When the Game Boy Color was released in 1998, Nintendo’s competitors seemed to lack any kind of recourse. Companies such as Sega and Atari released portable consoles that featured color, yet Nintendo’s monochrome Game Boy had dominated the handheld market. When color was implemented for Nintendo’s Game Boy line, one of the few advantages their competitors had dissipated instantly. In fact, with the Sega Game Gear having been discontinued in 1997, the Game Boy Color’s sole competition upon release was provided by its direct predecessor. SNK and Bandai attempted to enter the market with the Neo Geo Pocket and the Wonderswan Color respectively, but neither console came close to dethroning the Game Boy Color.
Although the Game Boy Color sold very well, rumors had been spreading that Nintendo was in the process of creating a successor as early as the Nintendo Space World trade show in August of 1999. These rumors turned out to be entirely correct. Nintendo was attempting to create an improved version of the Game Boy Color codenamed the Advanced Game Boy (AGB) along with a brand-new 32-bit system slated for a release the following year. Renamed the Game Boy Advance, the system was officially announced in September of 1999. Nintendo initially aimed for a 2000 release, though it wouldn’t make its debut until 2001. Like its two predecessors, the Game Boy Advance was a commercial success with fans and journalists alike praising its significant technical leap from the Game Boy Color.
Within the short lifespan of the Game Boy Color, Game Freak had released Pokémon Gold and Silver. It wasn’t easy for Satoshi Tajiri and his team to follow up a set of games as monumental as Pokémon Red and Blue, but with the second generation, they proved they were more than up for the task. Featuring many novel concepts such as a real-time clock and the ability to pass down moves through breeding, Pokémon Gold and Silver would prove to be the Game Boy Color’s premier role-playing experience. Given the immense popularity of these games, it was only natural for them to create a third set, and the Game Boy Advance would seem to be the ideal platform upon which Game Freak’s flagship series could make a triumphant debut in the sixth console generation.
Unfortunately, this proved easier said than done. The Game Boy Advance was a large technological leap from the Game Boy Color. As Game Freak had been accustomed to developing games on simplistic hardware, they encountered problems almost immediately. Even the fact that the screen was slightly larger meant they had to develop with a different aspect ratio. On top of that, they had far more colors and sound channels to work with. Though the newfound freedom intrigued the team, accomplishing certain tasks became much more difficult and the entire process became highly resource-intensive.
They also had to deal with a factor they couldn’t possibly control: what their audience felt of the series. When Pokémon Red and Blue debuted internationally in the late nineties, it became a true worldwide phenomenon. Sometime after the release of Pokémon Gold and Silver, however, the novelty died down. Fans had dismissed these games’ popularity as a fad, declaring it dead. Junichi Masuda, the man who co-directed the franchise’s third-generation entries alongside creator Satoshi Tajiri, would describe the adverse atmosphere in an interview, believing there was an immense pressure to prove dissenters wrong. Combined with their unfamiliarity with the new hardware, these games proved to be the most difficult to develop out of any generation in the series thus far. Such was the extent of the stress Mr. Masuda felt creating these games that he found himself hospitalized at one point as a result of severe stomach issues. Despite these setbacks, he and his team persevered and saw the project through to the end. The night before games were released, the co-director had a dream in which it was a complete failure.
Deviating from the color themes of the preceding generations, the third set of mainline games were dubbed Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire. They saw their domestic release in November of 2002 before debuting aboard in 2003. How these games were received isn’t exactly straightforward. On one hand, Mr. Masuda’s fears were ultimately misplaced, for Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire moved sixteen-million units between the two versions, making them the greatest selling Game Boy Advance titles. Interestingly, the third most successful title on that console was Pokémon Emerald – an updated version of these two games in a similar vein to Pokémon Yellow and Pokémon Crystal. There’s no questioning that, from a financial standpoint, these games were complete successes. However, the fans themselves were divided on these games for various reasons. While fans accepted the changes Gold and Silver brought to the table, they weren’t as unanimously receptive of Ruby and Sapphire. What is it about these games that inspired such mixed feelings?
Playing the Game
Your character is a young child who has just moved to Littleroot Town – a small community within the Hoenn region – after their father, Norman, became the Gym Leader of the nearby Petalburg City. Upon exiting the moving truck, their mother suggests introducing themselves to Professor Birch, a friend of their father’s. Upon visiting his house, your character meets the professor’s wife along with their child. Birch is currently on Route 101 studying the local Pokémon. However, by the time your character gets there, you will notice the good professor is being chased around by an unruly Poochyena. Attempting to intervene would likely result in a severe injury. Fortunately, there is something you can do to help.
Birch has a bag containing three different Pokémon: a Treecko, a Mudkip, and a Torchic. Having had no experience working with Pokémon, your character is about to get an impromptu crash course.
In spite of a noticeable presentation upgrade, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire retain the familiar gameplay of their predecessors. The series differentiates itself from other JRPGs in that a majority of the battles are fought one-on-one. Although it would sound like an overly simplistic system, there is quite a lot of strategy involved. Every Pokémon has a type based off of their physical appearance or abilities. Although they could be thought of as pets, they are markedly more fantastical than mundane examples, having the abilities to breathe fire, create tidal waves, and cause earthquakes. These are akin to the standard elemental magic that tends to feature in many JRPGs, though Pokémon don’t exactly have a mana stat per se. Instead, they have movesets, with each move possessing a certain amount of Power Points (PP). If the Power Points have been depleted, the associated move can no longer be used.
To have the most success, you must learn how these types interact. Fire-type attacks can be logically utilized to exploit a Grass-type Pokémon’s weakness, but this mechanic is a two-way street. Opposing Pokémon will try to exploit the weaknesses of your own, so you must be wary of what kinds of attacks they may possess. With seventeen different types, and certain Pokémon possessing two instead of one, you really have to careful about what commands you choose each round in a fair matchup. However, both you and your opponents can have Pokémon with moves that clash with their types, potentially catching one party off-guard. In extreme cases, Pokémon can even learn a move they’re weak against.
Very few of these mechanics are present when you fend off the Poochyena, however. Regardless of which Pokémon you choose, it will have one Normal-type attack and a move that decreases its opponent’s stats. The Poochyena, in turn, is completely unable to exploit any of your own Pokémon’s weaknesses. You don’t even have to worry about getting unlucky because this fight cannot be lost. While it’s easy enough to win simply by repeatedly attacking, if your Pokémon takes too much damage or you insist on only lowering the Poochyena’s stats instead, it will flee after a certain number of turns. The only consequence of failing to defeat the Poochyena is that your Pokémon will not gain any experience points. Regardless of the outcome, Birch thanks your character for saving him. As a reward, he will let them keep the Pokémon they chose. He then asks them to meet his own child, who is on Route 103, to gain advice on how to be a Pokémon Trainer.
One of the most significant innovations Pokémon Crystal brought to the franchise was the ability to play as either a boy or a girl. With Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, the feature has officially become a mainstay. Depending on your choice, you play as either Brendan or May. Unlike many RPGs in which you can select a character, the one you don’t choose doesn’t simply vanish into the ether. Instead, they become the son or daughter of Professor Birch. This character then serves as your rival for the duration of the game. In that regard, Brendan and May are a bit different from their predecessors. Blue was an arrogant boy who always thought of himself better than Red. Meanwhile, Silver was far more overtly antagonistic towards Ethan, verbally abusing his Pokémon when they didn’t perform and refusing to accept his repeated losses. Your rival in these games, however, is very friendly towards the player, taking their losses in stride and not rubbing their potential victories in your face. While this sounds a little disappointing, I do have to give the writers credit for not simply providing the player with a worse version of Silver and calling it a day.
Battles against Trainers are fought in a similar manner to wild Pokémon encounters. However, you cannot flee from these battles; you must stick them out to the bitter end for good or for ill. The more important factor to keep in mind is that battles against Trainers tend to be significantly more difficult. While wild Pokémon tend to use random moves against your own, Trainers formulate actual strategies. To wit, if your Pokémon has barely any HP left and your opponent’s possesses a technique capable of letting them move first such as Quick Attack, you can expect them to use it as a coup de grâce every time. Trainers can also use items to heal their Pokémon, though their supplies tend to be far more limited than your own and this costs a turn in combat.
Although you will have grasped the basics by this point, having only a single Pokémon to carry you through to the end is not a realistic proposition. You will eventually have to face off against something that can exploit your Pokémon’s weakness, and if you lack a fallback plan, you may find yourself against an undefeatable opponent. Fortunately, your rival has your back. After battling them, they will advise you to return to Littleroot Town to speak with their father. Upon doing so, the professor will give your character a Pokédex along with some Poké Balls with which to catch wild Pokémon. Your character’s goal is to then head for Petalburg City so they can meet up with their father, Norman.
Before you leave, your character’s mother will provide them with a pair of Running Shoes. True to their name, simply by holding down the “B” button after obtaining them, your character will begin to sprint. Though not as fast as riding a bicycle, this is the first substantial improvement Ruby and Sapphire have over their predecessors. Although Red or Ethan were admittedly not terribly slow, being able to run significantly cuts down on the amount of filler this game has.
When traversing Route 102 to Petalburg City, you may happen across a set of berry plants. Similar to Gold and Silver, you can give your Pokémon items to use in battle. They cannot make use of manmade items such as Potions, but they can consume berries on their own. However, the berries found in Hoenn are different from any of the ones Ethan could harvest as he journeyed through Johto. A majority of the berries from that generation told you exactly what they did, having names such as “Paralysis Cure Berry” and “Poison Cure Berry”. In the third-generation games, berries have actual botanical qualities. As such, the names they’re given are more in line with what they’re called in this fictional universe as opposed to hinting their intended purpose to players. Nonetheless, a majority of the berries you can find perform the same functions as any of the ones you could use in Gold and Silver.
On Route 102, you can harvest Oran Berries and Pecha Berries, which heal ten HP and cure poison respectively. When you choose to do so, you may notice the plants disappear as soon as you take the berries into your possession. Unlike in Gold and Silver, you do not harvest berries from a tree that bears a single fruit every day. Indeed, you will get multiple berries at once if you decide to take them.
It is standard practice in Hoenn to replant one of the berries you take as an act of courtesy for other Trainers. All you need in order to plant a berry is a patch of fertile soil. Any area from which you obtain these berries in the first place will suffice. Once a berry is planted, it will take a certain amount of time to grow into a fruit-bearing plant. How much time it takes depends on the berry itself. The general rule to keep in mind is that the most helpful berries such as the Lum Berry, which cures any status condition, tend to take a longer time to grow than the common ones. To help things along, you will eventually obtain a watering can. Although you don’t need to water these plants in order to for them to thrive, neglecting them will give you the minimum yield. Each berry has four different stages from the time you plant it to when you can harvest them. You can maximize the yield by watering the berry for each phase until it bears fruit.
As you begin amassing a collection of Pokémon, you may notice that some of them are capable of performing feats outside of what you command them to do in battles. Should you be lucky enough to encounter a fairly rare Psychic-type Pokémon known as a Ralts, you would get the inclination to try to capture it. Knowing the general rule that Pokémon suffering from a status condition are easier to capture, one could easily devise the strategy to paralyze it before throwing a Poké Ball. This strategy would come back to haunt the player when the Ralts activates a special ability known as Synchronize. When a Pokémon with this ability is afflicted with a status condition, it is then shared with its opponent.
This is perhaps the single most significant mechanic Ruby and Sapphire introduce to the series. Every single Pokémon has its own special ability. The starter Pokémon will have Overgrow, Torrent, or Blaze as a special ability. Respectively, it powers up Grass, Water, and Fire-type moves when your Pokémon is low on HP. The key to victory is being aware of any special abilities your opponents have in addition to getting the most mileage out of your own. For example, certain Pokémon have an ability called Levitate. This prevents them from being damaged by any Ground-type moves. This is typically the signature immunity of Flying Pokémon, but there are plenty of species capable of flight despite not explicitly being of that type. Because of this simple change, you have to put even more consideration into what moves to use than ever before.
Then again, if you did indeed encounter a Ralts, you may have noticed that the situation I initially described never happened. In fact, as soon as you sent your Pokémon out against a Ralts, it may have used its special ability immediately: Trace. This allows a Pokémon to copy the opponent’s special ability and use it for itself. Yes, certain Pokémon can potentially have one of two different abilities. Unless it possesses an ability used as soon as the battle begins, the only way to know for sure which one a Pokémon has is by catching it or somehow observing it in action.
Pokémon Emerald added a particularly interesting dimension to the abilities, giving many of them a secondary purpose. The breeding mechanic introduced in Gold and Silver makes a return, and once again, it takes a certain number of steps before a Pokémon Egg will hatch. Certain Fire-type Pokémon possess the Flame Body ability. In battle, a Pokémon with this ability has a chance of burning opponents that make contact with it. Taking cues from how animal incubate eggs in real life, having a Pokémon with the Flame Body ability in your party significantly reduces the number of steps required to hatch it. Later in the game, you might discover a Pokémon resembling an antlion called a Trapinch. One of its abilities, Arena Trap, prevents opposing Pokémon from fleeing. If it’s the first Pokémon in your party, you are more likely to trigger random encounters with each step. Should you capture a Gulpin, which is known to hold onto its items with an iron grip, and place it in the lead position in your party, you will get more bites while fishing. In the event you have one of the various Pokémon with the Static ability leading the party, there is a fifty percent chance of the game forcing an encounter against an Electric-type Pokémon if possible. What I like about this development is that it’s another, subtler brand of world-building. By utilizing these Pokémon abilities in a more mundane function, you get a sense of how this universe functions with humans living alongside such these creatures.
Special abilities aren’t the only significant change Pokémon have been given this generation. Should you examine a Pokémon’s stats, you will notice they have a Nature as well. There are twenty-five potential Natures for a Pokémon to have. What this does isn’t immediately obvious; in fact, one could easily dismiss it as mere flavor text. After all, from a mechanical standpoint, the Natures do not affect a Pokémon’s battle performance. A bashful Pokémon will obey your commands just as easily as a bold one. What it instead affects is a Pokémon’s stats. Fittingly, a brave Pokémon will stand tall against any opponent it may face. It is not liable to run, allowing it to sacrifice speed for attack power. In many cases, the first antonym you think of when parsing these natures confers the opposite benefits. Fittingly, a timid Pokémon’s first instinct is to run at the first sign of danger. While it may not have had much experience in a direct confrontation in the wild and is thus physically weak, a timid Pokémon is fast on its feet.
When you arrive at the Petalburg Gym, Norman will congratulate your character on taking their first steps towards becoming a Pokémon Trainer. Although your character will have to battle him somewhere down the line in order to obtain the badge he bears, he initially refuses to do so right away. Only after obtaining four different gym badges will he consider battling your character. This is where the game could be said to begin in earnest. With a clear goal in mind, you are instructed to go to Rustboro City and obtain the badge from its leader, Roxanne.
While en route to Rustboro City, you will encounter a pair of trainers who attempt to battle you simultaneously. Although Gold and Silver occasionally had players face off against identical twins, they were merely another trainer class. Here, fighting against two opponents demonstrates one of the most significant new mechanics Ruby and Sapphire bring to the series.
Not only do they insist on battling you at the same time, they will punctuate their point by sending out one Pokémon apiece. Because it would be completely unfair if you were limited to sending out one Pokémon in response, you get to use two at the same time. With two Pokémon representing each side, this is intuitively referred to as a Double Battle. Naturally, these kinds of encounters require players to drum up strategies markedly different than they would reserve for the familiar Single Battles. You now have to deal with the fact that there can be anywhere from two to four types represented by both sides. With the very real possibility of every participant possessing moves outside of their types, you have so much more to consider than the already high number of variables associated with Single Battles. There is an even greater possibility that you will have an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time.
Another aspect you must appreciate is that offensive Pokémon moves have specific targeting systems. While a significant chunk of them only allow you to pick one target, some allow you to hit all of your opponents at once. This gives utility to a move outside of its sheer power. Is it better to launch a concentrated attack against one Pokémon or hit both opponents at once to soften them up? You must also be mindful of how certain moves target every single Pokémon on the field – friend or foe. It would be exceptionally unwise for your Ground-type Vibrava to use Earthquake when its ally is a Fire-type Combusken. On the other hand, if its ally is a Flying-type Swellow, you can use the powerful move with no drawbacks at all.
After making significant progress in the game, you will eventually be able to enter Pokémon Contests. These competitions are very different from your standard Pokémon battles. Rather than having your Pokémon use their moves to knock out their opponents, they instead utilize them to dazzle a panel of judges. There are four rounds in a contest, and your Pokémon is allowed to execute a single move for each one. Moves have vastly different effects in contests than they do in battles. Depending on the move, they can either intimidate your opponents or cause the judges to ignore any subsequent actions. You’re always told when your Pokémon is allowed to use a move, so using this to your advantage is the key to victory. After all, it doesn’t matter if your Pokémon makes a good first impression only to get upstaged by the others. You generally want to avoid using the same move multiple times in a row, as this will bore the judges quickly.
The move’s elemental type often has little bearing on the proceedings. In regards to contests, moves are divided into five types: Cool, Beautiful, Cute, Clever, and Tough. The various berries you find are similarly have at least one of the five following flavors: spicy, dry, sweet, bitter, and sour. Which contest Pokémon would fare best in highly depends on what flavor of berries they prefer. The flavor of berries they enjoy in turn depends on their nature. Corresponding to the order of the previously mentioned flavors, you will know their favorite flavor if your Pokémon has an enhanced “Attack”, “Special Attack”, “Speed”, “Special Defense”, or “Defense”. A Pokémon with a Hardy, Docile, Serious, Bashful, or Quirky nature has no preferences, for they do not have any increased or decreased stats either.
Although there are a lot of berries to be found in this game, you can’t exactly feed them to your Pokémon and expect to get anywhere. The game won’t even allow you to use certain ones on your Pokémon – or at least not in their original form. What you must first do is make Pokéblock out of the berries. These are small candies Pokémon enjoy eating, and doing so will enhance their contest attributes. In every contest hall, there is a machine capable of making these candies. They are operated by four people, each of whom throws a berry into the blender. When the machine lines up with your marker, you must press the “A” button within that short window. This will cause the machine to spin faster, which in turn results in better Pokéblocks. You must be careful, for any missed presses will cause the machine to slow down significantly. Recalling the flavor order, the basic colors for these Pokéblocks are Red, Blue, Pink, Green, and Yellow. However, a Pokéblock can potentially have multiple flavors, enhancing several attributes at once. You have to be careful when feeding your Pokémon these candies. Not only is there a limit to the number of Pokéblocks you can give them, your Pokémon will also have a flavor they dislike to complement their favorite one. Appropriately, their least favorite flavor corresponds to the stat decreased by their nature.
When it comes to its gameplay, Ruby and Sapphire are improvements over their predecessors. One of the biggest problems with Gold and Silver, and to a lesser extent Red and Blue, was that both sets of games required players to grind levels for an anomalously long time before they stood a reasonable chance against certain opponents. Gold and Silver attempted to mitigate this by allowing players to register trainers’ numbers in their cellphone-like device. Doing so opened up the possibility of being able to rematch them, but this didn’t work in practice. They would have to call you in order to request a rematch. Attempting to call them would seldom result in anything productive. Even worse, there were plenty of instances in which they would call you just to say hello. While this did provide a degree of character, what they could say was extremely limited, thus only succeeding in wasting the player’s time.
Meanwhile, I can safely declare Ruby and Sapphire the first games in the series that significantly streamline the process of leveling up one’s Pokémon. Although it still pays to fight wild Pokémon every now and again, you won’t have to do this for hours on end to pass a certain point in the game. In fact, one gadget greatly cuts down on the amount of battles you have to fight: the PokéNav. This is the Ruby and Sapphire equivalent of the Pokégear. Although you can’t use it to listen to the radio, it does allow you to register certain trainers you encounter on the field. If they want a rematch, a flashing symbol appears next to their entry. This is far less intrusive than the old method wherein the game would be interrupted at inconvenient moments and you had to scroll through the trainers’ text in order to see if they wanted to fight or not. Here, whether or not they want a rematch is clear as day on the list itself. It does mean you have to actually examine the list, but it’s not much of an inconvenience at all.
As you make significant progress on your journey, you will eventually stumble upon a trainer who will generously give you a Technical Machine (or TM). While it is standard practice for Pokémon NPCs to randomly give the player helpful items, this TM contains a move known as Secret Power. By teaching it to one of your Pokémon, you can use the move to open niches in rock walls or cause vines to drop down from trees, leading to secret areas. At first, this would appear to be entirely pointless, for these secret areas seem completely empty. Because it simply wouldn’t do to leave these places bare, it’s up to you to spruce the place up a bit.
If you ever found yourself building a treehouse as a kid – or having your parents do the job – you get to relive that experience in these games. Throughout the game, you can find various decorations to transform the cave from a dull, empty room to a private hideout. The act of decorating a secret base saw its origin in Gold and Silver, which allowed you to place objects in your character’s room. Though an interesting idea, how you could decorate the room was fairly limited and difficult to appreciate given the minuscule amount of time you spend in it. In the case of certain decorations, you were only given a small amount of flavor text. How you can go about decorating your character’s room or secret base is much more advanced in Ruby and Sapphire. Not only do you have full control over where in the base you can place each item, the variety of decorations is significantly larger as well. Among other things, you can decorate the base with mats that sound notes when stepped on, tents, and the ornaments resembling the statues you would find in a Gym.
Although the amount of ways in which you can decorate a secret base is impressive, it would still seem to serve little purpose outside of allowing the player to add a personal flair to their experience. Fortunately, as it turns out, you can have a friend appreciate your work as well. On the second floor of a Pokémon Center, there is a third service in addition to the familiar battle arena and trading room. This one allows you to mix records with your friend. Mixing records accomplishes various things at once. Once you have done this, certain characters will make references to your friend with whom you mixed records throughout the game. The most notable effect of doing this, however, is that you can access their secret base – and vice versa. Within the secret base, you will encounter a trainer who has the exact same name and team as your friend had when you mixed records. You can battle these trainers once per day. If you do this with as many friends as possible, you will have several means with which to easily gain experience points.
One of the most notable enhancements Gold and Silver brought to the table concerned a mechanic that had existed from the series’ inception: Poké Balls. In Red and Blue, there were five varieties of Poké Balls. The sole difference between them was how well they worked with standard Poké Balls not modifying the catch rate at all and the one Master Ball you obtained being able to catch a Pokémon without fail. Gold and Silver introduced the idea of Apricorns. You could get these strange fruits from a tree once per day and take them to a man named Kurt. He would, in turn, give you a custom Poké Ball depending on the color of the Apricorn you gave him.
The usefulness of these custom Poké Balls varied wildly. Though Level Balls were helpful for catching weak Pokémon, Friend Balls, Fast Balls, Heavy Balls, Love Balls, and Lure Balls had no use outside of their intended situations. It was to the point where it would make little sense to tote them around unless you specifically needed them. Even worse, the last variety, the Moon Ball, which was intended to help capture a Pokémon that evolves using a Moon Stone didn’t successfully serve its overly specific purpose due to a glitch. On top of having to wait a day for Kurt to finish his work, obtaining these custom Poké Balls were seldom worth the hassle. Crystal allowed players to turn over multiple Apricorns of a certain color, but even then, Level Balls were far and away the best ones to craft due to having the broadest utility.
Ruby and Sapphire revisit this idea by introducing a new set of Poké Balls outside of the standard four varieties: Repeat Balls, Timer Balls, Nest Balls, Net Balls, Dive Balls, and Luxury Balls. Repeat Balls could be seen as a better version of the Love Ball. As long as the Pokémon you’re encountering is registered in your Pokédex, the Repeat Ball will have a higher chance of catching it. Timer Balls increase in effectiveness for every ten turns taken in battle. Because of this, they prove especially effective against Legendary Pokémon. Similar in principle to the Level Ball, Nest Balls are more effective on lower leveled Pokémon, making them ideal to use in early-game locations. Net Balls have a greater chance of working when used on Water or Bug-type Pokémon. Later in the game, you can use a Pokémon to dive underwater. The Dive Ball is thus highly effective when it comes to catching any Pokémon dwelling beneath the ocean’s surface. Finally, the Luxury Ball makes the Pokémon dwelling within it friendlier. You use it in a similar fashion to the Friend Ball, though the exact mechanics differ slightly. Whereas the Friend Ball sets a Pokémon’s friendship to a higher starting value, the Luxury Ball enhances the rate by which it increases.
Although you have not the means to craft any of the Apricorn Poké Balls, the process of obtaining the special ones introduced in these games is much easier – all you need to do is go to a store and purchase them. What I particularly like about the larger variety of Poké Balls is that the game keeps in track of which one you used to capture a Pokémon. This couldn’t have been done in previous generations due to technical limitations, but the presentation upgrade makes it possible. Reflecting this, there is a special type of Poké Ball you can receive by purchasing ten in a single transaction called the Premier Ball. The only difference between it and the standard Poké Ball is its color – having a white top and a red outline around the center. This doesn’t have any effect on the gameplay, but it’s a nice little touch.
One the face of things, Ruby and Sapphire are major improvements over Gold and Silver. One could argue the third-generation titles may not have introduced the sheer volume of new features, but the titles offer a much deeper experience between the inception of special abilities and Pokémon Contests. Despite the plethora of new ideas, when these two games were released in 2002, fans had more than a fair share of criticisms for them.
Many of them are fairly defensible. One of the most fascinating aspects of Gold and Silver was the real-time clock. This persistent game design choice helped with immersion. Although many games had a day-to-night cycle, it was intriguing seeing it match the world around you. Ruby and Sapphire completely do away with this idea, bathing the land of Hoenn in perpetual daylight. There does exist a real-time clock, but its effects on the gameplay are minimal. The game’s most obvious use for it is dictating how long the berries must grow before they’re mature enough to harvest. Outside of that purpose, its impact on the gameplay is minimal. There is one Pokémon that evolves differently depending on the time of day, but because this isn’t reflected in the visuals, it can be easy to miss if you’re playing these games blind.
Furthermore, as a continued issue from Gold and Silver, the divide between physical and special attacks greatly reduces the effectiveness of certain Pokémon. This is especially obvious if you chose Torchic as your starter. If you train the small firebird, it will eventually evolve into a Combusken. When it does, it gains the Fighting type. As this development suggests, the Torchic evolutionary line highly favors physical attacks. However, because they also specialize in Fire-type attacks, they are rendered less damaging due to running off of their less impressive “Special Attack” stat. It’s especially strange how their signature move, “Blaze Kick”, isn’t considered a physical attack. In fact, of the three starters, only Treecko and its evolutions are optimized properly, being Grass-types with good “Special Attack” stats. As before, you will likely encounter various other instances of this disconnect the further you get into the experience.
A minor problem I had with these games concerns the nature system. On the face of things, I do like the idea because it allows you to maximize the effectiveness of certain Pokémon. Where the proposition loses me is that there are only a handful of natures useful for a given Pokémon. For example, you are in no way going to benefit from using a brave Alakazam in battle. The brave nature reduces a Pokémon’s “Speed” while enhancing its “Attack”, making it worthless for a Psychic-type with a practically nonexistent “Attack” stat and an excellent “Speed” growth. This means whenever you catch a Pokémon, there are usually two or three natures that would benefit them without any significant downside. With twenty-five potential natures, five of which do not affect stats at all, the odds of you catching a Pokémon with the ideal one are not in your favor. You could make do with a suboptimal nature, but it would ensure your Pokémon either has a glaring weakness or misses out on a substantial advantage. If it’s a Pokémon that only has a 1% chance of showing up in a single area, you can expect a lot of frustration to ensue.
There is something of a saving grace in that starting with Pokémon Emerald, you could take steps to manipulate the outcome. If you place a Pokémon with the Synchronize ability in the lead position, your next wild encounter has a fifty percent chance of having the same nature. Even better, a similar mechanic exists for the breeding system. All you have to do is give the parent with the nature you want to pass down an Everstone. The offspring, regardless of species, will then have the same nature. Although it does greatly reduce the amount of busywork required to get a Pokémon with the best nature, it does make the process less streamlined than it was in the previous two sets of games. In those titles, you could just catch a Pokémon and begin using it – no further questions asked.
I feel, however, that the single most commonly cited problem with Ruby and Sapphire concerns Hoenn’s design. Keeping in line with its two sets of predecessors, Hoenn is based off of a region in Japan. While Kanto and Johto incorporated elements of the Kantō, Chūbu, and Kansai regions situated on Honshū, Hoenn is inspired by the southernmost region of Japan – Kyūshū. This too allows for many interesting parallels between the Pokémon universe and the real world. Kitakyushu is primarily known for steelmaking, and a company named Zenrin, which specializes in navigation software is headquartered there. Its Hoenn equivalent, Rustboro City, is where you receive the Pokénav. One of the most notable land features of Hoenn is Mt. Chimney, which is an active volcano. The largest active volcano in Japan, Mt. Aso, is in the heart of Kyūshū Island, and a town near its base is home to seven onsen – or hot springs. Despite the obvious Japanese inspiration, there is a curious exception in the form of Sootopolis City, which you reach late in the game. Although it matches up with Yakushima’s location in real life, the actual design brings to mind the landscape of Greece – the city of Santorini, specifically.
Interestingly, the Hoenn Pokémon League, which is in Ever Grande City, isn’t on the mainland, but rather on a small island to the east. This island is an analogue to Okinawa – a popular tourist destination. You get there the same exact way you navigate any other water route – by surfing on a Pokémon. This is precisely where the problem lies; Ruby and Sapphire were notorious for the sheer amount of sea routes they boasted. This makes the experience frustrating for a number of reasons. The most obvious problem is that these areas are highly difficult to navigate. Even in the first and second generations, it was easy to get your bearings because there were plenty of landmarks to help you along and they had a linear design.
Although the enhanced graphics make navigation slightly easier, this goodwill comes to a halt the second you begin heading for Mossdeep City in which the seventh gym resides. The water routes in Hoenn don’t even have the semblance of order those of Kanto or Johto had; the ones around Mossdeep sprawl in every direction. This by itself isn’t a problem because you can learn the layout through enough repetition. What makes navigating these routes especially frustrating is that while land routes notably feature no random encounters unless you’re walking through grass, they can strike at any moment when surfing.
This flaw was especially apparent by 2002. Up until the 2000s, role-playing games were your go-to genre for storytelling. However, the overwhelming success of various action games with cerebral plots such as Metal Gear Solid allowed other genres to catch up and surpass the role-playing games in this department. Suddenly, many people found they could bear the erratic pacing of games featuring random encounters no longer. In other words, as a result of the Japanese RPG falling out of favor, people began to feel that random encounters too had overstayed their welcome. Pokémon had more of an excuse than most to retain them, but it was otherwise highly irritating to have your progress impeded by an invisible horde of enemies every thirty seconds. This feeling is then rekindled whenever you’re made to navigate any sea route in Ruby and Sapphire.
Although the sea routes are lambasted by most of the people who have played these games, I feel they’re symptoms of a larger problem. Just like Gold and Silver, Ruby and Sapphire are particularly bad when it comes to how they handle Hidden Machine (HM) moves. For the first time in the series’ history, every single badge allows the player character’s Pokémon to use a new HM move outside of battle.
It also doesn’t help that, given the sheer amount of sea routes you explore, there are three Water-type HM moves: Surf, Dive, and Waterfall. Surf is undeniably the most useful of these three moves, dealing a large amount of damage while also allowing the player character to explore the sea routes in the first place. Although Dive and Waterfall aren’t weak, there is still is no definable reason why you would ever teach a Pokémon more than one offensive move of the same type – especially because neither is as good as Surf. I do like the idea of each badge allowing for a greater degree of exploration because it makes the experience feel like a Metroidvania. However, in practice, it overcomplicates the gameplay, wasting the player’s time more often than not.
Analyzing the Story
The first generation of Pokémon saw a trainer named Red leave on a journey to become a Champion. Along the way, he encountered a notorious group of criminals known as Team Rocket. Against all odds, he triumphed over Team Rocket, putting an end to their machinations. Three years later, a boy named Ethan is to face off against the remnants of the group, who will try in vain to contact their leader, Giovanni. He too shall emerge victorious, causing the remaining members to disappear from the public eye once more.
Although Team Rocket was an iconic antagonistic group, they were a fairly standard organized crime unit, being inspired by the yakuza. The Western localization translated this aspect, giving them a mafia flavor. Regardless, their role in the story was highly periphery – particularly in the original generation wherein they were introduced with no fanfare at all. Although they were a bit more of an active menace in the second generation games, they still came secondary to the protagonist’s goal to becoming the new Champion.
Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire offer one significant difference from its predecessors that becomes apparent before you’ve even reached Rustboro City. When traveling the Petalburg Woods, you will happen upon a member of Team Magma. This hoodlum is accosting a member of Devon Corporation – the company that manufactures the Pokénav. It is naturally up to your character to stop him.
However, depending on the version you purchased, this may not be what actually happens. Instead, in the place of the Team Magma member, you may have stumbled upon someone representing Team Aqua instead. Nonetheless, you must defeat this gang member in order to rescue the Devon Corporation employee. Indeed, Ruby and Sapphire are the first games in the series to radically alter the storyline depending on which version you purchased. While Gold and Silver altered the order in which you encountered the Legendary Pokémon Ho-Oh and Lugia, they followed the same basic plot.
Technically speaking, Ruby and Sapphire follow the same plot as well. Hoenn is home to Team Magma and Team Aqua. These two gangs are at odds with each other due to their diametrically opposed goals. Team Magma will stop at nothing to increase the landmass whereas Team Aqua is unfettered in their goal to expand the ocean. However, only one team is actively pursuing these goals. If you’re playing Pokémon Ruby, you face off against Team Magma while members of Team Aqua play a supporting role. In Pokémon Sapphire, these roles are reversed.
Interestingly, you fight them under similar circumstances regardless of which game you’re playing. What changes are their motivations for their terroristic actions. In Pokémon Ruby, one of your earliest goals is to prevent Team Magma from using a Meteorite to cause Mt. Chimney to erupt. If you’re playing Pokémon Sapphire, you must stop Team Aqua from doing the exact same thing. However, while Team Magma wants to use the volcano’s eruptions to expand the land, Team Aqua reasons that by doing this, rainwater will fill the now-cooled crater.
Both teams’ plans ultimately revolve around a trio of Legendary Pokémon that hold dominion over the lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere: Groudon, Kyogre, and Rayquaza. It is said that thousands of years ago in the primeval age, the world was overflowing with natural energy, which Groudon and Kyogre fought over. The people could do nothing but watch as their world was torn asunder. Luckily, for them, the sky dragon Rayquaza intervened. With its own overwhelming power, it put an end to the fighting, restoring the world to peace. Since those days, these powerful creatures have laid dormant in an undersea cavern. Atop Mt. Pyre are two orbs that can control these beasts.
However, in their haste, the antagonistic team takes the incorrect orb. Maxie, the leader of Team Magma will attempt to control Groudon with the Blue Orb. Conversely, Archie, the leader of Team Aqua will attempt to control Kyogre with the Red Orb. These actions successfully awaken the respective Pokémon, but cause them to go on a rampage and unleash their full power. Awakening Groudon will cause the world to be bathed in harsh sunlight that threatens to evaporate the ocean and destroy the land’s arability. Meanwhile, awakening Kyogre causes it to unleash an endless torrential downpour that threatens to flood the entire world.
In the long-standing tradition of video game plots, it is then up to you to fix this mess by traveling to the Cave of Origin in Sootopolis City. Your task is sure to be a difficult one. After all, the beast that stands before you managed to shake the world to its core eons ago. If it wasn’t for Rayquaza’s interference, all life would surely have perished. Then again, the creature in question is also a Pokémon, meaning you can attempt to capture it just like any other one. It’s significantly more difficult due to the Legendary Pokémon’s distinctly low capture rate, but it can be done. In fact, if you raided the antagonistic team’s hideout, you may have stumbled upon a Master Ball, thus allowing you to capture it as soon as the battle begins.
Although I do not agree with the notion that a story is only as good as its villain, I do have to say Team Magma and Team Aqua do make the plot of these games far more memorable than those of previous generations. Team Rocket was memorable by virtue of being the series’ first villainous organization, but otherwise, their motivations were fairly basic. To be fair, they were significantly more dangerous than the fandom perceives them, having restored to extortion and even killing a Pokémon at one point. Even so, your main reason for fighting them in terms of gameplay is because they’re in the way. It’s up to Red and later Ethan to stop them so they can continue their journey in peace.
When you’re made to stop Team Magma or Team Aqua, however, the stakes are much higher. Despite the aforementioned heinous acts, Team Rocket was, at worst, a persistent nuisance. Their victory would have made society a worse place, but you get the sense that someone else would have saved Kanto and Johto in your stead. This isn’t the case in Ruby or Sapphire. Through the bizarre circumstances, your character is given the exact means with which to capture Groudon or Kyogre. Given what their rampage does to the world, time is of the essence. Therefore, while previous generations had your characters perform many acts of bravery, I would argue Ruby and Sapphire are the first games in the main series to have them become a hero. In light of the intriguing lore, placing the world in danger so you can save it was the perfect development for the series’ growth.
On top of that, I especially enjoy how, in spite of their extreme actions, Maxie and Archie do have ultraistic motivations for their goals. While Giovanni and Team Rocket were unapologetic criminals, Maxie and Archie are merely woefully misguided. For most of the plot, they doggedly pursue their goals, yet when they realize the extent of the damage their actions have inflicted, they earnestly repent. This is punctuated in a postgame sequence in which they willingly return the orb they stole from Mt. Pyre and make peace with the leader of the other team. All in all, it makes for an interesting scenario. The antagonists were morally dubious, but still wanted to help humans and Pokémon in the end.
Drawing a Conclusion
If you were to ask a fan who had been with series from the beginning what they thought of Ruby and Sapphire, there is a good chance they would express more than a little antipathy toward these games. Someone unfamiliar with the history of the series may wonder how this could have happened. Although this sentiment could be partially explained by nostalgic sentiments, one really has to examine the climate surrounding its release to get an understanding of how Ruby and Sapphire weren’t accepted with open arms. Although the games sold well, Pokémon as a pop-cultural phenomenon was over. Indeed, by the time the games saw their North American release in 2003, it was not cool to like the series. The kids who were swept in the initial craze had moved onto other things. If the games were ever mentioned, it was only ever to reference it as a passing fad. Actually admitting to liking Pokémon in the early 2000s was akin to enjoying disco in the United States during the 1980s; you just couldn’t do it without instantly turning yourself into a laughing stock.
For fans who had stuck with the series, another problem prevented them from fully appreciating what Ruby and Sapphire had to offer. That is to say, they were completely incompatible with Red, Blue, Yellow, Gold, Silver, or Crystal. I can certainly understand why fans considered that aspect a deal-breaker back in 2002. With a second Game Boy, a Link Cable, and a little patience, you could important your first-generation team into Gold, Silver, and Crystal. However, owing to Junichi Masuda and Satoshi Tajiri’s team opting to completely rewrite the engine’s code, it was impossible to transfer any Pokémon obtained in any previous game into Ruby or Sapphire. Exacerbating matters is that many fan-favorite Pokémon from the first or second generation had absolutely no representation in either of these games. One of the greatest aspects of the second-generation games was that they didn’t invalidate what you accomplished in the first, potentially allowing a connection to exist between one’s playthroughs. In one fell swoop, Ruby and Sapphire severed this connection, sending the series back to square one.
However, while I could sympathize with the immense frustration fans felt at the time, I ultimately don’t think was it an issue worth dwelling on even then. It’s true that most fans couldn’t have known at the time that Game Freak had surreptitiously programmed every Pokémon not featured in the Pokédex in Ruby and Sapphire, but I feel these issues don’t detract from what is otherwise a solid experience. As actual games, they manage to be material improvements over their predecessors, which is what is truly important. The combat engine is more sophisticated, there is a treasure trove of great, new ideas, and it doesn’t force players to grind levels. While I acknowledge that Ruby and Sapphire have shortcomings, they don’t weigh down the experience to unsalvageable levels.
Because of how much of a step forward the third generation manages to be over the second, I could easily recommend a playthrough of these games. Like their predecessors, Ruby and Sapphire were eventually remade under the names Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. I honestly don’t think you could go wrong with either version, for both sets of games are perfectly accessible from a modern perspective, cutting down a lot of what made the pioneering installments so tedious while offering many unique challenges. That being said, if you want a taste of what these games were originally like, you should look into the Emerald version, which boasts numerous, yet subtle enhancements. Regardless of what people thought of the franchise at the time, I can safely say Ruby and Sapphire were the pinnacles of the franchise upon their 2002 release.
Final Score: 7/10