I Choose You, Pokemon!

By Matthew Rolin

I have fond memories of Pokemon. Back at my elementary school, anybody who was anybody spent recess frantically thumbing their Game Boys in a race to see who could catch the most Pokemon (or who could get carpal tunnel syndrome first). We bought into the lifestyle, wearing Pokemon-branded clothes and planting ourselves in front of the TV every morning when the show came on.

What was it about Pokemon that made the game so successful? At the time, most role-playing games pit you and your party against some evil tyrant or god. The highlight of these games was watching your party become more powerful and battling bosses. Your party would randomly encounter generic enemies as they progressed through dungeons, and would wind up fighting the same thing over and over. This made most of the game pretty tedious.

The innovation of Pokemon was in making these random battles desirable. Any time a random Pokemon appeared you could attempt to catch it. Your entire party was essentially made up of creatures that, in many other games, would be nothing more than a speed-bump to your next level. Combine that with cute, super cute character designs, a cartoonish world, and a relatively easy gameplay and you have the makings of a multi-billion dollar franchise.

The general Pokemon formula hasn’t changed much over the years. You catch Pokemon, train them, battle gym leaders, and eventually take on the Pokemon champion. Little changes have been made here and there, such as the battle frontier for the hardcore players and events that only occur on certain days of the week, but the core gameplay has remained largely unchanged.

HeartGold and SoulSilver are remakes of the second set of Pokemon games. New Pokemon games are almost always released in pairs, with a few Pokemon exclusive to each version, to encourage you to bug your friends to buy the copy you don’t have.

As remakes, HeartGold and SoulSilver are wildly successful. The original game has been faithfully reproduced and improvements from later games have been brought over. Wi-fi battles and trading have been added, and there’s just more overall to keep you interested. The old casino minigame has been replaced with “Voltorb Flip,” a surprisingly addicting minesweeper variant that I confess I have spent far too much time playing.

Graphics are vibrant, pleasing to the eye, and the Pokemon sprites are just as cute as ever. The sound is adequate. My main complaint is that the sounds the Pokemon themselves make are identical to the sounds found in the old Game Boy versions. Some people will like that for the old-school nostalgic feel, but they still feel a little out of place when compared to all the updates.

A pedometer, called a Pokewalker, comes with every game, in what is most likely an attempt to reduce piracy. You can put any Pokemon on the Pokewalker, and for every step you take they will gain one experience point. For every ten steps you take you gain one watt, a unique currency that can be spent on the Pokewalker to catch Pokemon or obtain items. Watts are also used to unlock new areas on the Pokewalker, allowing you to catch a wide variety of rare Pokemon. At first I thought the Pokewalker was just a gimmick, but it is surprisingly engaging. Maybe it’s just the gamer in me always trying to break a score, but having walked more than the day before is strangely rewarding, and having it affect the game is just more incentive.

The gameplay itself is what one has come to expect from a Pokemon game. Catch Pokemon, battle trainers, explore, level up. The formula holds up and is still engaging; however, the game is not without its problems. Frankly, excluding a few of the later encounters, the game is a cakewalk. Enemy trainers will frequently have a team of three or four of the same Pokemon, which just makes fighting some trainers tedious.

Moreover, throughout the entire game only three or four of the hundreds of trainers I battled ever switched their Pokemon mid-fight – a tactic crucial to doing well in the game. The main challenge in this comes in the form of the “battle frontier,” a series of different challenges against enemy Pokemon who have been trained very effectively. There are a few problems with this mode. It takes a decent time investment just to reach the tower, maybe twenty or thirty hours if you rush through the game.

The game also never really teaches the player how training Pokemon actually works. When a Pokemon defeats another Pokemon, the Pokemon gains a bonus to a stat, which correlates to the Pokemon it defeated. Only a certain number of these bonuses can be earned per Pokemon. Through normal play, the stat bonuses will be spread about evenly. Pokemon in the battle tower have all the bonuses put into two or three stats, making them devastating. The only way to learn how these bonuses work is through online guides and forums.

So, should you buy HeartGold or SoulSilver? If you’ve played a Pokemon game, it’s pretty much more of the same, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Playing the game with friends also makes the experience exponentially better. If you’ve never played a Pokemon game, it’s a good place to start; but, if you’re looking for significant innovations on the formula, then you should probably stay away.

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