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The danger of messing with a classic game is that you’ll take away the magic. Sometimes, the joy of 16-bit images and sounds doesn’t translate into modern, more sophisticated forms.
So Nintendo was playing with fire (and water, ground, electric, steel, fairy, and the rest) when it updated the classic Pokémon Sapphire and Ruby games. Good news for previous players of the collect-and-battle pet games: Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby not only don’t screw up the originals, but they improve on them.
For gamers new to the franchise, this may not be the best installment to start with. It doesn’t do as good a job of explaining the features of Pokémon games, whether old or new. But if you take the time to figure it out, you’ll earn a fun, beautiful, long-lasting game that’s still every bit a classic.
Pokémon Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby launch Nov. 21 on Nintendo 3DS for $40. I spent most of my time in Omega Ruby, and did not engage in competitive or online play. Nintendo restricted review content to the first eight gyms.
What you’ll like
New graphics bring the world to life
It’s hard to overstate how much the graphical update adds to Sapphire and Ruby for players of the earlier games. The grass blades waving around you when you go hunting move around you with beautiful detail. Surf at night and the stars reflect on the water.
Sprite changes mean Pokémon that were already cute (like the pink cat-like Skitty) are now overwhelmingly adorable. People have actual facial expressions.
The only part that’s in 3D are the cutscenes. I didn’t miss it much while playing, but then, Nintendo’s 3D usually just gives me a headache after a while.
Contests get easier and more fun
Contests have been around since the original Ruby and Sapphire, but they get new elements in this version. These enable you to put your Pokémon in the ring versus others based on a wide variety of traits: coolness, cuteness, toughness, cleverness, and beautifulness (yes, in Pokémon, being cute doesn’t make you beautiful).
Now in those contests you’re given an overpowered Pikachu from the start (mine was wearing the same dress as my character), so if you want to avoid the whole berry-candy-making grind that characterized earlier versions, you can. If you want to enhance the traits of other Pokémon for contests, you’ll still need to make them.
If you max out the bar that measures audience approval, you see fun, dramatic cutscenes featuring your Pokémon. Win the coolness competition for example and your monster will be on a cliff, in front of a moon, as red lightning strikes.
Sneak up on a better class of Pokémon
What’s that in the bush? A tail? Ears? Tiptoe up to it and you’ll often bag a Pokémon that’s rare or has better-than-average abilities. Sneaking is a grand addition to trainer Pokéabilities.
Stop walking and then press lightly on the circle pad and it’ll cause you to sneak, tiptoeing slowly, one step at a time. Sure, it takes forever to move across the screen, but it’s so worth it. And like everything else in this remake, it looks great.
A healthy dose of nostalgia
All long-time Pokémon players remember their first game with fondness, and mine was the original Sapphire. The Pokémon universe has gradually expanded and improved since, but I have a special place in my heart for those early Hoenn trainers and landscapes.
Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby are a love-note to longtime Pokémon fans. They are nearly identical to the originals, but with all the graphical and gameplay updates from later installments plus some fun new extras. Much of the dialog remains the same.
I won’t spoil the opening cinematic for you, but it’s stuffed with references for experienced players, such as the images it shows or the Pokémon that appear, and it looks gorgeous by the series’ standards.
That’s true of the entire game. The trainer Rich Boy Winston is still there to use wildly overpriced heals on his low-level teams. Your room is still the same, though a few smaller items have moved around. You mom still shoves you in the back of a truck at the beginning — nothing much has changed in the land of Hoenn.
Turn that sound back on, folks
The soundtrack from the original games contained the cheesy 16-bit beep-boop kind of tunes you’d expect. These versions contain many of the same melodic themes, but with multiple tracks that do a remarkable job of balancing synthetic and real-life instrument sounds. They’re complex, delicate … and actually enjoyable.
If you have kids, you might actually ask them to leave the volume on while they play in the car. Regardless, you’re going to find yourself humming the cheerful bicycling theme in the shower.
What you won’t like
Not enough hand-holding for new players
While this remake offers new content for experienced players, it doesn’t always do a great job of explaining them to first-timers. I tripped over an Alakazite Mega Stone, which gives the player the chance to mega-evolve their Alakazam Pokémon (a magician-fox with spoons) — giving it much more power.
When Pokémon X and Y introduced Mega Stones, a whole section of the game helped players learn their functions, rather like the way Primal forms are here. That explanation is missing in this remake, so other than an optional bit of instruction, you’ve got know way to know what you’ll get if you’re wandering across some of these things for the first time.
New players who have never experienced the franchise before might have to suss out how to do the basics (such as catching a new Pokémon).
Exp. Share and simpler trainers make things a little too easy
Players looking for the harder play from the original Sapphire and Ruby won’t find it in Alpha/Omega. The Exp. Share device, which you have from the start, shares experience between all of the Pokémon on your team, not just the one holding the item. That makes it so much easier to level up your little friends.
Combine that with easier gym leaders — their teams have lower levels and are missing some Pokémon they used to have — and you’ll sprint through lower levels. It’s still harder than X/Y, but everything is harder than X/Y.
Headliner Pokémon may be a bit too overpowered in competitive play
Nintendo requested that we not reveal the game-changing mechanics of the previously confirmed Primal Evolutions for the two “cover” Pokémon of the two versions, or how you get them. But it’s not a spoiler to say that these two become superpowerful as a result of their new forms.
I suspect that it’ll be great news for competitive Pokémon players, if you’re playing with the fully evolved rocky T-rex-like Groudon from Omega Ruby or winged-shark-like Kyogre from Alpha Sapphire on your team. Your opponents may not be so happy.
Pokémon Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby are worthy updates of classic games from the Pokemon pet battle series. They add modern graphics and sound, the gameplay updates of the previous few installments, and the new evolutions without ruining the nostalgia of the original Sapphire and Ruby titles.
If you played the original games, you’ll definitely want the updates. If you’re new to the series, it might be worthwhile to start with an earlier installment (like Pokémon X/Y) that includes more instruction. And if you didn’t play the originals but have been playing more recent Pokémons, dive in.
Pokemon Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby are available Nov. 21 for the Nintendo 3DS. Nintendo provided GamesBeat with download codes for both versions for this review.
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