After two successful releases on the Game Boy, Game Freak shifted their attention to the new Game Boy Advance for the third entry into their popular Pokémon series. After the twin regions to explore in Crystal people were expecting something pretty impressive on the new hardware, and whilst it doesn’t break much new ground it is a solid evolution of the series.
Emerald, Sapphire and Ruby add a further stack of Pokémon to the existing pool, bringing the total you’ll need to catch as a completest to a ridiculously high level. The advantage of this is of course that more new Pokémon than old show up over the course of your adventure, giving you time to adjust and get to know these new faces. Already a globally selling franchise at the time of launch, Sapphire and Ruby would set a new sales benchmark for the series and Emerald would launch as the top selling game in Japan that month.
Graphically the colour palette has been greatly widened from the little available on the Game Boy Colour into the fully shaded tones that the Advance can produce. Characters have undergone a slight redesign to be slightly taller and contain more detail along with more frames of animation. The world itself is still a 2D, sprite-based map and contains a variety of areas to explore that feel like one seamless expanse. Pokémon Emerald more than any other game in the series has done a great job in masking any loading that the game has to do, enabling the player to feel like the whole world is one big playground rather than a series of areas linked together by roads. The designs for the new Pokémon are also quite nice, although the starting choices pale in comparison to the imagination shown in the first two generations, with Gold/Silver/Crystal remaining the standout title for starting Pokémon design. The characters you’ll meet along the way are interesting in their design, and fit in with the futuristic/fantasy hybrid that the world setting has balanced. The biggest difference is that monsters are now semi-animated in battle, helping to bring some of what’s happening on screen to life.
The sound effects are also a step in the right direction, although the horrible ‘cries’ of the monsters you capture are still shrill and grating to hear. Battles feature some nice sounds that are clearly higher quality recordings of those seen on the Game Boy in the past, keeping continuity and a sense of world despite the jump to a new region and system. The music is somewhat uninspiring, although the Pokémon theme returns for the title menu and tunes are more advanced and ambitious than they were before, ultimately every single track is forgettable and the combat music (heard so very often throughout the course of play) will begin to grate on those not prepared to hear it over and over again.
The story in Emerald is actually something of a step up for the series as a whole. Whilst still retaining the simple structure of a young boy (or girl) who comes of age by leaving their small hometown and heading off on an adventure to beat various gym leaders. That all still happens, although it is cleverly framed inside the concept that you’re a child who has just moved to a new town with your mother, leaving your father behind because of work (he’s a high-level gym leader you’ll have to face later). Two teams of terrorist organisations are causing trouble this time as well, Team Magma wants to create more land mass whilst Team Aqua want to increase the oceans. When the two clash they send their legendary Pokémon into an unwinnable battle that disrupts the elements and ultimately only finding and capturing the legendary storm deity Rayquaza is enough to stop them. It’s a nicely epic showdown piled on top of the usual ‘beat the Elite 4’ drive of the game and adds some cinematic overtones. There’s the usual Pokedex to fill along the way and smaller missions to undertake in each new town alongside defeating the gym leader there for badges. It doesn’t break the general flow of the Pokémon series by any means, but it is nice to have a little more at stake than if Team Rocket will stage a comeback, steal a Pokémon or dabble in genetic research.
Gameplay is largely unchanged for the series, but there are a few new additions on top of what has already been set in stone to keep people coming back for more. Two on two combat is now in the mix, allowing for some interesting combinations of attacks and for splash-damage to be a concern when using larger multi-enemy skills. Pokémon also have passive abilities now that change the way they function in battle or on the exploration screens. Some may scoop up items, others may be stronger against attacks of a certain element, this coupled with the ability to hold items to boost stats as seen in the Crystal generation allows for some deeper tactics beside the usual rock-paper-scissors affair that combat can easily devolve into. Linking and trading can be done via cable between devices or using an infrared device that came bundled with Ruby and Sapphire copies of the game, and re-releases of Red and Blue titled ‘Fire Red’ and ‘Leaf Green’ are compatible with this new release, allowing for older monsters to join the cast and fill out your collection. Contests in various categories such as ‘Cool’ and ‘Tough’ are also available, as is a post-game Battle Frontier that contains additional challenges for the player after the game has been completed and access to special events. Battles, TMs and progressing through the world are all very much in the same vein as they have been in previous titles.
Overall Emerald is a good progression on Crystal, although the obvious disappearance of some features (such as the day and night cycle and secondary world map to explore) make it feel a little less impressive than it should. The world presented is huge, varied and contains all manner to hidden items and routes to discover for anyone willing to put in the effort. The Elite 4 in this game are also a little tougher than previous final boss gauntlets, encouraging you to throw yourself up against them again and again in order to progress just that bit further. It may sound aggravating, but seeing what lies beyond each fight gives a sense of reward and adventure. At this time Emerald, Ruby and Sapphire are only available on the Gameboy Advance with no sign of a remake on the horizon. They’re relatively cheap and easy to find due to high numbers sold, so getting a copy should be easy for those who want to check it out.