Nintendo's Pokémon games were one of the company's profitable mainstays in the last phase of the console wars. The franchise, which began on the Game Boy Color, quickly became a juggernaut that spawned a host of sequels on the Game Boy Color, several spin-off titles on the Nintendo 64, and a blitz of toys, cartoons, and feature films. These days the Pokémon phenomenon has cooled off a bit, but it obviously still has some life left to it based on fan reaction to the announcement of the two Game Boy Advance games and their subsequent sales figures since the games launched in Japan earlier this month. We had a chance to check out the latest entries in the series, Pokémon Ruby and Pokémon Sapphire, to see how the games fare on the Game Boy Advance.
For those unfamiliar with the premise behind the Pokémon games, the gameplay revolves around capturing and training creatures called Pokémon. You are placed in the role of a trainer and charged with the ultimate goal of earning badges from different characters, called gym leaders, which you'll encounter in your travels through the game. The unique feature of the games has been the savvy distribution of the creatures in them. While all the Pokémon games have offered essentially the same content in terms of game structure, each color-themed Pokémon game has unique types of Pokémon not found in any other version of the game. The games promote cooperation between players if they want to catch every Pokémon in the game. As a result, the key gameplay elements that have consistently hooked gamers are collection, trading, and competition. Besides collecting Pokémon and trading them with friends and nonplayer characters in the game, it's possible to pit your stable of Pokémon against a friend's.
That core gameplay appears to have been brought over intact to Pokémon Ruby and Pokémon Sapphire, judging from our time with the import versions of the games. The games follow the same basic structure as the previous games, incorporating the gameplay enhancements found in the last entry, Pokémon Crystal. You'll be asked to choose the gender of your virtual self and a name at the start of the game. Once you're dropped into the game, you'll set an in-game clock to your local time. The clock feature will affect gameplay in two ways. The time will determine whether you're playing during the day or night, which will be reflected in the game's graphics. In terms of gameplay, the time of day will affect which Pokémon you encounter in the game, since some are nocturnal and others are not. Once you've set the basics, you'll do a bit of roaming and will come across the game's professor, a Pokémon specialist who will provide you with your first Pokémon. As in every game, you'll have to choose from one of three Pokémon types: grass, fire, or water. Once you've picked and named your tiny ball-dwelling minion, your adventure begins. As you defeat enemies, you'll level up your Pokémon and eventually evolve.
In terms of structure, Pokémon Ruby and Pokémon Sapphire appear to stick pretty close to the standard formula. You'll explore the map, take routes to different towns, brawl with local gym leaders, earn badges, and move on. You'll find Pokémon centers to heal your stable of critters and Pokémarts where you can stock up on items to heal your Pokémon in battle and precious Pokéballs that you can use to capture new Pokémon. At the moment it looks as though the biggest addition to gameplay is the ability to have two-on-two battles between you and your friends.
Graphically the game has been given a moderate face-lift that offers some nice effects but won't blow anyone away. The core graphics look very close to the Game Boy games but are kept fresh with special effects such as rustling grass and a very cool reflection effect in the water. Battles have also been freshened a bit but not dramatically so. Aside from a few additions to make things more colorful, the battles look basically the same. The menus have been tweaked to give the Pokédex menu system a different appearance.
From what we've seen so far, Pokémon Ruby and Pokémon Sapphire are looking to be solid additions to the Pokémon canon. They retain the addictive gameplay of previous games and throw another batch of Pokémon onto the heap. The addition of two-on-two battles is good, but it would have been nice to see a bit more done to enhance the gameplay. Still, the games appear to be as solid as any other entry in the franchise. Look for more on the games in the coming months as details on the US versions of the games are released.