We were fortunate to get our hands on Pokémon FireRed and Pokémon LeafGreen a few days before their September 7 release date, and we quickly started putting the games through the paces. These latest Pokémon installments of course feature Nintendo's lovable-yet-feisty pocket monsters battling it out against each other in the context of a cool little role-playing game that also features extensive two-player multiplayer options. As you may know, FireRed and LeafGreen are actually remakes of the original 1999 Pokémon Red and Blue games for the Game Boy, which should make for an interesting trip down memory lane for series fans and an exciting new adventure for newer Pokémon fanatics. It also seems like a great way for new recruits to get their feet wet with a series that has earned its popularity for good reason.
The most surprising aspect of Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen is that they include a wireless adapter for multiplayer play. The clear plastic device plugs into the back of your GBA, where the link cable would normally go, and enables two-player gameplay with no strings attached. This may seem like a revolutionary new development for GBA multiplayer gaming, but for now, the device works exclusively between these two games. In fact, in what's kind of a neat touch, you actually need to be in certain physical areas of the gameworld (the equivalent of "hot spots" at your local coffee houses) to use the wireless multiplayer feature.
Of course, you'll want to hold off on battling your friends until you've built up a good-sized roster of Pokémon. You'll do this by going through either of the games' single-player story modes, which are basically identical. You start out by naming your alter ego, who can either be a boy or a girl. You'll also get to pick a name for your rival, who'll be a thorn in your side throughout the games' whimsical storyline in which you aspire to become the greatest Pokémon trainer in all the land--as well as aspire to catch every last type of Pokémon (and the games include every last Pokémon ever conceived, apparently) for the purposes of the good Professor Oak's scientific inquiry.
The battling here frankly hasn't changed much since all those years ago. It's still a hybrid strategy game/role-playing game in which, instead of using swords and sorcery, you use your little Pokémon to do the fighting for you. Pokémon level up as they gain experience, and they gain new abilities as they gain levels. Sometimes they even evolve into new, stronger forms. But there's more to it than just matching levels with opposing critters; some Pokémon are naturally superior to others. For example, the fiery charmander may easily be doused by squirtle and his bubble-launching attacks. So, building a good, balanced selection of Pokémon is the key to successive victories.
Combat in these games looks very good. The Pokémon don't animate much (they never have), but they're cuter and more colorful than ever before, and each emits a distinctively tinny sound effect. The combat feels a little bit on the slow side, but that's mostly because we've already fought countless battles in previous Pokémon titles, and this is more of the same. Luckily, despite being a remake of the older Pokémon games, FireRed and LeafGreen incorporate the two-on-two battles introduced in Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire.
One unique, new feature in FireRed and LeafGreen is how you are given a nice summary of where you stand in the story mode whenever you load a saved game. Ever come back to a role-playing game (or any game, for that matter) after a while and you have completely forgotten where you were or what you were supposed to be doing? We sure have, so we were glad to see how these new Pokémon games present a good, concise summary of the story so far whenever we started it up.
We've been so busy leveling our squirtle, ratatta, and pidgey that we honestly haven't gotten too far into the story mode just yet. But we like what we've played so far, even though it's not much different from what we're used to from the Pokémon handheld games. FireRed and LeafGreen will be out next week. Stay tuned for our full reviews, and check out our new screenshots and movies to get a good sense of exactly what to expect.