Thursday, March 9

Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire Review

I played on: Gameboy Advance
I paid: £9.75 (eBay)
The game is available on: Gameboy Advance
Notes: Due to playing this on the actual hardware and not an emulator, I've been unable to record my own gameplay footage or screenshots, so all videos and images below have been sourced from Google images.

Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire are the third generation of the Pokémon series. Interestingly enough, this was intended to be a reboot during early development. This is why there are so many new pokémon during the early game. 

Despite that, the gameplay is familiar to Red, Blue, Yellow, Silver, Gold and Crystal. You collect pokémon from across the new region of Hoenn while battling trainers, Gym leaders and the new gang of troublemakers with a team of up to six pokémon. As the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, the whole system has continued to be polished and perfected from the last generation. The most significant single change is the introduction of the EXP share item. If you hand this to one of your pokémon, they will get half of the experience earned even if they don’t participate in the battles. On top of this, the inventory system has been improved, with your bag now having separate spaces for items, Pokéballs, TMs & HMs, berries and key items. While this isn’t as good as modern games in the series, it is a massive improvement over the second generation.

Let’s continue by talking about Hidden Moves, or HMs, as I find this one of the most interesting parts of the retro Pokémon games. For those unaware, there are three ways for your pokémon to learn moves. When they reach new levels, they can learn certain moves as part of the new level. For example, at level forty-six, Charizard will learn inferno. The other way is to use a Technical Move or TM for short. These are held items that can be used to teach pokémon the moves that they contain. Then we have the last way that moves can be taught to a pokémon, HMs. These work almost identically to TMs but are much rarer. The most significant difference between HMs and TMs is that HMs have uses outside of battle. For example, if you teach your Gyarados the HM Surf, then you will be able to use that Gyarados to surf across bodies of water, thus allowing you to reach new locations. Until the seventh generation (Sun and Moon), these were the only way to use abilities such as Surf, Fly, Boulder smash, etc. In the newer games, they have been replaced. I’m unsure if I prefer HMs being used or the other new methods, such as the flying taxis, or your legendary just being able to use these abilities. On the one hand, I understand why they were replaced. In Ruby and Sapphire, you must know eight HMs to finish the game. This means that your party has a maximum of twenty-four moves available, but due to the HMs, eight of them will be out of your control. This drops the actual number of moves available to sixteen. On top of this, you will need one of your party to be a water pokémon to learn Surf, Dive and Waterfall. Another will also need to be a flying type to learn Fly. Flash, Cut, Strength and Boulder smash are more flexible regarding the types they can be taught to. You can see how much HMs railroad you into a specific style of play. When coming back to these older games from the newer generations, it does feel limiting. But then I remember how great it feels to choose which of my pokémon I’m going to have to swim me across the ocean or fly me through the skies. Yes, the animations are basic and fail to show any specific pokémon model when surfing or flying, but your imagination quickly fills in that silhouette with your Blastoise or Tentacruel. I understand why GameFreak removed HMs, but while I enjoy the freedom that comes with their absence, I still find myself missing them. Playing through Ruby highlighted that for me.

The formula in Ruby and Sapphire also hasn’t changed much since Silver, Gold and Crystal. You start your adventure in a small rural town, and after bumping into a pokémon professor, you set out on your grand adventure across the region. Ruby and Sapphire are set in the Hoenn region. While the last two generations had you dealing with the troublesome Team Rocket Ruby and Sapphire, instead, see a whole new two evil teams rise to power. You have Teams Magma and Aqua, both with conflicting motives. Team Magma wants to awaken the legendary pokémon Groudon to have it create more land for them. In contrast, Team Aqua wants to revive the legendary pokemon Kyogre to raise the sea level. Which team manages to wake up which pokémon depends on the game version you play. Ruby will feature Groudon, and Sapphire will have Kyogre. On top of this, you also have the traditional gym challenge to take on. The Hoenn region has eight gyms, and what makes these stand out from the last two games is that your character’s father is one of these gym leaders. You moved to Hoenn because of your father’s new position as Gym Leader of Petalburg City. This is the beginning of the games, looking at the mythology of the Pokémon world and flushing out the broader lore of the universe. Groudon and Kyogre are responsible for the world’s land and oceans. These themes would continue in the later games and expand to explore the universe’s origins, but it all starts here.

This was the first mainline Pokémon game on the GameBoy Advance, and you can tell. The sprite work looks impressive, with lots of details and beautiful uses of colour. This game still holds up today. While playing this on my GameBoy Advance SP, I kept wishing I could play it on my Switch OLED as I think the colourful, detailed pixel art would really pop on that sharp modern screen. What goes into this beautiful look is the design of the Hoenn region. From the Treehouses of Fortree city, all connected with rope bridges, to Pacifidlog Town, made up of floating houses in the middle of the ocean connected with floating pieces of wood, almost every settlement in Hoenn feels creative and unique. The little details in these locations do so much to bring them to life. When you walk across the floating pieces of wood in Pacifidlog Town, they dip slightly under the water. As you walk past the crystal clear puddles in Sootopolis City, your reflection appears like you’re looking in a mirror. The newer games on the DS would improve even more on this fantastic pixel work by combining them with 3D models for buildings. Ruby and Sapphire have to be the best-looking games that use only 2D pixel art. Because of that, it still has a unique place when discussing the aesthetics of the mainline Pokémon games.

To summarise, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire continued to improve on the winning formula and gameplay from the previous two generations. While I don’t think this is the best generation of the series, some certainly do, and I can see why. So much has been perfected here without losing the vision of the original two generations. If these games ever come to the Nintendo Switch or its eventual successor, I’d highly recommend them. As it is, the only way to play them at the moment is to buy the retro hardware and games that can be expensive or emulate them using Roms. If you have this hardware or know how to use emulators, they are easily worth playing, but if you don’t, I’d wait and hope Nintendo gives us a modern way to experience these bonafide classics!

Recommendation Rating: 7 out of 10

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