We're already familiar with the crazy popularity that is the Pokemon
franchise. With every release of the series on the Game Boy Advance, system owners scoop 'em up as quickly as Nintendo can make them. And with good reason, too: despite its overly cute nature that gives the series its "cool to hate" status, the actual game design surrounding the Pokemon franchise -- at least the design that started it all -- is an incredibly satisfying and extensive experience that fits the handheld market extremely well. And a successful series will never stop; as long as there's a market for the games, the companies will keep the brands going. Capitalism at its finest, baby.
Last year's release of Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire release officially moved the wickedly popular franchise out of the 8-bit realm of the classic Game Boy into the more advanced GBA platform, bumping the series to the standards of what's expected out of the system's enhanced capabilities. But as complete as that game was, it was only part of the story and half of the presentation, and Nintendo is finally offering a way to complete the current package in the form of Pokemon LeafGreen.
But let's be frank. This is not a completely new experience. Even though FireRed/LeafGreen can be considered the fourth episode in the epic that is the Pokemon RPG, it's actually a retelling of the very first game that started it all. Just as Lucas went back to muck around with his original Star Wars films for a "Special Edition," Nintendo, too, returned to its roots for an updated experience of Pokemon Red/Blue, the adventure that kicked off the money machine for Nintendo. This revisit is obviously a tremendous cash-in to keep the Pokemoney rolling in, but the package is still an amazingly complete, and absolutely recommended experience, even if you've already done this quest five years ago.
- 30-plus hour quest
- More than 150 creatures to catch and trade between each version
- Connectivity with Ruby/Sapphire and GameCube Colosseum to complete the collection of more than 350 creatures.
- Cartridge save (one slot)
- Includes Wireless Adapter
- Link cable support
It was obviously all a plan from the beginning: when Nintendo and its Pokemon development studio Game Freaks set out to break Pokemon
out of its 8-bit Game Boy home and finally set it free on the Game Boy Advance, the team didn't give the audience a complete picture. The main Pokemon theme -- Gotta Catch 'em All -- just wasn't possible in its Ruby/Sapphire
iteration, as the team purposely restricted which Pokemon showed up in that adventure. Oh, sure, the cartridge is brimming with more than 350 critters to catch, trade, and battle, but the original hundred-plus beasts that were a part of the series from the beginning went MIA. It was a devious ploy: offer another
adventure one year later that will finally reunite the Pokemon freaks with the original batch of Pocket Monsters. Enter FireRed/LeafGreen,
the latest in the RPG series. Brilliant marketing.
The foundation for doing such a thing is definitely sound; the Red/Blue series literally resurged the Game Boy market out of its somewhat obscure casual gaming position and into a "gotta have it!!!" status, and no game since the original Tetris had the power to do this. It wasn't just hype, either, because the game's design was so perfect for the Game Boy platform that, back in 1999, even I gave the game the highest rating we can give. It's a tremendous game hidden under a heavy layer of cuteness that could scare away those worried about hurting their masculinity.
But what is it about the Pokemon series that makes it so good? It's such a solid and satisfying role-playing design that really gives the player a feeling of personal satisfaction. The idea of creating an element of catching creatures for their collection makes players feel more connected to the adventure, and offering up a bunch of hard-to-catch critters makes it even more desirable to grab them for their personal cache. The game also has a heavy focus on strategic elements, as each creature has its own type that's either strong, weaker, or equal to creatures in other types. Fire creatures, for example, suck against Water Pokemon, but excel against Plant Pokemon. And with these elements players must choose which Pokemon are the best to carry in their collection; what's the best team to create? Which creatures do I want to raise, to give more experience to? Which ones just look good versus ones that kick ass in battle? There are lots of variables in the Pokemon experience; it's not just a game with cute furball critters.
This update moves the series into the realm of Ruby/Sapphire's graphic and audio presentation, which honestly wasn't much of a step upwards to begin with. In short, if you've experienced last year's GBA game, it's the same stuff here: bare minimum graphical flair for both the adventure and the creature battles. It's admittedly tough to not only render hundreds of character animations for hundreds of creatures, but store them on the limiting cartridge format. So it's not surprising in the least that the actual fights are simple cut-out actions that feature the same flair as a Terry Gilliam Monty Python cartoon. The expectations for the run-around-the-world elements are a completely different story, but I guess constantly jumping back and forth between a detailed world and a simplistic battle interface would be too distracting. So, both environments remain "simplistic." I'm just hoping that this changes when the series moves to the Nintendo DS. And you know that's going to happen.
Where the game sort of falls flat on a visual and sound experience, it excels pretty much everywhere else. The gameplay of Red/Blue remains true in FireRed/LeafGreen, with the designers only changing things up that make sense to the direction the series went in last year's version. This means new moves and abilities for the Pokemon creatures that builds more strategic elements into the game's battle structure and monster raising, as well as new and different locations to discover these extra items to enhance the creatures. Ruby/Sapphire also introduced the element of two-on-two battles, an element that's been implemented in the Red/Blue remake as well...though these only show up about 2% of the time. The entire town layout, however, hasn't changed much in the move from Game Boy to GBA, keeping all of the village structures are essentially untouched in the update. So even though about 90% of the game retains the exact adventure from the original game, the addition of Ruby/Sapphire gameplay elements keeps the experience somewhat fresh for players going through it again.
Yes, that's right, 90%. It's not entirely a videogame rerun. About three quarters through the single player mode it actually skews along a new line with fresh environments that introduce new adventure elements. Surprisingly, this fork in the road initially seems like only a slight detour that isn't entirely necessary to complete the game. But where Red/Blue ended, FireRed/LeafGreen continues and expands on those environments, opening them up even further to increase the game's replay value. All told, there's another good 10 hours of adventuring beyond the standard 25-30 hours required to beat the game as established in Red/Blue
On top of the extra adventuring elements, the developers also throw in a lot of little elements that make the package feel more complete. A online tutorial can be pulled up at any time to give players a taste of learning the game's nuances and strategies; a "context sensitive" help menu is literally at player's fingertips by hitting the L or R triggers, during battles or during the adventure. On top of this, the game has a nifty "flashback" mode that pops up after starting a saved game to remind players where they are in the adventure; it actually remembers the last four key moments that happened in the quest and plays them back as they happened in a quick "instant replay" fashion. It's an element that wasn't entirely necessary, but it's certainly helpful, especially if you've taken a long break from the adventure.
After the release of Red/Blue, the designers advanced the series two more times, in the Game Boy Color-only Gold/Silver and the GBA premiere of Ruby/Sapphire, each offering a generous helping of new creatures and new functionality to keep the series fresh. FireRed/LeafGreen follows this successful trend, but not quite in the same direction. Where the past Pokemon games improved and tweaked the gameplay elements, FireRed/LeafGreen's offering is more in the game's functionality: wireless connectivity.
Included with each copy of FireRed and LeafGreen is an adapter that plugs into the link port of a Game Boy Advance or Game Boy Advance SP, turning the system into a radio transmitter/receiver. This changes up the game's multiplayer function significantly. Previously players had to be tethered together during trades and battles, which admittedly restricted the "comfort" of linking up. With the wireless adapter, players still have to be in the general area due to distance limitation (about a hundred feet apart), but now groups and clans can jump into designated Pokemon hotspots and compete anonymously in the game's Union Room. In these rooms, as many as 30 different Pokemon players can join up, trade, battle, or simply chat in a basic IM interface.
The downside to wireless connectivity: it's clearly more taxing on the system than you would think. Wireless battles are much more lag-filled than link cable and single player battles, putting awkward one or two second pauses in between each action as the systems sync up with each other. The interface to connect with other players wirelessly is also a bit cumbersome and clunky, with the lag making it difficult to tell when someone's available to chat, battle or trade. When trying to hook up in the Union Room, players will many times get generic messages that a player's not available simply because they're trying to do the same thing to you. It's an interface that really needs a lot of work, and hopefully the development team can put a little more time in future iterations into creating a wireless interface that's a lot more seamless.
But even with the new elements, FireRed/LeafGreen feels like a slight step backwards from the previous GBA adventure. The team obviously didn't want to derail too much from the original Red/Blue adventure, so out went a lot of the elements that actually spiced up Ruby/Sapphire. No berry growing, no special custom "hideouts", no beauty contests, and no single player mini-games outside of the slot machine in Celadon City. Still, the Pokemon experience remains with near infinite replay value, even beyond the completion of the Red/Blue adventure thanks to additional areas and the connectivity between Ruby/Sapphire and the GameCube Pokemon Colosseum.
©2004, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved