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Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire

Review By:  Jared Black

Developer:  Game Freak
Publisher:  Nintendo
# of Players:  1-4 (Link Cable)
Genre:  RPG
ESRB:  Everyone
Accessories:  GBA Link Cable, e-Reader
Date Posted:  3-17-03

Note: Outside of a few minor differences (primarily in the different types of Pokémon that show up and a few other minor differences), Pokémon Ruby and Pokémon Sapphire are virtually identical games. Therefore, even though I only played through the Sapphire version this can be considered a review of both.

For anyone who follows the video game industry, it's pretty obvious that Nintendo has a lot riding on the release of Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire. Not only is the Pokémon series still arguably the biggest series in Nintendo's stable and definitely the most profitable, but it also comes at just the right time to ensure strong sales of the GBA SP and Game Boy Player (as if they needed any help). After all, the series helped breathe new life into the Game Boy platform in the late 1990's, and it became an integral part of one of the biggest phenomenons ever that stretched to at least four movies, several cartoon variations, and an unprecedented blitz of merchandising. I'm happy to report that the latest duo of Pokémon titles are again excellent, although returning fans may find the formula to be a bit tiring as it's pretty much yet another "by the numbers" sequel.

As you'd expect, the storyline in this new version is pretty similar in theme to previous Pokémon games. After picking between a boy and a girl character, the player starts out their adventure by moving into their new home in Littleroot Town. It's here that the player meets up with Professor Birch, who gives the player his/her first Pokémon. The player then sets out to "catch 'em all", defeat other Pokémon trainers, and try to become the best trainer they can be. Along the way the player will encounter a number of different side quests, recurring characters, and even some minor mini-games to spice up the adventure.

My primary complaint with Pokémon Sapphire is that it doesn’t do enough to advance the series, and this is most evident in the simple control scheme. The L & R buttons are effectively not used. The "A" button performs various actions (talk to people, open a door, etc.), while the "B" button cancels a command and allows you to run once you get the right equipment and "Select" performs several different menu functions. Functionally, it really could've been done on the Game Boy Color.

It's an RPG, and that of course means a lot of exploring, leveling up, and character interaction. Other Pokémon trainers are everywhere, and locking eyes with one (aka walking in their line of sight) means that the player must battle their Pokémon (it's an honor thing I guess). Win and the Pokémon involved will gain experience points, lose, and the player is automatically transported back to the last Pokémon Center they visited with all of their Pokémon revitalized. Unlike battles against wild Pokémon (found in tall grass and in caves), these battles cannot be escaped. There is no real "dying" in the game, as defeated Pokémon have merely fainted and thus can be revived. Non-trainers will give the player a variety of gameplay tips (obviously directed at younger players), hints on what to do next, and items to use throughout the adventure.

There are several new additions to the Pokémon series this time around. While all of them are nice, none of them really evolve the series in the way many have hoped for with a new platform. This most obvious addition is the ability to fight 2-on-2 Pokémon battles. In these battles the player's first two Pokémon will be used automatically, and having an extra creature on each side adds a layer of strategy to the game. Other new modes this time around include Pokémon contests where Pokémon are put on show and judged in one of five different categories. There's also a secret base for the player to use, which can be decorated with several different items and can be moved around from location to location.

Pokémon has always encouraged cooperation between other players, and this version is no different. Multiplayer modes include Battle, Trading, Mixing Records, Making Pokéblocks, and participating in Pokémon Contest. Battle allows up to four players to battle at once in either single battles (1-on-1), double battles (2-on-2), and multi battles (2-on-2 cooperative). Trading of course allows players to trade Pokémon between themselves, and since Pokémon can also hold items it allows players to swap them too. Mixing records allows another player's secret base to show up in the field, as well as adding special broadcasts on in game TV. Making Pokéblocks is a timing game used to mix berries where each player presses the "A" button when a pointer reaches their name on the screen. Pokéblocks are used to boost a Pokémon's attributes, thus making them perform better in the Pokémon contests. The last multiplayer mode is of course the Pokémon Contest, and it allows up to four players to put their Pokémon up to be judged against each other.

The graphics in Pokémon Sapphire can best be described as "pleasant". While the overall look is kept fairly simple and minimalist, the world is nevertheless vibrant and diverse. That's not to say that the game doesn't feature some graphic tricks though, including a very neat water reflection, rustling bushes, weather, fading footprints, and other environmental effects. As big and as complex as the game is it's easy to understand why it doesn't impress graphically, but I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't just a bit disappointed.

Battle graphics are kept simple as well. Each battle is represented by Pokémon sprites on a color background. As each battle occurs the background will sometimes change color, depending on the type of attacks used in that battle. Each attack is represented with one of several different effects (although similar effects are used for similar moves, such as those that reduce attributes), and result in a variety of shaking, moving, and other effects indicating the outcome of an attack.

The music you'll find throughout the game is both cheery and (for the GBA at least) epic. Each town and area has it's own theme, and that theme usually fits in with that area perfectly. Some recurring characters have their own theme as well, and it's often as memorable as the characters themselves. The actual quality of the music is quite good, making full use of the GBA's stereo capabilities to provide an excellent aural experience with a good set of headphones. There is also a good range of sound effects, including a variety of Pokémon grunts and environmental effects. The Pokémon grunts aren't directly from the show, but sound pretty good regardless.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent packaging included with the game. For starters, the box is shiny blue and looks great. The cartridge is a transparent blue, which also looks cool and makes the game seem like something special. Inside the box you'll find a very nice and comprehensive 63-page instruction booklet, a mysterious e-Reader card (unlocks high level trainers to do battle with), a coupon for $10 off of an e-Reader (which I fully intend to use), a poster advertising Pokémon 4ever, and finally the standard Nintendo Power ad and precautions booklet.

Highs:

  • Classic Pokémon gameplay upgraded with several new unique additions and mini-games.
  • Tons of multiplayer stuff, including trading Pokémon, doing battle, and a few other unique modes.
  • Awesome packaging and several included extras. Including a coupon for $10 off the e-Reader in a game that'll surely sell millions is pure genius and should push the device like never before.
  • In all likelihood it'll link up with the GameCube title Pokémon Stadium style.
  • More of the same…which is good because it encourages existing fans to return to the series.

Lows:

  • More of the same…which is bad because it discourages those who hated past earlier Pokémon titles from trying this one.
  • While there are some decent graphic effects, it's graphically underwhelming compared to other GBA titles.

Final Verdict:

Despite the fact that it's largely aimed at younger children, Pokémon Sapphire is a deep and involving RPG that should please fans of all ages. The "catch 'em all" mentality is still as addictive as ever, the graphics and sound are much improved over the old GBC titles, and it features several new gameplay additions that make it a worthy purchase for those that already own previous versions. While it isn't terribly innovative, Pokémon Sapphire presents enough new stuff to please long-time fans of the series without changing so much that it alienates them. When you have a franchise with a following as big as this one, that's probably the smartest route to take. After all, you wouldn't take the jump out of Mario, would you?

That being said, it's also disappointing that the game doesn't make better use of the GBA's advanced capabilities. The graphics are underwhelming, the storyline is minimal (thus the only motivation for continuing is to become the best trainer ever), and the control scheme all but ignores half of the buttons. The new additions are nice, but they simply aren't enough to totally shake the feeling that it's the same game all over again.

Overall Score: 8.6

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