Play it again, Mudkip
For a franchise that’s continually berated for remaining the same over the years, Pokémon is wildly successful, having pushed forward on its own, full speed ahead. It hasn’t needed to change much to sweep the nation with each new release, though some of the series’ newest releases have received criticism due to lack of content. Pokémon X & Y hit the 3DS in 2013, enticing us with gorgeous new scenery, brand new monsters.
However, X & Y, although introducing the new Mega Evolution element, were otherwise lackluster when it came to post-Elite Four content and seemed a bit of a step back feature-wise. Game Freak is remedying the situation by releasing a Pokémon game that’s been celebrated as having a plethora of features and is a perennial fan favorite. Oddly enough, Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire feel like a much more complete experience than the original titles or X & Y.
Pokémon Alpha Sapphire (3DS)
Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo/The Pokémon Company
Released: November 21, 2014
The plot has remained the same at its core. On one very special day, you embark on a journey to fill up your Pokédex, traveling around the land with the goal in mind of becoming a Pokémon Master. It’s all familiar stuff, and if you’ve followed the RPG series from its inception you’ll no doubt be familiar with what’s going on here. Professor Birch bestows you with one starter monster out of three: Torchic, Mudkip, and Treecko, representing fire, water, and grass respectively.
Then, you’ll embark on a journey to become the Pokémon Champion of the Hoenn region. Along the way, either Team Magma or Team Aqua (depending on which version they’re playing) will step in to fulfill their roles as the games’ nefarious villains, attempting to use a legendary Pokémon to revert the world back to its ancient form. However, the plot has been expanded, with scenes featuring additional details and the inclusion of a plotline (the Delta Episode) in which the player must explore the origins of the Mega Evolutions.
Everything that was originally in Ruby and Sapphire (and Emerald too) was lovingly remade and improved. The view has returned to a more isometric perspective instead of the up-close angles of Pokémon X & Y, although environments do remain 3D. In fact, the 3D features work a lot better in this iteration, with slowdown not being near as much of a problem as it was in X & Y.
Secret bases return and can be shared via StreetPass, Wi-Fi, or even a custom QR code. Not only are secret bases infinitely customizable, but one a player accepts your invite to your secret base, their character will appear there for you to move about and interact with!
Pokémon Contests also return, this time with an adorable new friend. Players receive a special Pikachu that can dress up in different costumes. Not only do these costumes affect its performance in the contests, but by wearing them while battling, the Pikachu can learn moves it would not be able to otherwise. Pokemon-Amie and Super Training are also available to further customize the monsters on your team, but remain unchanged from their functionality in Pokémon X & Y. EXP Share again rears its head (possibly much to many a player’s chagrin) and like in X & Y takes a lot of the grinding out of building up teams of Pokémon. In fact, the only really noticeable new feature that’s actually missing from X & Y is the ability to customize the appearance of the player character. What you see is what you get for the duration after you choose to be either male or female.
Instead of more personal customization, the games’ new features are actually a series of refinements of previous series’ concepts, which are very welcome. The PokéNav Plus is a suite of tools available for the player that takes a ton of headache out of the game. The AreaNav takes care of the frustration of having to consult guides or memorize locations of Pokémon. After you encounter a Pokémon on any given route, their silhouettes will appear on the mini-map. The AreaNav will also tell you whether or not you’ve collected all the Pokémon in the area.
Catching a particular Pokemon also gets easier with visual, in-game cues. Sometimes when traveling, you’ll see a Pokémon’s tail sticking out of the tall grass. Each tail is unique to species and gender, so you can know exactly what you’re getting if you head to that square. Once you’re near the square though, you can’t just rush in headlong. You’ll have to sneak up on the Pokémon or risk scaring it off. Additionally, the more you encounter a species of a Pokémon in an area, the more information on them will be displayed on the DexNav, which makes rare species variations easier to track down.
Multiplayer is available by selecting the PlayNav feature, and BuzzNav offers news reports from around Hoenn. Horde battles have been expanded into trainer horde battles in which the player may have to fight up to five enemy trainers at the same time. Also, a somewhat late-game addition is the introduction of the move Soar. This move allows you to, in real-time, fly around Hoenn and land where you choose! This opens up areas in the map that have not been seen previously and also allows you to quickly get to any spot you need to, to catch Pokémon without the hassle of having to walk or bike.
The Pokémon are still center stage, though these games don’t actually bring any new creatures to the table. It’s refreshing to see an abundance of familiar monsters hanging around and see Mega Evolutions for some old favorites, both in the wild and on the belts of trainers everywhere, instead of having to memorize a whole new set of data for 100 or so new Pokémon. There’s a sense of balance that comes with this design decision, as it really seems like a lot of work went into fleshing out existing monsters, and it’s one I appreciate. It’s also great to finally be able to catch them all in one generation of game, as Game Freak has stated (although I’m still well on my way to capturing them all) that between X & Y and Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, every single Pokémon to date can be caught. It’s a daunting task for sure, but one that feels good to know is attainable.
Even without venturing out to catch ’em all, which has always been the ultimate Pokémon goal for trainers across the globe, these games have an abundance of content to offer, taking on the role of the ultimate versions of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire. With tons of old favorite features returning with quite a bit of polish, and new features which complement instead of overshadowing, players will be able to experience the tightest gameplay in the series to date.
Oddly enough, a game that made its debut almost 12 years ago is what it took to lure me back into Pokémania. Although X & Y did an admirable job when it came to transitioning the Pokémon series onto the 3DS, to me (other than the graphics) it seemed like the same formula from 1998 with a new coat of paint. However, this entry feels like a true next-gen title, with all the charm of the Pokémon franchise and just the right amount of features and complexities to have players journeying through Hoenn for years to come. Grab a Poké Ball and jump right in!
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]