But that doesn't mean the series does not have its own faults. Almost every game has been the same, despite various superficial and trivial attempts on the developers' part. The graphics and the sound have been the same in every game, and would not seem out of place on the GBA, except for a few little changes and upgrades here and there. The gameplay has remained identical throughout, so much so, that the only difference between two consecutive Pokemon games, except for a few minor additions, is that different kinds of Pokemon can be found. It is because of these very reasons that the legacy of a beloved series, one that has the potential to innovate with every new game, is endangered, and that too because of the developers' laziness.
I was not wrong, then, when I looked down at HeartGold/SoulSilver with scepticism. The series, for me at least, had gone down disastrously with the advent of Hoenn. FireRed/LeafGreen had been spectacular, but the haunting memories of Ruby/Sapphire still flashed in my mind, and Diamond/Pearl/Platinum hadn't been able to do much damage control either, contrary to whatever I said. What made me even more afraid to play these new re-makes was the fact that Gold and Silver were some of my most favourite games ever, and I didn't want my memories of them to be ruined.
Still, for the sake of nostalgia and all those good old memories with my Typhlosion, I went ahead and picked up SoulSilver on the first day of release. I quickly turned on my DS, inserted my cartridge, and stepped into a magical world. That was the moment all my doubts were swept aside.
From the very first second, the game felt… right. It fell into place, very suddenly. It was as if something had suddenly clicked. The game felt addictive and refined from the starting itself. The dialogue was much better than the previous Pokemon games, the gameplay was much more refined and polished, and for the first time since Gold/Silver, it felt as if Game Freak had actually put in a lot of hard work and money into making this game. I don't know, maybe it's just the magic of Johto.
When I bought HeartGold/SoulSilver, I was afraid that this game might turn out to be a carbon copy of Gold and Silver with some furnishings of Diamond and Pearl. I knew it was, after all, a remake, but a few changes wouldn't hurt. It doesn't help either that Pokemon is a series that is known to have stuck to the conventional RPG formula. I was pleasantly surprised, then, when I noticed quite a few, and meaningful, changes.
The first change I noticed, barely five minutes into the game, was that our Pokemon now follows us, akin to Pikachu following us in Pokemon Yellow, but this time expanded to include every single Pokemon in the game and to retain scale. So, for example, if a Tyrannitar is following us, it would be towering over us in the overworld, whereas a Pidgey would be dwarfed by our sprite. What makes this even better is that the game does not forgo logic. For example, we would not see a Waylord or a Steelix following us inside a building, as it would be physically impossible for them to fit inside one.
It is really endearing to see your new Cyndaquil rolling about in the tall grass, or talking to it to see what it is feeling. It makes us bond with our Pokemon very well, making us feel, for the first time in the series, attached to out digital pets. It not only is an aesthetic change, but adds to the feel of the game as well.
However, a change more relative to the gameplay is that the touch screen has been intuitively integrated into the core formula of the game, making the interface more user-friendly and clean. As we all know, Pokemon D/P/Pt did not really make good use of the touch screen. All that could be done with the lower screen was operating the bag and using the Poketch, which, even though very useful sometimes, could have been done with just the buttons as well, making the feature seem rather pointless. Pokemon HeartGold/SoulSilver, though, have made good, meaningful use of the touch screen.
The menu, for one, has been brought down onto the bottom screen, eliminating the need to press a button every time we have to open the menu up. The use of the touch screen in the menu really makes the interface cleaner, and it is really good to know, that we just have to touch an icon once to save our game, instead of going through several menus and sub-menus to do so.
Nothing can show how well the touch screen has been implemented as well as the Pokedex does. The Pokedex actually feels like a real device this time around, instead of just a set of menus. From the neat little touches like sliding your Pokedex open by dragging the stylus across the screen to the fact that the height and weight of a Pokemon can now be seen simultaneously across both the screens, the Pokedex feels like a very ingeniously designed device. If we want to check the information about a certain Pokemon, all we have to do is highlight its icon, and the flavour text of that particular Pokemon will pop up on the upper screen. By tapping on the icon again, a more expanded 'window' of the Pokemon pops up, giving us information on where the Pokemon is found at what time of the day, its height, its weight and what its cry sounds like. What's even better is that the touch screen feels really intuitive, and attempting to use the Pokedex with the buttons actually makes it feel unwieldy. For the first time ever, you actually feel as if you have a Pokedex device with you.
However, usage of the touch screen is not confined to just menus either. The touch screen finds some really useful, and in retrospection, much needed execution in the overworld gameplay as well that really cleans up Pokemon's cluttered interface and makes it relaxing on the fingers. For instance, Pokemon veterans may remember that in the previous Pokemon games, we had to press and hold the B Button to run, whereas in HG/SS, all we have to do is touch the Running Shoes icon on the lower screen, which results us in running until we touch the icon again to de-activate the shoes. In fact, the touch screen has been so thoroughly integrated into the game that barring the obvious dependency on the D-pad to move, the entire game can be played using the touch screen alone.
Aforementioned changes aside, the basic core formula here is identical to all the other games in the series. However, let's just assume that you've never played a Pokemon game before- and surprisingly, such a breed exists, and in quite large numbers- I suppose you would want a breakdown on just what the series is about. The Pokemon games are a series of RPGs that feature a world where nearly five hundred creatures with wonderfully mysterious powers exist alongside humans. Humans have takes in upon themselves to study, and in some cases, to tame and harness these creatures- Pokemon, of course- and to pit them against each other in what can only be termed as an inexplicably acceptable variant of cockfighting.
It's easier said than done, though. Because each creature has an affinity to upto two elemental types, which can range from the commonplace such as Fire, Water and Grass to the ingeniously crafted such as Psychic, Steal and Dragon. Each of these 'types' is stronger against some and weaker than others. So while a Fire Pokemon might raze a Grass Pokemon, or melt a Steal one, it'll be in grave danger of being doused by a Water Pokemon. The Water Pokemon, in turn, is susceptible to massive damage from an Electric or Grass Pokemon, which have their own weaknesses. A person trying to create the perfect Pokemon team, therefore, has to cover for all these strengths and weaknesses spread over seventeen elemental types, an issue which is compounded because one can only carry upto six Pokemon with him or her at a time.
Adding further to the element of strategy is the fact that the attacks that Pokemon use, in turn, are also affiliated to one elemental type. An attack like Bubblebeam will be a Water attack, and if a Water Pokemon uses it, its power will be boosted. The fact that Pokemon aren't limited to only learning moves of their elemental type greatly expands the choice of moves that a Pokemon can learn. However, there is a catch, which can give a Pokemon Trainer many sleepless nights. A Pokemon can learn only four moves at a time. Attempting to teach it any more will result in one of the older ones being erased. This means that from the moveset of a single Pokemon to the six Pokemon that you carry in your team, you, as a Trainer, need to cover for every possibility on all levels.
And what, you might ask, is the point of raising Pokemon in the first place? Pokemon Trainers seek to create the ultimate Pokemon team, and thus become the strongest in the world. While such a feat is relatively easy to manage within the games' story- you take on eight Pokemon Gyms spread all over the land to participate in the Pokemon League Championships- it really is a never-ending quest to achieve this online, where each time you think you have perfected your team, a Trainer will come along presently and decimate you. To really be the best, you must train your Pokemon to such an extent that when you do take them online, no person in the world can defeat them.
But battling is not all that there is. The game tasks you with another much more massive responsibility- to see, catch, and therefore document every single species of Pokemon that exists. No single Pokemon game has all Pokemon available, so you need to trade with others (which can be done online, thankfully. But more on that later). Adding to your miseries is the fact that there are certain legendary Pokemon that are excessively rare in the game and mostly only ever encountered once. There are still other Pokemon that cannot be unlocked until you download them online as free DLC. Simply put, the thrilling quest to 'catch them all' will keep you occupied for years.
The Pokemon formula, therefore, is infallible. Highly addictive, completely balanced, sound, and with a heavy element of strategy. It is also a formula that, with the release of HeartGold and SoulSilver, has been refined to ultimate perfection. Because Pokemon HG/SS, in true Pokemon fashion, are merely an evolution rather than a revolution.
Where the series does see a lot of change is in the technical departments. Namely in the graphics and the sound departments. The Pokemon series is known to be lacklustre in the technical aspects, but Gold/Silver really upped the ante with really good sound and (then) pleasing graphics. HeartGold/SoulSilver take a step further, and improve upon what was already nigh flawless. All the sound tracks of Johto have been remixed, and this time around, instead of being the usual, tinny, MIDI sounds, the sound tracks are fully orchestrated. My personal favourites are the Team Rocket and the Rival battle theme, which really bring back old favourites with a bang. Apart from the sound tracks, the sound effects are really impressive as well. The sound of our footsteps, the sound of the sea, the wind, can be heard throughout the game. Our footsteps vary throughout the length of the game, depending on what king of surface we're walking on. For example, if we're walking in the tall grass, we'll be hearing muffled footsteps, whereas the sound of our shoes hitting concrete would be heard in the cities and buildings.
But there were flaws in the sound department. The cries of all the Pokemon are the same as they were back in the '90s, and it all seems really incongruous and lazy on the developers' part when compared with the rest of the game. Really, just a little work by Game Freak would have made this department perfect.
The graphics are probably what makes this game so atmospheric. All the cities are now fully 3D, and seeing old favourite dungeons such as the Ilex Forest and Ice Cave in full blown 3D graphics brings back great memories. What is even better is that we can see fallen golden leaves on the ground, or see smoke wafting in the air. Really, this all adds to the atmospheric nature of the game, and makes Johto seem like an alive, real world, making us feel really attached to the region, more than any other region in the franchise.
The graphics department, too, has a major flaw. The battle screen is still the same as in the past Pokemon games. While there is a high level of polish to be found here as well, it really is jarring when we switch to a non-dynamic static slideshow for the battles which, in fact, is roughly the same as it was on the GBC ten years ago. That developers Game Freak have foregone this excellent opportunity to bring the battles on par with the rest of the game visually is inexcusable.
Pokemon has been known to feature infinite replay value, and with the advent of the DS, that aspect has been compounded manifold, mainly because of the system's Wi-fi capabilities. Not only can we battle trainers all over the world to see how good (or bad) our Pokemon team is and work accordingly, we can trade Pokemon with trainers online as well, thus making our dream to really catch them all an achievable goal.
Pokemon is addictive. That much is obvious, even if you haven't played a single Pokemon game. It is the most addictive series there ever was, and HeartGold/SoulSilver are the epitome of that addictiveness. It can last you forever. Apart from the main story and all the side/after quests put together (which last us around sixty hours), we can spend hours and hours on travelling through the regions, trying to 'catch 'em all', or battling online, or trading with friends, or challenging the Gyms and the Pokemon League again. It is this mix of addictiveness and replayability that makes Pokemon the ultimate handheld experience.
This is the longest, the most detailed review I have ever written. But I have to tell you this- I haven't even started scratching the surface of what this game has to offer. It would be humanly impossible for any one person to do that, simply because of how vast and expansive this is in scope. So I invite you to play this game for yourselves, and leave with you an open, wholehearted recommendation- buy this game. I cannot stress it enough. Buy this game and play it. It will be then that you realise that not only is this the best handheld game ever created, this is also on par with all the old-time classics, and can blow any current console game out of the water.