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One Baby Step Forward...
By: Anna Marie Whitehead
Pokémon has been a very successful franchise so far, and it still shows no signs of slowing down in the coming year. Adding to the success of the series is the release of Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire. Separated from its predecessors not just by the system, the game stands out on its own with new battle mechanics, an improved interface, and peppy graphics.
Not much has changed in the way of battle amongst the Pokémon games. A trainer is still limited to six Pokémon with four moves apiece, and the small battle animations that were experimented with in Crystal are gone, but other things have been added to appease those looking for something fresh. Approximately 180 Pokémon found in the two previous chapters can no longer be found and caught in the wild, though some do appear with trainers. As 100 Pokémon have been added, this isn't a great loss, but the frequent lack of familiar faces is somewhat disconcerting to veterans of the series. Another great feature is the much-touted 2 vs. 2 battles. While these battles are very fun, they do still have flaws: none of the opponents have any Pokémon in reserve, nor is there an abundance of these fights.
Battle and non-battle strategy now have three new elements. The first is personality: a Pokémon with a shy nature will develop different than one with an outgoing one, even if they are the same species. This may put your Pokémon at a disadvantage if their nature conflicts with the stats they need most for their type. Second is a Pokémon's unique ability. These can do a variety of things, from preventing status effects, boosting specific moves, or even discovering random items. The majority of these are very beneficial and many are tailored to one specific Pokémon and its evolutions. Finally, there are the new Pokémon contests. Each battle move now has a secondary effect in one of seven categories. Depending on whether you want your Pokémon to clean up in battle or on the stage may vary which moves it eventually learns, as advantageous combos must be sought out. All this adds up to a deeper system than found in previous games.
The interface also received some significant improvements. Menus are easy to navigate, and the Pokémon storage system has undergone an overhaul. While the menu system has never required a degree in rocket science, the new divisions in the backpack are a great addition, especially with items such as the new set of berries. These new berries can be put into a machine and, when spun, create Pokéblocks, which are edible candies that increase one of the seven stats used in contests. These stats are used to wow the audience as well as catch the judge's attention, key factors in netting first place and a ribbon. Also separated, as usual, are TMs, Pokémon balls, and Key Items - select being used as a shortcut to one of these items. Many new Key Items are available, including one of two different bikes, tickets, a Pokéblock carrier, a scope, amongst other useful items. Of course, the PC back home will still hold a finite amount of items for you. The best improvement is likely the Pokémon storage system, which is now visual. Each box, instead of being a list, consists of small avatars of each Pokémon. These can be checked, moved between boxes, into the party, or even in a different slot in the box. This physical representation makes navigating infinitely easier, and much more enjoyable.
The music and sounds haven't changed much from the original games, being unilaterally uninspiring, but in the end suiting for the most part. It is obvious that there was no major effort into creating any truly memorable music, although the various small effects that are set off in Pokémon battles are fitting, if a bit bland. This is where the series could have used a great deal of work, but perhaps future titles will make improvements in this area.
Sadly, the plot seems to suffer from the same blandness - there really isn't any plot besides the gathering of new species of Pokémon, and tromping on others' trained teams. While some minor side quests have been added, such as gathering ash to create unique items, they're just not fun, on top of being time consuming and/or monotonous. Though Pokémon is, in the end, aimed at children, there could be a much broader storyline without losing any direction towards the younger audience.
Originality in the game is a mixed bag. While there are many new Pokémon, and the division of types available to be caught at various parts of the game has been shaken up, many new Pokémon seem to simply be a new coating of paint. While the choice of the first three Pokémon gets interesting with evolutions later into dual-types, capturing a Wurmple feels just like picking up a Caterpie in the days of old. As detailed earlier, the unique abilities of each Pokémon create the necessity for a bit more depth in strategy - in the end, though, no strategy can beat type casting, which could have seen a change. Natural abilities also add a fresh note, with such Pokémon as Zigzagoon solving the problem of too little items or too little cash to buy what is needed. Moves have been added or types changed, even though the identical 6- Pokémon, 4-moves format exists. While the changes added to the game, there is still much untapped potential in the series.
Though some quaint touches were added to the graphics, such as reflections on water and footsteps in the sand, it seems more weight was attached to minor details, rather than the big picture. The Pokémon series could have done much more with the Game Boy Advance technology, but never really attempted to push the boundaries. That said, the game still looks better than it did before, and while disappointing in some regards, the attention to detail was the first step in a very positive direction. The nicest thing about the graphics is the soft feeling around the edges and the bright tone of the colour palette used, which brings the Pokémon to life in an almost lifelike fashion, although it's doubtful we'll see one walking down the street until technology improves.
Much like the previous installations, Ruby/Sapphire, once defeated, is a title that will likely gather dust on a shelf somewhere, forgotten except for the occasional opponent battle, or to be ported to a future Stadium game. Most of what is novel can be experienced within the first 10 hours of play, and after that, the game simply becomes fixated on the task of badge gathering on the way to the Final Four.
As expected with a core audience ranging in ages from child to pre-teen, Ruby/Sapphire is easy to pick up and learn, and with some practice, easy enough to master. It takes about 50 hours to capture nearly all the Pokémon available at the fastest pace. With no copious amounts of speech text and no inside joke, localization is done without any serious flaws, and with no flair. It gets the point across quite well and is very informative to new and old players, but there are no real lines to draw feelings out of a player. It does an adequate job while being exceptionally bland.
In the end, Ruby/Sapphire is a step up from the most recent Gold/Silver/Crystal incarnations, and it is heading in a positive direction. With more attention given to things such as graphics, music, and any sort of plotline, the Pokémon games could appeal to a much wider audience, and be an even bigger hit than it has already become. With no signs of stopping yet, with such additional items as spin-off pinball games, the series has accomplished much - but still has much room to grow.
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