Through the 10 or so proper Pokémon games that Nintendo has released for the Game Boy, then the Game Boy Color, and now the Game Boy Advance, the crux of the series has remained unshakable. A preteen hero goes out into the world, complete with parental blessings, to become the world's number one trainer of a bizarre, varied, and mysterious race of creatures called Pokémon. Along the way, our hero has some funky adventures. Essentially a singular director's cut version of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, Pokémon Emerald will feel especially familiar, and as such, it will likely hold greater appeal to the uninitiated or those who have been on Pokémon hiatus.
After starting off as either a young girl or boy recently transplanted to a new town, you quickly ditch your homemaker mother to follow in the footsteps of your dad, who is already a celebrated Pokémon master. After being gifted your first Pokémon by local man-of-science Professor Birch, you'll head into the world to fight and capture wild Pokémon, as well as test your might against other up-and-coming trainers. Furthermore, you'll rank up your own standing as a trainer by traveling to different towns and besting the head trainer at the local Pokémon gym. You'll eventually get mixed up in some unsavory business with Team Aqua and Team Magma, two nefarious groups of Pokémon trainers, in addition to going on various adventures and side quests that you'll have to take on as you train and collect your Pokémon. The writing isn't quite as clever as Nintendo's own Advance Wars series, but it still pops and generally avoids the kind of condescending tone that makes most kids games unplayable by people outside the designated age bracket.
Pokémon are a pretty weird, inexplicable bunch of creatures. Their origins, even within the game's reality, are purposefully vague, and despite their wildly varied appearances and abilities, all Pokémon have a few basic characteristics in common. Most importantly, all Pokémon love to fight other Pokémon, whether it's in a head-to-head spar or a two-on-two match. As they fight, they gain experience and learn new moves. And occasionally, a Pokémon will evolve into a sleeker, more aggressive version of itself, taking on a new name in the process. The Pokémon series has always been expertly keyed in to the obsessive-compulsive traits of gamers, so most of the game revolves around fighting with and capturing different Pokémon.
To be clear, your character never actually fights; instead, you'll send out your own Pokémon to broker victory for you. You can carry up to six different Pokémon with you, and each can have up to four different moves, which can be offensive or defensive and can range from straightforward melee attacks to projectile attacks to even crazy psychic blasts. Despite the limited number of moves, the different alignment of each Pokémon helps inject some extra strategy into the combat. Every Pokémon is categorized by type, such as fire, electric, poison, psychic, and so on. For every type of Pokémon, there's another type whose attack is extremely effective against it, creating a nice rock-paper-scissors dynamic. This is a good reason to "catch 'em all."
Though you'll end up spending most of your time either fighting or looking for a fight, there are plenty of other activities. You can breed your Pokémon, enter them into what amount to Pokémon beauty pageants, pick and plant berries that can be turned into candies (and fed to your Pokémon for little stat bumps), and gamble in casinos, just for a few examples. There's a ton of optional stuff like this that helps flesh out the whole world.
Pokémon Emerald's biggest strength is its accessibility. The role-playing-game structure has been streamlined to make it easier to pick up and play for casual players, but without losing the depth that will keep the more committed playing for days on end. Unfortunately, Emerald's biggest weakness is that most hardcore Pokémon players already played through this adventure when it was released as Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire. However, it does add some new areas, and it tweaks a lot of minor stuff, like Pokémon abilities and certain character appearances. You can also now use the wireless GBA adapter to link up with other players to trade and battle Pokémon, and using a GameCube link cable, you can put your Pokémon into play in Pokémon Colosseum.
Ruby and Sapphire were great-looking GBA games when they first came out, though Emerald puts in little effort to improve the quality of the graphics, giving the game a slightly aged look. It's still very bright and colorful, recalling some of the better SNES RPGs, and the world feels appropriately large. However, the combat sequences can't help but feel a bit too staticky. The music has weathered the passing of time much more capably, and the various town themes and fight music are still incredibly catchy and upbeat.
Players who have already soaked up everything Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire have to offer will probably appreciate the largely subtle changes Emerald makes, thanks to the "gotta catch 'em all" mentality bred by the series, though it's unlikely to do a satisfactory job of scratching the itch for an all-new Pokémon adventure. Still, despite being made mostly of recycled parts, Emerald proves that the Pokémon formula still works. As a result, it remains an enjoyably light RPG experience.