Version tested: GameBoy Advance
A nondescript little chap wanders a nondescript little land stuffing wild animals into his balls. He's gotta catch 'em all, apparently. We were never particularly caught up in the Pokémon "phenomenon" before now. In fact, it would be fair to say that it passed us by almost entirely over the last six years, but with the franchise's GBA debut we figured it was about time we got our Pokém-on. Ahaha.
A bag of balls
The nondescript little chap is in fact you - whatever name you decide on, anyway - and you have just moved into a new town full of new faces. Thanks to forging a slightly dubious friendship with the local professor's Pokémon-mad daughter, and with the encouragement of your mother, you quickly develop a newfound interest in man's pursuit to fill his Pokédex. Egged on by the professor when you pay him a visit, he hands you your first Pokémon and you set off on a journey of fame and fortune. Well, you know, what else are you going to do?
From here it's all familiar territory, even to us. You wander along roads and explore small towns, speaking to random people who have little in the way of conversation other than to give you short hints on the subtleties of Pokémon training, and getting into random battles with wild Pokémon when you wander through the patches of long grass that they inhabit.
A Pokémon battle is typical of simple turn-based RPG combat, with the player and the CPU (or indeed other players via link cable) taking it in turns to pick their particular attack or defence move, usually with a little hint of paper-scissors-stone strategy as you fathom your adversary's weaknesses. A Pokémon with grass attacks, for example, will sap a rock creature's defences quite easily, and fire-based creatures naturally a walkover for those with water attacks. Once you've significantly weakened a wild Pokémon in battle - which is decidedly easy right from the off and will only get easier as your primary critter soon becomes unstoppable - you can whip out your balls [fourth paragraph, I win fifty quid -Tom] [damn -Ed] and attempt to bag it for your own personal use, eventually training up a powerful, unstoppable army of the critters.
Berry, berry old
You can only carry around six Pokémon storage balls in your backpack, each containing one Pokémon, but officially there are hundreds of the little scamps including 100 new cast members. Cunningly, Nintendo has spread a handful of the new creatures across both Ruby and Sapphire versions, so to truly catch 'em all you're going to need to either trade with a pal or buy two copies of the game, which are otherwise practically identical. We suppose it depends if you're actually masochistic enough to put yourself through that. Anyway, you're able to store additional Pokémon in a PC-based storage system, accessible at the various Pokémon Centres spread around the world in each town. It's also at these centres that you're able to recharge your Pokémon after a particularly strenuous scrap.
The berries that you'll come across during the early stages of your journey form the main diversion. You can use the berries to give your Pokémon small energy boosts or other quick bonuses during a fight, but they can also be fed into a blender to form Pokébloks via a little rhythm-action game, which you play with the CPU or via link play. Pokébloks are candy that improves elements of your Pokémon's personality. What's the use of this? Pokémon Crufts, basically - you can enter your chosen Pokémon into a show to exhibit their moves and personality.
Elsewhere there are bicycle races and a collection of bizarre little mini-games. Oh, there's the side story of course, which interferes with your quest occasionally and has to do with the irritating Team Aqua/Magma (the moniker depends on your version of the game) attempting to fiddle about with Hoenn's ecology.
Your overall goal though is to defeat the eight Gym Leaders of Hoenn, then face off against the Elite four Pokémon trainers, and finally the Pokémon Champion himself. You'll spend the game getting into as many fights as possible in order to level up your pocket monsters and facing them off against the best of the best, and it's during the admittedly quite compelling journey up to the higher echelons that you come to one startling realisation - this is almost exactly the same as every other Pokémon game. The graphics are updated to a functional level at best, and the gameplay mechanic is barely developed with the occasional two-on-two battle the only real addition to the fights. Some may argue this as beneficial because, after all, if it ain't broke... But really, the differences are slight and form a sugar coating - sprinkled across the same old core game.
In off the ruby
Hardcore Pokéfetishists are actually probably used to more of the same these days, and they'll gobble this up regardless. However, we can't help but imagine widespread disappointment at the lack of gameplay development and the game's inability to push the GBA even slightly. Apart from the occasional tense battle with a Gym Leader and the more sophisticated opponents later on in the game, the constant fighting and collecting mechanic gets very tired, very fast.
Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire isn't without its charm, and for those in it for a cheerful little adventure with little in the way of challenge can't go far wrong. Just don't blame us when you start wondering what all the fuss is about.
7 / 10