Review by Tom Clark
How do you get Pikachu on a bus? Hah! The oldies are the best!
It's fair to say that the Pokemon franchise revitalised the somewhat ailing Game Boy in the late 90s. As the kids were being seduced to Sony's grey box by Lara Croft's heaving jublies, Nintendo's pocket wonder was left in the cold. It had been a few years since any major Ninty franchise had appeared on the monochrome screens with any real degree of chart success - sure, Wario was still pottering around, but in all honesty, he was never as recognisable as Mario, who was too busy basking in his 3D to care about his 2D roots. The GB wasn't defeated yet, but it was in a serious slump. Then came a game that changed the Game Boy, changed it forever. Although Pokemon Red and Blue's main selling point - the fact that you have to trade monsters that you capture and train with other Game Boy players - smacked of being a gimmick, the unstoppable hype machine (attacking the unsuspecting youngsters with cartoon shows, movies, card games, bed sheets, and just about anything else that would fit the Pokemon logo) combined with some genuinely addictive and enjoyable gameplay, ensured that the games were a runaway success. Game Boys began to sell by the bucket load again, and all was well in Nintendo-Land. Now, in the forgettable words of Alanis Morissette, we flash forward to a few years later. The Game Boy has passed away, as has it's son, the Game Boy Color. The new handheld king is the Game Boy Advance, and the little Poke-critters are crawling to a portable screen near you once again. But has the world moved on too much, or is there still a place in the hearts of gamers for the tiny folk and their collectable ways?
You play the role of either a male or female Pokemon trainer. Your father has just been appointed as a Pokemon Gym Leader (a particularly strong trainer, one by which all other trainers are judged), and as such you have recently moved from Johto (where the previous title was set) to the island of Hoenn. Settling in to your new town, you meet your neighbour (either a boy or a girl, the opposite to the character which you elected to play as), and the kindly Pokemon expert Professor Birch. It's not too long before things are amiss, though, as Birch is attacked by a wild pokemon. Your character just happens to be passing, and rushes to the Professor's aide, grabbing one of three of the Birch's dropped Pokemon in order to fight off his assailant. With a Pokemon now in your possession, you set off to become the region's greatest Pokemon trainer.
Despite the fact that the Ruby and Sapphire titles form the third entry into the main Pokemon saga, the basic plot remains exactly the same as in previous efforts. As with the last games, there is a team of evil trainers lurking in the background - although as Team Rocket has passed away, you are faced with Team Magma in Ruby and Team Aqua in Sapphire. Although these villains have actual plans this time around , as opposed to just being mean - Magma want to increase the land mass of the area, destroying the oceans in the process, while Aqua want to flood the island - their basic function is the same: they just pop up at regular intervals in order to give you a good scrap. In short, while they are the main focus of the game in terms of plot, they provide little more than a diversion.
It is lucky, then, that the gameplay in the Pokemon series is such that any plot is, at the end of the day, superfluous. As with the previous two efforts (Red / Blue on the GB and Gold / Silver on the GBC) the game is a top-down RPG. The main thrust of the game centres around your efforts to capture as many of the two hundred Pokemon as you can, the twist being that some Pokemon are available in Ruby but not Sapphire, and vice versa. Early on in your adventure you receive Pokeballs - the means by which you will capture the majority of your Pokemon. As you travel from town to town you encounter many wild Pokemon - if you choose to make you own Pokemon (initially only the Pokemon that you, frankly, stole from Birch) fight them then your creature grows stronger. The fights are deceptively tactical affairs - each creature can only learn four moves, both offensive and defensive, and each creature and each move falls into a set category (fire, ice and other such RPG staples, plus the more original Steel and Dark types), and as such choosing which creature to pit against which adversary, and then which move to use, becomes quite important - you'll need to raise a team containing a good balance of the different Pokemon classes, each of these with a balanced repertoire of moves, if you wish to succeed in the game.
Of course, as fun as scrapping and levelling up your existing creatures is, you'll want to capture more along your way. If you choose to throw the Pokeballs at wild Pokemon you encounter, you can capture them and add them to your team (which can consist of up to 6 creatures). As you move from town to town you challenge the eight gym leaders. Defeat them and you will be judged good enough to face the Elite Four. Defeat them and you are crowned the Champion. And, in it's most basic form, that's all there is to it. Of course, there are extra features and sidequests involved, but at heart the main quest is really quite simplistic.
Perhaps the main flaw with this is that it feels more simplistic than Gold / Silver. There are less Pokemon this time round, and less places to explore (the previous game gave you a whole new map, while still granting you access to the towns and pathways from the first game), and most criminally of all, the game feels less technologically advanced than the previous effort, by virtue of the removal of the real time aspect. Last time round, certain events happened on certain days of the week, and night fell in the game when night fell in the real world (bringing with it several nocturnal creatures). It was a fantastic feature that ensured that you'd be playing at all times of the day. And now it's surprisingly absent. While you still get to set the time in this game, it seems completely pointless. If the GBC could cope with the real time, it stands to reason that the GBA could too, so the removal of this innovative feature just adds to the sense that this is actually a step back for the series. Indeed - graphics aside, this game feels like it should be the second entry in the series, between Red / Blue and Gold / Silver, rather than the latest entry.
That's not to say that there aren't any new features in this game, there are, most notably the addition of Pokemon contests. This time round, each move in the game has a specific classification, such as cool, beauty and the like. When you gain access to the various contest halls dotted around the map, you pick a single Pokemon to enter into a contest (grouped into the same categories as the moves), and basically just show off these moves to a crowd (along with three other creatures). Get the best reactions, and you win. It gets a bit more complex as the ranks progress of course, mostly with the addition of Pokeblocks. These are items that you make with the various berries you can pick as you progress on your quest. Different berry combinations form different coloured blocks, and different coloured blocks, when fed to your 'Mon, increase coolness, beauty and so on in different measures. It's all a little daunting at first (there are loads of possible berry combinations, so there are several different types of block that can be produced) but after a little practice you really get the hang of what you're doing, and it becomes easier to increase the attributes of your creatures in the way you wish. To be honest, I found that the contests didn't really capture my imagination - it all seemed quite unrewarding considering the effort placed into berry blending and such, which is a pity, as the contests are the major new gameplay development.
Also new to this edition are two-on-two pokemon battles, which do exactly what you would expect. Two of your creatures face off against two of your opponents' at the same time, which calls for some slightly different tactics to be employed (for example, some of the moves you use in battle will hurt your partner as well as your enemies). Again, much has been made of this new feature, and again, it disappoints somewhat. Whilst the two-on-two battles themselves are good fun, it's a feature that is rather under used. There are probably less than a dozen such fights in the game (not counting characters that challenge you to a rematch), and as such it all seems a little pointless: why bother coming up with an idea that genuinely expands the formula of the game, giving it a fresh feel that it really needs, only to stick to the old formula for the majority of the game? If there had been more two-on-two fights then perhaps Pokemon Ruby / Sapphire wouldn't feel quite so similar to it's predecessors.
But while some new additions are either uninvolving or under-used, some are just downright odd - such as the ability to create a secret base somewhere on the map. Once one of your monsters has learned the relevant ability, you can create a base in a tree or rock face, and then you can proceed to lay down furniture, move in a few plants, put up some posters... it's an odd feature to say the least, but one that proves oddly captivating. All the Lewellyn-Bowen wannabes out there can have a great time just decorating the place, and there's something strangely satisfying about having your own room in the game. It doesn't really do much, to be honest, but it's a pleasant little side-step from the main quest.
A new feature that does work well, though, is the addition of attributes specific to each type of Pokemon, giving the sense that they really are different species, as opposed to different character sprite that basically do the same thing. For example, some of the tougher looking creatures intimidate other creatures as soon as they face each other, lowering their attack. Others pick up dropped items as you walk that would otherwise be unattainable, some are immune to all sound-based attacks, some are immune to anything that would lower their accuracy and so on. While at first this may seem like a minor detail, it does add a whole new depth to the proceedings - as each creature is even more individual now, selecting a well balanced team of six becomes even more tactical.
Many of the old features have also been updated for the new version, such as the bicycles available in the game. While previously you just had one bike, and it's purpose was simply to let you move faster, here things work differently. A few hours into your adventure you meet an absurdly generous shopkeeper. This strange chap lets you have a bike free of charge as soon as you walk into his store. Not only that, but he gives you a choice of two different bikes (the Mach bike, which lets you climb up mudslides, or the Acro bike, that lets you jump small gaps in bridges and such). What's more, this marvellously madcap dude let's you come back to the store and swap bikes whenever you like. It's a wonder the guy is still in business - his sales techniques are a little bonkers to say the least! Retail logic aside, though, this adds a little depth to the exploration, as certain areas are only available with certain bikes. Other evolutions are less dramatic, serving only to ramp up the challenge a little, or to make things more convenient. Fishing, for example, now requires timed button taps, rather than simply casting and waiting, and the PC boxes (where you keep your pokemon that aren't in your team) have been refined so that you can switch between them without having to save each time as in previous games.
But for every feature of the game that has been expanded upon, there are many others that haven't. This isn't really a bad thing, really, as the previous games were very good efforts, it's just a little disappointing. Everyone who lost whole weekends to the preceding games will get hooked all over again, and again, the hours will fly by as steadily as the dead batteries will stack up. Everyone who spent whole evenings trying to catch Mewtwo, or dashing across the whole of Johto trying to locate the Legendary Trio will in turn spend many hours trying to capture the one-off 'legendary' pokemon this time round. In short - if you loved the previous games, you will find much to love here, it's just as good as the others, but it plays in such a similar vein that it doesn't an excuse not to be.
Where this game does rise above the last Pokemon titles in, naturally, in terms of the presentation. While the battles themselves look shockingly similar to the previous efforts - an over the shoulder view of your creature, and a near static picture of your opponent set against a bland, almost empty background - the environments themselves are quite lavishly portrayed, whilst somehow keeping the charmingly simple look of the past Pokemons. The caves and roads of old are joined this time by some stunning new locations, too, such as a desert in the midst of a sandstorm (an impressive wind effect making this area a graphical high point) and even the ocean floor (which looks very mellow in different shades of blue, but still manages to be quite awe inspiring at certain points). Other notable graphical features include the well-presented but occasionally underwhelming weather effects (a nice touch, although it would have been nicer if rainstorms and such had been random events as opposed to occurring in pre-set locations), and some nice reflections cast in still waters.
Where the graphics do falter somewhat is in the design of the Pokemon themselves. While there isn't really anything wrong with the way the creatures look (some look very impressive - on a technical level at least), they seem to be lacking the charm that was oozing out of the sprites in the previous games - and given that a fair portion of the two-hundred Pokemon on offer come from previous games this is a bit of an oddity. It's hard to explain, since as I said, technically the creatures look good, but there doesn't seem to be much personality to the creatures - it's as if not much effort went into designing how they'd look.
Sound has never really been a strong point for the series, and while Ruby / Sapphire does improve over the older titles, it still begins to grate, with some truly awful synthetic battle cries given out by the Pokemon at the start of each battle, and incessantly jovial tunes playing on regardless as you explore Hoenn. The battle music now sounds a little overproduced, too. There seems to be so much going on that at times the tune itself is almost lost in the music. All in all, it's an improvement, but you'll want to be playing with the sound down and the stereo up within an hour or so.
Ultimately, if you enjoyed the previous games then you'll enjoy this. The fact that it feels like a step back in the series, and that it plays so much like it's predecessors isn't a full on criticism as such, as in it's own right it is still a fun and addictive experience that will last you for dozens, perhaps even hundreds of hours, as first you try to catch 'em all, then train 'em all, then hunt down the ultra rare 'shiny' pokemon (regular creatures coloured a different hue), then see if you can catch the rare pokemon virus... There really is loads to do. It's just hard to escape the feeling that it should have been... well.... more. The arrival of arguably Nintendo's biggest handheld franchise on the latest and most up-to-date version of the Game Boy should have been really special, but it turned out to be just another Pokemon game. That's not a bad thing, just a disappointing thing.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
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