Pokemon HeartGold/SoulSilver

Diamond / Pearl / Platinum might have arrived at a time where I wasn’t as invested in Pokemon, but that phase was never going to last. The hints had been dropping that remakes of Gold / Silver / Crystal were forthcoming and when they did arrive I won’t even deny I was ridiculously hyped. But as we saw with FireRed / LeafGreen, remakes don’t always live up to the nostalgia. Given the popularity of Pokemon’s second generation games, the question was whether Nintendo could manage to do justice to these storied sequels.

Pokemon HeartGold / SoulSilver (NDS)

Released Sep 2009 | Developed: Game Freak | Published: Nintendo

Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 38 hours

HeartGold / SoulSilver are really good remakes. That’s right, no preamble this time. I was always going to love them, given they are remakes some of my favourite Pokemon games of all time. Still, I held very much the same expectations of FireRed / LeafGreen, and yet that ended up falling a little flat for me. The question I found asking myself was why? What about HeartGold / SoulSilver worked where FireRed / LeafGreen failed to shine?

The answer lies in the difference between a remake and a remaster. The generation of games in which HeartGold / SoulSilver released could easily be characterised not just by the slew of excellent new games that came out, but also by the prevalence of older games being re-released. The vast majority of these re-releases were remasters: a version of a game which had been upscaled for TVs and systems that output in HD. I’ve nothing against remasters at all – a cynic might (somewhat fairly) point to the eradication of backwards-compatibility as a means for developers and publishers to force customers to shell out more money to play games they might already own – but sometimes we can forgive that if the price is right for the opportunity to replay something in a crisper resolution. 

Slightly rarer is the remake. These, like HeartGold / SoulSilver and FireRed / LeafGreen in the Pokemon franchise, offer a ground-up rebuild of the original game, often with new visuals, audio, and/or features. FireRed / LeafGreen was a good example of this – as I discussed in my review of it, it offered significantly improved sprites that put it on par with the then-current Generation III games, re-arranged audio which more fully utilised the GBA’s more advanced sound chip, and it included all of the additions to the Pokemon formula which had been introduced by Generations II and III. However, despite all that, it didn’t manage to truly capture my interest and rekindle that flame of nostalgia; if anything, I’ve replayed the original Red / Blue far more since the release of FireRed / LeafGreen

I’ve had a think, and in the light of replaying HeartGold / SoulSilver for this review, I suspect I know why. FireRed / LeafGreen isn’t brave enough. The hallmark of a really good remake is, in my opinion, a willingness to challenge and change. There’s nothing wrong with faithfully preserving the original, but for a remake to shine it ought to be transformative. It has to be able to look at its original self and highlight the things that could do with improving, and to do that even if it upsets die-hard fans. This is why I adore HeartGold / SoulSilver; unlike the comparatively tame FireRed / LeafGreen, these games take more chances with the source material, while still presenting enough of it to appeal to the nostalgia crowd. 

Take the narrative, for example. It’s no secret that all Pokemon games have the same core story – you’re a kid, you get your own Pokemon from the local Professor, and then off you trot to defeat all the Gym Leaders, catch every Pokemon, become the best Trainer in the land, and along the way defeat some villainous cads looking to do some mischief. Both FireRed / LeafGreen and HeartGold / SoulSilver are definitely faithful in that regard, but where HeartGold / SoulSilver pushes itself ahead of its predecessor is in terms of the additional character writing it employs. Gold / Silver / Crystal was essentially just as barebones in that department as the original Red / Blue and despite releasing years later, FireRed / LeafGreen fails to add anything substantial to that. HeartGold / SoulSilver, in contrast, grasps the opportunity to expand on its original self. 

HeartGold / SoulSilver reprises the Suicune mini-plotline from Crystal, in which the eccentric hunter Eusine tracks down the legendary beast, which adds a little more flavour to the narrative. The player character which you didn’t choose now appears sporadically through the game to cheer you on in a sweetly developing friendship. Occasionally the environment is used to give a little more character to individuals; Chuck, for example, no longer just stands at the back of his dojo, but meditates underneath a rushing waterfall, oblivious to challengers until you turn off the flow of water and disturb him. The greatest expansion has happened to Team Rocket, the heads of which have changed from being nameless Executives to a quartet of distinctive villains. Team Rocket’s earliest operation in HeartGold / SoulSilver, hacking off Slowpoke tails to sell for profit, is now overseen by the sadistic Proton, for example. There’s even a clear personality distinction between the earlier Admins and the later, with an obvious line of seniority. 

Just as FireRed / LeafGreen included all of the upgrades from Generations II and III, HeartGold / SoulSilver obviously comes loaded up with all of the big changes to Pokemon brought in by Generation IV. It would be impossible not to, really; things like the Physical / Special Split changed the meta irrevocably, and for the better. Though most of these mechanical changes are to be expected, even here HeartGold / SoulSilver finds ways to improve upon the art of remaking itself. HeartGold / SoulSilver continues the tradition of giving players alternatives to battling as a reason to raise Pokemon – in this case the Pokeathlon, a mini-Olympics of sporting events, which is a pleasant distraction. The Safari Zone – a feature entirely cut from Gold / Silver / Crystal – makes a triumphant return here. Available at the end of a set of new routes added onto Cianwood City, the Safari Zone here is surprisingly engaging. It is now a roulette of locales, each with Pokemon specific to it, and players can only visit 6 at a time, requiring them to be swapped out if you want to catch them all. Additionally, players are tasked with unlocking and placing new elements in each habitat, which attract new Pokemon; it’s a far bigger time investment than previous Safari Zones, and one I find compelling. 

It might sound an inconsequential change but at the time I can clearly remember the world of Pokemon fans were absolutely wild about the inclusion of walking Pokemon; not seen since Yellow way back when, where Pikachu would follow behind you, and had been a feature fans had clamoured for. Whichever Pokemon is at the top of your party will now run behind you, and you can turn to it at any time and talk to it. The range of interactions is surprisingly wide, and you can’t help but turn and constantly chatter to your Pokemon in the hopes of finding new reactions in different situations. 

Naturally we are treated to upgraded visuals compared to the original release of Gold / Silver / Crystal but once again HeartGold / SoulSilver approaches this with far more drive than FireRed / LeafGreen. FireRed / LeafGreen gave us Kanto done in the GBA tilesets, but HeartGold / SoulSilver gives us a more creative, beautiful version of Johto. It’s almost comparable to the leap between generations, such is the difference between even this and Diamond / Pearl / Platinum. We already knew, for example, that Johto was a more traditionalist and rustic region than Kanto, but now we can finally see it in the muted colours and old-fashioned buildings of cities like Ecruteak. Bigger hubs like Goldenrod and Vermillion in the post-game are made significantly more busy and bustling through the use of extra detailing and the use of vertical layers. Compare it to the flat recreations in FireRed / LeafGreen, and it is easy to see why HeartGold / SoulSilver feels more lively and lived-in. 

I’m always a bit leery when it comes to remake soundtracks, I admit, especially when it comes to games with soundtracks I adore. Gold / Silver / Crystal is very much a beloved soundtrack of mine, but I think HeartGold / SoulSilver generally does a good job of updating it. There’s quite a lackadaisical, half-swung feel to some songs, which I find pleasant, and creates a relaxed air, such as in Cherrygrove City and Azalea Town. I think Goldenrod Town might be favourite of the new swung tracks thanks to the joyously whimsical opening and the bouncing rhythm carried by the brass; I don’t know if I think it perfectly fits the hustle and bustle of Johto’s biggest city, but it sounds so good I don’t care! 

One of my all-time favourite Pokemon themes is the original Dark Cave, with its aggressive synth bass building a claustrophobic, unsettling tone. The remake’s version, while nowhere near as oppressive, is still a success largely thanks to the combination of instruments waving in and out of pitch to build that same tension, and a marvelous use of the empty space above and below its core melody to craft an echoing cave-like atmosphere. The use of traditional instrumentation to capture Johto’s traditionalism and quaint historicity is still very much present and with greater clarity. Sprout Tower feels more maze-like and ever-so-slightly sinister, and that creepiness is dialed up yet further in the echoing chimes of Ruins of Alph.

Special mention must be made to the National Park theme and Cianwood City. Both stand out to me from the soundtrack for the sheer beauty and peace they evoke in the listener. HeartGold / SoulSilver’s soundtrack conjures all sorts of moods, but when Go Ichinose is given freedom to create, the best results seem to be these stunning tracks. 

HeartGold / SoulSilver is a remake done exceptionally well. I’m sure that for some it will seem like pure nostalgia bait but I maintain that they are far more than that. Because they don’t hold the originals as sacrosanct, they can approach them with a much more considered and creative direction than Game Freak’s previous attempt at a remake, and as a result it left us with what might still be one of the definitive Pokemon experiences. The myriad unobtrusive additions that enhance the game are why HeartGold / SoulSilver are absolutely among the best Pokemon experiences ever. 

7/7 – TOP TIER. As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.

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