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By Thomas Levett and K.A. Wilks
For the record, Heart Gold/Soul Silver will be spared my wrath. They were much-needed updates to the G/S games for nostalgia value, and a necessary component for fans of Fire Red/Leaf Green (the story isn’t finished without them, after all). I will nonetheless come back to them; they really show how weak the Sinnoh games are by themselves.
First, the Pokémon Diamond/Pearl/Platinum games start off with a bit of nostalgia: a red Gyarados has appeared in another region.
Cue cheering from anybody who had ever played Gold, Silver, or Crystal. After anyone who played those games saw that little bit, we were pumped not for the adventure about to unfold, but more for G/S remakes. That is an extremely weak way to start a game, even if it is an excellent way to place your game into a timeline. Nonetheless, seeing something on TV and wanting the same is something kids do, so there we go. Instant adventure.
The game doesn’t really get much better as you go on. The pacing slows to a crawl in places, your team options are pretty limited (need a Fire-type and didn’t pick Chimchar? Sucks to be you; you have a choice of Ponyta and exactly nothing else), and story-wise, a lot of things felt forced. This unfortunately included the poster child for Gen IV, Lucario.
Lucario had its own movie, was the first Special-based Fighting-Type, and is given to you as a Riolu egg by a magical trainer. Lucario makes the game a lot easier, assuming you get a good one. Oh, and Lucario made it into Brawl while Mewtwo was cut entirely – more on that later. Also, furries were part of the Pokémon fandom since Day 1, but they became absolutely rabid after Lucario.
My project partner found a clip that summarized the situation of Lucario adequately. There is one scene, in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, where Fluttershy, general animal-whisperer, finds out the royal pets aren’t so fond of her. Her reaction is to yell, “You’re going to LOVE ME!” at the top of her lungs (which, for the record, is unusual for such a shy, gentle Pegasus). It works about as well as you’d think. That, in a nutshell, is what GameFreak did with Lucario. Maybe we would’ve liked it better if GameFreak hadn’t thrown it at us so hard.
The other rather odd thing in Gen IV is the mere existence of Arceus. Although it is more equivalent to Pangu or some other polytheistic creator deity, since Japan tends to have a polytheistic culture, many Western fans have chosen to equate it to the omnipotent monotheistic God. GameFreak may have been partially oblivious to the overall effect this would have on a Western player base, but the classification of Arceus as the Alpha Pokémon and its ability to become any type (“omnipotence”) implies that yes, they knew they had made something that would rock the Pokémon World.
That was not a good move.
Creating God and making it a catchable Pokémon had a few unforeseen ripple effects. The first is that it stunted their design potential considerably. After God, anything else they created would have to be inferior. They could not exceed God. It doomed all of their future designs into being lacklustre – at least mathematically.
Several Pokémon possess one or maybe two Base Stats which actually surpass those of Arceus. The philosophical question ‘Can God create a rock so big He cannot move it?’ arises, but with elemental animals. Ninjask surpasses Arceus’ Base Speed by 40 points, while Alakazam has higher Special Attack and Speed than it. Arceus surpasses them in base stat totals, but a general rule of creator gods is they can’t create anything which surpasses their power in any way. Shenron of Dragon Ball Z can revive people, no worries, but is unable to surpass the power levels of its creator – thus, no-one can just use the Dragon Balls to crush the villains. This is a design dead end – something a franchise shouldn’t do unless they intend to close the book.
The second issue comes from the first generation – Mewtwo. Brought into the world by human scientists genetically altering Mew’s DNA, it has higher Special Attack and Speed than Arceus, and comes very close in HP and Attack. Yes, humans created something which is stronger and faster than God; we’ll get onto the issues with that later, when the words “We dreamed of creating the ultimate Pokémon… and we succeeded” take on a chilling new meaning.
They had also created a few continuity ripples by making Arceus, which was amplified by the Western fanbase. A few overwhelming debates buzzed the forums: as with the Shenron example, how was it possible to capture God in a man-made construct? Which came first – the Arceus or the Mew? A lot of these centre around Arceus being God, with things like the Mew debate being the result of increasing “evolution VS creationism” fires in the U.S. A lot of these problems go away when one looks at other polytheistic religions, such as Hinduism and Greek mythology; if Zeus is fine with appearing as a bull, and Vishnu a man, what’s wrong with Arceus simply choosing to appear as a Pokémon? To the Japanese, nothing; to Christianity-dominated Western culture, everything.
Arceus aside, there are also a few questionable lore elements now present in the Pokémon universe. Texts in Canalave Library contain hints of humans and Pokémon becoming closer – literally and figuratively. If you fumble around in this library, as well as a few older PokeDex entries, you’ll read things like this:
“There was once a Pokémon that became very close to humans. It was a time when there existed no difference to distinguish the two.”
“It happened one morning – a boy with extrasensory powers awoke in bed transformed into Kadabra.”
Wait. Wait. Did they just say Pokémon were people? Wouldn’t that make Pokémon battling an awful lot like pitting one human slave against another in a cage match, only one guy gets to use rocks and the other has ice shards for no apparent reason? So marrying a Gardevoir isn’t zoophilia? Umm…okay. The idea of Pokémon and humans being very close, but not like this, is kind of addressed in Gen V, but we’ll get to the reasons why Game Freak’s message there got lost. This additional lore just really doesn’t help things.
Finally, and what really annoyed me playing D/P: a number of the new Pokémon introduced in Gen IV were not available early on. For example, if you were after a Froslass, you would have to hunt for a Snorunt after beating the Pokémon League. This gets only a brief mention, since the Platinum remake solved this problem handily, and the problem simply doesn’t exist in HG/SS.
I have to wonder how Gen IV would have fared if it hadn’t come with Wi-Fi trading. That was the big deal: you could battle, trade, and talk to your friends all around the world. It was a feature that Pokémon had desperately craved before the technology had even been conceived. That, combined with a much-desired Special-Physical attack split, based on the move’s execution as opposed to being one or the other based on types, could well have sold Gen IV by itself – regardless of whether the game was otherwise good or not.
Then, HG/SS came along and blew D/P/Plat out of the water.
As we know, Gold and Silver really stepped up from Red and Blue. Fire Red and Leaf Green were more refined versions of the originals, but lacked the physical-special split that Gen IV had created, as well as Wi-Fi trading (which is why we barely talked about them). So, what happens when you enhance an already polished work with new mechanics?
The answer: magic. Heart Gold and Soul Silver are prime examples of how to fuse nostalgia with technical advances. With Wi-Fi trading and the physical/special split, they were even more complete than Gold and Silver. Pokémon which suffered terribly due to the way moves were designated Physical or Special now had a new lease on life: for example, Hitmonchan once lacked impact due to Fire Punch, Ice Punch and Thunder Punch, three of its key moves, being Special; now they were Physical and it was hitting hard. On the other hand, Morty’s Gengar unleashed Shadow Ball from its potent Special Attack, having been stuck using it as a Physical move in the prior generations. That alone could well have been cause to celebrate their release, but the developers didn’t stop there.
Instead, they took a number of aspects from other titles in the series and used them to make HG/SS even better. They enhanced the rematch opportunities from Generation 3, but this is most prevalent with the Gym Leaders. They have more fleshed-out personalities and distinct, memorable appearances: Lt. Surge is bold, brash and enthusiastic, but shows a softer side towards his favourite Pokémon, Pikachu, while Jasmine’s personality was built on G/S and her appearance in Diamond and Pearl; she’s an affectionate, but very shy young lady who seems to warm to the protagonist quickly.
The development of their personality, and their willingness to become your friend and offer a rematch – even the normally stoic Sabrina really wants to be your friend – stands out as proof of how Pokémon bring people together. HG/SS really makes the connections palpable. Don’t mind Joey talking about his Rattata – everybody interacts with Pokémon in his or her own way, and has something to contribute.
The next, albeit smaller, benefit is the enhanced Safari Zone, which is now able to be customised in a number of ways. You can switch areas and find different Pokémon in each one, and post-game you can add new objects to attract species from outside the Johto Pokedex. You can track down some difficult-to-find Pokémon here, and occasionally some which would otherwise appear much later, so removing that frustrating wait is something of a blessing.
There are many more good points about HG/SS that could be covered, but I’d like to focus on one: having your lead Pokémon walk behind you, similar to Ash’s Pikachu in the anime and Yellow Version. This, along with the PokéWalker, was meant to tie in with the Pikachu virtual pet released around the same time as the original G/S. During the game, you can interact with it and see its reaction in each area. As you build the relationship with a Pokémon, you can experience more and more interesting reactions – and some unintentionally funny or dangerous situations, like a Scyther trying to hug you. HG/SS seem to be the only games which really make you remember that Pokémon are your friends – lethal hugs and all.
This isn’t to say that everything was great about the HG/SS remakes, but a lot of things improved. They took the post-game from Platinum and smacked it on here – nothing too special, but debatably better than the Battle Tower introduced in Crystal. The cover Legends, however, felt a bit forced. You were never required to encounter Lugia or Ho-Oh in the original games; this was an adaptation made to appeal to those who had grown up with Groudon and Kyogre.
With our beautiful nostalgia trip (not really) almost done, we still have two more Gens to catch up on. So we’ll take a break here! Catch your breath! We’ll go on soon…