Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire
Pokémon is lame. Everyone knows this. Only young children could possibly gain any satisfaction traversing boring, danger-free worlds while trying to round up hordes of fruity-looking critters. And what’s with those battles? Only four different moves for each Pokémon? Fainting? Give me a break. There are plenty of more exciting games I could be playing; games like The Chronicles of Riddick, Halo and Rainbow Six III that feature stimulating gameplay and mature themes suitable for a 26-year old male gamer like myself. The world would be a much better place if Nintendo just dropped the PokÈmon fad and concentrated on developing more complex gaming experiences.
That sure sounds convincing enough, doesn’t it? For the near decade since Pokémon has been in existence, the above words encompassed my knee-jerk reaction when faced with anything Pokémon related. I’d listen to my nephew talk about the game and witness his face light up as if he’d just met Santa Claus when describing his seemingly impossible capture of some legendary Poké critter. Of course, I’d pat him on the back and congratulate him on his fine accomplishments, but deep down I was irritated that something so cheesy could bring him so much joy.
That’ll do Seth, that’ll do
Then, it happened.
A few friends and I, spurred into action by the complete lack of decent game releases at the time, decided to try out Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire for the GameBoy Advance. It was only supposed to be a quick fix. A light snack before this autumn’s blockbuster releases of Fable, Metroid Prime Echoes and Halo 2. But, this light snack quickly turned into much more, with my friends and I spending hours straight unhealthily gorging ourselves on Nintendo’s seemingly innocuous monster catching game. Now, after spending nearly 100 hours immersed in the world of Pokémon, I’m ready to openly repent for the decade of Poké-bashing that I regretfully took part in.
The biggest hurdle I had to overcome when initially stepping into the world of Pokémon was the disturbingly cute “kiddie” aura surrounding the series. I remembered seeing snippets of the cartoon and being completely turned off by the cheesy, and hypocritical, moral lessons like, “A Pokémon’s heart will open up as the two of you battle together.” In other words, “Your Pokémon will love you more, the more Pokémon ass you allow it to kick.” Riiiiigght. Now there’s a wholesome, George W. Bush-esque moral lesson worthy of teaching our impressionable young ones. Thankfully, Ruby and Sapphire mercifully refrain from pushing these insincere “moral” lessons to the extent that the cartoons do. They definitely have a light-hearted, kid-friendly vibe, but the games don’t pussy foot around the fact that they are, first and foremost, RPGs centered on monster catching and battling.
Go Torchic…it’s your birthday…
Numerous people, especially adults who have miniature Pokémon addicts living in their homes (aka – children), find it hard fathom how the frequent battles and monster catching portions of Ruby and Sapphire could be even remotely enjoyable. For me, it’s the portability and personalization elements that make them so exceptionally addictive. Everything from the name to the battle moveset of each Pokémon you capture can be altered, so you can end up amassing a horde of monsters that are not only tweaked to fit your battle style, but also feature such imposing monikers as Cheeky Chu, Stimpy, Soggy Buns and Ed. Combine this with the 200+ Pokémon available to catch and the ability to trade and battle with anyone who owns Ruby and Sapphire, Pokémon Colosseum (for the Cube) and the newly released Leaf Green and Fire Red (there is no regional lockout for the GBA versions, so you can trade or battle anyone across the world), and it’s easy to see how Pokémon quickly became such a sweeping phenomenon.
Now, it is true that battling in Ruby and Sapphire can be quite frequent. In fact, when you are walking through areas where wild Pokémon instigate random encounters (places like tall grass, caves, underwater, etc), it’s not uncommon to get attacked every 10 steps or so. That sounds terrible, I know, and it would be if these games were your average, everyday Japanese-style RPGs. But, thankfully, they are not. In most role-players, the only purpose for battling is to gain experience and money, and you are limited to using your stronger, leveled-up characters to progress in the main game. In Ruby and Sapphire you can do all of the above and use your leveled up Pokémon to battle and trade with other people. Additionally, each time you experience a random encounter, it could just happen to be an extremely rare Pokémon that may only show up once every few hundred battles. Not only that, but any wild PokÈmon you bump into could be a super-rare, and highly valuable, “shiny” version, which has boosted stats (in over 100 hours I have only seen one!). It should also be noted that random encounters only occur in certain areas, so you can simply avoid these places if you’d like to travel encounter-free.
Karaoke tournament or PokÈmon contest? You be the judge
And then there is the actual battle system, which warrants much more strategy and forethought than it would initially seem. In essence, battles are somewhat akin to a super mutated version of rock-scissors-paper. There are 17 different types of Pokémon, with each one having its own strengths and weaknesses (and sometimes immunities) against other types. Naturally, fire attacks work best against ice-type Pokémon and water attacks douse fire-types; but those are the easy ones to remember. What are the strengths and weaknesses of bug-type Pokémon? Is rock-type effective against flying-type? How about psychic-type against dark-type? In all the hours I’ve been playing, I still have to check the battle chart on occasion to verify the outcome of a particular type match-up. On top of that, each Pokémon can only have up to 4 battle moves in its repertoire and, like only being able to carry two guns in Halo, this actually adds to the strategy as opposed to limiting it. It’s easy to sit for fifteen minutes just racking your brain about whether or not to delete an older, more battle tested move in order to make room for a promising (but yet untested) new one.
Capturing and leveling up Pokémon make up the lion’s share of Ruby and Sapphire’s gameplay, but there are plenty of other side interests that add even more depth to the overall Poké experience. Activities like cultivating plants to stockpile your own private supply of medicinal berries and taking part in Pokémon Contests to earn ribbons and other prizes are just a few of the things you can do apart from battling. You could also spend time breeding species at the Pokémon Day Care, pillaging the Safari Zone and even decorating your own Secret Base. I’d actually go so far to say that Ruby/Sapphire is not unlike Morrowind, due to the sheer number of activities available and the hundreds of hours needed to experience them all.
These three ladies look identical. A wee bit disturbing if you ask me
The Game Boy Advance may be a limited system when it comes to creating fancy, next-gen visuals, but Nintendo managed to eke out an impressive amount of juice from the handheld with Ruby and Sapphire. Character and Pokémon sprites are clean, large and vibrant during both overworld exploration and battling, and environments are rich, varied and full of small details like reflective, shimmering water and some excellent weather effects. In fact, I’ve recently purchased Pokémon Colosseum for the GameCube (more proof of my newfound Poké addiction) and I actually prefer the hand drawn Pokémon sprites and 2D environments of the GBA games over the 3D polygonal visuals of Colosseum. There are a few minor black marks to note, including an almost complete lack of battle animations and the frequent repetition of trainer sprites (oh look, it’s another Rich Boy So-and-so), but these quibbles never seriously detract from the games’ overall visual excellence.
The audio presentation in Ruby and Sapphire is superior for the most part. A majority of the songs included won’t have you reaching for the volume control (or the Aspirin) after extended listening — a laudable feat for any Game Boy Advance game. Battle sound effects are also high-quality overall and manage to complement the visual effects admirably, even despite the limitations of the system’s hardware. It’s too bad Nintendo didn’t include any digitized speech samples for some of the more popular Pokémon; hearing Pikachu’s uber-cute “Pika, Pika!” would have been ten times more satisfying than the harsh electric noise that rakes violently across your eardrums.
Mudkip is about to get beat down by a couple of grass PokÈmon
Obsessing over this fantastic little monster catching game has turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for me. On one hand, I’ve uncovered a marvelous new gaming world that I love immersing myself in and now my nephew and I can talk with equal zest about our various Poké accomplishments. But, on the other hand, my newfound Pokémon addiction means risking intense ridicule from some of my beer guzzling, girlie ogling buddies. It’s a conundrum, to be sure, but with the recent release of Pokémon Leaf Green and Fire Red, it may be for the best if I just suck it up and step proudly out from the Poké closet. Perhaps I can find an online support group for 20-something male Pokémon addicts…
“Hello, my name is Josh and I sleep with a life-sized Zigzagoon plushie.”