When a big story hits the newsstands (or in this case the internet) it’s traditional to have a look back at “the story so far” and witter on pointlessly about the past in a vain attempt to understand the situation. Well, we’re no exception. Given the desolate release schedule in the past week and the announcement of the new Pokémon remakes, it seems like a better time than ever to look back at the games which launched Pokémon in a completely new direction on Game Boy Advance.
When Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire were first released in 2003, it was already a foregone conclusion that they would be a success. The massive wave of popularity that washed over Nintendo as a response to the original games several years prior had solidified the company’s dominance over handheld gaming. The sales figures had run into the millions. The only question remaining was what could be added to the collecting and battling mechanics – since little had changed in gameplay terms between the first two sets of games, would Ruby and Sapphire merely be updated and expanded versions of the same thing?
Well, no. While the core mechanics of type matchups and wild pokémon capture remained unchanged, numerous additions were made. For example, double battles were included for the first time, adding an extra dimension of strategy to each fight. A completely new region of Hoenn broke the link to traditional lands for the first time and set the game’s protagonist against entirely new villains, far more sinister than Team Rocket – a gang of petty thieves – ever were.
Extra gameplay features abounded. The Pokémon Contests, a different type of competitive element for those less minded towards combat, provided an extra focus for players and necessitated the production of Pokéblocks. A Secret Base could be created and filled with furniture of the player’s choice and, ingeniously, be copied into other players’ games by linking up.
It’s difficult to express in a world with wi-fi internet in every cafe how important the social aspect of Pokémon was to those growing up with it. It seems oddly quaint that there are thousands of friendships which originated in frenzied comparisons of half-completed Pokédexes and woefully mismatched battles in school playgrounds across the world. But this was the reality of Pokémon – it made people feel, some for the first time, as if they were on an adventure while playing the game.
The graphical upgrade from the second to the third generation was remarkable. While the games remained wedded to the boxy grid system of old, the vibrant colours and well-detailed sprites and visual effects were a treat on Game Boy Advance, and the higher resolution of the screen showed off every pixel.
There was something magical about playing these games as a child, and it’s something that differentiated Pokémon from other RPGs like Final Fantasy. The Pokémon games, for the most part, offer a fundamentally optimistic vision of the world. It is a beautiful place in which humanity lives at one with nature, occasionally threatened by evildoers but always saved by the heroic, the just and their animal companions. Perhaps it’s an unrealistic vision, but it’s one of hope, not of destroying enemies but of making friends, defeating opponents and becoming a champion. It’s rare to say the least that a set of games offer a positive view of the future, in which people cooperate and combat is rarely about more than rivalry.
In short, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire warrant a replay, not least for nostalgia value but also because they remain very well made. 91%