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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.