Pokémon Sapphire review
The craze continues

The good:

More balanced type system
Simple to understand
New Pokemon contests
Strategy involved

The bad:

Graphics are outdated
Relience on HM moves limits gameplay
Battles a little too basic


Any gamer should know what Pokemon are. The little critters that began life on the Gameboy in the form of a RPG with that classic slogan "Gotta Catch 'Em All". Well now the third set of RPGs has arrived on the GBA in the form of Ruby and Sapphire. So how do these entries shape up?

Well, the presentation is a major letdown for a start. Anyone who has played the past Pokémon games may find it famaliar. The sprite-based overworld look quite pretty. The grass actually looks like grass this time around, and there is more detail and colour to everything. Character sprites are nicely animted too.

The menus have received a much welcome facelift too. Colour and clear. There is a solid layout on offer too, making managing the team nice on the eyes.

The problem lies in the battle graphics. When a battle occurs the "camera" moves to the battle sidelines. Trainers and Pokémon slide on and off screen. Everything so far is basic and hardly impressing anyone.

Animations are terrible though. The actual Pokémon sprites don't have actual animations, instead opting for static images. Attack animations aren't particularly good either. The effects themselves are good but it is hard to be impressed when the Pokemon themselves do nothing but jiggle about. It's nothing more than a slideshow, which is the issue here.

Music tracks are a mixed affair, although leaning towards the good end of things. Some are quite inspiring, especially some of the battle music used. Energetic in nature. Others are simply boring and do nothing to enhance the experience.

Sound effects are decent. You get things like burning, bubbling and bangs, all nicely timed and sounding right.

This level of presentation may have been acceptable on the previous Gameboy systems that held such technological limitations, but the GBA is clearly capable of much more. Games like Golden Sun and Fire Emblem show that the GBA can do much more. Game Freak appeared to have simply added some polish to the GBC battle scenes. The rest of the visuals may be nice, but the battles ruin it.

Gameplay concept is simple enough. The player is given a Pokémon at the beginning. They use this Pokémon to battle other critters and capture them. Captured beasts can also be trained, allowing players to form a team of up to 6 Pokémon (though further Pokémon can be stored for later access). Players travel the land catching Pokémon and defeating other trainers on the path to the Elite Four - the best trainers in the land. Heh, doesn't sound family friendly to me.

OK, pretty famaliar so far. Travelling the land is simple enough. Players explore a top-down world. Different areas are connected by "routes", which simply consist of pathways and areas where wild Pokémon may attack from. Trainers also populate these routes.

Sometimes your path may be blocked and you must find a way past. This may involved speaking to other people or completing some events in order to move on, adding to the adventure feel. One such method though is to get your Pokémon to help. HM (hidden machine) moves not only give battle attacks but also can be used outside of battle for certain things. Use surf to cross bodies of water or strength to move boulders. This may sound cool but the problem is that some of the HM moves aren't that good in battle, and such moves can't be taught to every Pokémon which can put limits on an already limited moveset system.

As an example I found myself using a grass type solely because it could use cut and flash, even though I didn't want either move. Why should my team spots be dictated by necessity on these HM moves? This has been an issue since the first set of games, and it's even worse here.

When travelling you'll get involved in many battles, either against wild critters or other trainers. Most battles are 1 on 1, where your topmost Pokémon is sent out first. Each Pokémon has a maximum of four moves each and take it in turns to try and defeat the opponent critter. Moves may inflict damage or causes status ailments or induce temporary stat changes. Sounds like the standard RPG then.

Building a team involves catching new pokemon. To do this you use your own team to weaken them. As well as reducing their health without accidentally KOing them you can also affect their status (such as sending them to sleep or paralyzing them). From there you throw pokeballs hoping to catch one. Once caught you can command them on your team.

Later on in the game you also come across a daycare where you can drop off pokemon to be raised for you, for a price of course. However, the real use of this function isn't to raise a team for you. Drop off a male and female that are interested in each other and you may return later to find an egg. Put this in your active team and walk around. After so many steps the egg will hatch.

So, what's breeding about then? The hatched pokemon will be of the same species as the mother pokemon at her lowest form (so, a female torchic, combuskin or blazekin will produce a torchic). This baby will also inherit traits from the father, such as slight stat alterations and certain moves can be passed on. All pokemon that can breed possess moves that can only be gained through breeding with a father that has that move. In addition, any moves that are taught through TMs are also passed on to the child if that species can use that move (even if the TM move wasn't actually taught to the father via a TM).

Travelling the lands also leads to encounters with trainers, and these trainers tend to pose problems, and I honestly found travelling to new towns rather tedious at times. The problem is that your critters health can be dwindled down pretty quickly. You either have to stock up on lots of potions (draining your funds something silly) or make repeated backtracking trips to the nearest PokeCenter.

The biggest problem is that, since you only have four moves and one critter at a time, you find yourself just repeating the same 1 or 2 moves over and over. There's no room for team strategies or clever tricks. Once you've got the ideal type matchup then that's pretty much it. Battles themselves also tend to be over really fast, since attacks tend to be powerful enough (from both sides) to fell an opponent's Pokémon in a couple of attacks at most. This also renders moves that alter stats or heal relatively useless as it's generally faster just to wipe the enemy out with damaging attacks.

That's not to say it's terribly bad. Building the team and choosing the moves still involves a lot of strategy, but it's just not indepth enough to appeal as greatly as it could.

Sapphire brings a new element to the field in the form of 2 on 2 battles. These allow each side to make use of two pokemon at a time. Some moves take on altered usefulness in these situations (earthquake may be a powerful ground attack, but it'll hit your ally pokemon if they can be affected by ground attacks). Unfortunately, there are very few 2on2 battles in the game, so what could have really altered the battle scene is reduced to nothing more than a last minute extra.

The addition of the active abilities is a nice touch. These are skills that are always active during battle, such as negating certain moves or dropping enemy stats. These do add an extra element to proceedings.

The developer has tried to offer something else besides fighting. The Pokemon Contests are a great idea and could effectively turn into a franchise on its own as long as another way to learn moves is created. The idea is simple, to appeal to the judges. The intial round is based simply on parameters built up by feeding berries. The second round involves using attacks in a completely different way to either build up charm or affect other critters in the show.

There's a lot more strategy involved in these contests as they aren't over in seconds. Careful timing of abilities is important, although it's impeded by the way Pokémon must enter normal battles to learn moves, and making pokeblocks to build up the contest traits tends to become boring after a while too.

In terms of the core gameplay there really hasn't been that much advancement from the last set of games. Sure, we have abilities and the occassional 2on2 battle, but much of it is still the same old routine. When we made the transition from R/B/Y to G/S/C there was a significant jump in the game mechanics. Two new types, a lot of moves changed, holding items, special stat split into two, some type effectiveness changes, breeding, real time, happiness, events. It was all new and it made the experience fresh.

However, the transition to R/S has been much more minimal. Contests and abilities are really the only standouts, while Sapphire also bizarrely worked to remove some of the finer aspects of the previous generation of games (seriously, why remove the day/night feature?). When your gameplay is simplistic you need to keep the experience fresh, but in the end Sapphire doesn't manage that, and actually proves to be tedious at times.

For newcomers to the series it is a fine game to go with, but as a fan of the series since the old games I cannot rate this game as high as some might expect. There's too much of an "I've been here before" feeling. Exploring can also be a pain at times. That said, this is still a pretty solid game that offers a more user-friendly way into the worlds of RPGs.

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