Over the years, Nintendo has revisited many of its games, starting back with Super Mario All-Stars on the SNES. However, this practice was particularly notable during the life of the Game Boy Advance, which saw slightly tweaked re-releases of numerous games like Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Pokémon was no exception to this, with the system playing host to remakes of the original Game Boy games in the form of FireRed and LeafGreen. The DS has also dabbed its toes in the remake pool, and how takes its turn to reintroduce veterans and newcomers alike to the land of Johto in HeartGold and SoulSilver, but can we heartily recommend these remakes, or have they lost their soul?
Story has never been Pokémon’s strongest suit, party due to the stagnate nature of the series in this particular area. Set three years after the events of FireRed and LeafGreen, you play as a young boy or girl who is more or less forced into starting a quest to become a great Pokémon trainer. To achieve this lofty goal you’ll capture Pokémon, train them up and try to defeat the eight regional gym leaders; along the way you’ll come across an evil organisation bent on using Pokémon for their own means. If you’ve played any Pokémon game before you’ll know the drill, and while it’s a little long in the tooth, Pokémon’s assets are in its strong RPG mechanics and its nurturing elements.
The main quest of Johto will take you about thirty-to-forty hours, once you’re finished there; you unlock the adjacent land of Kanto to explore, just like in the original versions, which can add several dozen hours to the experience. There are also side quests and, of course, the nearly countless hours of battling and training your Pokémon for battling with friends, either locally or online. In addition, casino games are there to play to gain coins to swap for rare prizes and the Battle Frontier returns from Platinum. The game does an excellent job of introducing it mechanics in a way that makes it accessible to newcomers, while allowing old hands to skip straight to the quest.
The biggest addition to the game is the peripheral that comes with it in the box, the pokéwalker, a LCD gaming device with a built in pedometer and a pokéball design, in which you can store one of your Pokémon, with it gaining experience – and possibly items – as you walk about in real life. It’s more of a gimmick than anything that possibly won’t get used a lot, if at all; still it’s nice to see a game try to encourage people to get some proper exercise in that doesn’t require you to make a fool of yourself. The secondary addition is the Pokeathlon, a series of sporting events which your Pokémon can compete in; they’re a nice distraction, but after the more complex contests of prior games, they feel a little like an afterthought in comparison.
Pokémon is a traditional role playing game at its core, with the hook that you don’t personally do the fighting; rather you catch and raise Pokémon, elemental creatures and have them battle on your behalf. Battling Pokémon, both wild and from NPCs awards experience to raise a Pokémon’s level, making it grow more powerful, learn better moves and eventually evolve into more deadly forms. To proceed through the game you’ll battle Gym Leaders, essentially the game’s equivalent of bosses (with the gym’s acting as mini-dungeons), and face up to the members of the inept Team Rocket organisation.
The over world is relatively huge for a handheld game, and once finished with, the game opens up another, just as massive land to explore, multiple routes and caves have little sideways and corners which to find hidden items, NPCs and rarer Pokémon, often require specific moves to acquire, exploration is generally encouraged and there’s plenty of hidden secrets to find. There are over 200 Pokémon to collect ingame, although due to the ability to trade with other games in the series, the actual number of obtainable Pokémon is now closer to 500 (the reason the slogan “gotta catch ’em all” is no longer used).
Battles are still random, turned-based affairs, and still as multifaceted as ever, with sixteen different types, hundreds of moves and Pokémon, it can be a highly tactical game, incorporating mix-ups that rarely show up in single player RPGs. With moves spread across sixteen element types, that do different damage to each other in an elaborate game of rock-paper-scissors, most with various additional effects; as well as status inflicting moves which can help or incapacitate both your and enemy Pokémon, and numerous items that can be utilised by Pokémon and trainers alike, it means that battles are never entirely sure-fire affairs. Underneath the deceitfully cute exterior hides a complex game of tactics and planning, which has stood as the game’s strongest foundation since the beginning; simply finding out what is affected against what, is a game onto itself, to say of nothing of the two-versus-two matches the game throws you.
The frequency of which you’ll run into random battles you’ll face during your adventure is remarkably high, with you sometimes unable to take more than a few steps before another Pokémon tries its chances against you. This becomes easier to deal with later in the game, when you gain the ability to fly to any town in the game, but outside of stocking and using repels, it can become tiresome, especially in caverns. While you start the game with one Pokémon, you really have to catch more to get some leeway in the game, catching wild Pokémon requires you to wear them down to a sliver of health, so that you can capture them in a pokéball, some Pokémon are easier to catch than others; the rarer one-offs, like legendaries, are much harder, making it more a battle between lowering their health enough to catch them and not accidently killing them, while making sure that they don’t wipe you out in kind.
Although sheer brute force can get you through many of the game’s battles, you likely to come up against a brick wall sooner or later at some point, due to the rapidly increasing levels of you opponents, especially later on in the game. While this can be solved by a degree of level grinding, and basic management, actual knowledge and proper strategy will be required to engage in both the Battle Frontier and against other human players, both level the playing field (literary with all Pokémon at the same level). These battles are tough, especially online, where challengers can be particularly brutal.
Like the previous Pokémon games on DS, HeartGold’s and SoulSilver’s graphics are a mix of the old and new, with traditional 2D spites mixed with simple 3D buildings, that move in perspective as you pass them. Like Pikachu did back in Pokémon Yellow, your lead Pokémon will follow behind your character as you travel and you can talk to it to assess its current mood, while this feels mostly pointless at times, it does lends some credibility to these creatures being actual living beings that exist beyond the pokéballs you otherwise store them in.
The battles, as ever, feature limited animation, with the move representatives basically the same as they were in the previous games, which looked like re-mastered versions of the originals. The NPCs your meet are the same types that have been in all the prior releases, though this is more understandable, being a remake. Still, the Pokémon are still well designed, looking like plausible creatures, even those made of rock and go from the adorable to quite vicious – in a saccharine kind of way – looking. Watching you lovingly raised Pokémon evolve is still a surprising poignant moment, watching it faint, a mark of your negligence more than anything, even more so; hours into the game and you stop thinking of them as parts of a game and start, well, roleplaying.
The sound is a mixed experience by comparison; there are plenty of classic Pokémon tunes, redone for the DS technology; and a few new pieces of music. The sound effects on the other hand, are the same ones that were used on the original games and this is fine apart from one thing; the digital cries of the Pokémon in the original game were an acceptable approximation of animal noises on the limited hardware; two tech leaps later, these same primitive, electronic noises are grating, the inability to turn them off even more so.
The Pokémon series has been popular for a reason in spite of its lacklustre storytelling, and no, not because of the deluge of merchandise and cartoons that accompanied it back in the day, the games came first and the foundations that they were built on have been strong enough to be virtually unchanged in the last fifteen years since the first games were released in Japan. This holds true today, and HeartGold and SoulSilver are still very much in tune with what made the original games a blast to play back when, those willing to look past the shortcomings of a series that is so hand-me-down at times, will find that training Pokémon in Johto is still a great way to spend time.
Developer/Publisher – Game Freak / Nintendo
Year – 2010
Genre – Role-playing Game
Formats – DS
Players – 1
Pokemon Series ® & © Nintendo
Review copy and Screenshots were courtesy of Nintendo
This review was original published in April of 2010.