With Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, I have officially come full circle. I was in college back when the original games were released, and my memories of them are still vivid. As such, it's been an interesting trip back to a Pokémon generation that is equal parts revered and maligned by fans.
Game Freak's third set of remakes, which follow in the footsteps of Fire Red and Leaf Green on the Game Boy Advance and Heart Gold and Soul Silver on the Nintendo DS, bring the series back to its somewhat awkward adolescent—the period between when it was a full-blown fad and when it evolved into something more mature and sustainable. It is at once really good and one of Pokémon's weakest generations. It is, after all these years, still the generation that gave the world Luvdisc (but also Salamence, Metagross, and Mudkip).
Being remakes, Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire can't help but reflect some of the weaknesses of their source material. Among other things, they're almost too easy, the majority of gym leaders and trainers being drastically under-leveled to the player party. The Pokémon available early on, meanwhile, are somewhat uninspiring retreads of more popular first-generation monsters—Beautifly, Gulpin, and Plusle and Minun among them. The Hoenn region itself is often beautiful, but also too focused on water-type Pokémon and water traversal in general. Playing them again brings me back to the days when I used to sit in IRC chatrooms and complain relentlessly about Pokémon's then-perceived decline.
But in fairness, Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are not all about the past. Game Freak has sharpened their craft over the years, smoothing away many of the rough edges of the design, and pretty much all of the best features from X and Y make an appearance here. And of course, the graphics have come a very long way since the days of the GBA, graduating from static 2D sprites to full-blown 3D cel-shaded monsters that look better than they did on even the GameCube. The most vivid addition is the ability to fly around with Latios across a fully-3D map of Hoenn—an experience that allows you to finally shake the surly bonds of the minimap and go pretty much anywhere you want. It's mostly optional outside of a few specific instances, making it easy to forget that it's even there at times, but it's delightful nevertheless. There were times when I hopped into the mode just because it was fun to fly around Hoenn's volcano and soak it all in.
Beyond that, it's fair to say that the changes are mostly incremental, which is a criticism that has been levied at the series many times over the years. Game Freak still very much does things their own way, which is reflected in their stubborn adherence to random encounters and other mechanics that can seem outdated in comparison to the competition. When it comes to making changes, they prefer the subtle to the grand, sticking to small additions like the new ability in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire to sneak up on a monster that pops out of the tall grass for a moment-a simple compromise for those who don't like random encounters. The pace of change can be maddening at times, but all the little additions add up. In the years since the original Ruby and Sapphire, Game Freak has introduced online battles and trades, dramatically streamlined the breeding mechanics, added in Mega Evolutions as well as a new Pokémon type, and made it possible to actually see Effort Values—a once-hidden stat introduced back in the original Ruby and Sapphire. The Pokémon of today is smarter, better balanced, and generally more geared toward competitive play than it was a decade ago, all of which is reflected in the remakes.
Of course, it's easy to miss these changes if you just focus on Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire's main quest, which like any other Pokémon game hews closly to the format established during the original Pokémon Red and Blue. Like the trainers before them, either Brendan or May set forth from their hometown to win eight badges, defeat an evil team of criminals attempting to destroy the world, and ultimately try and catch the hundreds of monsters that have popped up in the years since the original 151. The differences, as always, are in the details. The story of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire is dominated by Groudon and Kyogre respectively—two "super ancient" Pokémon who once terrorized humanity and now slumber at the bottom of the sea.
Back in 2003, the story was a nice departure from the first two generations insofar as it introduced two new teams—Team Aqua and Team Magma—and a Godzilla-like story, but it was also ultimately a bit disappointing. Granted, it's a bit weird to criticize a Pokémon story given that the narrative never really rises above that of a Saturday morning cartoon; but the original game's rivalries either went nowhere or simply disappeared before returning abruptly, robbing the story of a satisfying arc. And the evil plan itself made even less sense than usual—a battle to evolve humanity by either drowning them or dehydrating the planet. Someone should tell Team Magma that humans needs water more than they need additional land.
In any case, Game Freak seems to have realized that the original game's story was a bit wanting, because they've beefed up the remake considerably. The ultimate plan is still kind of insane, but it's redeemed by a more apocalyptic atmosphere—a fearful desperation accentuated by the powerful new forms granted Groudon and Kyogre, and made all the more immediate by its parallels to climate change in the real world (I live in California, where the 'expanding landmass' is all too real). The role of Brendan/May, formerly the series' weakest rival, has likewise been expanded to good effect, with a handful of touching cutscenes driving home their friendship with the protagonist—no easy feat given that the main character doesn't have so much as a line of dialogue.
Ordinarily I wouldn't linger so much on the story, which is after all not much more than an extended tutorial in the grand scheme of things, but Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire really do a good job of making the main quest halfway memorable. I would now put it in roughly the same category as Pokémon Black and White—another game that was narratively ambitious by Pokémon standards, in that case seemingly questioning the very premise of humans capturing monsters to do their bidding. I understand if you're skeptical given that Pokémon's story is generally geared toward 5-10 year olds; but if nothing else, it's worth it for the near-Gurren Lagann-level insanity that permeates some of the later scenes. I actually cracked up during one big battle because it reminded me, of all things, of the iconic fight with Big Boss at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3. After all these years, I still find Pokémon's earnest storytelling endearing.
Of course, for a certain segment of Pokémon fans, the story isn't much more than a distraction—an opening act to get through as quickly as possible before getting to the main event, which is the postgame content. I confess that I'm mostly in that category, having played Pokémon more or less non-stop since 2003 (I played the original, but mostly skipped Gold and Silver before returning for Ruby and Sapphire). I've enjoyed Omega Ruby's story more than usual; but at the end of the day, the 15 hours or so spent on it will only comprise maybe a quarter of my total time with the game. The rest of it will be spent raising monsters and partaking in the various sidequests.
Having now finished the story and the content that follows immediately after, I'll confess that I'm slightly disappointed by the postgame content on offer. Unfortunately, Nintendo won't really let me go into detail on this front for fear of spoilers (despite already announcing most of it themselves), but at least one major piece of single-player postgame content that I was expecting to see is absent. I was also surprised by the comparative lack of new areas to explore. On that front, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are in line with Heart Gold and Soul Silver, but it still would have been nice to see Game Freak put the cherry on top of a strong story with a really killer postgame.
With that said, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire do bring back two of my favorite features from the third generation—Contests and Secret Bases. The former are a clever twist on the traditional rock-paper-scissor battles; a two part event in which monsters are first judged in what amounts to a beauty pageant, then compete to win the favor of the judges and the audience with different move combinations that have a variety of alternate effects. Though perhaps a bit shallow —the competitions are easily mastered by feeding monsters Pokeblocks blended from berries and knowing which combos to use—it's still fun to work through the contests and win as many ribbons and trophies as possible. Secret Bases, meanwhile, are a novel bit of customization in which you can claim a bit of Hoenn for your own, whether it be a cave, a tree, or a large bush. Both Contests and Secret Bases have been augmented by Streetpass and other new features in the remake, with the latter becoming a sort of customizable obstacle course that can be shared with friends, though I wasn't able to test it myself due to the online features being disabled.
Both add their share of replayability to Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, making it seem the tiniest bit churlish to complain about a lack of postgame content. But it's all about perception, I suppose. Put it this way: It's taken barely 20 hours for me to start casting about things for to do in lieu of filling my Pokedex or raising monsters for battle. I'm certain there's more, but I haven't had an easy time finding it.
In that light, I feel like Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are best characterized as an entry point for newcomers. As I alluded to earlier, they are perhaps the easiest games in the series to this point, furnishing you with a host of powerful monsters who can easily overpower the relatively weak gym leaders populating Hoenn. The story is also a definite step up from that of Pokémon X and Y, which I can honestly barely remember at this point. And when it's all said and done, there are the Contests and Secret Bases to enjoy.
Obviously, I'm not implying that veterans will dislike Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. After all, they dramatically alter the existing competitive metagame by introducing a large number of new Mega Evolutions—alternate forms first introduced in Pokémon X and Y. But Game Freak seem to have devoted the majority of their resources to the story, which tells me that they're trying to hook in lapsed fans of the originals as well as curious newcomers with this version. I'll be curious to see whether they're successful, especially since we've now officially moved beyond the hallowed first and second generations.
Ultimately, regardless of whom it's geared toward, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are more building blocks than anything—as much expansion packs for the popular competitive game as remakes. Game Freak has done a good job of accentuating the strengths of the original story; but if Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire have reminded me of anything, the third generation is long over. In some ways, it makes me sad, since the Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald days marked the heyday of my own competitive career, brief as it was. In others though, it's a reminder of just how far the series has come over the years. Regardless, it's been an instructive trip back to what remains a curious period in Pokémon's history.
The engine introduced in Pokémon X and Y continues to look very nice, but has seen comparatively few changes in the interim. As before, the framerate dips with 3D turned on.
Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire had one of the series' better soundtracks, which is reflected in the remakes. Amusingly, the Hoenn monsters still sound much the same as they did back in the days of the GBA.
The interface makes adequate use of the touchscreen, but Game Freak needs to get its act together and fix the inventory management, which has been a mess since at least Pokémon Black and White.
As always, there's a tremendous amount to do in any Pokémon game, from hunting rare monsters to battling in tournaments to partaking in contests. Its open-ended nature makes it easy to lose a couple hundred hours without even realizing it.
Pokémon remains as unique as they come among RPGs—a monster collection game that effortlessly blends social gaming with deep battle mechanics. In returning to the series' third generation, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire bring back many of the elements that defined the originals while also being some of the most accessible entries to date. That said, they can be a little too easy at times, and the postgame content feels a bit lacking in light of what's come before. Regardless, they are enjoyable remakes that appropriately capture one of the more peculiar periods in the series' history.