My first dive into handheld gaming was back in 2003 when my precocious 10-year-old self could hardly fit his hands around a PlayStation controller. I had made a friend in grade school who was obsessed with this thing called Pokemon, and who promised me that I didn't know what I was missing out on. Convinced, I sneakily persuaded my dad to buy me this thing called a Gameboy Advance SP, along with a copy of Pokemon Ruby, after he left his job one day under the excuse that I was a "good boy."
He got home and I immediately jumped on him, scrambling for the game and chanting thank you underneath my breath. I popped the cartridge into the slot and slid the power on. The whimsy Gameboy Advance jingle played and after that, I lost the rest of my childhood to Pokemon.
Fast-forward over a decade later and it isn't too hard to imagine that I got pretty excited when Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were announced. I yearned to go back to the Hoenn region, to revisit all the memories I made exploring the world of pocket monsters as a kid. Going in my expectations were pretty high, and although I had fun, I came back mostly disappointed.
The most noticeable difference in these remakes comes in the form of how they look. Player perspective isn't only relegated to a top-down view anymore, with different angles around familiar landmarks giving players a first glimpse into what they missed out on the first time around. Though everything remains largely unchanged layout wise, being able to experience the universe in 3D adds a level of immersion that was limited in the Gameboy Advance era. Tiny details like how the grass sways in the wind or how creatures fly overhead usher the series into a new technological age. There are also new areas to explore, especially post-game, that add to the lore of Hoenn, borrowing Pokemon native to other parts of the world to keep players exploring as much as they can until they've exhausted their Pokedex. Seeing as how there are over 700 to catch, they'll be busy for quite a while.
Coming from a style viewpoint, the design of the actual monsters themselves is a mixed bag. Some, like the awesome mega Blaziken and ferocious mega Rayquaza, illustrate how positively cool the artists at Game Freak can be with coming up with new, unique ideas, whereas others, like mega Swampert and mega Manectric, leave a lot to be desired. Some Pokemon can look downright goofy, oftentimes subject to the tail end of a lot of jokes within the community.
Despite their prettiness, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire don't play like complete departures from the series's roots. Utilizing a team of six creatures in easy to understand – yet hard to master – turn-based strategy combat, players familiar with earlier entries shouldn't be completely lost when they turn on the game for the first time. In a way, this works to their detriment, as what was once novel has quickly become mundane, and at times trainers will find themselves bored from constant random encounters and simple challenges interrupting their journey from town to town. After a while, things grow stale.
Another flaw that continues is the inclusion of too many Hidden Machines, commonly referred to as HMs. Once learned your Pokemon can't easily forget them, and each hidden move is required if you're to make any progress. The most commonly used ones, Fly and Surf, are all that should be needed – others, like Cut, seem superfluous and downright annoying.
Though Game Freak attempted to mix up the formula a little with the inclusion of mega evolutions, most aren't used in the competitive scene, with only a handful actually considered worthy of carrying the distinction. On that note, some of the evolutions themselves are way too overpowered, some capable of decimating even legendaries with just one blow if used right.
What's more is that the 20 to 30-hour story is quite easy to get through, and about mid-game you're given a legendary completely free, no Pokeballs required. Hoenn is rife with water-types, allowing players to simply use electric-types to do most of their bidding. Gym leaders are noticeable weaker than their 2002 counterparts too, and the Elite Four is a breeze. The games definitely feel fine-tuned to suit the interests of children rather than young adults, and although this is the audience the games were made for, it makes older fans like myself feel a little neglected. The absence of a demanding Battle Frontier, like the one found in Emerald, adds further insult to injury.
The story premise behind the games remains exactly the same. As a fresh new face in the region, you manage to secure a Pokemon of your choice from the town's professor. You can choose from either a grass, fire, or water type. From there, you travel through the tall greenery, dark caves, and lots of water in an effort to secure all eight gym badges and earn entry into the Pokemon league, where you must defeat four elite trainers and battle the champion to essentially finish the main storyline. It's practically the same narrative, only with a new coat of paint.
The only noticeable difference this time around comes in the form of the game's concept of primal reversion, a similar idea to mega evolutions. Limited to the games' mascots, each is temporarily powered-up and transformed, reverting to prehistoric versions of themselves rather than new ones. Because of this the story sometimes poses novel questions to the player, questioning what ancient Pokemon were like and whether or not legends can be restored to their former glory. It fits well with the lore established in Ruby and Sapphire and serves to deepen an appreciation for the otherwise mostly generic story.
Updates and NEW ADDITIONS
With each Pokemon entry comes a unique mechanic not found in previous games, and these JRPGs are no exception. The best new addition is the DexNav, which allows trainers to tell what monsters they can capture on any given route and clues them in on whatever it is they haven't found yet. Though it requires the time-consuming task of gently pushing your circle pad so you can tiptoe your way towards them, it's oftentimes worth the reward of uncovering an especially rare entry for your collection. You can also find Pokemon that are significantly stronger than their normal counterparts, possessing unique moves, items, and abilities. The best part of the app itself is that the more you use the search function, the better the pocket monsters will be in that given area. This mechanic genuinely encourages users to feel like they've gotta catch 'em all not because they have to, but because they want to.
A new move called Soar – specific to one particular Pokemon you encounter halfway through the game – allows trainers to fly anywhere above a 3D map of Hoenn. Flyers can land anywhere they desire, allowing them to find some spaces between routes or small islands they wouldn't be able to reach otherwise, all of which makes for an exciting experience exploring the land and what it has to offer.
Secret bases make their return but with more sophistication this time around. Players can still decorate their hidden nooks and crannies with plushes, posters, amusements and the like, but can also treat their bases like pseudo-gyms, challenging online visitors with puzzles and battles. What's more is that secret bases are updated seamlessly via Streetpass, keeping trainers constantly on the look-out for potential guests in their world.
Contests also make a comeback, with berries and Pokeblocks returning to help Pokemon level up their beauty. This time around the shows have more of a pop-idol feel, adding to the game's immersion, but ultimately fall flat by not giving players much to look forward to. The reward of a Cosplay Pikachu may be nice, but there's not much more that's enticing about the feature.
online and POST-LAUNCH SUPPORT
Arguably the best feature to be included in any modern Pokemon game falls within in its online components. Here players can access the game's dedicated fanbase through a myriad of features like random battles and Wonder Trade, the latter of which never ceases to become an addiction with every new installment. Though nothing's drastically different from X and Y, it's always a great benefit to have with any main series entry, and will hopefully stay in place for a long time to come.
Since their release two years ago, Game Freak has surprisingly dedicated a lot of new content to Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire since launch. Mostly in the form of rare Pokemon, publisher Nintendo has frequently collaborated with retailers around the world to distribute promotional codes to be used in-game. From shiny mega Gengars to new legendaries, the developer has managed to accomplish an impressive rollout to keep their community engaged with the game long after launch and continues to do so this year as the company celebrates 20 years with monthly giveaways featuring extremely hard-to-find critters.
Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire felt the same, oftentimes to dulling effect. Having played every main entry since I started with the franchise over a decade ago, I couldn't help but feel like I had done everything before, and that I didn't want to do it again. As remakes they do well in updating what's already been done, offering clever freedom in the form of secret bases and enhancing the function of a Pokedex to become more interactive. The fact remains, however, that each decides to play it safe rather than bike down a new road.
Here's hoping Sun and Moon learn from the mistakes of the past and embark toward an innovative new direction for the series. Until then, I'll be playing something different.
|+ Immersive world||– Tired gameplay formula|
|+ DexNav||– Useless HMs|
|+ Soar||– Not particularly challenging|
|+ Primal reversions||– Mostly lackluster story|
|+ Secret Bases||– Contests|
|+ Post-launch content|