The Pokemon formula is a classic: collect monsters, shove them in your pockets, fight everyone you make eye contact with. There’s always the same number of Gym badges to collect (eight FYI, though you probably knew that already) and there’s always an evil organisation or two to topple in the process. Admittedly, toppling evil organisations is a lot of responsibility for a ten-year-old, but hey - someone’s got to do it. Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are even more classic than most, first appearing on GBA back in 2003 as plain old Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire. But a lot has changed in the last 11 years, and with Hoenn being one of the most loved regions in the Pokeverse it’s overdue a revisit.
While battle scenes have been given a lick of 3D paint, almost everything is just as it was the first time round. You still start off in Littleroot town and spend the first few minutes trying to avoid those ever present Zigzagoon. There are concessions to the more recent Pokemon games, with plenty of new Mega Evolutions being added as well as new moves and abilities to keep things fresh. A few towns have also had overhauls. Where once stood the dirt crossroads of Mauville City now lies a sprawling apartment complex that houses all of the usual shops and the gym, as well as a few extras.
Much of the appeal of Pokemon is setting off on a new journey, never knowing what you might bump into. This being a remake, you may think you know exactly what lurks in the tall grass around you. But Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby really mix things up with the introduction of the DexNav Plus, which not only shows you what Pokemon you’ve already found in any particular area, but also helps highlight the really rare ones. Spot a bush jiggling in the distance and you can stealthily tip-toe over to it to unveil what’s hiding within. Instead of uncovering just another common Taillow you’ll uncover, well, another Taillow - but a fancy one with a special move it couldn’t normally learn through levelling.
After just my third attempt at singling out the swallow-like bird Pokemon, I encountered one that was a good five levels stronger than anything else in the area and that had Sky attack - a powerful flying-type move that it otherwise could only get through hours of difficult trial-and-error breeding. While the casual Pokefan might nod and smile politely at that revelation, it’ll be a welcome reason to celebrate for hardcore players, significantly cutting down the man hours you’d normally put in to craft your perfect team. If you specify the 'mon you’re after, you needn’t worry about stumbling into hundreds of unwanted Zubats just to reach it.
Not just a pretty face
After completing your first contest you get a cosplaying Pikachu as a reward. With her pudgy cheeks (crying out for a good squeeze) and little Pop Star outfit, she steals the show. She has five outfits in total, with each costume change swapping out one of her moves for another. It’s just a shame there are no dress up options for any of the other Pokemon. Poor Trubbish will never be able to put on a burlesque show.
However if you're like me and catching ‘em all really isn’t your thing (and with 719 to get, who could blame you?), then there are still plenty of other distractions on offer. The Pokemon Contests from the original Ruby and Sapphire return, letting you show off your battle moves on-stage without having to put up with any of the bruises. While there is some strategy involved, with some moves having the ability to put off other contestants or mix up the order you perform in, these feel slow and a little dull.
The Contest arenas themselves are fantastically gaudy, so I was hoping that the performances themselves would match the expectations set by their surrounding, throwing in some sparkle effects or confetti. No such luck. Instead it’s just replays of your usual battle animations with differing backgrounds.
You can use the 3DS camera to set your own stage and take photos, but you can only use the back camera so it’ll be tricky to get yourself in shot, and you only get to keep the very last photo you took. So there was no looking back to pick the one photo where I didn’t look like a Tangela with a bad hair day.
Secret Bases also return, although now they’re Super Secret Bases. After locating a suitably large tree or a dent in a cliff face, you can burrow in and set up your own little space, decorating it as you please (in my case that was a sea of plushies with no space for sitting - fancy interior designers eat yer heart out).
It’s a nice little aside that will really come into its own once you start StreetPassing people and adding their bases to your map. Stumble into someone else’s den and you’ll be able to speak to the version of themself they left behind. Eventually you’ll be able to recruit them to your own base to and even act as trainers in your own personal gym, but at the time of writing there was no-one else to StreetPass to test this fully.
While you can customise your own little corner of Hoenn, you can’t customise your character. You’re stuck as either Brendan or May, goofy hairdos and all. It’s a real shame, as character ownership was part of what made Pokemon X and Y so great. Being able to change my looks and clothes made my jaunt through Kalos feel like my adventure. I didn’t step into the shoes of some cycling shorts-wearing schmuck. It was me. You can choose how you appear to other players, be that as a Lass or a hulking great Hiker, but your options are severely limited and it’s just not the same. It’s one of the few areas where The Pokemon Company really didn’t need to stick so closely to the originals.
Adding extra features and gleeful retro throwbacks to Ruby and Sapphire's solid foundation has only heightened the classic experience, further enhancing their potential to devour hours upon hours of your time. While a few minor annoyances and superficial cracks appear from time to time, either remake is well worth investing in.