Just as every few years brings us a new Harry Potter movie, or another awful Dane Cook album, it's once again time for a new Pokemon game. HeartGold and SoulSilver are the latest in a long line of Pokemon remakes and updates, and as such offer the exact same improvements everyone has come to expect: more Pokemon, more side quests/mini-games, and better graphics.
Above: Turns out 10 years is a long time in video games!
Not surprisingly, the battle system remains identical to the one introduced nearly 15 years ago in Red/Blue. Fire still beats grass, water still beats fire and of course, psychic still beats poison. Players trek from city to city, beating gym leaders, winning badges and catching and raising more Pokemon on their quest to defeat the Elite Four and become the Pokemon Champion. And as always, you'll casually trounce an evil Team Rocket or Team Rocket-esque crime syndicate on your way to the top as well. The major difference between HeartGold and SoulSilver is standard for the series, too: each version contains a few Pokemon the other does not. Although with global Wi-Fi trading, it's no longer necessary to force yourself to buy the other version or, depending on your age, muster up a bunch of fake tears to get your parents to cough up the cash.
HeartGold and SoulSilver are remakes of 2000’s Gold and Silver, which essentially means Nintendo has revamped a Game Boy Color game for the DS. That's a 10 year difference though so the similarities between the two are outweighed by the differences. HG&SS drags its source material games into the present day with a total graphical overhaul, a modernized Pokedex, full DS Stylus functionality and brand-new minigames and side quests.
The new stuff
The graphical updates from the original Gold/Silver are huge, and observant players will appreciate the new houses and architecture of the Johto region as well as the little things like the illustrated images that pop up when entering a cave or dungeon. All the graphical touches of Diamond Pearl and Platinum are here, and HG&SS definitely trumps its predecessors. While HG&SS is at its core, a remake, the only things that really remain the same are the world layout and plot points. For most people it’s been a decade since they’ve played Gold and Silver, and the magic of an eroding memory will make the bulk of HG&SS seems like a brand new experience.
Above: Totodile ponders his existence while enjoying the autumn leaves
The best addition however, is the ability to have your Pokemon trail behind you, free of his/her Poke Ball. The sprites for your trailing Pokemon are simple, but each is totally unique- they even retain their colors if they’re a rare shiny variant. While it's a little detail, it definitely makes you more aware of your Pokemon and makes your character look a little less lonely wandering around Johto.
As Pokemon has aged, it's developed more and more features that have rendered its past iterations obsolete. Wi-Fi supplanted the link cable, defeated trainers began calling you to let you know when they were ready for a rematch, and now the stylus is slowly smoothing out the clunky Pokemon box and menu interface. Despite there being three versions of Pokemon on the DS, none of them ever utilized the stylus in any meaningful way; frankly it felt tacked on and underdeveloped. Fortunately HG&SS sports the best integration of the stylus yet, enabling you to navigate menus and Pokemon boxes more easily than before. In spite of this, the game’s menu still features the individual Withdraw/Deposit Pokemon options, which is redundant given that the Move Pokemon option is all you’ll ever want or need. You can even use the stylus to completely replace the face buttons, if you want. Given the repetitive nature of the gameplay, it’s nice to be able to swap between the two control options to keep your hand from getting tired.
Nintendo has also added additional challenges and competitions, including a tile-sliding puzzle in the ruins of Alph and a great "Voltorb Flip" minigame in the Goldenrod City Game Corner. It replaces the slot machines of the original Game Corner, but offers a great hybrid of Sudoku, Picross and Minesweeper that'll keep you busier a lot longer than you might expect. The biggest addition, though, is the Pokethlon.
The Pokelympic games
Above: Not Shown: $8 Poke Brats and $12 Poke Beers
HG&SS's Pokethlon games are like the previous games' Contests, non-combat competitions for your Pokemon to show their stuff and consist of a bunch of stylus-only minigames played by three-Pokemon teams. Also, each Pokemon gets a new set of stats for the Pokethlon, which include Speed, Skill, Strength, Endurance and Jump.
Some of the events work better than others. In the Ring Drop event, your Pokemon attempt to knock each other out of a ring, Sumo style, which is a lot of fun. Meanwhile, the Pennant Capture packs a bunch of scrambling Pokemon into a too-tight arena cluttered with debris while you struggle with overly sensitive controls. Overall, though, the games make a nice distraction from the constant grind of leveling and training. They’re also a particularly great addition for trainers who liked the Contests of previous games, but who would have liked them even more if they had hands-on (or stylus-on) control of their Pokemon.
Above: Bonus points if you name your Pokemon Turbo, Laser, and Malibu
Ultimately, though, the actual rewards for participating in the events are minor. Points you earn can be traded for prizes, the most expensive of which include stones and items for evolving specific Pokemon. While the stones are generally rare in game, and it’s nice to have a reliable way to acquire them, this won’t appeal much to anyone but the most hardcore players. Your Pokemon also won’t gain any experience from the Pokethlon, meaning there's little practical reason to participate in the games other than personal entertainment. It’s another odd quirk that the game requires you to buy data cards to record your Pokethlon data, including how many matches you've won or how many times a certain Pokemon has jumped.
What Nintendo is doing with HG&SS is daunting, as it's akin to trying to make a 1930s Studebaker competitive in a world full of 2010 Porsches. The good news is, for the most part, they've succeeded. The visual updates and gameplay touches are nice, but the biggest sell for HG&SS is the Pokewalker.
The coolest pedometer ever
In a series like Pokemon, where changes are small and subtle, an addition like the Pokewalker - a Tamagotchi-style pedometer you can transfer your Pokemon into for quick leveling on the go - is huge. and provides 2 minigames, Dowsing and a Poke Radar for catching Pokemon. The IR connectivity also makes using it a breeze, as you simply hold the Pokewalker’s sensor up to the game card, which has its own built in IR sensor.
Above: No Starfleet Engineer needed, transporting Pokemon onto the Pokewalker is a breeze
Once the Pokemon is on the Pokewalker, he is considered “On a Stroll” and is removed from the regular game. From there, the Pokewalker keeps track of your steps, and awards experience and happiness to the chosen Pokemon, while also awarding Watts, a currency specific to the Pokewalker. Aside from unlocking new options and areas for the Pokewalker, Watts can be used to play two minigames: dowsing for items, or searching for other Pokemon to capture with the Poke Radar. Dowsing is a simple guessing game in which you select a patch of grass and look for an item, while the Poke Radar has you track a Pokemon through some grass and battle against it with a simplified menu. Pokemon captured in the Pokewalker can then be transferred back to the game the next time you connect.
Above: Also functions as a Max Repel against random girl encounters
After transferring a Pokemon onto the Pokewalker, it took about 63 steps to level up my Mareep from six to seven. Low-level Pokemon tend to level extremely quickly on the Pokewalker, which makes using it immediately fun, if somewhat impractical. Knowing that your ‘mons are leveling as you're commuting to work or school is an awesome feeling, and there's a certain nerdy giddiness in knowing your Pokemon pals are in your pocket with you wherever you go. The only downside comes from the fact that the Pokemon may only level up once per transfer to the Pokewalker. Given how fast low-level Pokemon level, you'll find yourself constantly swapping Pokemon on and off the system as you walk around in real life, so that you’re not wasting steps on a Pokemon that's already leveled up. While it’s likely to dissuade cheaters from just placing the Pokewalker in a hardware store paint can shaker and getting a bunch of Lvl 100s, it hardly feels worth the effort in the early portions of the game, as traditional battles will level your young Pokemon much faster.
The struggle to evolve
It’s a minor complaint, but it’s kind of irksome that, even now, Nintendo and Game Freak still have not included ways to monitor all of your Pokemon’s stats. Ways to see your Effort Value and Individual Value stats are still M.I.A, and require you to do a number of roundabout things to track them. Advanced endgame Pokemon trainers may be a minority, but it wouldn’t require a lot of effort to add some extra functions to the Pokegear for the tournament players who are eager to breed and raise optimal Pokemon. Having to keep a notebook full of theorems and equations seems incredibly outdated and unnecessary. It could be argued that these aspects are intentionally kept obscure to prevent everyone from having top-tier Pokemon, but if all it takes is a visit to Bulbapedia to noodle out the secrets, why make them so difficult to implement?
Above: Sealocanthachu, the Fossil Fish Pokemon
The only major criticisms of HG&SS stem from the fact that this is still essentially the same Pokemon Nintendo and Game Freak have been releasing for years. It’s hard to shake the nagging feeling that HG&SS is something of a stopgap game to help make up for the difficulty of transferring Pokemon over from the original Game Boy and GBC games. All the original starters are available in HG&SS, albeit very late in the game, which is great because no one but the most dyed-in-the-wool Pokefreak is going to dust off their original Game Boy carts to trade Squirtle into the current generation. The recent (Japanese) announcement of the all new Generation V games, in addition to the rumblings of a new nVidia powered DS on the horizon may also cause the more casual Pokemon fan to hesitate on HG&SS.
Above: The Future?
The Pokewalker, Pokethlon and the myriad updates and tweaks more than make this title worthwhile, but they’re all ultimately new coats of paint on the same creaky old house. Even so, the grindy RPG gameplay is so pure, it’s still fun after all these years. But if Nintendo wants to appeal to new gamers outside the fanbase, they’re going to have to finally make some real changes to the franchise. It's more than a little ironic that in a game full of constantly evolving creatures developing new abilities and talents, Pokemon has become a virtual coelacanth, nearly the exact same creature it was in its beginning, but somehow still alive eons later.
Is it better than...
Bakugan: Battle Brawlers? Absolutely. If Digimon was a pale imitation of Pokemon, Bakugan is paler than an albino at a WoW convention. A boring, generic spin on the already-taxed collect-‘em-all card game-hybrid introduced by Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon, Bakugan has one1 zillionth the depth of HG&SS, and none of the charm.
Invizimals? Yes. While Invizimals may someday be a worthy Pokemon opponent, it still has bugs to iron out with its camera technology and gameplay. Even so, it's got some great ideas, and Nintendo should be taking notes when it comes to the much more dynamic battle system and the way Invizimals embraces new technology.
Pokemon Platinum? Just barely. HG&SS comes out barely a year after Platinum and offers better graphics and more side quests, but virtually no new Pokemon and only a few places gamers haven't seen before. The clincher really is the Pokewalker though, as it adds a dynamic new aspect to the game that its predecessors can't offer.
Just for you, Metacritic!
HeartGold and SoulSilver are undeniable rehashes, but Nintendo’s signature polish and the Pokewalker make it easy to overlook the recycling. It’s hard to argue with a gameplay formula that still manages to be fun 15 years after the fact, but as usual, there’s little here to draw new players into the franchise.
Mar 10, 2010