid only gets lost in the jungle because his dad starts dangling him out of a helicopter for no good reason and inevitably drops him. That's one way to kick off a lost kid story, I guess! But at least that episode served to introduce a new Pokémon. "Clefairy Tales" is the rare Jigglypuff episode that just doesn't work at all, basing its entire barely-there plot on the idea that Clefairies might be space aliens, but not really going anywhere with it as they "abduct" random human possessions and spark off a wild goose chase to nowhere with no conclusion. Equally pointless is "To Master the Onixpected," where Ash and the gang head to the mountains to train under Bruno, a member of the Elite Four who exhibits shockingly little personality and makes the gang do menial chores before randomly rescuing an Onix and revealing that he has no training secrets to share. Well, thanks for wasting our time, I guess!
So if you're feeling nostalgic for Pokémon, I'd definitely steer clear of these three episodes and maybe a few others, mostly in the too-lengthy filler arc before the Indigo League. But now, without further ado, the best episode of Pokémon's first season...
1. "Pikachu's Goodbye"
I warned you right at the start of this countdown that we'd be seeing another goodbye episode near the top, and it had to be the mushiest episode of them all, Pikachu's Goodbye. In many ways, this feels like the quintessential episode of Pokémon, the one most fans might think of when they remember how watching the show made them feel. There's some adventure and danger posed by the natural world and Team Rocket at first, there's a little bit of slapstick comedy, Ash has to learn something new that forces him to grow, and in the end, it all comes down to the bond between him and his right-hand Pokémon, Pikachu. But most of all, people remember this episode for the big ballad that Pokémon's dub team came up with for the tearful goodbye montage. Incredibly cheesy? Yes. Immediately reduces most Pokémon fans to a puddle of tears? Yes. Ikue Ohtani's performance as Pikachu is also inordinately strong in this episode, imbuing lines like "Pika-pi!" with a surprisingly sensitive touch. Even if Ash and Pikachu didn't end up saying goodbye for real, this episode left an impact on kids that's lasted for well over twenty years. So here's to twenty more years of adventures with these two and their revolving door of companions, for Pokémon fans both old and new to enjoy.
So what did you think of the list? Be sure to share your favorite Pokémon episodes with us in the forums!
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