Saturday, May 8, 2010

Pokemon HeartGold/SoulSilver

I was fifteen when Pokemon Red/Blue arrived in the States in 1998. Too old to enjoy the cute monsters and perhaps too young to look past them, I sampled Red for about an hour before giving up. I denounced the concept as too reminiscent of dog fighting, but I was really more put off by the battle system that struck me as archaic. Some years later, I gained an appreciation for the finely tuned mechanics, thanks to the pure battling experience offered in Pokemon Stadium. Thus, as a nineteen-year-old college student, I decided to give the series another try when Ruby/Sapphire came out in 2003. Well, that endeavor ended prematurely much like my first attempt; as it turned out, having beaten Stadium with a team of "rental" Pokemon, I still had no patience for the main game routine of wandering around in tall grass and tossing out dozens of Poke Balls before a rare Pokemon agreed to go inside one.

It was not until 2006, when Nintendo partnered with Toys "R" Us to give out the legendary Mew for the Game Boy Advance editions, that I finally "got it." I was mostly familiar with the original 151 Pokemon (i.e. the ones in Stadium), so I still believed Mew the rarest of them all. Even though I had never been able to get more than an hour into any of the main games, the chance to acquire this Pokemon, impossible to catch within the game itself, ignited something within me. (Maybe it helped that I was now out of school and bored at work.) I dug out my copy of Ruby and waited three hours in line at Toys "R" Us to get that Mew. With that hardest one down, "catch 'em all" actually sounded feasible for once, and so I set myself to the game once more and this time promised myself that I would stick with it. Some forty hours later, I was not close to being a master, but I discovered that I actually did enjoy Pokemon after all, and I immediately followed up my playthrough of Ruby by taking on FireRed, Emerald, Colosseum, and the just-released Pearl, beating them all in turn in about a six-month span.

By the time Platinum came out last year, I considered myself quite the Pokemon adept, despite having gotten into it late. Perhaps the only gap in my experience was my not having played the second generation of Pokemon Gold/Silver/Crystal, which many enthusiasts considered the series's high point. I was certainly not going to go back to play a Game Boy Color game that offered no cross-compatibility with my GBA and DS games, especially as I did not believe in the noteworthiness of being the best entry in a series of practically identical games. As they did with the GBA remakes of first generation, however, Nintendo and Game Freak have given late-comers like me a second chance to experience Gold/Silver. I don't know how exactly Pokemon HeartGold/SoulSilver for the DS compares to the vaunted GBC originals, but I will say that it is the best Pokemon game that I have played.

It's not likely to change anybody's mind about the series; it is still very much the same experience as you'll find in any of the other main installments since the original (which is why a straight-up "remake" for this series may sound like a silly idea). The pursuit of the complete Pokedex is still as sickeningly addictive as ever. Tossing Poke Balls at uncooperative wild Pokemon can be tedious and frustrating, but it can also be as habit-forming as any real-world collecting hobby. The other appeal for me remains the deceptively deep combat. I've always appreciated that the AI foes in these games all play by the same rules as the player, so that you feel like you have to tactically outmaneuver an actual person, instead of an unfairly overpowered behemoth with just a ton of HP to be whittled down by tapping A over and over again. Of course, Pokemon may be the only RPG with an active competitive scene, so the fighting engine has to be balanced for player-versus-player.

That said, after beating Pearl, I was ready for a hiatus from the formula. I thought it was burnout from having played too many games in too short a span without any break, but, playing Platinum alongside HeartGold, I now realize that Diamond/Pearl/Platinum specifically is just not that enjoyable. They tried to make that game a bigger, more expansive experience by making towns larger and dungeons much longer, to no one's benefit. With the typically repetitive mechanics and absent plot, it could become a real drag to get stuck spending too much time in any one area. HeartGold/SoulSilver is much breezier by comparison, and the journey moves along at about the perfect pace to continually introduce the player to new Pokemon and Pokemon trainers.

Even the story is vastly more interesting. In practice, the plot is not at all engaging, but, then again, neither is Beowulf anymore a stimulating read outside an academic environment, in my opinion. There is a certain poetry to HeartGold/SoulSilver's narrative construction in conjunction with FireRed/LeafGreen.

SPOILERS (Seriously?)

/LeafGreen (or Red/Blue) begins with just a boy setting out from home to explore the land of Kanto. Journeying from town to town with the Pokemon he catches along the way as his only companions, he makes friends and rivals and challenges himself by taking on gym leaders. He tangles with Team Rocket, ultimately defeating its leader and saving Kanto from the criminal organization's nefarious schemes. The boy and his Pokemon gain experience from these battles, eventually earning their way into the Pokemon League to challenge the champion. The silent protagonist proves himself the strongest trainer in Kanto, but, instead of taking on the mantle of champion, he continues on his journey. With his Pokemon ever at his side, he rides off on his bicycle and into legend.

/SoulSilver (or Gold/Silver) picks up the story three years later in another land, where another young boy (or girl) sets out on a similar journey. He collects Pokemon, earns badges by defeating gym leaders, and contends with a bitter rival that may have some connection to Team Rocket, whose remnants have now relocated to the Johto region in a desperate bid to reach out to their missing leader. After this new protagonist becomes the strongest trainer in Johto, the story comes full circle as he makes his way to Kanto. There, the player gets to walk familiar routes and reunite with the Kanto gym leaders, who have grown stronger and more mature. You get to revisit all the old towns and see how they have developed free of Team Rocket's corrupting influences. Finally, you find the legendary Red himself standing at the summit, still very much the same boy that the player set out with on that first journey. In a silent duel of wandering champions, Red finally meets his match, only proving that the quest is truly never-ending. And thus the two boys part to continue along on their journeys.

Tsunekazu Ishiharu, producer of Pokemon Red/Blue and currently president of The Pokemon Company, recently revealed that Pokemon Gold and Silver were originally intended to be the "finish line" for the series (keep in mind that, while Gold/Silver was only the second generation, there had already been four first generation games released over the course of three years in Japan). Indeed, not only were they probably the best games in the series (maybe until their own remakes), but they were also the only legitimate sequels. Later games essentially retold the original's story, only changing the names and outfits, but Gold/Silver actually completed what Red/Blue began.

As in every subsequent release, the original game's world consisted of eight gyms, each championing one of the fifteen different Pokemon types. Gold/Silver then added two types and gave players another eight gyms to conquer, with no repeats from the first game, so that, between the two, every one of the seventeen Pokemon types was represented by a gym, with the exception of Dark, which happened to be the type favored by Team Rocket's interim leader in Gold/Silver, as well as the last and strongest member of the Johto League's Elite Four. Later games did not add any more Pokemon types and had to cut off access to the old regions and gyms, so that they could instead recycle old types in new gyms without it seeming redundant. That's a shame, because getting that ticket to ride to the original game world is the most exciting and rewarding moment in HeartGold/SoulSilver.

For players of Red/Blue (or FireRed/LeafGreen), returning to Kanto and battling the original gym leaders again can be a haunting experience in much the same way as revisiting Shadow Moses in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, or exploring the mansion in Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition's "Lost in Nightmares" scenario. I imagine there would be yet another nostalgic dimension for players who actually traveled through Johto the first time around. Even if you've never played any version of Red/Blue or Gold/Silver before, the inclusion of almost the entire Kanto region makes for one of the best post-endgame "second quests" in gaming. It nearly doubles the length of the game, which effectively offers players twice as many meaningful battles as even the games that came after Gold/Silver. The remakes even go a little further toward making HeartGold/SoulSilver the definitive Pokemon experience by tossing in many rare Pokemon not originally found in Johto (some not even native to Kanto) and including cameos by some Ruby/Sapphire and Diamond/Pearl characters. And of course that battle with Red still makes for the perfect ending, such that I'm doubly disappointed that Black/White looks like it will be more of the same, because HeartGold/SoulSilver would have been the perfect sendoff to the classic formula.

As for the few brand new features in Pokemon HeartGold/SoulSilver, the Pokeathlon is a cool concept--who wouldn't love to see their little Pokemon sprites racing around a track?--but, even with multiplayer, the touchscreen-based mini-games are too clumsily executed to be anything but frustrating. The Pokewalker, on the other hand, I see as a fairly significant and positive advancement for the series. It is, in essence, just a more primitive version of a Tamagotchi crossed with a pedometer. In conjunction with the main game, however, it is much more attractive than that idea should be. It's embarrassing to say so, but being able to take your Pokemon around with you outside of the game makes your bond with them seem so much more real, while sending them into battle back on the DS is a lot more gratifying than raising a Tamagotchi ever could be. And the ability to level up a Pokemon just by taking it out for a walk has even encouraged me to get back on the treadmill, so I have to thank it for that.

If you have any interest in getting into (or back into) Pokemon, this is the game to play. It is the biggest, best, and most complete Pokemon experience yet. Even without trading, there are only about sixty Pokemon out of the current 493 that cannot be gotten through playing just either HeartGold or SoulSilver (I played HeartGold but recommend SoulSilver for Skarmory). I even kind of consider the lack of a compelling story as a point in the game's favor; since it doesn't require much attention, I can play the game while watching TV, and I have consequently sunk more hours into this than any other game (or other diversion, period) in the last two months. And I'm not even done yet.

No comments: