15 Best Pokémon Episodes That Track Ash Ketchum’s Journey
Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: The Pokémon Company
A lot of people likely never thought that Ash Ketchum, the intrepid and eternally 10-year-old protagonist of the Pokémon anime series, would become a world champion, much less retire . But in the span of a few weeks late last year, he shocked the world by doing both, winning a big trophy and following it with an announcement that his days of turning his hat around before awesome battles were coming to an end. There will be a new anime with new protagonists, but Ash wasn’t just the main character of Pokémon — he was a brand mascot and a representative for all of the franchise’s ideals of battling, catching, and generally being nice to everyone. Ever since Ash (known as Satoshi in the Japanese version) first started his adventures in April 1997, he’d been a hero for multiple generations of Pokémon fans (even if he was somehow always a fourth grader). Every new wave of viewers has been able to see themselves in Ash.
But despite this fairly cyclical method of storytelling, the prodigal son of Pallet Town has done a fair bit of growing up over the years. So if you find the 1,000-plus episodes of Pokémon too overwhelming to revisit in the lead-up to Ash’s exit, set to take place in March, here are fifteen episodes that mark the highlights of his journey.
The premiere episode of Pokémon introduces everything we need to know to jump into its world while also telling a mini-story of a boy learning a necessary lesson about growing up and getting along. Brash Ash Ketchum is gifted a feral Pikachu after he wakes up too late to receive a “proper” starter Pokémon and is taken aback by Pikachu’s refusal to respect or even listen to him. It isn’t until Ash proves that he’s willing to go the distance for Pikachu instead of just literally dragging him around and ordering him to do stuff that Pikachu finally starts to form a partnership with him. This basic arc would be repeated with many other characters and many other Pokémon over the years, but it’s most effectively told here, mainly because it ends up establishing the relationship between Ash and Pikachu, Pokémon’s most iconic duo.
If you ask anime fans about the first thing in the medium that made them cry, there’s a very good chance that they’ll mention “Bye Bye Butterfree,” the sentimental story of Ash learning that letting go of a Pokémon can be even more important than catching one. Here, his Butterfree (an evolved form of Caterpie, the first Pokémon that Ash ever truly caught as Pikachu was just kinda handed to him,) finds a mate and pulls away from his trainer. Ash is excited for his friend’s newfound “love” but needs to muster the emotional wherewithal to let his buddy go. By the conclusion, nearly everyone on the show (and in the audience) is sobbing, and Ash has gained the strength to say farewell.
Are you sensing a theme here? Pokémon has wrung a lot of drama over the years out of the promise and (sometimes) execution of a beloved creature heading off on their own. In this episode, Pikachu finds a little community of, well, Pikachus, and Ash, seeing how happy Pikachu is with his own kind, jumps the gun a little bit and decides to leave his best pal behind. Pikachu, in an act of both love and “No, dummy. We’re the stars of this series,” catches up to him, and their bond is sealed. Ash can’t get rid of Pikachu even if he mistakenly wants to. They’re in this thing forever.
“I wanna be the very best, like no one ever was” is the iconic opening line of the original American Pokémon theme, and many young fans expected Ash to make good on this ambition by the time he finally got to the Indigo League. But Charizard — Ash’s most rebellious teammate, who began as a sweet little Charmander before gaining a hot head in addition to his fiery tail upon fully evolving — has other ideas. During a crucial match in the tournament that Ash seems to have in the bag, Charizard decides to just lie down and nap instead. In retrospect, it’s a gutsy move for a kids’ series, especially considering how much of it up till this point had been dedicated to showing just how far Ash is willing to go for Pokémon. In the long run, though, seeing Ash sob in desperation over his problematic lizard was the right thing for the show to do. No matter how far we think we’ve come, there’s always a little growing up to do.
While the Pokémon anime has often seemed like an indefinite exercise in marketing, lasting as long as the franchise it’s a part of at all costs, it does have a habit of wrapping up nice little stories within itself. In this case, Ash finds himself in the Charicific Valley, a place where wild, powerful Charizards train. Ash’s own Charizard, an angsty dragon, wants to show off his strength but the other Charizards easily beat the frustrated fire type. In the end, Charizard’s might isn’t enough, and he, perhaps taking a page from his trainer’s book, makes a grand display to convince them all of his worth. Afterward, Ash is willing to leave Charizard behind, hoping that it will indeed get stronger and finally earning some respect from the monster. By the time Charizard does return to the anime, he and Ash get along much better, and eventually Charizard will prove crucial in the upcoming Silver Conference and the Battle Frontier.
“GARY WAS HERE! ASH IS A LOSER!”
Gary Oak wrote that message (on what was likely Poké-government property) in order to rile Ash up way back in the fourth-ever episode. The graffiti is an encapsulation of Gary’s entire persona at the beginning of the show, a jerkwad nepo baby (his granddad is Professor Oak) with a posse, a huge ego, and, most annoyingly of all … the skills to actually back up his talk. However, Gary seems to be humbled a bit after he and Ash compete in the Johto League Silver Conference, and in a fight straight out of a heated 1998 playground argument, Ash’s Charizard beats Gary’s Blastoise. They then make peace and even shake hands, a scene that would’ve been unbelievable previously and one that starts Gary’s evolution toward being sufferable. He’d later show up from time to time in the series as a much more chill researcher and a professor’s assistant — but he was still always willing to show off his battle prowess if the situation called for it. Some things never change.
Even though Ash has trekked around with new partners in pretty much every season, none are as recognizable as Brock and Misty. (Apologies to Tracey, Max, May, Dawn, Iris, Cilan, Clemont, Bonnie, Serena, Lana, Kiawe, Lillie, Sophocles, Mallow, and Goh. You can all share the silver medal.) Misty met Ash in the first episode (after Ash wrecked Misty’s beloved bike, putting himself in her still-unsettled debt), and Brock in the fifth (he was the first gym leader Ash battled, and while Ash’s “victory” was questionable, it certainly lit a fire within Brock to go out and see the world). But, in this episode, after many adventures over 5 years of anime, the trio find themselves at a crossroads in their journey. Misty’s sisters have called for her to take over for them at the Celadon City Gym and Brock wishes to return to Pewter City to help his gigantic family. It’s here that the real meaning behind the first line “I wanna be the very best” becomes clear — Ash hasn’t achieved anything because he’s better than others. He’s only gotten better because of the support he’s had from others like Brock and Misty.
Ash suffered a humiliating loss in the Indigo League, came up short in the Johto Conference, and couldn’t get the job done in Hoenn. Aside from a victory that Ash did win in Orange League — a competition that wasn’t based on any video game source material and as such has never carried the same weight as a mainstream championship would — he’d never claimed a title. This changes a bit in the Battle Frontier, a collection of matches coordinated by “Frontier Brains” spread across the Kanto region. In this case, Ash is able to beat them all and is offered the chance to become a Frontier Brain himself, an accomplishment that’s somewhat equal to being Champion. It’s Ash’s biggest achievement in the series so far, but he can’t take his eyes off the prize: There are still more roads to travel and regions to conquer, so he declines.
Gary Oak might be Ash’s most famous rival, but he’s not the best one. No, that honor goes to Paul, the power-obsessed and frequently cruel trainer who challenges Ash at multiple points in the Diamond and Pearl section of the anime. The Diamond and Pearl arc is pretty strong overall and even manages to improve on the games when it comes to adapting the machinations of the villainous Team Galactic, but the way it handles Ash and Paul’s relationship is a shining point. Rather than meet up randomly, as Ash did with Gary, their dueling narratives weave together through the story and we see their rivalry evolve. Ash’s eventual victory over Paul in this episode is more momentous than any actual championship triumph would’ve been — especially because he won with Infernape, a fiery little monkey Pokémon that Paul once owned as a Chimchar but foolishly released for being “too weak.”
Pokémon XY is generally regarded as one of the most appealing eras of the show for those interested in Ash as a competitive figure. (It helps that his art style had been “aged up” in a way, with a taller, leaner build and a more angular face, and the competency he showed in battle seemed in line with the seventeen years of adventures he’d experienced thus far.) In “The Moment of Lumiose Truth,” he takes on travel companion and gym leader Clemont, but the roles of the typical pattern are reversed. Here, Clemont is the obvious underdog, with Ash’s experience coming through in dominating fashion. Though Clemont is able to even the odds, his loss humbles him, and the episode is a great example of the fact that Ash is no longer the inexperienced kid from Pallet.
The episode that launched (or at least confirmed) a thousand pieces of fan fiction, “Til We Compete Again” saw Ash getting an offscreen kiss from his traveling companion, Serena. Though she made her first appearance 800 episodes into the show’s run, Serena and Ash actually go way back, as they’re revealed to have met one another before the start of the series. This history helped shape Ash’s most intricate friendship with a female companion since Misty, and it was a kind of predestination and relationship (if you can even call it that) that would be dubbed “AmourShipping” by the fandom and it is still heavily debated today. The way the two connected tended was a notable contrast to XY’s focus on Pokémon battles. Fans have long talked about Ash and a traveling partner having potential crushes on each other (Ash and Misty even had theirs hinted at throughout the show and, oddly enough, in the soundtrack albums), and Serena’s kiss felt like an affirmation of a nearly two-decade discussion. The animation team absolutely knew what they were doing.
Misty and Brock may have parted ways with Ash, but it was hardly the last time they all saw one another. Misty has popped up from time to time and Brock would soon return in the Ruby & Sapphire arc and be a constant companion once again for the next few years. However, the trio’s most notable reunion is “Alola, Kanto!” which sees Misty and Brock meet up with Ash and his new Alolan friends during a trip to the Kanto region, Ash’s home. Combined with the Sun & Moon arc’s fun writing and expressive animation, it makes for a heartwarming visit, especially since Ash is so eager to impress everyone — a character trait that recalls how he was when he traveled with Brock and Misty originally. The reunion gave Ash a much-appreciated sense of history and, to some extent, growth. Even if Ash couldn’t change too much, “Alola, Kanto” showed those adventures that older viewers had grown up with still mattered, rather than just being video game marketing cycling toward its next adaptation. In the following episode, they even tease him for essentially giving him his gym badges, a nod to Pokémon’s history and those early triumphs that were anything but official wins.
Ash’s recent World Championship made headlines and prompted his retirement, but a previous win — that of the Alola Region Championship in 2019 (it would be aired in America in 2020) — may be just as important. If anything, the two victories go hand in hand, as there was a lot of real-world coverage of Ash’s Alola win, and it set up the stakes for the upcoming World Coronation tournament quite nicely. Was Ash going to repeat this victory in his next adventure, or was the win in Alola some kind of fluke, and he’d go back to being just short of gold in whatever region he traveled to next? Even as Ash has moved onto bigger things, his Alola win remains special. The entire Sun & Moon arc might be the best the Pokémon anime has ever been, and by finally rewarding Ash and Pikachu with a championship trophy, the arc served not only as a victory lap for the main characters but as a quality piece of anime overall.
If you thought that nabbing a championship meant that Ash was unstoppable, think again. In “Getting More Than You Battled For!,” Ash meets Mewtwo once again, the world’s strongest Pokémon and a genetic experiment from The First Movie. “Come at me with those dreams of yours,” Mewtwo tells Ash and his companion Goh before the legendary Pokémon … absolutely wipes the floor with them. It’s bad, y’all. Mewtwo doesn’t get a scratch, and Ash’s attempt against the final boss of the universe prove futile. After the battle, Mewtwo tells Ash that there’s “more Pokémon than you can imagine,” which combined with the loss means that even after Ash takes home his upcoming trophy, there are still endless journeys out there. As an episode, it perhaps best represents what we can expect from the Ash character when he doesn’t have an anime centered around him.
In November 2022, Ash won the world championship, taking on the former strongest-in-the-world Leon and besting Leon’s Charizard with his Pikachu. It was a fitting achievement, one that was met with deafening approval from the Pokémon community and then a similarly loud “Well, now what?” Seeing places like the BBC reporting Ash and Pikachu’s achievements was definitely a cool way to wake up the morning after his world-championship victory aired in Japan. It’s pretty unclear exactly how long the anime’s producers had been planning this moment, but this win, a culmination of Ash’s adventure, which started with him excitedly watching big matches in his childhood bedroom in the first episode, afforded fans everywhere and of every age a chance to rejoice. Even if they hadn’t watched since the late ’90s, it was still meaningful — their old friend had finally done it.