Dopefish Reviews Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire

I know I do this every time I start a review, but let me explain why this game is a completely unique little snowflake I chose to discuss. See, games I’ve written about previously – Resident Evil 5, Sly 2, Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, they all had something in common. I played them recently and so they were fresh in my mind enough that I made a few points about them, positive and negative.

I haven’t played Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire for about three years now, but I still want to talk about it, and that’s because I genuinely think it’s one of the most interesting games ever made. That’s right. Ruby/Sapphire.

I may have to elaborate before I really start talking about the game, so I’ll be quick. I don’t know how accurate random pictures on the internet are, but I’ve seen one around a few times, and naturally, since I could now use it, I can’t find it anywhere. It’s a picture showing the top 3 best-selling video game franchises, and they are Mario, Pokémon, and Zelda. I’m not sure how recent the picture I saw was because as much as I hate to admit it, these days Zelda hasn’t sold as much as Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto, or even The Sims, but Pokémon has remained in second place nonetheless.

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I think that’s a pretty impressive achievement – I mean, we all know Mario is number one, but the spot for number two is something you’d have to at least think about – Call of Duty’s insanely popular these days, and the aforementioned Final Fantasy has been the go-to game for RPG fans for decades now, and yet it’s Pokémon that gloriously sits on the throne. You know, the smaller throne, the one next to Mario’s.

However, not every Pokémon game has received universal acclaim – none of them have been complete flops though – but they encountered a problem much sooner than Mario and Zelda, whose franchises have only been accused of this problem in recent years; remaking the same game. A few people thought Super Mario Galaxy 2 was too similar to Super Mario Galaxy, and the 2D Mario games on handhelds have gradually started to garner less and less positive reactions, whereas Twilight Princess was the first Zelda game I saw criticised for not straying far enough from the traditional Zelda formula (pretty crappy complaint considering you can play as a wolf, exploring the overworld was fun to me for the first time, and double-hookshots are awesome) and some of that criticism leaked over to Skyward Sword. But Pokémon?

Pokémon’s been getting that accusation for more than a decade now.

I suppose it’s because Pokémon is a much more straightforward kind of game, in which each main game starts with the protagonist waking up in a small village, picking a starter Pokémon, then going on an adventure, in which every trainer and gym you encounter is mysteriously sculpted to be at a similar level as you. Mario and Zelda can change settings and enemies and power-ups, but Pokémon has always been much more limited – enjoyable, but limited.

The reason Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire are really interesting to me is because it’s the first game to come out which was met by a lot of people thinking this. The jump from Red/Blue to Gold/Silver was quite a big improvement, and for many (including me) Gold/Silver was actually the first game in the series they played. Then came Ruby/Sapphire, and while some people embraced the colourful graphics and new Pokémon, others were treating the game more cautiously, as if it was a symbol of things to come in the franchise, as if it represented the core mechanics of the series that would never, ever be changed, and thus never be as exciting and original as the first games were to a new audience.

Now, this is normally the part where I would finish the introduction (yes, that was all an introduction,) and start something resembling a review, but I’ve had a minor epiphany. See, I’ll confess right now that my opinion of the game is positive, but at the same time, trying to review it would be like trying to review just about any Pokémon game ever, at least any handheld game from the core series. While I want to defend Ruby and Sapphire, I can’t deny that some people would be justified in calling the series on the whole a bit stale and repetitive. I merely object to the time at which it reached this point, for Ruby and Sapphire were still fresh and exciting enough to be very entertaining to me.

So not to make this blog one-sided – every game has flaws after all – I’m instead going to list to reasons I think Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire (you know, I played Sapphire first so I’m just going to say ‘Sapphire’ instead of both of the titles every time the game comes up) is a great, fun game, and most importantly, the things it did new that kept the series original.

1) Graphics

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I get that this is a bit of a no-brainer – a new Pokémon game that had better graphics than an old Pokémon game? Surely not! But I can’t deny, there’s something incredibly pleasing to me about how colourful the game is. The Pokémon themselves have lots of variety (said Elmo, doing his best to avoid the three Regi’s,) but it’s the environments that really stand out to me. Grassy areas with trees and flowers, beaches with rippling waves rushing past rocks, shady forests, windy deserts, a stormy ashen wasteland behind a volcano, ruins and caves… climbing the aforementioned volcano – there’s lots to see.

The thing I like most about the environments is probably the little touches and the ways you can interact with them. When you run past a lake, your character is reflected on the water’s surface. When you walk through the ashes that fall in the area behind the volcano, they puff up off the ground. If you run in the sand, you leave footprints behind. Tall grass rustles as you move through it – all simple little things, but help to make it feel like you’re really exploring this new world.

The graphics in battle look better too. It’s easier to tell apart the moves, and the more powerful moves actually have more powerful-looking animations – Hydro Pump and Flamethrower look visually much more impressive than Water Gun and Ember. Not that they were hard to tell apart in older games, but they were much less impressive to watch, and a few of them were a tad similar – Slash and Cut, Wrap and Constrict (and Bind,) Ice Beam and Aurora Beam; each move is more unique in Generation 3, due to the improved animations.

I won’t say that the graphics push the Gameboy Advance to its limits, or even that they’re particularly notable on the console, but when I think of games that aren’t necessarily artistic but plain colourful and enjoyable to look at, my mind goes to Pokémon Sapphire.

2) Hoenn

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In Pokémon Red, we were introduced to Kanto, land of dreams, adventure, and surprisingly few job opportunities that didn’t involve Pokemon. I like the theory somebody made on the internet that Kanto is recovering from a really bad war, explaining why the first few ‘towns’ you go through only have 3 or 4 houses, and how you can walk around the entire continent in roughly 10 minutes. Anyway, Pokémon Gold introduced us to Johto, AKA Kanto 2: Electric Boogaloo. It was like Kanto, except… ok, it was like Kanto. Not that there was anything wrong with that, it was memorable and very fun to play through.

Hoenn though, was a joy to explore from start to finish. I don’t want to just repeat the same praise I gave to the graphics, but rather the design and the layout; the things that made the cities memorable. There’s Slateport, with a big beach, science museum, giant contest hall and a submarine that gets stolen – Pacifidlog Town, a town built entirely on floating wood in the middle of a sea, and my personal favourite, Fortree City, where the houses are actually built in trees. A very environmentally friendly town, that.

Outside of the towns, I really liked travelling through the areas of the game in between them. It’s the first Pokémon game I know of that made good use of weather too. A violent sandstorm is always brewing in the desert, ash falls like snow from Mt. Chimney, and heavy rain slows your progress to Fortree City. It even becomes relevant to the plot near the end, when nature itself is imbalanced due to the actions of Team Aqua/Magma, and until you fight or capture Kyogre or Groudon then it rains heavily or becomes much sunnier. It’s a nice little touch that adds some urgency to an otherwise calm game.

All in all, reinventing a small continent for adventurers to explore is no easy task, but the team of designers accomplished it well. Hoenn is my favourite Pokémon world so far.

3) Pokémon

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I’d just like to clarify something straight away – the first three improvements I’ve mentioned in this blog are the improved graphics, the new area, and the new Pokémon. What I’d like to clarify is that I’m aware that all of these were completely mandatory and expected and not that impressive compared to actual… additions, but I will get onto those.

Anyway, the new Pokémon introduced in Generation 3 of the franchise were some of the best yet. Sure, there were Zigzagoons everywhere, and some of them were so obscure to find that it was almost impossible (Want a Milotic? Good luck!) but even with these problems, the strengths were there. I really liked the starters (I picked Treecko so I ended up with Sceptile,) Swellow was my Gen 3 Pidgeot, and the ones that weren’t obscure but were just plain difficult to get were really rewarding. Looking at you, Salamence and Gardevoir!

The Legendaries were good too (said Elmo as he continued to shove Regirock, Registeel and Regice out of the blog in wilful ignorance,) with Kyogre and Groudon having constant effects on battles due to their weather-summoning powers, and the way these powers actually tied into an interesting plot with Team Aqua and Team Magma. Rayquaza was pretty awe-inspiring as well, if only because I stumbled upon him by accident and my friend thought I was the coolest 13 year-old in the world for finding him. New Pokémon, new memories, new  fun.

4) Secret Bases

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Depending on how you played the game, secret bases were either a neat but useless distraction, or one of the most fun ways to customize your game yet. If you spotted a tree with a vine hanging down, or an indent in the wall, or even just a particularly large bush, and you happened to have a Pokémon that knew the move ‘Secret Power’, then congratulations! You could make your own secret base!

There were generally two kinds of secret bases; either one big room, or a corridor that split into two medium rooms on the left and right. I always preferred the second kind because I won a tent that I could put in the corridor, but there were lots of other things to do to modify your place. There were tables and carpets that you could put Pokémon dolls onto, and even little musical tiles you could walk over that would play a note. I had a section that played the first seven notes of the Super Mario Bros overworld theme, which was odd considering that at this time in my life I hadn’t even played Super Mario Bros.

I can understand that not everyone would like secret bases as much as I did, but that’s the kind of kid that I was; I had a bed that had 3 big sections of drawers underneath, so I took all the drawers out of the middle section, drooped a blanket over the front, taped a torch to the ceiling of it, snuck in some crisps and a drink and played Pokémon Sapphire for hours. I called it my own ‘secret base’. Some childhood fantasies never leave you, and building a den like that is one of my biggest goals. That, and booby-trapping my house like in the ‘Home Alone’ movies.

5) Trick House

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I don’t want anyone to think ‘Oh, ole’ Dopey here has run out of additions to the series already so now he’s just naming random areas of the game?’ but there’s a reason the Trick House, located just north of Slateport, has its own spot here. About 3 years ago, I made a Top 10 list of my favourite levels in gaming, including 9-Volt’s mini-games from ‘WarioWare’, Peter’s Chapter in ‘Eternal Darkness’, and Chapter 5-3 of ‘Resident Evil 4’. Atop the list was the Trick House.

If I could go back and redo that list then I don’t think Trick House would still be on the top (although I have no idea what would be) but it was one of the most fun parts of the game for me. Every time you entered the house, one area of an otherwise normal room would sparkle, and you could examine it to find the Trick Master, who would then send you on an adventure through his door with different obstacles every time. Sometimes you had to use movement tiles on the floor, other times you had to cut down trees and push boulders, and at one point I had to work my way through a room of turnstiles! It was challenging, original, and… really, really fun!

Pokémon is an RPG first and foremost, but it usually manages to sneak in a few decent puzzles too. Most of these puzzles come in the form of icy caves or gyms where you slide around uncontrollably, but in Pokémon Sapphire it was the Trick House that served up the best puzzles in the game. Wallace’s gym in Sootopolis was good too (step over each tile of ice once to crack it without falling through,) but I didn’t like how I did it first try, then I had to sabotage myself to avoid missing the 8 trainers under the ice. The Trick House is one of my favourite parts of the whole game.

6) Contests

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Even though trying to make consistently high-quality Pokéblocks was a complete pain in the bahookie, and trying to make your Pokémon look more cool, cute, beautiful, smart, or tough was equally irritating, entering your beloved Pokémon into contests which they could win, starting in the amateur contests of Verdanturf Town and ending up in the gigantic halls of Lilycove City, was a thrilling experience and an entertaining addition to the series.

The idea of taking every single move that a Pokémon could learn and giving it not only one of five natures, but also an effect that may possibly startle the Pokémon in front of it, unnerve the Pokémon behind it, or just be damn impressive to the audience, is a hefty task for anyone to undertake – and there’s more – some moves on different turns are ‘super-effective’ if used directly before or after another move! ‘Sunny Day’ makes any consecutive fire move twice as impressive to the audience, and ‘Rain Dance’ does the same to water moves, which… kind of makes sense, really.

I honestly think Pokémon contests could’ve been the basis of an entire game, or even spin-off series. Not saying it would be a good game, just saying that there’s enough material there to make one. Sure, there was some luck involved, like the times the audience go completely crazy because one move in particular pushes their excitement levels too high, and sure, I ended up winning every contest with a Vulpix that just knew ‘Sunny Day’, ‘Overheat’ and ‘Flamethrower’, but I still had a lot of fun showing people how ‘cool’ my Sceptile was.

7) Double-Battles

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Even though double-battles were unsurprising and mandatory in Pokémon Colosseum and Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness, it’s easy to forget that this is where they started, and even though they were only used for a few trainers in the wild or the occasional pair of trainers, it was a good idea that added another layer of strategy to a battle system that needed the occasional shake-up.

I found myself planning battles ways I’d never bothered to plan in one-on-one confrontations. Suddenly I was finding out which moves attacked both opponents at the same time. Sometimes I would send ‘Not very effective’ attacks towards enemies that I made a priority of beating first. Sometimes I would organize my team so that the first two Pokémon that came out didn’t just take down all enemies, but also complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

One of my favourite recurring enemies was a news reporter and her cameraman, because after the fight they’d usually ask you for an interview and you could give some one-word responses that would be seen later on TV. Given that I was 13 when I played the game, most of my responses were poorly-constructed attempts at innuendo that mostly revolved around the two unrelated battle moves ‘Lick’ and ‘Water Spout’. I was a very witty 13 year-old, as you can probably tell.

8) Berries

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“Dopefish, you absentminded British muffin-head, berries were introduced long before Generation 3! What’s the matter with you? Has the insanity from all that constant Killer7 gameplay finally twisted your brain beyond repair, or did you bash your head against a wall too hard after losing another race on Need For Speed: Underground?”

Well, you surprisingly-elaborate hypothetical response to this choice on my blog, I’ll explain! Much like secret bases, my choice to put berries of all things on the list is mainly down to customization, although admittedly it’s much more limited. In Pokémon Gold, I enjoyed swinging by certain trees every now and then to pick up berries that my Pokemon could hold that could heal status effects or even restore a little HP. Now, I could finally plant them.

First, you plant a berry in soft brown soil, then you come back every now and again to water it with the ‘Wailmer Pail’, and ka-pow! Your very own berry-plant, with more berries to collect! (Unless you planted a Lum Berry. I could never get more than one of those back from the fully-grown plant.) It doesn’t have much of an effect on the gameplay, but it’s more of a visual thing; if secret bases allow you to build your own little den filled with toys and dolls, then the new berry system allows you to build your own garden, filled with all the colourful flowers you could imagine.

Since that’s 8 points, I think I might just leave it there. If I’m being completely honest with you, then I really like pasta with pasta sauce and cheese and bacon and, but ever since I moved out I haven’t cooked any because it’s lots of effort, I’m scared I’ll mess it up, and it’ll leave loads of stuff for me to wash up. If I’m being completely honest with you and also staying relevant to the topic, then right now on my shelf of DS games I have Pokémon Platinum, Pokémon Black, and Pokémon Heart Gold, and I can’t say I have much of a yearning to start any of them. I’ve reached the point where playing the same old ‘wake up, new town, just moved, pick grass starter, first gym’s a cakewalk, etc…’ isn’t exciting to me right now, just how older Pokémon fans felt when Ruby and Sapphire first came out.

But for all of those feelings, I still have the creeping hope that when I do get round to playing those games, they surprise me with all kinds of additions that Ruby and Sapphire had; the kind that kept the third generation of Pokémon interesting, fresh, and most of all, fun to play. After seeing all the new ways to play in Ruby and Sapphire, it’s not just a hope; it’s a kind of awareness. I look forward to the day I wake up and feel in the mood to play a new Pokémon game, because if they’re manage to keep the old charm while adding new touches like Ruby and Sapphire did, I know I’ll love them.

Thanks for reading!

-The Dopefish

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