I have an exceptionally vivid memory of Ruby / Sapphire / Emerald. In the first city you visit, early on in the game, there’s a little pond on he western side of the town. As I strolled on by, bee-lining for the exit, something gave me reason to pause. It was something terribly simple, something that today sounds as banal as possible. But, at the time, it blew me away in its beauty, and for how stunningly futuristic it felt to my young mind.
It was a reflection. Shimmering, rippling back and forth in the slowly shifting water. For the first time in a game, I could see a reflection, and it was such a wow moment.
Pokemon Ruby / Sapphire / Emerald (GBA)
Released Mar 2003 | Developed: Game Freak | Published: Nintendo
Okay, I admit, a reflection sounds trite. That’s fair enough; I’m talking very specifically about a personal memory, but isn’t that so much the point of these kinds of reviews? For me, Ruby / Sapphire / Emerald was one of the most phenomenally beautiful games I’d ever played; it really fulfilled the “Advance” part of the Game Boy Advance. I wouldn’t expect everyone (or indeed anyone) to share these experiences, but that’s okay. The power of nostalgia is strong, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
If you’ve played a Pokemon game before then you probably know what to expect. You’re a kid, you get given your own pet monster, and then off you trot to catch every Pokemon and triumph over all of the Gyms. In this case, our new region is Hoenn; for the first time this is somewhere new, entirely unconnected from Kanto and Johto. There’s a fair amount of work done for this new generation of games to make Hoenn feel more alive and lived in than ever before. For a start, our Dad is a local Gym Leader, giving us a tangible connection to the region in a new way. There are TVs that blare with a range of programmes which can change based on your actions, such as fighting a heated battle that gets featured; on top of that, Gym Leaders are see out of their Gyms more often, and new weather effects can bring torrential rain or blinding sun to the overworld. Some elements are simply adorable, such as leaving footprints behind you in the sand as you run across beaches.
Ruby / Sapphire / Emerald also feature a greater focus on the narrative than previous entries. They’re the first games with a properly friendly rivalry, which was perhaps considered more kid-friendly and marketable, or maybe it just fits the laid back rural atmosphere of Hoenn more aptly. Whichever player character you don’t pick shows up as the child of the local Pokemon Professor, an amiable and scatterbrained chap called Birch; unlike you this rival is more interested in following in their father’s work, helping him research and complete the local Pokedex. The other rival is Wally, a sickly child who gets a Pokemon and runs away from home on a quest to challenge the Elite Four; in you he finds a friend who doesn’t care that he is ill, and instead judges him purely on how he raises and fights with Pokemon. Pokemon is after all a kid’s game, and a little moralising is fair game.
There is, naturally, also a villainous team to contend with, or in this case two. Teams Magma and Aqua both vie for supremacy over Hoenn. Interestingly, the team you face depends on the version you play; in Ruby you take on Magma, in Sapphire you deal with Aqua, and in Emerald both teams need to be defeated. In contrast to the two previous generations, which had the effective and threatening gangsters Team Rocket, Ruby / Sapphire / Emerald’s villains are significantly goofier. Their whole shtick is environmental in nature – Team Magma want to find ways to expand Hoenn’s landmass and Team Aqua conversely seek to expand the spread of the sea. The ways they go about trying to achieve these goals are, frankly, daft. This is also the first game in the franchise where the presence and power of legendary Pokemon start to play a role in the plot.This would go on to become a trend in the series and it’s not one I’m entirely sold on – I appreciate it’s a good, exciting plot tool and it probably appeals to the game’s primary audience but it does feel a bit underwhelming and predictable to me.
You also know what to expect from Pokemon in terms of the gameplay if you’ve played any of the games. Turn-based battles, catching monsters to build a varied team, and balancing elemental strengths and weaknesses in Pokemon’s trademark combat system. Ruby / Sapphire / Emerald does add in a couple of significant changes to the format, some of which have stayed with the franchise over the years. Every Pokemon now has a Nature (Relaxed, Bashful, Brave etc) which affect their stats and stat growth, so for competitive players optimising what Nature a Pokemon has is a key consideration. On top of that every Pokemon now also comes with a passive ability – for example, Zigzagoon, this game’s equivalent to Rattata, has Pickup, an ability which allows it to sometimes find a random item while wandering the game world. More often, these passives have effects in battle, such as Keen Eye preventing moves which drop accuracy, or the starters all getting a power boost to their respective elemental type moves when they’re at very low HP.
Also new are Double Battles. Trainer types like “Couple” have appeared before this but came with no difference in battling; now though two Pokemon can be sent out simultaneously to take on an enemy pair. This comes with some brand new considerations – some moves in a Double Battle might hit both of your foes at the same time , or perhaps hitting every monster in play including your own! This adds a new dimension to your team planning and moves in combat; Earthquake is a powerful move but you might think twice about using it knowing it could take out your own partner.
I mentioned weather earlier and that’s no idle thing. Added in Ruby / Sapphire / Emerald are persistent weather effects that not only exist in the overworld but also in battle. For example, if it’s raining, it will also be raining during a fight; additionally, weather effects can be forced during a battle through moves like Rain Dance and Sunny Day, or even through a few passive Abilities such as Sandstorm. These can have powerful effects; during rain for example, water moves are stronger, fire moves are weaker, and the electric move Thunder hits with unerring accuracy.
Hoenn is a rich and vibrant region – more so than Kanto or Johto. Where previous regions were mostly collections of towns linked by the odd town or forest, Hoenn makes far more use of its advanced hardware. The early towns and routes feel typical of Pokemon games but it’s not long before you’re traipsing up the sides of a volcano, plodding through a sandstorm-riven desert, or trudging through a thick, lush rainforest. It feels a lot less realistic than in predecessors but that’s hardly a worry that Pokemon games should court, and instead looks to be about crafting a distinctive world.
It’s just a huge visual leap from earlier games. The entirely new tilesets add significantly more detail and volume to the world; in fact, we even get the first time a city in Pokemon feels truly large, with Slateport being a real star and filled with detailing that sells it as a location magnificently. The UI looks cleaner, with more fancy diegetic elements; sifting through your bag for items for example is much nicer than the plain, bland item box of previous games. The in-battle animations are more elaborate, while battle screens now reflect the type of area you’re fighting in, such as thick grass sprouting beneath your Pokemon’s feet.
Despite my nostalgia, my time replaying Ruby / Sapphire / Emerald was not without gripes, some of which I suppose I’d overlooked before. That’s the problem with nostalgia after all. My memory had excised the vast, dreary grind that crops up a couple of times throughout the game. These games are far more HM-heavy than earlier games, all but requiring you to catch some useless HM-hoarding Pokemon just to progress. Also, some things have strangely and unfortunately failed to be carried forward from the previous games; the day/night cycle of Gold / Silver / Crystal, for example, is entirely excised.
Still, there are some quality of life changes at least. Storing your Pokemon has been revamped; you no longer have to save to switch boxes, you can flick between them at will, and there’s a clearer visual representation of what Pokemon is in what box. I’m a big fan of the profusion of new Pokemon in early areas – it takes quite a while before you come across a returning monster, and I personally much prefer that. I don’t play new Pokemon generations to see the same old things after all.
I found replaying Ruby / Sapphire / Emerald a strange experience. In some respects it was sobering, seeing a game I have such fondness for through clearer, perhaps more jaded eyes. Its flaws were much obvious to me, and I confess I dropped and re-picked up the game a couple of times over the two or three months I took to play it. And yet, I still have that love for it; it’s just – tempered, I suppose. Ruby / Sapphire / Emerald was still a huge move for the franchise, and despite all its quirky goofiness, that’s partly why I still enjoy it. Regardless of how often I play it at least for me there will still be those tiny moments that stick in my mind and my memory and take me back to those marvelous days where a shimmering reflection in a pool blew me away.
5/7 – GREAT. Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.