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True Axiom avatar 6:56 PM on 03.23.2010  (server time)
Review: Pokemon SoulSilver/Heartgold

One could say writing a review of Pokemon SoulSilver is utter folly, and they'd be pretty close to right. After all, Game Freak have made the same basic game since the mid nineties: find pokemon, catch them, level them up, find a better pokemon, and dump the first by the wayside. It's an alluring mixture that doesn't change, especially not in a remake of the second entry in the franchise.

The strength, the immersiveness of Pokemon comes from one simple fact. In most RPGs, you're playing a dude who hits things. You feel like you are the player character, and this makes the whole menu system occasionally difficult to swallow. If I am this character, I reason, why don't I just stab the other guy in the throat and be done with it? Why do I need a move that does 3214 arbitrary damage points to do that?

Pokemon, on the other hand, has every reason to be arbitrary and statistical. You are some guy, who catches monsters, who he commands. If they don't like you, they won't do it. They have the intelligence of an especially vibrant piece of gum, and can't remember how to do a whole lot. Your influence revolves around picking commands from a list, which is, coincidentally, how an RPG plays. In my happier moments I like to imagine Tajiri Satoshi and the other founders of Game Freak sitting around a table wondering how they could make something like Dragon Quest immersive, and not just something bound by technical limitations. They'd be on top of a gold mine! And, funnily enough, now they are.

This immersiveness only adds to the thrill of the game. The thrill isn't in the competitive battling (where it has become something of a standard, probably because of its rather robust multiplayer options and being literally the only game like it with those options), but rather the exploration. My best moment was going onto a new Route and finding a sheep (named Mareep) who I could catch. It's the new pokemon that keep the adventure going, and the new locales. And SoulSilver has the most of those, with a long, engrossing campaign, with an entire past game world being unlocked after the “final” boss. It's like if, when you beat Kefka in Final Fantasy VI, you could return to the World of Balance and complete a metric ton of side quests.

If there is a failure in Pokemon SoulSilver, it is that it doesn't go very far as a remake. It is basically a copy-paste of the previous games, polished ad absurdum. There are two problems with this. For one, Pokemon Gold and Silver were surprisingly uneven games difficulty wise; I am not opposed to grinding, but I find it difficult to stomach when the first 8 hours are grind free, followed by a forced session of 4 hours of grinding, followed by 14 breezy hours running up to a brick wall of grinding. Some of the gym leaders (gyms 4 and 8, specifically, or, as I prefer to call that, fucking prick and goddamn bitch lady) are obscenely broken, and all the gym leaders are so much higher leveled than random “walking hazard” trainers that the difficulty curve is a null line with eight massive spikes.

This kind of builds into my other complaint: the Pokemon. And I will take this in the entirely opposite direction of most of the fans who didn't buy the game, anyway. There are 500 some Pokemon now. Using all of them would have been difficult, certainly, but some additional variety would have been nice. For example, one of the later bosses uses (literally) 6 Koffings (the Pokemon who taught Japan that smoking was cool). Now, while this isn't awful, some variety, some use of the hundreds of Pokemon made since Gold and Silver would have let them do more interesting things before you got to Kanto, and made for some scintillating battles, as opposed to the slugfests most difficult battles in Pokemon turn into.

Pokemon is one of the most important games ever made, and SoulSilver, like almost all the other versions at release, is the defining entry. It's the uncomplicated, pure ideal, in a world where plots are unnecessarily complicated and poorly written (*insert stern look in the direction of other beloved fantasy RPG franchise here*), a game where the good guys win because they're good and not because they sat around moping about their feelings for twenty hours only to realize they too are good. It is simple and yet an almost perfect slice of Japan, nostalgia for some and idealism for others.

Two thumbs decidedly up.

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