There's no escaping Pokémon, as Nintendo's long-running series of games--which revolves around the capture and training of a variety of bizarre and adorable monsters--refuses to lose any steam. Pokémon Emerald is the latest of the bunch, and brings the ever-expanding stable of wee beasties back to the Game Boy Advance for more battling mayhem. We've secured a copy of the game and have spent some time training our monstrous friends to see how this new version fares.
Like its predecessors Ruby and Sapphire, Pokémon Emerald pits you against the diabolical machinations of Team Magma and Team Aqua as you fight to preserve the balance of the Hoenn region and become a true Pokémon master. To do this, you're going to have to set out into the countryside and seek out wild Pokémon to catch and train to engage in combat. Each type of Pokémon has its own abilities and strengths that you'll use to battle both wild Pokémon, as well as other trainers itching for a fight, in order to climb to the top of the training hierarchy.
You'll start off the game in Littleroot Town, a charming little hamlet that your family has just moved to. The town is home to one Professor Birch, who is true to the form of the Pokémon-realm scientific community in that he is obsessed with studying Pokémon. It's from him that you receive your very first creature, and it's a choice between the grass-type gecko Treecko, the fire-type fledgling Torchic, or the water-type Mudkip. From that point on, things unfold like a typical Pokémon adventure as you set out armed with your original friend and a handful of pokeballs to tame more monsters and start building your skill and reputation.
The game plays just the same as earlier installments. Walking through the underbrush or approaching a rival trainer starts up a battle, and you'll need to take the opponent down using your collection of Pokémon and their unique abilities. Different Pokémon have different inherent strengths and weaknesses based upon their type, so you'll have to know your Pokémon well in order to achieve the greatest success. Wild Pokémon can be captured when they're at low health by using a pokeball to scoop them up; they're then entered into your Pokédex compendium as well as your collection so that you can use them in battle. Depending on the time of day (the game has you enter the current time on an in-game clock), different monsters will appear, so you'll have to be crafty in order to catch 'em all. Two-on-two battles from Ruby and Sapphire also return in this version, so you can field your own duo against a pair of foes in certain situations.
You can also still trade and battle Pokémon with your friends by linking up your systems, and Pokémon Emerald supports the GBA wireless adapter, so you can easily swap monsters without messing around with a cable if you so desire. You can do this with both Ruby and Sapphire as well as Fire Red and Leaf Green, depending on what type of connection you have and what option you choose. The manual has a handy, if slightly complex, chart to let you figure out what sort of interactions you can perform.
The graphics are still of the series' clean and simple design, with character sprites in the overworld and some close-up art and animations when in battle. The Pokémon themselves will do a short animation and let out a battle cry as a fight starts, and the various abilities have basic and easily recognizable appearances. Emerald has upbeat music for the towns and countryside, as well as the familiar battle theme for when Pokémon opponents come to call.
If you're a Pokémon fan, Pokémon Emerald looks like it will deliver more of the same experience you've grown so fond of; if you're not a Pokémon fan, you'll continue to be confused by crazy-looking critters with tongue-twisting names and mysterious powers. We'll have a full review of the game when it's released next week, so be sure to keep your eyes on this gamespace.