Let’s recap: Team Rocket disbands following the events of Red and Blue, squirming from the embarrassment of having their criminal empire taken down by what amounts to an angry, homeless, ten-year-old amateur toreador. Where police, private security companies and government agencies failed, your character succeeds – I will leave it to you to decide whether this is a reflection on the awesomeness of the average Japanese ten-year-old or the uselessness of the average Japanese law enforcer. Let’s not poke holes in the plot though; it’s shaky enough as it is and probably can’t take much more. Let’s look instead at what happens three years after Giovanni dissolves his organization, when Team Rocket returns in force, this time in the western province of Johto.
Unlike in Red and Blue, where everything Team Rocket does is more or less “because we’re evil, damnit,” your two major encounters with them in Gold and Silver are both part of the same long-term plan to restore their organization and call Giovanni out of hiding, although your first, less significant meeting with them is just strange… Team Rocket first resurface in Azalea Town, where they are – for no purpose I can readily identify – cutting the tails off Slowpoke and selling them as nutritious snacks at ridiculously inflated prices. I mean, presumably this is a moneymaking scheme like most of what these idiots do but realistically I don’t see how this could ever seem like a sensible idea. I get the impression that Slowpoke tails grow back, but they couldn’t possibly grow back fast enough to work as a get-rich-quick scheme unless you had a heck of a lot of them, or people were gullible enough to spend truly obscene amounts of money on them. Slowpoke aren’t all that common, even in Azalea’s Slowpoke Well, and Azalea is kind of a hick town so I don’t see there being a lot of big spenders around, so neither of those ideas holds water. Anyway, you promptly deal with this bizarre and pointless example of animal cruelty and move on.
You next encounter Team Rocket in Mahogany Town, which is where things get interesting. Mahogany Town is in uproar over the appearance of a bright red Gyarados in the nearby Lake of Rage, which is of note for two reasons: first, Gyarados are normally blue, and second, Gyarados are highly destructive killing machines that are always angry and can lay waste to entire cities when provoked. Investigation reveals that an unusually large number of Magikarp in the lake are evolving into Gyarados, and furthermore that suspicious black-clad men have taken over the gatehouse north of Mahogany Town and demanding a toll from anyone coming through to see the spectacle. At the lake, you encounter a master Dragon Pokémon trainer named Lance, who is also there to investigate. He leads you back to Mahogany Town and joins you in storming Team Rocket’s underground hideout. It transpires that Team Rocket’s scientists have created a special radio-frequency signal that can compel Pokémon to evolve, and perhaps even control them. They’ve been testing this signal on the Magikarp in the lake, while simultaneously reaping the benefits of the surge in tourism this creates for Mahogany Town. They are apparently so confident in the general ineptitude of Johto’s law enforcement that they haven’t considered the possibility of attracting attention from unwanted sources – and honestly, that’s fair enough, since the Johto police seem to know nothing. As we all know, however, in the Pokémon world the law is in the hands of Pokémon trainers like you and Lance, whose responsibility it is to hand out vigilante justice. This you do, destroying their transmitter and defeating the Rocket executives, thus ending the crisis at the Lake of Rage.
Destroying the Mahogany Town hideout doesn’t stop Team Rocket though; their plan all along was to take over the Goldenrod City radio tower, hijack its transmitter, and use it to broadcast their signal all around the country (along with a message to Giovanni, imploring him to return from his exile and join them). This they do in due course, disguising one of their executives as the radio tower’s director to try for a degree of compliance from the staff. The real director is in the bowels of Goldenrod’s underground, where you must go to rescue him after defeating the false director. This, incidentally, leads you into what is easily the most aggravating puzzle sequence these games have ever featured – and if you ever played the original Gold or Silver (it’s much easier to figure out in the remakes), you will remember what I’m talking about. One of the rooms in the underground contains a series of many heavy doors, controlled by three switches. Which switch is responsible for which doors is up for debate, and seems to change every time you press one. I have never known anyone who ever figured out how you were supposed to solve this puzzle without some sort of guide; as far as I can tell the only appropriate response is trial and error, and it is far and away the most evil thing Team Rocket ever inflicted upon anyone. Getting through this godawful mess will allow you to rescue the director at last, who gives you an access card that allows you to reach the last executives of Team Rocket and give them what-for one final time. The new leader then gives in and disbands Team Rocket for good.
In terms of plot, Gold and Silver are a step up from Red and Blue in that you’re dealing with a coherent evil scheme, though Team Rocket themselves are still pretty generic villains – and actually, there’s really only one recurring Team Rocket character, the female executive who attacks you in the Mahogany hideout and again in the Radio Tower, and she doesn’t get a whole lot of characterisation, so the games still had a long way to go in that regard. The recent remakes, Heart Gold and Soul Silver, tried to remedy this by creating a few distinct executive characters with names and vague personalities, but I can’t say I’m really happy with the effort. The first you meet is Proton, who is the ringleader of the operation at the Slowpoke Well and then turns up again in the Radio Tower, and he seems to be two completely separate Team Rocket members from Gold and Silver combined into one, with a few extra lines of dialogue added to emphasise that even by Team Rocket’s standards he’s pretty nasty and very self-centred. The second executive, Petrel, is interesting; he’s the one who impersonates the director of the radio tower and is introduced earlier in the Mahogany hideout. Again, in Gold and Silver these fights seem to be with two separate characters, but the remakes added a nice touch to him – Petrel is disguised as Giovanni when you first meet him. Thus, when you see Petrel again pretending to be the director, it’s already established that disguise is his thing. Little details like this are all I ask for; the others could really have used them. The third recurring character is the female executive, Ariana. Other than giving her a name, nothing has really been done with Ariana, which is a little disappointing, but she was already the only real “character” from the original version of Team Rocket; my real problem is with the new leader, Archer. Archer should by all rights be the main villain of the story, but he appears only once and, like Ariana, I don’t think he has any new dialogue. He comes completely out of nowhere, explains a bunch of stuff about what Team Rocket is doing that you probably know already, loses, and then disappears never to be seen again. Heart Gold and Soul Silver make a character out of this nameless executive, but don’t actually do anything with him, which seems to me like such a cop-out that I almost wonder why they bother. Furthermore, Archer’s total lack of development is something of a wasted opportunity to expand on the weird cult of personality that Team Rocket seems to have begun around Giovanni – because, make no mistake, this is what he’s set up; there’s no reason they should need Giovanni back since the four executives seem to run things just as efficiently as he did, and a criminal group clearly has no need of a figurehead, but getting the old boss back in charge seems to be their central objective throughout the game. In what little dialogue he gets, Archer seems to idolise his erstwhile leader – and I want to know about that! The remakes add a lot of lovely little improvements to the original games, sure, but with so much of the game’s skeleton in place from the very beginning, that’s sort of my baseline expectation, and there’s so much more that could have been done with Team Rocket in particular.
Time for my final thoughts on these goons. They are, no two ways about it, an integral part of what one might call “Pokémon Classic” and it would not surprise me to learn that a lot of people want them back. In keeping with my usual “less is more” stance on bunging more junk into this franchise, I can empathise with that position and want them back, but I like the new villains too. As I said last time, though, continuing to cast Team Rocket as the main antagonists would not gel with the kind of plot that Game Freak have been coming up with lately. I could easily see them as minor antagonists, but I think it could be even more interesting to bring them in as uneasy allies in an “Enemy Mine”-type situation, or as the centre of a darker, grittier plot (not that that’s ever going to happen).
Bottom line: Team Rocket are really fun to mess with; let’s have more of them in the future!