The Evolution of Pokémon Sprites
For my final Scribbling article of the school year, I’m writing about a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a while: Pokémon sprites. The main series Pokémon games used 2D sprites until 2014, when the first generation 6 games, Pokémon X and Y, switched to 3D models. Pokémon sprites are old and outdated now, yet they still have lots of charm. My favorite aspect of Pokémon sprites is how they were always changing while 3D models kept getting used over and over again. I’m going to talk about how Pokémon sprites changed throughout the generations and what’s distinctive about each generation’s Pokémon sprites. Let’s dive right in!
As expected, when you’re working with the limited processing power of the original Game Boy (an old portable gaming console from the 90s, for those who don’t know), most of Generation 1 was defined by awful sprite work. These sprites had a maximum size of 56x56 pixels and were in black, white, and shades of grey. The original Pokémon Red and Green, released in Japan in 1996, is infamous for its terrible sprites. Most sprites had ridiculous proportions, distorted faces and looked nothing like the Pokémon they were supposed to be.
Luckily, Game Freak redid the sprite work for Pokémon Red and Blue, the first Pokémon games released in America, in 1998 (I’m using US release dates from this point onward). The sprites definitely improved, but some didn’t look much better. Most of them still had odd proportions and weird-looking faces.
This problem was finally fixed with the release of Pokémon Yellow in 1999, for which the sprite work was redone again. This time, the sprites drastically improved. They all looked like actual Pokémon and had the correct proportions, details and facial expressions. The interesting part of this whole fiasco is that the technology never improved within that time frame and they had the official artwork to work off of the entire time; it just took three years to get the Game Boy sprites just right.
Once Generation 2 rolled around with the release of Pokémon Gold and Silver in 2000, Game Freak had a new tool to play with: The Game Boy Color. With the Game Boy Color, sprites were still 56x56 pixels, but Pokémon could now have four-color palettes (always including black and white). Game Freak utilized this opportunity to create colorful, charming Pokémon sprites with large eyes, expressive faces and lots of personality. This generation also introduced shiny Pokémon, extremely rare variations of Pokémon with a different color scheme. Additionally, each Pokémon had two unique sprites, one for each version of the original generation 2 games. Unfortunately, this feature is unique to Pokémon Gold and Silver, and no Pokémon games have done this since.
When Pokémon Crystal arrived in 2001, some of the original sprites of Pokémon Gold and Silver got updated. Most Pokémon used one of their Gold/Silver sprites, but some Pokémon got entirely new sprites. A few Pokémon had their color palettes changed slightly to better match their actual color scheme. Pokémon Crystal was also the first Pokémon game to use animations: at the beginning of every battle, the opposing Pokémon would play a multi-frame animation, usually a combination of simple movements like eye blinking, wing flapping, etc. These small animations helped make the Pokémon sprite seem less static and more alive, an appearance that definitely seems to be the overall theme of the generation 2 sprites.
The original generation 3 games, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, came to America in 2003, this time on the new, fancy Game Boy Advance. Pokémon sprites now grew to a maximum of 64x64 pixels and had full color palettes. Although the addition of a complete color palette is what allowed these sprites to look more like the actual Pokémon they represented, the colors tended to look dull and watered-down. The generation 3 sprites also had vague, distant facial expressions; however, they did have cool, unique poses. These sprites also had no animations whatsoever.
There’s honestly not that much to talk about with the generation 3 sprites because they barely changed throughout the generation. The next generation 3 games were Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen, released in late 2004. Being remakes of the original Pokémon Red and Green, these games only featured Kanto Pokémon, so Johto and Hoenn Pokémon got no sprite changes at all. Most of the Kanto Pokémon had minimal sprite changes (color/pose changes so small you’d have to be looking for them to notice). A few Pokémon used the exact same sprite they used for Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, and even fewer had completely different sprites, which in my opinion looked worse than their Ruby/Sapphire sprites.
Pokémon Emerald, released in 2005, used the exact same sprites as Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire with one addition: the return of animations. Every Pokémon had a simple, one-frame animation that played at the beginning of every battle. Often, the sprites also moved around a little, changed color for a bit, repeated the animation, and/or vibrated to make the animation look more substantial. I’ve often heard people say that generation 3 had some of the worst Pokémon sprites, and now I understand why.
There’s a TON to talk about with the generation 4 sprites, so get ready. Pokémon Diamond and Pearl were released on the Nintendo DS in 2007. Pokémon sprites were now 84x84 pixels and had an even wider range of colors to choose from, thankfully eliminating the issue of dull colors from the previous generation. If I had to pick one word to encompass the Diamond/Pearl sprites, it would be dynamic. One could feel the motion and energy of the Pokémon sprites because of their dynamic poses and vivid expressions, a huge improvement over generation 3’s static sprites. The bright colors helped bring the sprites to life even more.
Pokémon Platinum arrived in 2009 with some minor changes to the Diamond/Pearl sprites. One-frame animations were back again, this time with less of the supplemental movement/color changes that was so common in the Pokémon Emerald animations. Not all Pokémon got animations, understandable due to the sheer number of Pokémon at that point but still odd in my opinion. All the Sinnoh Pokémon except Rotom and a few extra Pokémon from other regions got new sprites. These new sprites were even more dynamic than Pokémon Diamond and Pearl’s sprites. Platinum’s sprites were definitely a welcome improvement over Diamond and Pearl’s already awesome sprite work.
Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver were released in 2010. They also made some major sprite changes, but unlike those in Pokémon Platinum, these are definitely a toss-up. For these remakes of Pokémon Gold and Silver, all Kanto and Johto Pokémon got completely new sprites, while Hoenn and Sinnoh Pokémon retained their Platinum sprites. Most of these new sprites lost their dynamic poses and instead instead had static poses and uncanny faces. Whether the HeartGold and SoulSilver sprites are worse than the other generation 4 sprites really depends on your opinion, but in my opinion, these sprites just looked odd and out of place compares to thee amazing sprite work of Diamond, Pearl and Platinum.
After the whirlwind of generation 4, generation 5 is pretty chill except for one major change. Pokémon sprites were now 96x96 pixels, their biggest size yet. The generation 5 sprites felt just like the generation 4 sprites. The generation 5 games were on the Nintendo DS just like generation 4, so none of the colors changed at all. The sprites of the new Pokémon were done in the exact same style as the sprites of the previous generation. Additionally, generation 5 mostly used Diamond/Pearl sprites for old Pokémon. A few used their HeartGold/SoulSilver sprites, and a few lucky Pokémon got a brand-new sprite. The huge change of generation 5 was the animations. Instead of a one-frame animation that played when entering a battle, every Pokémon had a continuous animation that played throughout the battle as well as on the summary screen. These animations gave the Pokémon and Pokémon battles much-needed motion that made them feel livelier. Except for that, nothing changed about the Pokémon sprites in the 5th generation. This one amazing change in the sprite animations more than made up for the lack of other sprite changes in my opinion.
Overall, Pokémon sprites really changed throughout their existence. Their painful beginning led to substantial improvements throughout the main series games that impressed me almost every time. I’ve always loved Pokémon sprites and looking at how they’ve changed over the years, and I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the world of Pokémon sprites too. I had a great time writing for Scribbling this year, and I hope to write more cool Pokémon articles for you all next year!