This is part of a series of critical essays on the Pokémon games. This one is about Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, the third “main games” in the series, and unavoidably contains LOTS of spoilers for the remakes of those games released this month.
A BREAKING POINT
Pokémon games are consciously built by developers Game Freak around very high-level themes – single words that are meant to capture the spirit of each game and the region it’s set in. With X and Y the theme was “beauty” – for Black and White it was “cool”. In discussing the imminent remakes of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, and their home region of Hoenn, a spokesman suggested the idea behind the games had always been “abundance”. And you can see their point. Hoenn is a region bursting with life and incident. It offers a lush range of new environments and new ideas, a rethinking of the series’ established use of rivals and villains, and a sudden expansion of the franchise’s gameplay in terms of breadth (a whole parallel career path in the form of Contests) and depth (the introduction of Natures, Abilities and Double Battles). Not everything comes off – in fact the crowding-in of ideas means few of them completely work – but the bright ambition of Ruby and Sapphire is delightful.
On top of that, they had to transform the way Pokémon looked, introducing the blocky semi-3D gameworlds that would sustain the series for another two generations. Playing in Hoenn after the Spartan suburbia of Kanto or the cheerfully chunky Johto was to be constantly surprised by beautiful touches designed to make you feel like you were part of this world, not simply its abstract explorer. Your reflection in puddles of standing water; your footsteps fading from sandy beaches, the bushes on the routes around Mt Chimney turning from ash grey to green as you ran through them. This too is abundance: a series stretching its graphical wings and indulging itself. But it’s also part of these games’ theme – they are the most ecologically-minded of Pokémon games, their stories pivoting on man’s ability and right to control nature (dramatized as the harnessing of legendary Pokémon). So these constant, light reminders of how your own character interacts with their environment are absolutely apt.
And yet there was one area where Ruby and Sapphire were not abundant, which revealed the biggest change of all – the one the features and colour of Hoenn tried to mask. Game Freak introduced another 130 or so new Pokémon, of course, to push their total past 300. But this time it came at a price: only 70 or so of the 250 older monsters joined them. And, unlike the jump between Red/Blue and Gold/Silver, you couldn’t move your older creatures across to the new games. The reason given was that the gameplay changes simply made recoding your specific old monsters impossible. Meanwhile, the company followed Ruby and Sapphire not with the now-traditional third game but with remakes of Red and Blue that conformed to Pokémon’s new ruleset.
Behind Ruby and Sapphire, then, is the biggest shift in Pokémon’s history – a hidden reboot of the entire series, . If you’re playing Pokémon X or Y, there’s an unbroken lineage that goes back to these games, and no further. The oldest monster you can possibly encounter and use would be a Japanese Ruby or Sapphire starter from 2002. And the sense that this is where Pokémon now begins doesn’t end with the mechanics: Ruby and Sapphire are the games that nail down how the story in a Pokémon title will work from now on. The legendaries are central to the plot. The villain team has world-shaking (not just criminal) ambitions. There are non-combat side-games, and by Pokémon Emerald – the delayed third game – a main function of the bonus post-story content is teaching you to step up from casual in-game play to the more tactical world of competitive battling. All the remaining man series games will do these things. If we’re to judge by their later design decisions, Ruby and Sapphire are where Game Freak feel they get it right.
This is not a view entirely shared by the fans. No matter how Ruby and Sapphire looked and felt, the deliberate snipping of the thread back to the original games could only be a fall from grace. The Hoenn titles have a reputation as the worst in the series. As we’ll see, there are in-game reasons someone might think this, but also elements of the games which strongly defy that judgement. But that reputation was inevitable. Ruby and Sapphire came out on a platform – the Game Boy Advance – which was an awkward stepchild between two world-conquering handhelds (the Game Boy and DS), and they began by rendering the Game Boy’s two most popular titles invalid. They were never going to be easily loved.
GOODBYE ICON, HELLO GAME
The question is, why? Did Game Freak really need to be this radical? To answer that we should quickly look back at how Silver and Gold approached the same problems. The Gen II titles positioned themselves as expansions as well as sequels – everything you loved about Pokémon, but more so. It had not just all the old monsters but all the old gyms and leaders and cities too. These were what older fans missed the most about Ruby and Sapphire: no chance to see old foes or haunts. But to make their gameworld so huge, Gold and Silver had compromised, too. The main game was short, and its plot rather perfunctory, with Team Rocket markedly less imposing foes second time around.
To frame Ruby and Sapphire as another direct sequel, in another Kanto border region, would have severely stretched this way of making Pokémon games. With 24 gyms, they would have either brutally tested the audience’s patience or required massive trims in the older regions. Instead, Ruby and Sapphire draw on a more low-key innovation in Gold and Silver – the way the games began to build out the civic elements of the Pokémon world, with things like the Bug Catching contest. Hoenn has its Contest Halls, its trendy phrases, its harbourside markets and its secret islands – not to mention a ton of locations where weather and physical geography shape gameplay. This is the first game in the series which has as big a commitment to showing us new places as to revealing new monsters. The emphasis is on making the new region a place you want to explore and delight in, not hurry through to reach old friends.
Game Freak’s ruthlessness wasn’t just a way of saving game space – it had wider implications. Pokémon was more than a videogame, it was a craze, a genuine pop cultural phenomenon. Between the US release of Red/Blue and Gold/Silver, Pokémon had become iconic, with a cultural impact its (already huge) videogame sales don’t begin to measure. But crazes don’t last, and Pokémon’s moment was passing. The second Pokémon film had done $130m at the box office. The third had managed only half that. The fourth, released in 2001, took in less than $30m, and that was that for theatrical releases. At the time of Ruby and Sapphire’s release a year later, this was already a rapidly deflating franchise.
Characters as massive and successful as Pikachu et al don’t just disappear, though. It’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where the idea was rested, for later and delighted revival – a la Transformers or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And if Pokémon had been native to film or cartoons, not videogames, maybe that would have happened. But game franchises work differently – retiring a successful property is very rare, because they exist to sell each new generation of videogame hardware.
So Pokémon in 2002 faced a choice – be a cultural icon, or be a videogame? Game Freak picked the second option, killing off the iconic original series in order to reboot it as something more stable, with deeper gameplay and worlds and stories that stood individually. It was simultaneously a brave and harsh decision. And – because they disguised their crime and stressed the continuity of Ruby and Sapphire – the break has not been an entirely clean one. The beloved original series haunts the rebooted one from here onwards. Each new game has to confront it – asking both how far it can move away from Red/Blue, and how it can recapture some of its spirit. Any Pokémon discussion on a game site will have at least one or two people who confidently declare that only the first games were any good. And the wider culture tacitly agrees. Pokémon’s presence is still very linked to its initial impact, and whenever Pokémon fanwork, like art projects or Minecraft builds, spreads around the net, it usually sticks to the original 151 monsters. The fresh start offered by Ruby and Sapphire has never quite taken.
But at the same time Game Freak absolutely succeeded in stabilising Pokémon as a videogame franchise. Ruby and Sapphire inevitably sold fewer copies than earlier games, but the decline ends there. So clearly the Hoenn games are also doing a lot right.
BACK TO NATURE
Let’s go back to abundance, and the idea of themes in Pokémon games. Ruby and Sapphire take more care with their story, and integrate it into their world better, than any Pokémon game before. After the Johto games’ tentative experiments in folding history and mythology into their plot, the Hoenn titles go all in. The central idea is the balance of nature – meddling with it will cause catastrophe. And the mechanic chosen to embody this – new for this game – is weather. As you progress through Johto, you find yourself in a variety of extreme weather environments – perpetual sandstorm and perpetual rain – and in the climax of the main plot, half the continent is blanketed in unnatural storms or drought caused by the special abilities of a legendary Pokémon.
The catalyst of all this is the villain team, and here Ruby and Sapphire take one of their most noticeable breaks. The villains vary according to the game. The player fights Team Magma or Team Aqua, and is helped by Team Aqua – or Team Magma. This makes neither team actually the bad guys: from a different perspective (which you can get simply by playing the other game) Magma (or Aqua) are the ones trying to put things right. The actual plans of the teams are entirely goofy – one wants more land for land-based Pokémon, the other wants more sea for the water-types. Aqua and Magma are sometimes described as “eco-terrorists”, which misses the point of them slightly – eco-terrorists tend to see themselves as aggressively working to protect wildlife or the planet from humanity, and aim to either directly punish those who harm it or (at the fringe) dismantle industrial society entirely. Aqua and Magma aren’t doing this – they’re radical geo-engineers looking to intervene in nature on a massive scale. But by flipping the antagonist and ally role between games, Ruby and Sapphire are saying that the villain isn’t either side, it’s the division between them, making them jostle to influence nature rather than appreciating its delicate balance.
This isn’t hugely profound, perhaps, but it’s a degree of coherence never before seen in Pokémon. Game mechanics – weather modifiers and abilities – villain teams, and legendary Pokémon are all aligned to make the same basic point: we mess with the climate, and the planet, at our peril. And even the landscape reinforces this. Hoenn is the wildest region, full of towns and cities which exist as accomodations with nature, not as attempts to tame it. Sootopolis City is carved from unique rock formations and can only be reached by diving. Fortree City exists in the canopies of gigantic trees. The environments aren’t just beautiful to explore and experience, they exist to carry home the basic messages of the game. Even Pokémon now have Natures, which need to be respected for the creatures to reach their full potential. Ruby and Sapphire are never didactic games, but they don’t have to be, when almost everything in the game is working to dramatise and support their point.
This new focus works very well, but it pays a potentially serious price. Because the quest to become Champion – the traditional plot of the Pokémon games, progress in which a player is reminded of at every save – has nothing to do with any of this. Your character’s battles up the gyms to become League Champion was the focus of Red and Blue, with the defeat of the villains neatly dovetailing into it by virtue of Rocket Boss Geovanni’s day job as a gym leader. In Gold and Silver it was still probably the most important part of a game with no real centre. In Ruby and Sapphire, though, the gym badge quest is the motor of game progress but not of story progress.
For most of the game this isn’t a problem. Each gym badge unlocks new areas, and some of those areas have villains in: the two stories intertwine seamlessly and lack of connection is never an issue. The issue comes after you’ve beaten Aqua (or Magma) and have a gym to go before the Elite Four. The game is set up, as usual, to make the traditional Victory Road – Elite Four – Champion battle the finale. But the story is telling you that you’ve already had the final conflict. And so Pokémon creates another new issue for itself – how do you make the plot resolution feel important without the Elite Four seeming like an anti-climax?
A LIFE ON THE OCEAN WAVE
Ruby and Sapphire don’t quite manage to answer that question – it’s perhaps notable that they’re the first games to swap out their Champion mid-generation, with suited-and-booted Steven Stone getting the push for Water specialist Wallace (who shows no great charisma anyway). The confrontation with the raging legendaries is the game’s dramatic high point, and the remaining battles feel bolted on. To make up for this, though, Ruby and Sapphire constantly make little pushes at other elements of the formula.
For a start, in this game you actually have a Dad – Norman, who’s taken up the position of Normal-Type Gym Leader in Petalburg City. Pokémon game Dads are generally very opaque figures – barely mentioned, hence recurring “Professor Oak is Ash’s Dad” fan gossip. (The player’s Mum, whatever her exciting early life, is always and only shown as a stay-at-home source of support – one of Pokémon’s least endearing tropes). Ruby and Sapphire are unique in not just giving you a second parent, but in making your defeat of him crucial to your progress. Battling and beating him gets you the Surf move – which in watery Hoenn, more than any other region, is as solid a coming-of-age moment as the games can provide.
Ruby and Sapphire make similar shifts of expectation with its rivals. Casting around for a replacement for the arrogant Blue and the brutal Silver, Ruby and Sapphire hit on Brendan and May (which one you get depends on your own character’s gender). Their only sin is being a little condescending when you’re starting out, and compared to their predecessors as rival, they’re a cipher. But the game makes a switcheroo – Brendan or May drops out midway and their place is taken by Wally, a sickly boy who you’ve mentored and who turns up near the end of Ruby/Sapphire, suddenly far stronger.
It’s an interesting choice but doesn’t quite work: Wally’s story is solid, but he appears too infrequently for his final appearance to earn much resonance – him finding his strength is fundamentally a development in someone else’s story, even if you happen to have a starring role in it. And May or Brendan dropping out of the storyline is even worse – they were bland in any case, but now they end up as a damp squib. The most you can say for Ruby and Sapphire’s mangling of the rivals plot is that it moves the series towards the idea of multiple friendly rivals that’s been such a part of the fifth and sixth generation of games. But Pokémon hasn’t yet figured out what you do with friendly rivals – use them as an exposition trigger to carry the plot along – so the experiment seems to have little point. It’s an intriguing idea but its execution feels rather off-balance.
This also how some would describe the landscape of Hoenn, especially its high concentration of sea routes. Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire are notoriously aquatic games, with the bulk of their final act involving surfing around Eastern Hoenn, negotiating not just sea areas but hidden diving routes. The sheer amount of sea travel required created a backlash, and these games prove to be the final time the Pokémon series employs sea routes to anything like this degree: in Black/White and X/Y they’re close to being an optional extra.
From a game mechanic perspective the critics aren’t wrong – there simply aren’t enough exciting seaborne Pokémon to justify the expansion of the water routes, though the situation is improved somewhat by the curious and unique monsters found in the diving areas (and strictly speaking, many of the sea routes are optional). But from the point of view of storyline and atmosphere, the sea routes are a big part of what makes the game special. In a storyline about balance between land and sea, it’s hardly surprising the geography reflects that. But that’s not all.
Hoenn is, ultimately, much more a fantasy landscape than anything we’ve seen in Pokemon before – its environment matters, far more so than in Kanto or Johto. It is revelling in a new graphical engine and jumping at the opportunity to show you cool stuff – which is why the “Gazetteer” section of this post is so long – but it’s also trying to feel vast and wild and boundless, a world in which humankind fits in with nature, rather than imposing itself on it. To do this, it needs wilderness spaces, where you can feel lost. It partly achieves this with the desert areas and weather-based routes – places where extreme conditions affect your progress – but ultimately its best shot at disorienting the player, and imposing the region’s scale on them, is via the sea. On the sea routes, the careful management of your progress by the game at least has the illusion of breaking down – you don’t see the boundaries as much, and there are patches where you see no land at all.
What the games might be aiming for is seen in another Nintendo title, Ruby and Sapphire’s contemporary – Zelda: The Wind Waker. Here the sea is dominant to a degree that would make Hoenn’s critics tremble, and the game has supreme confidence in the idea that you will be happy just to roam it, to feel the virtual spray on your face and thrill to the dream that treasure and romance is only an island away. Can Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire match that? Not at all – a 2D engine is still a 2D engine, no matter how charmingly rendered, and top-down perspective can never feel quite as liberating or exciting as seeing new islands hove into view from a distance.
But Hoenn still has something of that freedom and charm, and an atmosphere that makes these games my sentimental favourites. In Europe, Ruby and Sapphire originally came out in July – titles for a long summer holiday, with a region that felt like the destination of one: a new world for a secretly new game. What was not yet obvious is how much the graphical style of Ruby and Sapphire would be locked in: this is, roughly, how Pokémon games would look for the next decade. But as the look and mechanics of Pokémon settled down, the machines it was played on jumped forward: the next Pokémon game would have to accommodate the biggest hardware shift since the introduction of the original Game Boy.
A HOENN GAZETTEER
MOVING DAY: That Ruby and Sapphire is a reboot is never made more explicit than in its opening sequence – a cutscene where you bump along in a removal van to arrive at your house. You’ve moved to Hoenn because your Dad’s been headhunted to run a local Pokémon gym. It’s a nice touch – the Pokémon helping you move are particularly charming – and it sets up Hoenn as a place for a clean break, a region your character is discovering the region at the same time as you are.
DEVON CORPORATION: Pokémon is full of details that elegantly play a double or triple role – the original games’ Silph Co, for instance, is an area to explore and battle in, a way of introducing game mechanics (they make assorted gadgets including the Master Ball), and a bit of detail to make the world feel more coherent. Ruby and Sapphire often take the opportunity to tweak these, but sometimes find themselves having to simply repeat themselves. The Devon Corporation makes far less impression than Silph, because it’s never really an environment, just an in-game presence. But it helps establish Hoenn’s tone – the region’s biggest business feels like an old-time family firm, not an R&D powerhouse.
RUSTURF TUNNEL: The first indication of the games’ broader themes comes in Rusturf Tunnel, a small cave in which construction has been suspended so as not to frighten the Tunnel’s population of wild Pokémon (the tantrum-prone cushion, Whismur). A lone tunneller keeps on working, moving rocks by hand so he can reach his girlfriend on the other side: everyone else lounges about in the Pokémon equivalent of a Nissan hut. It’s a more endearing way of blocking progress than thirsty guards, at least, and sets up the idea early on that this is a region where you make compromise with nature, not bludgeon your way through it.
MR BRINEY: The biggest step in establishing the scope of Hoenn comes when you meet the sailor Mr Briney, who you need to befriend in order to make it to the second gym. This old salt takes you on a trip in his boat, done as a cutscene. But in a marvellous touch, this is an in-game cutscene – a high-speed preview of routes and areas you’ve yet to encounter. You’re whisked past tiny islands, enticing coastlines, and at one point an entire abandoned ship: these routes are largely optional ones to explore, and the game trusts you to remember they are there. It’s a wonderful sequence, one that uses the new graphics engine to great effect – and an unexpected demonstration of how big and ripe for exploration Hoenn is.
DEWFORD TOWN: Dewford Town is a small island community that’s home to the Pokémon world’s first hipsters – a bunch of trendsetters whose ever-changing obsessions rapidly spread through the entire region. The mechanic for this is simply an excuse to show off the game’s rather unwieldy “chat” system – choosing two words from a pre-selected menu which become the new ‘trendy phrase’ (giving you the likes of “RARE RAYQUAZA” and, er, “ADULT TOYS”). It’s a bit of light comedy, the sort of gag you’d usually see in the Pokémon anime – the Dewfordites’ fear of missing out is such that they’ll happily change their obsession entirely on the say-so of a small child.
SLATEPORT CITY: Slateport, the bustling coastal city that’s your gateway to central Hoenn, is more unusual than it first seems. In both the previous Pokémon games, with space at a premium, almost every town and city featured a gym. Kanto also had the spooky Pokémon graveyard Lavender Town; Johto had an extra small town between you and the first gym – an innovation almost every game since has copied. But in general, every major town in the earlier Pokémon games is a way to get a new badge: the game and story advance at the same pace. The Hoenn games break this link – partly because of the contest mechanic (see below) they’re filled with extra cities, some quite large. On the one hand this emphasises the growing distinction between the league quest, the villain team quest, and the joy of exploration. On the other, it’s yet another way of making Hoenn seem wonderfully big.
CONTEST HALLS: Pokémon contests are one of the most prominent elements of the Hoenn games, and a bold, significant addition: an entire alternative way to use your captured creatures. I’ll focus more on them in the Sinnoh post – discussing the general feature creep of the series – but what stands out in Ruby and Sapphire is the commitment to the idea: multiple contest halls for a multi-level progression, and a whole different set of stats. Everything about it shouts – major new feature. But as soon as Emerald came out, this was being downplayed – reduced to a single Contest Hall. What went wrong?
Partly it’s that Contests present a different set of strategic challenges to combat – a whole new ruleset – and it was never likely that lightning would strike twice, and the same game would hold two rule systems with addictive simplicity and remarkable depth of gameplay. Besides, there’s little in-game incentive to understanding Contest play. They don’t affect progress, and there just isn’t enough XP available to make training a contest-ready team viable without significant (and boring!) grinding. Even the save game panel ignores them, listing only creatures seen and gyms conquered as usual. The lesson Game Freak apparently learned is not to let an optional feature take up quite as much space as Ruby and Sapphire Contests do. But despite that, Contests are enjoyable and imaginative in smaller doses – a genuinely fun challenge as your beasts pose and throw shade on the contest catwalk, and the notion of extra side-games for your Pokémon to play in has stuck around ever since.
TRICK HOUSE: One of the gameplay problems Pokémon games face is finding interesting ways of giving the player XP without overloading routes with trainers to fight. An obvious solution is for foes to respawn, and the Trick House is an elegant and atmospheric way of doing that – an inobtrusive little house that keeps getting refilled with puzzles and trainers by the mysterious Trick Master, so you can pop back between gyms and challenge it again, seeking the secret code that will let you escape. (“TRICK MASTER IS GENIUS”). Humble he’s not, but repeat battles have never been as elegantly implemented: when you finally beat Trick Master enough times that he shuts up shop there’s not only a sense of satisfaction but mild regret that you won’t meet him again.
MT. CHIMNEY: Northern Hoenn is dominated by a massive active volcano, whose crater hosts one of the more memorable villain battles, as Team Aqua and Team Magma clash (cue graphics of terrier-like Poochyenas wobbling angrily at each other). But the routes leading to it also where the best implementation of the “you affect your environment” theme happens – you get given a Soot Sack for collecting the volcanic ash that blankets the area. Collect enough and you can get magic flutes made that heal particular Pokémon ailments – very useful items, but not at all essential, which feels like the right reward for essentially running about a lot. It’s very satisfying running about, though – the colour of the grass changing as you pick up ash. The Hoenn experience in a nutshell.
HOT SPRINGS: In a game full of delightful little ideas and cameos, the Hot Springs of Lavaridge Town are an especial favourite. They serve zero game purpose, they’re just a tub of bubbling water you can relax in, thrown in simply as texture. But more than any other game save perhaps X and Y, the Hoenn games live or die on texture: when the remakes were announced, “hot springs in 3D!” was one of the first things mentioned on my excited email chat about it.
GABBY AND TY: As with the Dewford Town Trendy Phrase, TV news team Gabby (the interviewer) and Ty (the cameraman) are a bit of media satire incongruously poking through the skin of the game. They follow you around Hoenn, popping up halfway along a perilous route, or after a tough gym battle, and challenge you to a fight before asking you for a comment: always a single word, always rapturously received.
Regional media have been a part of the Pokémon world since Johto, a sly potential source of bonus flavour – here the focus switches from Radio to TV, and you can wander into people’s houses and flick their sets on. Hoenn TV, alas, is the most sparsely populated of any station in any game – Gabby’s interviews aside, it’s just a reminder service for in-game events. But thanks to Gabby and Ty chasing you about, it’s the game where the media presence is most strongly felt: especially since they’re the one set of trainers that always respawn, so their endless appetite for one-word inanity is a useful source of non-stop grinding later.
SECRET BASES: Pokémon is a kids’ story, and as usual it’s worth asking what kind of kids’ story each game is. Pokémon was born out of Satoshi Tajiri’s bug-collecting hobby in a semi-rural part of Japan, and the games reflect that. But there are two parts to that origin story – the collecting aspect, but also the exploring: scrambling around woods and hills looking for the places bugs might be found. Pokémon Red and Blue (and Green) were where the collecting part came to the fore – in Ruby and Sapphire, it’s the adventuring and exploring that matters. And Secret Bases are the epitome of that: hidden caves, hollow trees, and meadow dens, all waiting to be uncovered and made your own.
A private den is all very well – and you can fill your Secret Base up with personal treasures alright – but in adventure stories, those kind of secrets are always for sharing. Here is where Secret Bases were a little ahead of their time – at least in countries with a lower density of Pokémon players. To get the most out of the feature, you need to link up with others, and on the GBA that wasn’t always easy. It’s no surprise that – to peek ahead for once – the remakes of these games have trumpeted Super-Secret Bases in their publicity: they are an idea built for the connectivity capabilities of the 3DS. In the originals, they’re a lovely, resonant idea that can’t quite hit its potential.
FINDING FEEBAS: Scarcity has always been part of Pokémon. But almost as soon as the games became popular, Game Freak were forced to begin rethinking it. In a world of online walkthroughs and hacked code, Pokémon games hold few surprises for long. Massive-scale sharing of information doesn’t make rare Pokémon more common in the game, but it erodes their value nonetheless. Finding a monster with a very low appearance rate – 1 in 100 encounters, say – is still exciting, but setting out to find one when you know it’s there is a tiresome chore. So Ruby and Sapphire are the last games to include ultra-low encounter rates as a matter of course: Pokémon like Chimecho, who can only be found in one tiny area at one very low rate. And then there’s Feebas.
Feebas – an ugly fish – has a good claim to be the hardest Pokémon to find in any of the main games. It appears in 6 random tiles on a long river – and all the tiles look identical. To make matters worse, it has a below average encounter rate even where it does appear. And you can only get it via fishing. In other words, getting hold of one was a horrendous grind even by Pokémon standards. But Feebas – who is almost as hard to evolve as it is to catch – is the last stand of this approach: wi-fi trading from the next games on ultimately makes any breedable Pokémon’s scarcity moot. Feebas is one last, perverse, salute to the original conception of rarity in the games.
FORTREE CITY: The city designs in Ruby and Sapphire are some of the best in the series – particularly once you leave the woody paths of Western Hoenn behind, almost every new town has a unique design and a strong sense of place. You might be fond of the craggy Mossdeep City, or of Pacificlog Town, which rests on logs lashed together at sea. One of my favourites is Fortree City, a town of treehouses and forest clearings, home of the region’s Flying Type gym. But they’re all enjoyable to explore – just more examples of Ruby and Sapphire’s investment in making the texture and local colour of Hoenn memorable.
MOSSDEEP SPACE CENTER: Everything in Mossdeep City leads you up to its Space Center, a Cape Canaveral style launch base which was one of the most curious red herrings in a main series game – perhaps the last real source of online rumour in Pokémon, fan lore about the number of rockets launched being a count-up to the appearance of a rare legendary Pokémon. No wonder fans became obsessed: the Center is so striking, and so full of possibility – a sudden jolt of widescreen technology in a game revolving around the natural world – that it immediately catches the imagination.
(It’s also begging to be used for a villain team takeover sequence, which is exactly what happens in Pokémon Emerald.)
What’s interesting about the Space Center, though, is the way it bridges the old way fan rumour worked in Pokémon and the new way it will. Fan rumour used to focus largely on glitches in the game, seeming breaks in its logic (like areas that appeared onscreen but you could never actually access). Or it invented stories of outcomes if you performed some particular action an outrageous number of times. As the online availability of game knowledge grows, though, this stops being viable. What’s in the games is well known. The attention shifts to fan knowledge of what happens around the games – the expectation that little pockets of oddness like the Space Center will have some future significance when third games or future generations get released. They are dead ends that can be built out in future, and keep fans excited in the meantime.
THE ABANDONED SHIP: Ruby and Sapphire put their deluge of water routes to use with a new move, Dive, which lets a Pokémon take you underwater for some deep sea exploration. This is used to find hidden goodies, and also a Bond-style villain base with stolen submersible, and a way into the city that hosts the final gym and the storyline’s climax. The deep, dark blue undersea paths, fringed with coral and waving fronds of weed, are an atmospheric triumph. Best of all, though, is the Abandoned Ship, a wrecked vessel you pass early in the game and can finally return to, picking your way across its rotten timbers and flooded staterooms, diving below decks, dodging and battling other treasure hunters as you do. It’s irresistibly an echo of Red and Blue’s cruise liner the St.Anne, now perhaps fallen to ruin, and one of the most haunting locations in the game.
SEALED CHAMBER: The other location you need Dive for is the Sealed Chamber, a hard-to-find undersea cave. This cave sets you on a quest which might seem as perverse and difficult as the Feebas hunt, but which actually plays rather fairer. The Sealed Chamber contains the Braille alphabet and various Braille messages, which tell you the combination of Pokémon in your party needed to open it. Its opening triggers three other hidden caves to open elsewhere in the continent, and in each of them a legendary Pokémon sleeps – the three Golems of Hoenn, made of rock, steel and ice, which can be woken by solving more Braille puzzles.
The use of Braille may seem a little arbitrary – Pokémon makes no great effort to be accessible to blind players, after all – but for all that the puzzle is cryptic, it’s fair, and so are the individual puzzles needed to get at the golems. The quest for them is similar to Feebas only in one regard: it’s Pokémon pushing at one of its self-imposed limits. The series occasionally flirts with being a puzzle game, but it really isn’t one – most of its puzzle gyms are simple enough for a five-year-old to solve. The golem quest is an exception – it takes patience and a little ingenuity – but not an unfair one. Still, though, it wasn’t popular, and like Contests, it’s an idea later games dial back on. There are no puzzles in future games even close to this tricky.
SOOTOPOLIS CITY: The final Hoenn gym is located in its greatest piece of design: the gorgeous Sootopolis City, a town built around a flooded volcanic crater, based heavily on the Greek island of Santorini. Sootopolis’ tiny, bleached houses and multiple levels have an atmosphere quite unlike anything we’ve met before in Pokémon, and its lagoon is a fine place for another Pokémon first: an apocalyptic clash between legendary Pokémon at the climax of the Aqua/Magma storyline. The setting couldn’t be more apt, in fact – a volcanic lagoon is the product of a mix of erupting land and flooding water, exactly the outcomes the respective teams want. To almost the end, Ruby and Sapphire keep things thematically tight.
ELITE FOUR: But unfortunately, Sootopolis is not the end – as in every game, there’s a trek through Victory Road and a fight with the Elite Four to come. Ruby and Sapphire pack so many locations and features into their main game that there’s little room left for bonus content afterwards. This is a shame – not only does it invite unwinnable comparisons with the absurd generosity of Gold and Silver, but it means the final battle with the Elite Four and Champion take on greater weight. And, as discussed in the main essay, Ruby and Sapphire have spent all game bending away from giving the gym story that weight. After a game full of exotic outdoor environments, the Pokémon League turns out to be full of generic, metallic corridors and arena-style rooms, fitting the rather grey, businesslike demeanour of the champion, Steven Stone. The battles are still a challenge, but it’s not the ending an often lovely and resonant game deserves.
Next: Before we go to Sinnoh, an interlude post and a look at the Pokémon series’ history of remakes. What new light is shed on Kanto, Johto and Hoenn by their remade games?