Pokemon OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire, for the uninitiated, are the newest entries into Nintendo and Game Freak’s long running Pokemon franchise; and while ostensibly they are brand new games, they are also remakes of 2003’s beloved GBA classics, Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire.
I say ‘beloved’ and ‘classics,’ and of course, judging by popular opinion of those games, that’s the idea you would get, but with all this re-writing of history, sometimes it becomes easy to forget that when Ruby and Sapphire were originally released, they were largely decried by the Pokemon fan base, for being too much of a departure from what came before, while at the same time being too conservative with moving the series forwards. This vein of opinion manifested itself in the critical reception (at the time of their release, Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire were the lowest scoring games in the series), and the sales (Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire remain the worst selling games in the entire franchise till date).
Time has been kind to them, though- in many ways, Ruby and Sapphire presented a necessary reboot. In order to future proof the series, they had to make a clean break from the buggy, glitched codebase of previous Pokemon games, and start over with a new base. Creatively, too, it was important for Pokemon to move away from the confines of Kanto. The modern Pokemon series is built upon the foundations laid down by Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire, and in hindsight, opinion of those games is much more favorable than it was then, in spite of how many issues the games had to begin with (it also helps that 2005’s Pokemon Emerald came along and addressed nearly every single issue with those two games).
OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire, therefore, present Game Freak with a unique quandary- unlike with their remakes of Red and Blue, or Gold and Silver, two well designed games that transcended the limits of their own series, and thus didn’t require much tinkering outside of technical overhauls, Ruby and Sapphire present Game Freak the chance to take a heavily flawed product, and to address all the issues it had on its first go around.
You probably remember the issues of the Hoenn video games- an uneven level curve, inequitable distribution of wild Pokemon, extremely poor pacing, a lacking post game, cutting back of features the previous games had introduced, and so on. What was Game Freak to do with the remakes? Would they address all of those issues? Or would they remain faithful to the originals to not alienate their extremely vocal fan base? And what about modernizing them? Modern mechanics, like cloud storage, online play, Mega Evolution, the Physical/Special split, none of these were a thing back when Ruby and Sapphire were introduced. How would Game Freak handle this?
"With OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire, Game Freak have modernized the original games exceptionally well, on the surface completely staying true and faithful to the originals, so that it is almost easy to forget that you are playing a completely redone version on your 3DS, instead of the originals on your Gameboy Advance."
The short answer: very well. With OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire, Game Freak have modernized the original games exceptionally well, on the surface completely staying true and faithful to the originals, so that it is almost easy to forget that you are playing a completely redone version on your 3DS, instead of the originals on your Gameboy Advance. But at the same time, they have sparingly injected the games with the new mechanics, in a completely obvious, organic, and unobtrusive way, so that it’s almost possible to swear that, no, Mega Evolution always played a big role in the story of the original games, for example.
On a macro level, this means that this is the very same enduring adventure that you played more than ten years ago- you’re newly moved into Little Root Town, a sleepy hamlet in the tropical Hoenn region, where your dad is a gym leader. Upon moving there, a series of events leads to you being in possession of a rare Pokemon, a Pokedex, and a dream and a mandate to catalog all the species of Pokemon in the region, while also taking part in the Pokemon League Championships and emerging victorious.
Along the way, you discover that all is not well in Hoenn, as a group of eco terrorists seeks to disrupt the balance of weather, and of land and water, by awakening an ancient, terrifying force. In a lot of ways, it’s standard fare, which is just as well, as Ruby and Sapphire did provide the template for all future Pokemon stories going forward, but Game Freak have upped the ante with their writing, making it sharp, witty, and often unexpectedly provocative and introspective.
Gone are the juvenile gaffes that characterized the recent few Pokemon games- the writing in OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire actually borders on being interesting at times. OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire manage to take the story of the original games, which was positively cartoonish at times, and manage to inject a sense of serious weight and gravitas into it, delivering what is unequivocally the best told Pokemon tale ever.
Then there is the Delta Episode, which is unlocked once you win the Pokemon League. I won’t spoil a whole lot of it, but I will tell you, it’s a good 3-5 hours of content that adds an all new episode to the Pokemon mythos, raising the stakes, and delivering on a Pokemon story that is, without qualifications, pretty damn great. It’s very well written, tightly presented, and the resolution is unexpected.
This is the first time that Pokemon has had a story that is good, period, without the usual ‘for a Pokemon game’ qualifier. The Delta Episode is exceptionally well done, and if this is an indication of what we can expect from future Pokemon games in terms of writing and story telling, then it seems like Game Freak is all set to take Pokemon beyond its usual narrative conceit and constraints.
It’s not just in the writing and storytelling that OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire take steps forward, though. Mechanically, Pokemon OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire represent the clearest form of Game Freak’s ‘gotta catch em all’ mantra, thoroughly rendering the previous games in the series entirely obsolete.
"The Delta Episode is exceptionally well done, and if this is an indication of what we can expect from future Pokemon games in terms of writing and story telling, then it seems like Game Freak is all set to take Pokemon beyond its usual narrative conceit and constraints."
A lot of this has to do with the new DexNav, which occupies the bottom screen on your 3DS. The DexNav is such an obvious, and yet thrilling, addition to the series, it’s hard to see how future entries will function without it. The DexNav is essentially a map on the bottom screen, but it tells you how many Pokemon are in an area, which of those you have caught, and how many are left. If you haven’t caught all possible Pokemon in an area (including those you may not have even encountered yet), it lets you know. Plus once you DO encounter a Pokemon, the DexNav begins to show its real utility.
New to the franchise is a mechanic where you can actually see a Pokemon on the field before you engage in battle. This isn’t applicable to every single Pokemon fight, but it happens roughly once a minute. A tail, or a pair of ears, pop out of the grass, and the Pokemon cries out. Even if you can’t identify the cry or the ears by yourself, the DexNav gives you the Pokemon name, the types, its moves, whether it is shiny or not, right on the bottom screen- as long as you sneak up to the Pokemon (press the Circle Pad softly, and you sneak instead of the usual walk or run), you can engage and attempt to catch the Pokemon in battle. If you manage to kill it by mistake, or scare it off, you can summon any Pokemon back on to the field by touching its sprite on the bottom screen- and you can see whether the move set and its ability, for example, are to your liking without even engaging it in battle.
The DexNav changes the game completely- now, not only is there an actual, visual indicator on screen of how many Pokemon on a given area you have caught, but it also allows for a shortcut to breeding, shiny Pokemon hunting, and EV training, cutting out all the fat and the bullshit in the process. Plus, this isn’t even all the DexNav does– it acts as a map on your bottom screen, it lets you know where you planted berries, and whether they are ready to be picked, it lets you know whether trainers in the area you are in now are ready for a re-match, it gives you a newsfeed of flavor text of events and happenings throughout Hoenn, it lets you know whether you have a Secret Base on a route… it’s an indispensable tool. and it truly enhances the franchise in a multitude of ways.
Ah yes, Secret Bases. One of the chief innovations of Ruby and Sapphire let players have their own ‘base’ which they could decorate and spring with traps, and invite other players into. On a GBA, you were limited to directly trading data over a link cable, but on the 3DS, the Secret Base really comes into its own- the customization options are much more varied, allowing for an Animal Crossing itch to be scratched by these games, and the sharing can now be done via StreetPass locally, or over the internet, and via QR Codes. Your base can literally be anything that you want it to be, including your very own Pokemon gym, populated by traps and trainers, each using a team of a certain type, following battle rules you set, and with you as the Gym Leader. It’s great.
"Amazingly enough, for Pokemon that is, OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire also buck the trend of needlessly cutting out features that were present in previous Pokemon games"
The other big innovation from Ruby and Sapphire, Pokemon Contests, also return, and I am happy to report that unlike in all other games that followed Ruby and Sapphire, which completely botched them up and missed the point of contests as an equally viable alternative path for raising Pokemon, in OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire, they are just as great as they were in the originals. There is even a small story arc attached to them, to give you incentive to keep investing in them (though you don’t have to, of course), and plus, the game even gives you a cosplaying Pikachu that can help you in your contest quest (though you can use it to battle too).
Cosplaying Pikachu is almost criminally cute- she can wear one of five outfits that you pick for her (corresponding to her being Cool, Tough, Beautiful, Smart, and Cute), and her move set also changes depending on what costume she is wearing. She actually lets you steamroll past the earlier, lower ranks of contests, meaning she serves as the perfect gateway into contests for those who otherwise might not have been interested in them.
Amazingly enough, for Pokemon that is, OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire also buck the trend of needlessly cutting out features that were present in previous Pokemon games. Almost everything in X and Y made the cut, including Pokemon Amie, which acts like a Nintendogs-esque pet simulator on the bottom screen, the new super enhanced temporary state that Pokemon achieve via Mega Evolution, Super Training, which lets you EV train your Pokemon via a series of fun mini games, the Player Search System (including Wonder Training and the GTS), which takes Pokemon persistently online, allowing for battles and trades without any effort, and even seamlessly connects with Pokemon X and Y, the EXP Share, which optionally shares all experience you gain with all members in your team so you don’t have to worry about pointless grinding… actually, very little from those games managed to not make it over.
Chief of those features is character customization, which is a bit of a shame. Character customization was a big deal in Pokemon X and Y, and it would have been nice to see it return in the remakes, especially with the fully customizable bases. I understand that the protagonists of Ruby and Sapphire are iconic, and Game Freak probably didn’t want to mess with their design, and personally, I would have ignored the options to customize my character, as playing through Hoenn as anything but Brendan or May would just feel wrong, but there are others who would have appreciated at least the option, so it’s a shame to see them not being catered to.
Another thing that OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire get wrong is to do with something that returns instead of something that got cut out, and this is probably to do with Game Freak’s insistence on being as true to Ruby and Sapphire as possible. The issues that were endemic to those games- terrible pacing, especially once you win your third gym badge and all the way through to the seventh, for example; or a poor spread of wild Pokemon, which often lead to too many repetitive encounters with Tentacool or Linoone, for another- all of these problems are back, and they do hinder the game experience a fair bit, though the latter, at least, is helped by the addition of the DexNav.
"There is also the fact that OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire are remakes of Ruby and Sapphire, and not Emerald. This is an issue because when most people remember Hoenn fondly, they are retroactively applying the improvements and fixes Emerald brought to the table to Ruby and Sapphire, fixes that are simply not here"
There is also the fact that OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire are remakes of Ruby and Sapphire, and not Emerald. This is an issue because when most people remember Hoenn fondly, they are retroactively applying the improvements and fixes Emerald brought to the table to Ruby and Sapphire, fixes that are simply not here- Emerald’s Battle Frontier, which added a substantial amount of post game content, is gone (although it is teased- maybe it will be added as DLC?); the story reverts to the one in the original Ruby and Sapphire, as opposed to the more sensible re-telling in Emerald. Wild Pokemon, and trainer teams, all revert to the inferior configurations of Ruby and Sapphire, and not Emerald. This is a bit baffling, because previous remakes- FireRed/LeafGreen and HeartGold/SoulSilver- all based themselves on the improved ‘third’ version (Yellow and Crystal respectively), instead of on the original pair, so it’s confusing to see Game Freak break the trend here.
All of this said, the game, while definitely lacking in post game compared to Emerald, or the previous remakes, does substantially better on that count than X and Y, or Ruby and Sapphire did- there are new battle facilities to conquer, all new Pokemon to catch, including every single starter and legendary Pokemon from every game until Pokemon X and Y, and of course, there is the Delta Episode. It’s not as extensive as the content in HeartGold and SoulSilver was, definitely, but it’s pretty good regardless.
I’ve talked so much about these games, and I haven’t even gotten around to how pretty they look. On a technical level, they are pretty simplistic games, and still a mess, as the uneven implementation of stereoscopic 3D, and the slowdown in battles, all applies here. But Hoenn, which was always an exotic region with so much character, shines with the new freedom that the move to 3D affords it. It looks unimaginably pretty and beautiful, and the game oozes charm and atmosphere. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that, purely from the perspective of the art style, these are among the most aesthetically pleasing games on the 3DS.
The real star of the show, however, is the soundtrack. Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire had flat out the best soundtrack in the series (which is now iconic, in part thanks to its almost hilarious reliance on trumpets), and there were some fears that Game Freak would mess the soundtrack up with the remakes. Those fears were unfounded. The soundtrack is absolutely stellar. Game Freak has gone the wise route of not attempting to change the instrumentation or tempo and rhythm of any of the music, instead either just re-sampling the old tunes, or re-recording them with more modern sound fonts as faithfully to the originals as possible. The result is the best Pokemon soundtrack yet. Seriously, when you hear the Team Magma/Aqua Leader Battle Theme for the first time, you will understand.
Consider, for a minute then, the idea of a flawed masterpiece- it is a work that has a fair few number of flaws, easily identifiable, and by any objective measure, flaws that impede and hinder the work’s overall quality, but it it is a work that nonetheless transcends all of those flaws, and itself, to deliver a memorable experience. Flawed masterpieces are found in all art forms, and of course, it is easy to use that term as a ‘Get Out Of Jail’ card for any work that one really likes, and wants to praise, but recognizes has flaws.
Now, I am not for a moment suggesting that Pokemon OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire are flawed masterpieces, of course. They are, like almost all Pokemon games, too bound by the constraints of being Pokemon games, and very rarely transcend the limitations the series imposes upon itself to hint at greatness, but the same concept can sort of be said to apply to them- this is a pair of games that has a large number of observable flaws. If one were to make a full list of cons in the game, it would easily cross into the double digits. But somehow, in spite of that, possibly because of something intangible that I’ve not yet been able to identify, Pokemon OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire are incredibly fun and addictive. And even as I rattle of those same flaws to myself to keep my opinion of the games grounded, I keep reminding myself- in the end, I play a video game to have fun, and OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire deliver that in spades. Do those perceived flaws, then, really matter?
They may be lacking in a lot of ways, but where they are not, they more than make up for it. Pokemon OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire have character, and above all, they have soul. These are the first Pokemon games in a very long time now that I will keep returning to. Hoenn is simply too amazing a place to want to leave.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo 3DS.
Great graphics, amazing soundtrack, a whole of new innovations to the franchise that genuinely move the series forward in multiple ways, strong writing, especially in the Delta Episode, mostly all the good stuff from Ruby and Sapphire, as well as X and Y, made it here intact.
Issues with the original games- poor post game content, poor pacing, poor wild Pokemon distribution- are all present here too; lack of certain features such as character customization
Pokemon OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire are, despite all of their numerous flaws, a triumphant homecoming for the Hoenn region. Let the trumpets play.