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PLAYERS:   1-4
March 17, 2003
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 Written by Ilan Mejer  on April 17, 2003

Review: Another 180+ pocket monster critters to be found!

What is arguably Nintendo's strongest modern franchise, sales-wise, Pokemon returns to the proverbial front lines in the form of the recently released Pokemon Ruby and Pokemon Sapphire titles for the Gameboy Advance. Since its release in Japan, Pokemon Ru/Sa have already sold over 4 million copies in that territory alone. Once the American and European numbers are tallied, the no-doubt staggering total will reaffirm once again that Nintendo's ?catch ?em all? RPGs are far from fads (let alone dying ones), and are indeed here for the long haul.

Pokemon Ru/Sa is the series third iteration, and intelligently follows and expands the gameplay introduced in the previous two incarnations: Red and Blue (the current games' namesakes) and their follow up, Gold and Silver. For those requiring a structured numbering system, Pokemon Ru/Sa are essentially the Pokemon 3 games, adding approximately 150 new Pokemon to the 250 or so used in Pokemon GS. However, only about 180 Pokemon are included in these two titles, and though the game's greatly expanded Pokedex does provide support for all 400 or so Pokemon, 220 from the previous games' 250 Pokemon cannot be found within the land of Hoenn, nor can they be traded up from the previous games. This, of course, leads to questions regarding the acquisition of those Pokemon that only show up in the other lands of Kanto and Johto. Perhaps a future upgrade to these two games, either in the form of another Pokemon Stadium, a Pokemon Yellow/Crystal equivalent, or in the form of E-Reader cards will hold these answers.

The premise of the game has not changed in the least from previous versions. Though the story is more robust and cohesive than ever, when stripped away you will still be taking the role of either a young boy or girl trainer embarking on a quest to see and capture as many Pokemon as possible, while traveling from city to route to cavern to city, acquiring each of the eight gym badges before facing off with the new Elite Four in a final battle to determine the greatest Pokemon master in the land. Starting in the quaint town of Little Root, your trainer of choice will be introduced to his / her rival (the other trainer not chosen at the start), who becomes a competing friend in this game. This new rival is the son or daughter of the resident Pokemon Professor and saving him from wild Pokemon will net you your first creature, and eventually a Pokedex of your own with which to capture and record data of other species. Spicing up the setting is the fact that your trainer's father is an actual gym leader you must face off against, eventually.

Changes between the two versions of the game include, of course, which Pokemon show up and where. Indeed, the only method of actually capturing them all would be to link up with gamers owning the version opposite of yours and trading back and forth between them. Other changes include a set of Legendary Pokemon exclusive to either color, and stories tweaked to include a different Team Rocket-like nemesis. Ruby features Team Magma, whose misguided goals include the altering of the world's environment in order to accommodate land-based Pokemon. Consequently, Sapphire contains Team Aqua, which is interested in affecting weather conditions and inducing floods, thereby expanding water Pokemon habitats. Both teams show up in either game however, and face off against each other, usually in humorous ways. One team will rise to prominence early on, and that team depends on the version of the game you play. Also, though their intentions seem somewhat decent at first, neither team is above engaging in nefarious Team Rocket inspired criminal activity, such as theft and Pokemon exploitation.

Screen shots released many moons ago easily established that Pokemon Ru/Sa would maintain the rather simplistic, though colorful graphical style of the previous 8 bit games, instead of joining graphical tour-de-force RPGs on the GBA such as Golden Sun, Tactics Ogre, or the up and coming Lufia and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. However, actual playtime with the game has shown that what the game lacks in technology, it makes up for in subtle programming trickery and sheer artistic style. Indeed, the decision to keep the game classic looking was not a technological one, but an aesthetic choice. In fact, in some ways, these games recall a less trippy cross between the previous Pokemon games and Nintendo's own insane Earthbound / Mother series.

It won't be the classic-looking ?japanime' character sprites that populate the towns, routes, and caverns of the continent of Hoenn that engage the player's eyes and imaginations, nor even the environments themselves so much. However, keeping the exploration visually interesting, you'll find all kinds of small neat tricks, such as footsteps tracking in the sand, lovely grass animations when hunting for wild Pokemon, and the rather incredible weather effects (which carry over to the combat) and water reflection. The game utilizes such tricks to create environments that much more entertaining than in previous games. After all, who cannot help but be impressed when standing atop a suspension bridge connecting two sides of a mountain valley, a bridge whose shadow is cast upon the water of the lake below, which simultaneously reflects the puffing clouds of the skies high above?

Likewise, the slideshow combat animations that the series is known for are nothing we haven't seen before in RPGs, though they have been seriously juiced up from previous games. However, the small details, such as the excessive and excellent usage of scaling, zooming, and rotation on the in-combat Pokemon sprites do add quite a bit to the battles, visually. In general, returning and new combat moves both have been designed and animated in such a way as to coincide more with their depictions in the cartoon shows and movies. Consequently, they are a lot more fun to watch, animating better and quicker than previous iterations of the franchise.

Easily the most impressive feature of Pokemon Ru/Sa is the soundtrack that was incorporated. Even the classic GB and GBC games featured well composed music; just the system's ancient sound system was incapable of doing them justice. This time around, Creatures Inc. and Nintendo pounded out a rich soundtrack that rivals the efforts of Golden Sun, Metroid Fusion, and Legend of Zelda ? Link to the Past / Four Swords. The game's songs also cover a variety of musical genres, from the upbeat jazzy tunes of some of the routes, to the dramatic classical-sounding music accompanying some of the caverns, to the more intense and powerful rock-like music that engages the ears during Pokemon battles.

The soundtrack is almost entirely original, though of course the music opens to a familiar, though richer rendition of the classic Pokemon theme song. Just about the only other song that makes a triumphant return is the awesome gym music, easily one of the series' greatest songs. This version does not disappoint in scope and quality. The remainder of the music is almost completely original, of exceedingly high quality, and very engaging. There are approximately four or five different battle themes in all, depending on the type of battle you engage in. The composer obviously has a great sense of music, since the most often battle track, that of the wild Pokemon battles, begins almost exactly like the last game, but quickly spins into an entirely original creation. Trainer battles, gym leader battles, story battles, and wild Pokemon battles all demonstrate the richness and depth of the new soundtrack in equally dramatic, yet varied ways.

Likewise, the sound effects have been significantly juiced up from previous games. Once again, new and returning moves all sound much more dramatic than before. The game now utilizes the game's audio to distinguish between standard attacks, and those that are either not very effective or super effective against their targets, a very nice touch indeed. However, the calls that Pokemon make when first appearing or when defeated have seen the least benefit of the shift to new hardware. The 150 or so new Pokemon generally sound much better than the previous bunch, of which two or three dozen show up. Returning Pokemon sound identical to their incarnations from previous games, and quite dated in comparison, sadly.

As briefly mentioned above, the game functions much like previous incarnations. However, in many ways the gameplay has been downgraded and simplified from Pokemon GS. While avid fans of the last set of games may be somewhat disappointed by the changes, those without the ability to dedicate specific and scheduled play sessions will find Pokemon Ru/Sa much more accessible. Like Pokemon GS before it, Pokemon Ru/Sa also feature a real time clock, which is set when a new file is created. However, unlike the previous games, Ru/Sa will not take the day of the week into account in its scheduling of events. Furthermore, the actual time of day will not effect which Pokemon are found where, only the frequency of their encounter rates. In other words, students or working people who cannot dedicate themselves to playing during the daytime hours will not have a significantly difficult time in acquiring some rarer Pokemon that only show when the sun is up. Of course, this too eliminates those aggravating weekly contests and encounters, which once missed required you to have the presence of mind to attend again days later. Such situations in Pokemon Ru/Sa now occur as daily events, again streamlining the exploration process to a more comfortable degree.

The interface has been greatly streamlined as well. From the new, feature-laden Pokedex, to Lanette's excellent Pokemon storing computer system (co-designed by Bill from the previous games), to the Pokenav, which replaces the Pokegear from the last game, the interface is much faster and easier to access than ever. Included in the Pokenav (which functions as a map as well as a communication device between trainers) are upgrades over the Pokegear. The previous iteration of the technology only allowed you to register a select amount of numbers you could dial, in order to contact defeated trainers about rematches. In short, it was relatively useless, though mostly because the rematches were generally easier and less rewarding than the initial encounters. However, in Ru/Sa, every single trainer that can be contacted is automatically registered and stored in the device. When entering a new route or area with trainers, the Pokenav will start flashing if a trainer there is ready for a rematch, and further investigation will net you the name and type of that trainer. These trainers grow their teams in tandem to your own Pokemon growth, and consequently offer a refreshing and rewarding experience every time you fight with them, which is as often as you please. This, of course, also makes traveling over ?conquered? areas that much more interesting as well.

Additionally, the Pokenav can also be used to track the ribbons you won in the various Contest Houses scattered throughout the land of Hoenn. Such contests can be found going on in several of Hoenn's larger towns. Any Pokemon can be entered, and the contests concern qualities of your choosing. Now, every single move in the game also caters to a quality, such as coolness, beauty, toughness, etc. Contests centered on these qualities are held constantly, in a variety of different ranking levels. Customizing your Pokemon's levels in these qualities (by feeding them PokeBlocks, candies made from a variety of berries) is part of winning these contests. However, the moves you teach your Pokemon are truly the key to victory. The competing Pokemon is judged by its own innate quality levels, but most of the points are earned in a show off competition that functions like standard combat, only the goal is to impress the judges, not faint your opponents. The strategy is rather in depth, since in the higher ribbon levels you must be equally dedicated in pulling off impressive moves and using compatible moves that cause the other competing creatures to stumble, thereby losing points with the judges.

This addition to the Pokemon world is very welcome indeed, for the depth and strategy rivals that of the actual combat system, and consequently, already improved over most other entire games of this type. Additionally, the act of mixing the berries into PokeBlocks is also great fun, essentially a speed and reflex-based mini-game involving 1 ? 4 other players (either computer or friend-controlled.) Of course, the game also keeps track of your own records in this mini-game, and is fuel for even more competition amongst linked friends.

Mixing things up even further are the new two-on-two Pokemon battles, which while incredible, sadly are not utilized quite as much as they should have been. It completely changes the depth and strategy of the combat system, effectively making status changing attacks much more viable options. For instance, you can now dedicate one of your Pokemon to use an attack such as Stun Spore, and other to attack one of the two opposing Pokemon. The Stun Spore (and many other attacks, of all types) will affect both of your opponents, and only essentially took up one half of a combat round. The possibilities for this mode are incredible, and undoubtedly will become an even more important part of the franchise with the new iterations of Pokemon Stadium and the eventual future Pokemon sequels to come.

The actual gameplay is mostly unchanged from the previous set of games; no new rules were implemented, no new Pokemon types were added. However, the move sets for Pokemon have been greatly overhauled and expanded, refined in such a way to provide a much more balanced and varied experience once combat comes into play. Though no new types were added, new dual-type Pokemon combinations were created, which of course require a whole new set of strategies to be developed later in the game, particularly for those that engage in battles against friends. Indeed, the focus of the games were never really about defeating the gym leaders, but developing the most refined and successful strategies and Pokemon teams to survive the master battles that occur late in the game, battles against your most competitive friends, and of course the insanely difficult challenges of the optional Pokemon Stadium games. The balancing of the creatures and their powers has never been fairer than it is now. Consequently, Pokemon has never been more fun.

Bottom Line
I cannot recommend Pokemon Ruby and/or Sapphire enough. It is just as engaging as the original, but contains the robust gameplay and satisfaction of the earlier sequels, all the while remaining a much more accessible experience for those of us that cannot play at all hours of the day, or all days of the week. Pokemon has gone back to being one of the deepest and most expansive pick-up-and-play titles in the history of gaming. With unrivaled multi-link support and e-reader compatibility (currently being used to upload special master trainer battles), and built in accessibility for future Pokemon Stadium GameCube titles, Pokemon Ru/Sa literally has anything and everything you could possibly want from this breed of handheld RPG gaming.

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