In The Beginning…
Pokémon is a franchise that was surprising at first. A couple of titles from a fledgling studio, unknown to the rest of the world, Pokémon Red and Green were nothing short of revolutionary back in their day. Combining classic RPG mechanics with collectable, tradable monsters, Pokémon was something that no one had quite seen before. This combination had somehow captivated children and adults alike the world over as soon they had grown to love not only the main games but the anime, manga, and overabundance of spin off titles each with their own memorable take on the franchise. After several years a sequel was also released and unsurprisingly it too was a worldwide phenomenon introducing many new Pokémon and mechanics that would grow to become staples of the franchise of the years. Having sold nearly 50 million copies globally across the two generations, making another one to capitalize on that would have to be child’s play. But with a new console on the horizon and veterans fans growing up and leaving the series behind, did Pokémon still stand a chance?
A Simple Fad? Or Something More?
Pokemania had beset the world once again with the release of Pokémon Gold and Silver. With its critical praise and continued financial success that rivaled many of the great franchises of its time, Pokémon was set to once again to capitalize upon this by further improving what it had to offer for the world. But what console would this title release on? The Gameboy Color was waning in popularity and Nintendo needed another hit on its hands so with their development of the Gameboy Advance, the console’s successor, capable of greater graphical horsepower then ever before Game Freak was set to create another smash hit. And while the console stayed the same much of the team remained as well. Junichi Masuda stayed course with his position as director, continuing to shape the series just like his predecessor Satoshi Tajiri. He didn’t slack as the series iconic composer either, bringing yet another spectacular score to the franchise at large. Another series veteran was Ken Sugimori who stayed on with his role as art director, although for the first time he took a step back and allowed other budding artists take their shot at designing the next Pokémon. But thankfully out of all of these the programming staff finally saw a boost in members to 12 people with older programmers such as Shigeki Morimoto taking the lead. With a plethora of new team members Game Freak was set to create another fantastic entry into their newly beloved franchise on a budding handheld. However, what could they do to change up the formula that had been basically settled upon from the previous two titles? The team wanted the games to appeal to as large of an audience as they did before, so they designed the software to be easy enough for younger generations of children to play while adding in new features that appealed to the competitive side of veteran gamers. The Gameboy Advance also allowed up to four people to share information between each other so a new type of battling was also created to go along with this. Pokémon’s basic philosophy according to Masuda, was all about communication so improving that aspect of this entry was crucial to its success.
Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire
The only way to know if that would be the case would be to release their new project unto the world and let everyone decide for themselves. Releasing as Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire in 2002 and 2003 respectively, Generation 3 was a new and unique beast unto itself. There were over 100 new and intriguing Pokemon for you to catch, each painstakingly designed by Ken Sugimori and his team based on their own childhood experiences involving nature, animals, the media, and even insects just like Satoshi Tajiri. There was also a brand new story as well set in another land inspired by Japan, the Hoenn region. Arriving by truck in this tropical region your character, whether it be the young boy Brendan or girl May, is quickly given a journey of their own. After choosing between the now classic three typing’s, Fire, Water, and Grass with Torchic, Mudkip, and Treecko representing them respectively your trek through the Hoenn region begins, but it won’t be that easy. Multiple rivals challenge you at every corner and eight new and varied gym leaders must be defeated to obtain the badges necessary to face the infamous Elite Four. But there was a catch. Depending on which version you played a different evil team would stand in your way. For Ruby there was Team Magma and evil organization bent on increasing the world’s landmass with the help of the legendary Pokémon Groudon. On the other hand is Team Aqua, a team that wants to do the exact opposite and drown the world in water with the legendary Pokémon Kyogre at their side. Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire proved to have an intriguing premise with its new tale, giving players more incentives to purchase both titles instead of just one. But their innovations wouldn’t stop there.
First would come a simple yet seemingly radical edition to the battling system, Double Battles. Unlike the standard Single Battles, Double Battles involved trainers sending out two of their Pokémon at a time, radically changing the competitive landscape of the game. Not only did you have to worry about which Pokémon was attacking what but some classic moves such as Surf and Earthquake could affect everyone on the battlefield including your own Pokémon, so many strategies had to be changed due to this. At first the team at Game Freak had felt this feature was a new challenge for players to compete with and one that might never make it into other entries, as one-on-one battles were still the focal point of the series. But as the feature grew ever popular it would go on to replace the main battle system for some, with the ability to have four players on two opposing teams fight against one another being another boon for this new innovation. Other completive staples were also introduced such as innate abilities unique to each species of Pokémon that grant their holders certain powers in battle, such as an immunity to certain types of moves. Natures worked in tandem with this as well, increasing or decreasing a Pokémon’s stats depending on which kind it was. Behind the scenes in the fundamentals of these new games were stats that proved to be essential to anyone wanting to become a true Pokémon masters. Hidden and semi useful in previous generations these effort values and individual values helped to specify your Pokémon in a specific field whether it be attack or defense. Pooling these values into the correct stats along with breeding helped to great the perfect Pokémon ready for the completive scene.
Many of these features were spectacular editions for series veterans but how would the series cater to new and younger generations? Well with contests and secret bases of course. Pokémon contest were an interesting edition to the series. Taking advantage of a new stat called condition based on Coolness; Cuteness, Cleverness, Toughness, and Beauty, standard moves now had new functions. These would be used to compete in the titular contests, mini-games where participants perform moves in front of judges in hopes of winning the grand prize. On the opposite side of contests were secret bases. Accessed by using the move Secret Power, players could burrow into certain areas of the region to create their own hideouts, fully customizable with various furniture and Pokémon dolls. Players who used the Gameboy Advance link cable could even link up with friends and battle an NPC version of them for fun.
All in all, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire were another great addition to the Pokémon mythos, adding their own unique story and characters and some of the most intriguing side content to date while refining the competitive side of the series to its finest edge. But, to some, there was still something missing after all of this. The day/night cycle introduced in Gold and Silver was missing from this entry, due to their unfamiliarity with the handheld but more importantly trading had been completely cut off between this generation and the previous ones. All the Pokémon that older fans had grown to love were cut off, save a few, due to the technical specifications between the two link cables being vastly different. This enraged many people with some giving up Pokémon altogether. Combined with many fans simply growing up and believing that Pokémon was just for kids, the sales and critical reception of the franchise dipped considerably from the highs they had reached previously. Selling a poultry 16 million copies in comparison to its predecessors, Ruby and Sapphire were still a smash hit but not the huge splash that Game Freak had intended. They needed to stand their ground and reinstate the franchise as one of Nintendo’s golden boys, and they knew just the way to do it.
Pokémon Firered and Leafgreen
Seeing as Pokémon Red and Green were now unavailable for newcomers to the series, a remake was in order. It had been eight long years since the two versions had been unleashed so the target audience that Pokemon had always aimed for, children, would see Pikachu and Charizard as new characters, making this brand new take a top priority. Satoshi Tajiri would even step up once again to supervise the project, making sure all the new features that had been introduced over the years were implemented seamlessly. Because of this, and new wireless technology courtesy of the Gameboy Advance Wireless Adapter, Game Freak saw these titles as completely original experiences all their own. Releasing in 2004 as Pokémon Firered and Leafgreen globally, these new entries were lovingly made recreations of the masterpieces that started it all. They even kept the Green title internationally as a nod to their past and a symbol of peace rather then the opposing concepts of Red and Blue.
Everything else from the originals was also left mostly the same but with some added tweaks to fit the times. Now Red wasn’t the only playable character from the start, there was Leaf too, Red’s female counterpart. Other then this, the story maintained the same beats as ever. From you choice of starter in Pallet Town to the Gym Leaders and snarky rival that stand in your way, it was a very nostalgic trip back to a simpler time although with many of the series new inner workings. Even an endgame area was added in to lengthen the experience with Sevii Islands, where many Pokémon from previous generations resided. And that was one of the main selling points of this game, the ability to catch nearly every Pokémon to date and trade them back and forth with Ruby and Sapphire. Everyone’s favorite creatures that had been lost to time and space could finally be brought back to their side in a way.
Other than this the many innovations that had been introduced in Ruby and Sapphire were at the forefront but Firered and Leafgreen still had some tricks up their sleeve that were more for conveniences sake. A resume feature allowed players to recall four of the most important events that had happened in game recently, letting those who have only so much time to play the ability to catch up on the story. Another was an introduction feature that explained the controls of the game as simply as possible for children and other younger gamers to understand. More notably, however, was of course the Gameboy Advance Wireless Adapter which took the cord, that had been so essential to the Pokémon trading and battling experiences, out of the equation. Without exception the features, both new and old, made this entry its own unique concoction, one that stood up right next to the original. And it showed. While this wasn’t a main title in the series it sold well above the norm, with 10 million copies far exceeding expectations. Pokémon was on a roll once again.
True to form, however, this wasn’t the tail end of this generation. That role was filled by the traditional third version, Pokémon Emerald, in 2005. Every innovation and gameplay mechanic that had been crafted till this point was culminated to create the superior of Ruby and Sapphire. Everything was improved. The story combined Ruby and Sapphire plots to form one all its own with the legendary Pokémon Rayquaza at its helm. Your trainers were even given new green outfits to celebrate Emeralds release. Even elements that had been removed for Generation 3 such as animated sprites for Pokémon at the beginning of battles were brought back after the team was used to the new technology. There was also a massive boost to the series endgame content with the introduction of the Battle Frontier. After beating the Elite Four players could come here to compete as an ultimate test of their skill. Scattered around the island are 6 different battle facilities each with different rules and regulations. Some require a standard Pokémon battle while others might use tournaments or require rental Pokémon. But this was just the icing on top of the cake that Generation 3 needed. After selling just as much as the rest of its third version brethren with over 6 million copies, Emerald was yet another sure-fire hit.
Somehow even after nearly a decade Pokémon was still one of Nintendo’s heavy hitters. At first Game Freak thought their success was a fluke when they had released the original. On the second go around they never even thought they would continue on from that point, believing that they were just a fad meant to fade away as time went on. But their third time around truly proved them wrong. Pokémon still rivaled Mario with its sales and critical reception. What were they even worrying about in the first place? The features they added never superseded the experience, always adding an enhancing what had already come before it. Sure, they had to make some tough decisions, break some promises, and sour others expectations but what could they do in the end? They still tried their best in every regard and came out with a stellar experience by the end of it all. Even when Pokémon gets knocked down a peg due to its dwindling popularity, the franchise always finds a way to triumph throughout it all. The time to doubt themselves was over, it was time to solidify the franchises staying power… for good.