In-Depth Stories

The Rule of Three: A Deeper Look at the “Third Versions”

What are “third versions?” Why are they made? What exactly makes them so special? The answers to these questions and more await in this analysis of the inner workings of the main series’s third versions.

June 8, 2017: With Pokémon Ultra Sun and Pokémon Ultra Moon coming to Nintendo 3DS worldwide on November 17, we’re resurfacing our examination on the “third versions” of the Pokémon series — a pattern that Game Freak had stuck by in various Pokémon generations. This article was originally published on September 27, 2016.

The “third version” is what Pokémon fans have taken to calling the third game in a generation’s main set. The new generation is ushered in with two games, and sometime later, a third game is released with extra features and some tweaks to the story, map design, and balancing. As of late, this “formula” that many fans have come to expect seems to be in decline, but there is more to their existence than just a surface pattern.

The first third version, which was also part of the first duo. Kind of.
The first third version, which was also part of the first duo. Kind of.

To non-Japanese Pokémon fans, the first third version that comes to mind is usually Yellow Version; however, in Japan, this is not the case. Red Version & Green Version were released in Japan on February 27, 1996. Later that year, on October 16, Blue Version was made available to CoroCoro Comic subscribers, and was released for retail on October 10, 1999. Blue Version had improved graphics, less glitches, and some tweaks to the availability of certain Pokémon when compared to its predecessors, things that would become common features included in future third versions. The Red Version & Blue Version that non-Japanese players are familiar with uses Blue Version’s script, graphics, and engine, while taking their list of version-exclusive Pokémon and locations from Red Version & Green Version.

Another solitary game from the first generation, Yellow Version, would go on to be the first game from Japan that was truly released internationally in its entirety, as opposed to being a mashup of various games. Yellow Version, which boasts the subtitle “Special Pikachu Edition”, is unique among main-series Pokémon games in that it draws heavily from the animated series, featuring a Pikachu that follows the player on the overworld and an NPC based on the anime-exclusive characters Jessie, James, and their talking Meowth. Also similar to the anime, the Pikachu you receive as a starter cannot be evolved. Although future titles would come to include some anime-influenced features, such as the Spiky-eared Pichu from the Arceus and the Jewel of Life movie in HeartGold Version & SoulSilver Version, they have not been nearly to the extent as its influence on Yellow Version.

This is the last time you'll see "Gotta catch 'em all!" on the English boxart, so enjoy it while it lasts.
This is the last time you’ll see “Gotta catch ’em all!” on the English box art, so enjoy it while it lasts.

The series’s next third version is generation two’s Crystal Version. Like Blue Version, some maps and Pokémon availabilities are changed. Features that would later be incorporated into the series as a whole included the first playable female character, animated Pokémon sprites, and the Battle Tower. Crystal Version also features a significant story change, with the addition of Suicune as a major plot element and a new NPC along with it. Interestingly, aside from the generation one games, which feature the starters on their covers, Crystal Version is the only game to feature a “minor” legendary on its cover.

Generation three’s third version is Emerald Version. The plot takes the villain of Ruby Version and the villain of Sapphire Version and turns them against each other, effectively “combining” the two conflicts. The protagonists have slightly altered appearances, and members of the Pokémon League are also moved around, introducing a new eighth Gym Leader and changing the Champion. Emerald Version is likely most well-known for being the first game in the series to include an iteration of the Battle Frontier, a location featuring not only the Battle Tower, but other facilities with unique battle rules and a major NPC to defeat. Generation three was the first set of games to feature remakes, FireRed Version & LeafGreen Version; these remakes were released after Ruby Version & Sapphire Version, causing Emerald Version to be the final game in the third generation.

Spooky scary centipedes send naughty team leaders to the Distortion World.
Spooky scary centipedes send naughty team leaders to the Distortion World.

Unlike Emerald Version, Platinum Version was released directly after its pair, Diamond Version & Pearl Version, leaving generation four’s remakes as the final titles in the generation. Also unlike Emerald Version, which featured the generation’s third “major legendary” on the cover, Platinum Version features a new forme of generation four’s third “major legendary,” Giratina. Platinum Version also features its own Battle Frontier (which would go on to be used in HeartGold Version & SoulSilver Version) and slightly redesigned protagonists and rival NPC, along with changes to Sinnoh’s regional PokéDex and the order of challenging the region’s Gyms.

Or as some like to affectionately call them, "Cool Gray" and "Warm Gray."
Or as some like to affectionately call them, “Cool Gray” and “Warm Gray.”

Although generation five did not feature a third version of its own, Black Version 2 & White Version 2 do feature similar improvements, causing some fans to consider them “spiritual” third versions. Aside from the all-new story featuring all-new protagonists and NPCs (the primary reason for them being sequels), there are added features such as the Pokémon World Tournament (PWT), Pokéstar Studios, and the Key System. Many Pokémon are added to the Unova PokéDex, and new locations are added to the Unova region. Graphical improvements are noticed on the overworld sprites and all Trainer NPCs now feature entry animations. And the mascot of the games is not one, but rather two new formes of Kyurem, the third member of Reshiram and Zekrom’s trio. So while they may be sequels first and foremost, many of the improvements and additions Black Version 2 & White Version 2 feature are almost exact in nature to the changes seen in previous third versions.

Uh-huh, sure, anime, sure.
Uh-huh, sure, anime, sure.

Generation six features neither a third version nor sequels to its primary pair, X & Y, despite the “main legendaries” being part of a trio. Numerous aspects led many fans to believe there would be a third version, such as Kalos’s notable lack of major facilities and Zygarde’s new formes and prominence in the plot of the anime; however, on February 27, 2016, it was officially announced that the series would move into its seventh generation with Sun & Moon. Whether X & Y were intended to simply “test the waters” of Pokémon in 3D or if there will ever be a sort of “resolution” to the duo is unknown at this time.

Plusle and Minun discussing the positive and negative aspects of third versions.
Plusle and Minun discussing the positive and negative aspects of third versions.

With a new game release, there is the opportunity to tweak aspects that needed fixing. One of the most obvious ones is an altered, and usually improved, story. With the exception of generation one, the third versions alter the plot of the original duo to revolve around the new “mascot Pokémon,” and most of the time, new NPCs are created to add lore to the narrative (Crystal Version’s Eusine; Platinum Version’s Looker and Charon). In other cases, new NPCs are added for the sake introducing new features (Emerald Version’s Scott, among others).

New features are also commonly added in the third versions, some of which go on to become series staples. The Battle Tower of Crystal Version was expanded into a Battle Frontier in Emerald Version. The entire concept of having a female protagonist was introduced in Crystal Version, and the ability to challenge Gym Leaders after they have been defeated was introduced in Emerald Version. Other, smaller mechanics changes happen in third versions, such as Platinum Version speeding up battle and Surf speed when compared to Diamond Version & Pearl Version, or wild Pokémon availability or even their movepools. Visual and sound tweaks are also present in third versions, be it map designs, Pokémon sprites, slight character redesigns, or additional soundtrack pieces being added.

All these changes made are generally considered to be positive ones, but they do leave a negative effect on the original pair of games. Third versions are generally seen as the generation’s “definitive experience” (excluding remakes), leading many fans to feel that the lack of features in the original pair of games is almost intentional. Whether the lessened content in the original pair is an intentional choice or not, some fans have likened third versions to DLC, except packaged as an entirely new game. This leads players to buy said “DLC” at full-game price after already buying one (or sometimes even both) version(s) of the original pair.

So are third versions only made to effectively act as an “extended deadline?” Or are they only made out of corporate greed to purposefully lengthen a generation or to get fans to buy the “same game” once more? In actuality, that is not their only purpose. This can be seen through the handling of the series’s remakes.

Step aside, Alolan Exeggutor. Primal Groudon used the power of the sun to grow massively in size first.
Step aside, Alolan Exeggutor. Primal Groudon used the power of the sun to grow massively in size first.

So far, there have been three sets of remakes: FireRed Version & LeafGreen Version in generation three, HeartGold Version & SoulSilver Version in generation four, and Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire in generation six. Something many fans notice is that although each set of remakes is based on a generation with three games, there are only two remake games made. But while some fans may ask about the whereabouts of “WaterBlue Version” and “MindCrystal Version,” there is a very clear reason for their absence: the third versions are already included within the remakes.

It is a little more difficult to perceive in FireRed Version & LeafGreen Version because Yellow Version is essentially an adaptation of the anime (which may not have been so easy to implement after all this time) and Japan’s Blue Version featured little more than graphical improvements, but Crystal Version is very clearly present within HeartGold Version & SoulSilver Version. Suicune’s trip around the region may have been altered, but it features a subplot almost identical to its role in Crystal Version, including the Crystal Version-exclusive NPC, Eusine. Crystal Version‘s exclusive Battle Tower is expanded into a replica of Sinnoh’s Battle Frontier, and small features such as the Ruins of Alph’s puzzles and Buena’s Password radio show also make returns. Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire take a different approach at incorporating Emerald Version into its plot, opting for a reworked Sky Pillar featuring the backstory of Rayquaza and a showdown with Deoxys, even tossing in a battle against Wallace’s Emerald Version Champion team.

If third versions are viewed as an opportunity to add onto previous games, most of which have a very short development period of approximately one year, the reason for the lack of content in many “main duos” becomes a little more understandable. But when it comes to remakes, the source material is already all available to the developers. Because many fans believe the content of the third version can and should be included in the main duo from the get-go, it makes sense that remakes only feature two versions, and attempt to include the content from the third version to the best of their abilities.

But aside from all this, could there be another reason for third versions to even exist? Here enters the Rule of Three.

Because "The Four Musketeers" just doesn't sound as cool as "The Three Musketeers."
Because “The Four Musketeers” just doesn’t sound as cool as “The Three Musketeers.”

The rule of three–not to be confused with photography’s “rule of thirds”–is, to paraphrase, the idea that in writing, things that come in threes work. They are funnier, they are easier to remember, and they help establish patterns (see what I did there?). There is a natural rhythm that occurs when things are separated into three. Gold-Silver-Crystal. Diamond-Pearl-Platinum. We almost want to stick a “Z” on after saying X and Y–it would be as easy as “A, B, C” and “1, 2, 3,” right?

It isn’t the easiest thing to notice because it is so ingrained into people’s everyday lives, but when you look out for it, you start noticing just how common it is for threes to be used in the world around us. Goldilocks had to deal with a family of three bears, not four. Most fairy tales have a character go through two similar trials while the third has a substantial twist spun on it (sound familiar?). There are four musketeers but they call themselves “The Three Musketeers” despite that. You can make a wish if you gather the three pieces of the Triforce. But if you’re not in Hyrule, grab a lamp and a genie will grant you three wishes. Stories have three parts to them: a beginning, a middle, and an end. And those stories are written through blood, sweat, and tears.

The Pokémon main series even does this outside of third versions. Players are given a choice between a trio of starters, whose Types are among the most iconic trio of Type advantages and disadvantages–one that has been likened to the popular game of rock-paper-scissors. Almost every generation features three minor legendaries for the player to pursue, and almost every generation features three major legendaries, even if, like in X & Y, they don’t each have their own game.

Ultimately, third versions are a combination of adding improvements to the generation’s main duo of games, while also working as an effective marketing technique to catch people’s interest.

Xatu looks to the future for answers. Is it terrified by what it sees?
Xatu looks to the future for answers. Is it terrified by what it sees?

Although there are numerous logical reasons for third versions to be produced, the fact still stands that the series has not seen one since 2008 (2009 outside of Japan). While it may be too soon to say that there will never be another third version, it would similarly be too soon to claim that Sun & Moon will receive one. Being the “20th anniversary titles” that they are, many doubt Game Freak would want a third version to overshadow them in the future. Regardless of what the future holds for third versions, the role they served in the past is an important one, introducing many new features that fans love dearly, and some which have even become series staples. So the next time you are reminded of a third version, don’t think of it as “two’s company, three’s a crowd;” instead, remember that the third time’s a charm!