I'll admit it: after chugging through several dozen hours of Pokemon Platinum, I felt that my time in the world of Pokemon RPGs was coming to an end. There's only so much "gotta catch 'em all" one can take, and after playing through the addictive series for more than a decade, I felt maybe it might be time to pass the review gauntlet off to another editor.
But then Nintendo and Game Freak did something devious: they sucked me back in again. Curse those guys ticking my gadget fetish with the bundled Pokewalker...
Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver are the two latest games in the Pokemon RPG series and are remakes of Pokemon Gold and Silver that existed on the Game Boy Color. On the surface the two games are virtually identical to each other, but each houses different species of Pokemon to make them unique. Game Freak did more than give the experience a new coat of paint with the 3D engine from Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum; they also added things to discover during the massive quest. Most importantly, the new Pokewalker gadget brings a welcome twist to the familiar franchise, making HeartGold and SoulSilver a bit more attractive to those who've already experienced the series several times over the last 14 years.
If you're new to Pokemon don't worry -- just like the previous games in the series, HeartGold and SoulSilver do an excellent job weaning you into the addictive gameplay that the series is known for.
HeartGold and SoulSilver follow the exact formula of the Pokemon RPG: you're on a quest to become the best Pokemon trainer around. In this world, all creatures are Pokemon, and you have the ability to catch wild Pokemon and bring them into your collection of fighters. Each Pokemon has strengths and weaknesses against other Pokemon because of their type -- water types are stronger against fire types, bug types strong against grass types, etc. -- and that's where strategy comes into play.
The game's design is rooted into the older Japanese RPG style consisting of random battles and turn-based menu-selection fights. But the game continues to be as engrossing and addictive as ever because of the sense of personal gratification. The thrill of finding rare Pokemon, the satisfying "click" of catching an elusive creature, the feeling of accomplishment when you've completed your Pokemon collection. Even with the countless clones that have attempted the same style, no other game has been able to do what the Pokemon RPG does even a decade and a half later.
But that's a problem, too. Though the game evolves with the systems it's made for, it's the same game we've been playing for years. I wouldn't blame anyone for skipping over this Pokemon update now because they've done it all before. Hell, it took Nintendo to throw a new gadget into the box for me to get excited for yet another Pokemon game.
HeartGold and SoulSilver build their foundation on a ten year old quest and a four year old DS engine. They look identical to Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum because HeartGold and SoulSilver are using that same tech. GameFreak brought the Gold and Silver maps, locations, and storyline and gave them the Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum shine. The Game Boy Color designs look great in this environment, but let's be fair: Game Freak's Pokemon DS engine is meant to mimic the old-school Game Boy experience. Good as they look (and they do look good), these aren't the most visually impressive experiences on the handheld.
At the very least it's interesting to see how one team can continue to drive excitement in its games without really pushing the envelope. We're still battling Pokemon that don't animate. We're still listening to hearing them make growls and cries that are restricted by 8-bit Game Boy sound technology. And yet, we keep coming back because the gameplay is so timeless. But it's clear that there needs to be a real hook to get people to come back to something they've already played.
In the case of HeartGold and SoulSilver, it's the Pokewalker. GameFreak has introduced a device that gives players more ways to interact with the game without having their Nintendo DS with them at all times. This device is clearly born from concepts like the Pocket Pikachu virtual pet -- you might remember that device interfacing with the Game Boy Color to beam earned steps as currency through the use of the system's infrared port.
The Pokewalker takes the technology introduced in Personal Trainer Walking and throws a black and white LCD screen on it: both the cartridge and the device have infrared ports to beam data back and forth, and the portable device has a digital pedometer inside to track steps you've taken. A good amount of data gets sent to the device: not only does the Pokemon get sent over, but so does the Player Card from the game and the system clock time. Some Pokemon can be caught in the device, which will then get beamed back to your storage box on the cartridge. And when you do bring your Pokemon back from a walk, the DS game will document your Pokemon's travels in a cute journal so you can see how much you've walked and how happy it is.
This Pokewalker device is meant to mimic a new addition to the Pokemon design: your lead Pokemon in your line-up follows along like a little pet instead of being trapped inside a ball waiting for battle. It's something that's evolved out of the classic Pokemon Yellow where Pikachu trailed behind, but now any creature -- from common to rare to legendary to shiny -- walks along you like a loyal companion.
To be honest, you're probably not going to marvel at the Pokewalker technology, nor are you going to give awards to the mini-games that you play on the device. But it definitely opens up a new avenue of things to do in the Pokemon adventure. Idle Pokemon that would normally sit in your storage box collecting dust can now have function in the real world: beam one to the Pokewalker and use it to collect items and watts. Your Pokemon can only gain a single level during a walk so it's not a good exploit for leveling up the creatures to crazy high levels, but it's fun to have the ability to drag along a rare Pokemon just as you would a Tamagotchi or a Digimon.
There are other new elements too. Along with the same ol' quest in HeartGold and SoulSilver is the Pokecathlon, a single player series of DS-focused mini-games. They're all stylus based so it's pretty clear that these were added into the mix and not a part of the original design. These mini-games are fun additions that utilize the new Pokemon sprites -- the ones that tag along behind you during the adventure -- in side games that are cool, if basic, additions.
Plus it brings back a few elements that were abandoned in Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum, such as the events that are tied in with the system clock and calendar. These come in place of the Poketech gadgets you collected in the previous games, so you give a little to gain a little. I love the fact that you have events on specific days and times, but I do miss the ability to pull up my Pokemon creature's status on the lower screen.
Everything else about the design, from the local trading to the online battling, remains completely intact. To keep HeartGold and SoulSilver compatible with the other versions on the Nintendo DS nothing has changed with the local wireless and online components. You can also still pull in your creatures from the Game Boy Advance Pokemon if you play on a system with a GBA cart slot -- in other words, not the DSi.
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