[GAME REVIEW] Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire

Introduction

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?

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The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap

Introduction

In the final days of the Game Boy Color’s lifespan, Capcom’s subsidiary, Flagship, and Nintendo collaborated on two installments in the latter’s venerable The Legend of Zelda series: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages. Both games were released simultaneously in 2001 to a warm reception. The ability to access extra content by linking both games was a novel concept that only added to their appeal. With two successes under their belt that were worthy additions to the Zelda franchise, Capcom began work on a sequel for the Game Boy’s newest model – the Game Boy Advance.

However, before they could begin this project in earnest, a new proposition suspended development. Nintendo was interested in bringing A Link to the Past, popularly considered the series’ greatest 2D installment at the time. Once the port was released in 2002, players discovered it came bundled with a new title: Four Swords. Though more of a bonus feature than a full-fledged game in its own right, Four Swords marked the series’ first foray in multiplayer gameplay. Indeed, in its original form, it could not be played alone. This new feature played a major role in the Game Boy Advance port of A Link to the Past selling over 1.5 million copies.

With staff members freed up, Flagship resumed their initial project. Taking cues from the art style featured in The Wind Waker, this new installment, entitled The Minish Cap, promised to be a quality, original Zelda installment for the Game Boy Advance. It saw its domestic release in November of 2004, and debuted internationally in the months that followed. Interestingly, despite being touted as the Game Boy Advance’s Christmas “killer app” in Europe, The Minish Cap was released shortly after the launch of the Nintendo DS. This was not unlike how the Oracle installments debuted just before the Game Boy Advance’s launch. Regardless, The Minish Cap, like most games in the Zelda franchise, was highly regarded upon release. It was named GameSpot’s Game of the Year for the console in 2005. Does The Minish Cap stand as one of the final hurrahs of the Game Boy product line?

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The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures

Introduction

One of the games to coincide with the launch of Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance in 2001 was Super Mario Advance. It wasn’t an original title, but rather a port of the SNES version of Super Mario Bros. 2. In 2002, this was followed up with Super Mario Advance 2 and Super Mario Advance 3, which were ports of Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island respectively. During this time, Nintendo announced a port of the SNES-era’s sole entry in their The Legend of Zelda franchise, A Link to the Past. Not unlike how every Super Mario Advance port came bundled with a remake of the arcade classic Mario Bros., A Link to the Past was to also have a bonus game attached to it in the form of Four Swords – the series’ very first multiplayer campaign. Its mixture of cooperative and competitive gameplay proved highly popular among Zelda fans, and had a role in the Game Boy Advance port of A Link to the Past selling more than 1.5 million copies.

As the Game Boy Advance soared in popularity, Nintendo developed a cable that allowed it to hook up to a GameCube controller port, their then-current home console. This accessory had a precedent in the form of the Transfer Pak, which attached to the back of a Nintendo 64 controller. For certain titles, most famously, Pokémon Stadium, players could plug in a Game Boy or Game Boy Color cartridge into the Transfer Pak to access some form of bonus content in the Nintendo 64 game. During the E3 conference of 2003, Nintendo showcased two Zelda games that would make use of this connectivity: Four Swords and Tetra’s Trackers later renamed Navi Trackers. Later in December, Nintendo announced that both games along with a third dubbed Shadow Battle would be together on a single disc entitled Four Swords +. This compilation saw its domestic release in March of 2004.

As Western fans speculated the release of this new game, it was announced that Four Swords and Navi Trackers would be sold as two separate titles with the retail of Shadow Battle being unknown. The decision was quickly changed, and the compilation saw its release in the United States under the name Four Swords Adventures. It wouldn’t see the light of day in Europe until January of the following year. It is speculated that Nintendo’s reason for delaying Four Swords Adventures was so ensure it wouldn’t compete with another Zelda installment being developed around the same time for the Game Boy Advance called The Minish Cap. Did Four Swords Adventures allow its predecessor to truly bloom into a fully realized, standalone title?

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Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials and Tribulations

Introduction

Shortly after the success of Turnabout Trial in 2001, Shu Takumi’s boss, Shinji Mikami suggested that they make a trilogy with a grand finale in the third game. Atsushi Inaba, the game’s producer then called Mr. Takumi into a meeting once the latter returned from a vacation. Mr. Inaba asked requested the script for five episodes in the span of three and a half months. Despite these outrageous terms, Mr. Takumi managed to get his work done on time, though one episode had to be cut due to memory constraints. Regardless, Turnabout Trial 2 was released roughly one year after the original’s debut. It too became a success, and there was only one game left to work on. Unlike the case with Turnabout Trial 2, production of the trilogy’s concluding installment went smoothly, though the development cycle lasted slightly longer, being released in January of 2004. Named Turnabout Trial 3, it continued the series’ success, helping to retain the following it gathered with the previous two entries.

A few years later in the West, the success of Turnabout Trial 2, retitled Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice for All, demonstrated the series’ staying power. It was only logical to localize the final game as well. However, the localization process was less than ideal. With the localized title Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials and Tribulations, it saw a release in North America in October of 2007, yet it was conspicuously absent in other regions. Despite getting prerelease reviews in gaming publications, the DS version was not released in Australia, though they did eventually receive the port on the Wii in 2010. Furthermore, it was delayed in Europe to the extent that the next game in the series, Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, saw its release first. It’s speculated that ratings complications is what caused this to happen. Some fans had to wait an unreasonably long time for Trials and Tribulations to come out in their region. Did their patience pay off? Was Mr. Takumi able to defy the perceived curse involving trilogies and end this one on a triumphant note?

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Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice for All (Capcom, 2002)

Introduction

Upon its release in 2001, Turnabout Trial became a success in Japan, quickly amassing a strong following. Once Capcom finished development, Shu Takumi was told by his boss, Shinji Mikami, that they should make a trilogy with the third game ending in a grand finale to provide closure for all of the lingering plot threads. When Mr. Takumi returned to work from his vacation, the game’s producer, Atsushi Inaba, called him to a meeting. He told Mr. Takumi that he wanted a script for five episodes, allotting him three and a half months to finish it. As Mr. Takumi took a little more than a month to write each of the four episodes of the original Turnabout Trial, he was well within his rights to declare such a notion “completely insane”. To make matters worse, he felt he did not have any more gimmicks with which to formulate any mysteries, nor did he believe there to be any story threads he could expand upon.

Though he wanted to protest, the minute he returned to his desk, he drafted a work schedule. He gave himself two and a half months to write the dialogue for the entire game, with the remaining time being used to create the prototype and conceive gimmicks for each episode. Though a lot of doubt understandably weighed on his mind during the development cycle, he was miraculously able to meet the deadline. The only issue is that because he had run into memory issues, one of the episodes had to be cut from the final product. Despite a few minor setbacks, the game, entitled Turnabout Trial 2, was released in October of 2002 for the Game Boy Advance – roughly one year after the debut of the original.

A few years later in October of 2005, Turnabout Trial, under the localized title of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, became a sleeper hit through positive word of mouth. Such was the degree of its success that demand greatly exceeded supply. Cards became difficult to find, selling for double the average retail price on online auction websites. With the knowledge that the series had an overseas audience, Capcom allowed their localization team to work on an English version. As was the case with the original, the sequel had received a port on Nintendo’s then-newest console: the DS. Renamed Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice for All, the port saw separate releases in North America, Europe, and Australia in 2007. Justice for All was generally as well-received as its predecessor, and continued the franchise’s surprise success. Does it measure up to the strong series debut?

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Metroid: Zero Mission

Introduction

The dual release of Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime breathed new life into the Metroid franchise. The former was a 2D affair that took the canon in a different direction while the latter broke the series into 3D – a feat many thought impossible given its nonexistence on the Nintendo 64. After the success of Metroid Fusion, Yoshio Sakamoto, a veteran who had been involved with the series since its inception began brainstorming ideas for the next entry. A fellow developer suggested porting Super Metroid to the Game Boy Advance. The Super Mario Advance series ported three classic Mario titles to the handheld console by that point, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was made available for the system as well.

However, Mr. Sakamoto had another idea; though Metroid Fusion was inspired by the classic installments, it largely abandoned the exploratory elements which gave the series its identity in favor of providing a more story-focused experience. He wished to bring the series back to its roots with his next project, thereby allowing newcomers to discover where the franchise came from. To accomplish this goal, Mr. Sakamoto saw fit to return to the very beginning and expand upon Samus Aran’s original mission. Utilizing a reconstructed version of the engine used to create Metroid Fusion, work quickly began. Released in 2004 and titled Metroid: Zero Mission, this installment continued the series’ second wind, and is considered one of the best games in the Game Boy Advance’s library. How does it compare to the original, beloved NES classic that started it all?

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Metroid Fusion

Introduction

After the success of the Game Boy, Gunpei Yokoi and his R&D branch began experimenting with a new piece of technology. A Massachusetts-based company named Reflection Technology Inc. (RTI) produced a 3D stereoscopic head-mounted display prototype that utilized their LED eyepiece display technology, which had existed since 1985. Dubbed the Private Eye, they sought funding and partnerships with various electronics ventures, including Mattel, Hasbro, and Sega. Executives of the latter company declined, expressing concerns about motion sickness. As led by Mr. Yokoi, Nintendo felt there could be potential in this hardware, and enthusiastically received the Private Eye. Coupled with the perception that the technology would be difficult to emulate, they intended to create a new console with it, cementing their status as innovators. They entered an exclusive agreement with RTI, and as the successor to their 16-bit Super Famicom console, the Nintendo 64, was being developed by the third R&D branch, the other two were free to experiment.

Codenamed the VR32, Mr. Yokoi and his team spent four years developing a device that was intended to change the industry just as the Game & Watch line and Game Boy had done years before. This console, called the Virtual Boy when it was unveiled to the public, billed itself as the medium’s first virtual reality experience. Finally players could become one with the games they played, or so they thought. When this console launched in 1995, its reception was less than welcoming. A combination of its prohibitive price point, constant downscales during development as the company focused on the Nintendo 64, unimpressive 3D effects, and true to Sega’s prediction, health concerns regarding eye strain, all sounded the Virtual Boy’s death knell. The high-profile disaster left Mr. Yokoi to take the blame for the failure. Among other things, Nintendo made him man a booth at a trade show – something considered entry-level work in Japanese corporate culture and therefore a grievous insult for someone of his background.

Shortly after serving as producer for the fourth Fire Emblem installment, Genealogy of the Holy War, and developing a new, smaller model for the Game Boy called the Game Boy Pocket, Mr. Yokoi resigned from Nintendo thirty-one years after he joined. He and many of his former subordinates formed a new company named Koto, whereupon they teamed up with Bandai to create the WonderSwan. This handheld console proved to be a worthy rival to the Game Boy. Unfortunately, before he could witness its launch, tragedy struck. On October 4, 1997, Mr. Yokoi was driving on the Hokuriku Expressway with an associate when he rear-ended a truck. As the two men left the vehicle to inspect the damage, Mr. Yokoi was hit by two passing cars. Paramedics quickly arrived on the scene and took him to the hospital, but two hours after the incident, he was pronounced dead. He was 56. Since then, Nintendo has all but expunged the Virtual Boy from their history in respect to his memory.

One year before Mr. Yokoi’s death, the Nintendo 64 was launched. Upon this platform, gaming enthusiasts saw many beloved franchises successfully make the leap from 2D to 3D. Among these titles were Super Mario 64, Star Fox 64, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. However, in the midst of this innovation, there was one franchise conspicuously absent from the Nintendo 64’s library: Metroid. The first installment of the series invented a style of gameplay which would later be dubbed the Metroidvania while the third perfected it. As the fifth console generation went on, fans began wondering why Super Metroid had yet to receive a sequel. Mr. Yokoi had intended for the series to be an airtight trilogy, and the director of Super Metroid, Yoshio Sakamoto, expressed in interviews that he was worried it would be a particularly difficult act to follow. To make matters worse, he disliked the Nintendo 64 controller, so the generation came to a close without a single new entry in the Metroid saga.

Fortunately in 2001, Nintendo at last launched the true successor to their bestselling, 8-bit handheld system. Called the Game Boy Advance, this device rendered graphics almost on par with that of the Super Famicom. Later that year, an unnamed Metroid game was announced to the surprise of enthusiasts everywhere. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the Game Boy Advance provided a perfect solution to the problem which put the series on hiatus. Some speculated that it would follow the trend of the Super Mario Advance series, and turn out to be a remake of or heavily based on Super Metroid, but Mr. Sakamoto decided to treat audiences to an original story instead. Such were the lengths the development team went to create something unprecedented that they refrained from consulting previous installments for programming techniques, instead using Wario Land 4 as a reference. This fourth installment of the Metroid series, titled Metroid Fusion was released in November of 2002. Was Mr. Sakamoto able to create something worthy of Gunpei Yokoi’s legacy?

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Mother 3

mother-3

Introduction

In 1994, Mother 2: Gigyas Strikes Back, the follow-up to Shigesato Itoi’s beloved Famicom game was released. It accomplished the impossible by eclipsing the seemingly insurmountable popularity of its predecessor. Although it took some time, the sentiment was eventually shared with Western gaming fans who knew the game as a standalone title named Earthbound. With two smashing successes under their belt, it wasn’t long before fans clamored for a sequel. They weren’t alone either; so great was Mr. Itoi’s own enthusiasm that he called the lead designer, Akihiko Miura, in the dead of night to inform him of his new idea for the series’ concluding installment before promptly being informed that “it wasn’t time for that”. In fact, he had this idea so early, it was originally slated to be released on the ill-fated Super Famicom CD, a peripheral for their 16-bit console made to compete with the Sega CD, their rival’s equivalent. The team behind Earthbound regrouped for its sequel, and in a daring move, they forewent the prototyping phase, going straight into development under the belief that they would create something unprecedented. Mr. Itoi is on record stating that he wanted to make the game like a Hollywood film. He and his team began the project in 1994, expecting to complete it in 1996 whereupon it would see the light of day on Nintendo’s then up-and-coming 3D console: the Nintendo 64.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for their plans to go awry. While Earthbound ran into its own problems, the Super Famicom was an established system, and any technical issues were solved once a gifted programmer named Satoru Iwata dealt them. The Nintendo 64 was a horse of a different color – especially in the mid-nineties when 3D gaming was in its primordial phase. That the hardware was largely experimental coupled with the team’s understandable lack of experience with it caused development to stall. Not helping was that Mr. Iwata had been promoted to president of HAL Laboratory, meaning he had far less time to work on the game, and in 1995, Mr. Itoi’s company, Ape Inc., became Creatures with many of its members proceeding to assist an up-and-coming designer named Satoshi Tajiri with a project of his own: Pokémon.

Despite these setbacks, by 1996, the game was in an advanced state under the working title of Mother 3: Strange Creatures Forest. During this, Nintendo tried once again to capitalize on the increasingly popular CD-ROM format that paved a golden road for Sony’s PlayStation console with their proposed Nintendo 64DD (Dynamic Drive). It was touted as “the first writable bulk data storage device for a modern video game console,” which included features such as a real-time clock for persistent game world design, and expanded, rewritable data storage. Shortly after the technology’s announcement, it was decided that Mother 3 would be one of the system’s launch titles. Nintendo originally intended for the 64DD to be released in 1996 – the same year as the Nintendo 64, but it ran into numerous delays until it was pushed back to 1999. By then, interest in the product had waned, and it only boasted nine games in its library by the end of its run.

The tumultuous handling of the 64DD prompted Mr. Itoi and his team to downgrade their project to a simple Nintendo 64 title once more. By 1999, they managed to complete a playable demo which was showcased at Spaceworld, an annual video game trade event hosted by Nintendo. This time, the game had a definitive title: Mother 3: The Fall of the Pig King, and it was even scheduled for a North American release under the name Earthbound 64. As Earthbound gained a significant following in the West and it was a beloved classic in its native homeland, fans waited with bated breath to see what Mr. Itoi had in store for them. Their hope began to fade once the game was delayed again to 2000, yet failed to make an appearance at the E3 convention of the same year. With nothing to show for all of their hard work, Mr. Itoi announced the project’s cancelation in August of 2000, and it seemed his story would remain untold.

However, Shigeru Miyamoto was still interested in bringing the work to fruition. In 2003, the fans’ faith in the series was restored thanks to the release of Mother 1 + 2, a Game Boy Advance compilation port of Mr. Itoi’s first two games. A small message at the end of a TV advertisement stated, “We’re working on Mother 3 for the Game Boy Advance…” Various people had approached Mr. Itoi for the proposal of film or novel adaptations of his canceled project, but he declined, believing it could only be a game and nothing else. Mr. Iwata speculated in hindsight that the game didn’t really need to be in 3D when his colleague’s talents lied in the written word, and Nintendo’s newest handheld console seemed to provide the perfect solution for their troubles. The machine would provide them with specifications similar to the tried-and-true Super Famicom, eliminating any uncertainties the team might have had. With an entirely different team formed by employees from two companies, HAL Laboratory and Brownie Brown, Mr. Itoi set forth to at last create the third and final installment of his series. The latter company was composed of former Squaresoft 2D artists, and one of its members, Nobuyuki Inoue, served as the director for Mother 3, having achieved success as the scenario writer and battle designer for Live A Live. This time, development progressed with little incident, and the game, now simply titled Mother 3, was finally released in 2006 – twelve years after its direct predecessor.

As the compilation Mother 1 + 2 was not released in the West, North American hobbyists attempted to persuade Nintendo to localize Mother 3. To ensure their pleas would not fall on deaf ears, they sent a petition that received over 30,000 signatures along with a book containing Earthbound art, stories, comics, and even music all made by fans. Sadly, these impressive efforts were for naught, as Nintendo announced that they were not interested in exporting Mother 3 overseas. Unwilling to let this deter them, the fans took it upon themselves to provide their own translation. The project was led by Clyde “Tomato” Mandelin, a professional translator who previously worked on anime such as Dragon Ball and Lupin the 3rd as well as other video games including Kingdom Hearts II. The process proved arduous, and Mr. Mandelin said that “no text display routine wound up untouched.” Even those with lesser roles were estimated to have spent anywhere from fifty to one-hundred hours while the leaders contributed one-thousand. Still, the team soldiered forward, and the patch was completed in 2008. Within its first week, it received over 100,000 downloads, and Mother 3 enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive reception. Fans have been quick to point it out as one of the decade’s finest works – a sentiment echoed in several gaming publications – with some going as far as declaring it Mr. Itoi’s magnum opus.

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Breath of Fire

Breath of Fire

Introduction

In the 8-bit era of gaming, Capcom found much success in the home console market in the form of Mega Man along with an entire slew of games bearing the Disney license. This streak would continue into the nineties when they released Street Fighter II, the title that codified the genre of competitive fighting games in the public eye. It is difficult to overstate how much this game dominated arcades. Millions upon millions of quarters were spent, and it wasn’t uncommon for fans to have to wait over half an hour for a chance to play it. Naturally, once ports were created for the Super NES and the Sega Genesis, they quickly became bestsellers.

Fresh off their triumphs, Capcom set their sights on a then up-and-coming genre that was quickly gaining momentum thanks to the efforts of Squaresoft: the JRPG. Produced by Tokuro Fujiwara, the creator of the legendarily difficult Ghosts ‘n Goblins franchise, and featuring a cast of characters designed by Keiji Inafune, better known as the brain behind Mega Man and its countless spinoffs, this new project saw its completion in 1993 under the name, “Breath of Fire.”

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Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

Introduction

In 1998, Square released Final Fantasy Tactics in North America – a strategy RPG spinoff of their flagship franchise. The game was met with a tepid response at first, but fans eventually warmed up to it. Retrospectives have since gone on to declare it one of the strongest titles in the original PlayStation’s library. A few years later, Square would reach a publishing agreement with their old affiliates at Nintendo. They would use this opportunity to create a sequel to their sleeper hit, intending to develop it for Nintendo’s newest handheld console at the time: the Game Boy Advance. The game that would result from this project was completed in 2003 under the name, “Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.”

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