Here we are, at what many would consider stage two of the Pokémon series. Nostalgia goggles on, a whole generation of adults today will stalwartly hold Red/Blue and Gold/Silver as the only Pokémon titles worth playing, even going as far as denying the existence of any game in the series since. But for those of us who are still playing the games, and even more so those of us who started playing Pokémon with Ruby/Sapphire, we know that this particular pairing are some of the fondest titles in the entire series. Despite such controversial decisions as cutting many of the original Pokémon line-up and making trade between past versions entirely impossible, Ruby/Sapphire truly paid off as Pokémon games, enough so to receive remakes of their own. So what makes these two games in the series so special?
Perhaps first of all it’s the Hoenn region that makes these games feel so memorable. Hoenn is perhaps the most diverse region in the entire series and a grand departure from the Kanto and Johto we’d known beforehand. The region has a volcano, a desert, a city built in the trees and another atop a coral reef, routes caught in a perpetual downpour, underwater dive spots and of course plenty of berries to pick up along the way. Even areas familiar with the series such as the graveyard of Mt. Pyre felt new and interesting, setting itself on a mountain side rather than within an urbanised structure. Then there’s the Abandoned Ship to explore which, I’m not sure about everyone else here but, I completely convinced myself it was the sunken S.S. Anne from the anime. Regardless, nature is certainly at the forefront of the Hoenn region and it really comes to life with the vibrant sprites packed into the Game Boy Advance cartridge. Hoenn is so engrossing in fact that many deserts and volcanoes since feel unsatisfactory in comparison.
The Pokémon line-up however was more of a gamble than an upgrade. After Gold/Silver introduced new Pokémon while retaining every creature from Red/Blue also, it was shocking that Ruby/Sapphire restricted the number of creatures that would appear to 202, meaning that 184 Pokémon from the previous games did not appear in any way, shape or form. Of course nowadays we have FireRed/LeafGreen and Emerald to fill out the remaining roster but at the time of its original release we didn’t know if we’d ever be catching those Pokémon again. But in retrospect because Game Freak put so much faith in the 135 new creatures in the game, the games feel all the more special to us today as they helped make the region stand out in the long run. Furthermore rarely would we find a Pokémon in the wild in a location we wouldn’t expect it to live in; the creatures this time around fit in their environment naturally and this kind of care and attention to the Pokémon locations hasn’t been so thorough in perhaps any of the other Pokémon games to date.
Not all is great however and one of the biggest criticisms the games faced was the large amount of sea routes and surfing spots we had to traverse. This focus on the ocean is unique to Ruby/Sapphire but even in the remakes the issue of finding a diverse range of Pokémon atop the ocean floor has not been addressed. It made travel quite tedious especially considering we’d have to go to our bags every few steps to lay down another repel to avoid more Tentacool and Wingull showing their annoying faces. It didn’t help that Water-Type Pokémon dominated the region as a whole (especially when playing Sapphire as Team Aqua just love them Carvanha). The Generation VI remakes do however alleviate this issue somewhat by significantly dropping the encounter rate when surfing on a Pokémon as well as giving us super-fast travel on the back of a Sharpedo. We can appreciate what was trying to be achieved on this front but it doesn’t change the fact that surfing on a Pokémon has never been as fun as we’d like it to be.
There is one final note on Ruby/Sapphire I’d like to cover however, one that really covers all of Generation III. The games have excellent pacing. It’s not simply a case of what happens where and how the plot develops, but how speedy the game plays. Technically they are the smoothest Pokémon titles around; they run so at 60 FPS, with every battle feeling fast-paced and action packed and we never feel we get bogged down in one place for too long. This is particularly striking when standing next to Generation IV which runs at half the speed, it just reminds us how lovely and breezy these titles are to play. Not even their remakes in Generation VI move so fast (though I suppose the Pokémon are being rendered in full 3D which is nice…).
On the subject of the remakes, as great a pair of Pokémon titles they are, it’s hard to be totally satisfied with the result. Hoenn is more beautiful than ever and the PokéNav Plus has completely revitalised the concept of “Gotta Catch ‘em All”. The story has expanded massively also adding more substance to the adventure and the schemes of Team Magma and Aqua. However while it was always a nice touch to face a different team depending on our version, Magma and Aqua were never that great to begin with, while the rest of the plot enhancements have caught the NPC nattering bug meaning at times we can find ourselves missing the simpler days when Ruby/Sapphire just allowed us get on without so much interruption. Finally the placement of the Battle Resort over the hugely anticipated return of the Battle Frontier is a blow many are still trying to recover from. All in all the remakes reveal how far the series has come in that 12 year time gap, but they also show somewhat what’s been lost in the process also, that free and independent adventure.
Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire are special games in the franchise. They reset the series in a big way and because of this have lost much of the reputation they deserve. But in retrospect the risks certainly pay off and these titles are some of the most memorable entries in Pokémon history, and remain titles that are always a blast to return to every now and again.