Review: Pokémon HeartGold & SoulSilver

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When it comes to Pokémon, there are two types of people: People who’ve stuck with the series through all of the newer games, and people who haven’t played a game since the original Red and Blue versions. The former have seen the series’ gameplay tweaked to near-perfection since its original, less-than-balanced state (but have seen some truly odd new monster designs), whereas the latter dig their heels in and steadfastly refuse to recognize that any Pokémon exist beyond the original 151 (or, in some cases, the 251 introduced in the second generation).

Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver – remakes of the second-generation Gold & Silver – are games designed to bring these two people together. As far as this goal is concerned, they’re a remarkable success.

It feels odd to really review a Pokémon game these days, because the core of the series remains essentially unchanged from the days of Red & Blue. As a child in a world filled with a wondrous collection of bizarre beasties, you’re given a new best friend from a Pokémon professor and sent out in the world to have an adventure and to try and catch ’em all. You’ll need to use your monsters to catch others and build up your team, you’ll enter eight elemental-themed Gyms, earn badges by defeating their leaders, and finally make your way to challenge the most powerful trainers in all of the land.

If that sounds familiar to you, it should. The basic gameplay of Pokémon is the same as it’s always been. Essentially, they’re turn-based RPGs with an absolutely mammoth potential roster of characters, where the effectiveness of one’s attacks is based as much on stats and levels as it is a giant game of rock-paper-scissors-gun-baseball-bat. Every Pokémon has its own elemental “type,” every attack has a type of its own, and some are better than others. Using a Fire attack against a Grass type will do double damage, but the same attack against a Water type will find its power halved – and that’s the most simple exchange in the series. Being prepared for any given battle (especially against the Gym trainers, who are all specialized in a single type) is just as important as what you do in the battle itself.

The gameplay itself is based on the excellent fourth-generation systems introduced in Diamond & Pearl, and people who haven’t played the series since the first generation will find a lot of tweaks that may not seem too substantial but result in a subtly, but significantly different experience from what they may be used to. Pokémon abilities, double battles, weather effects – the list goes on, but suffice it to say that the gameplay in HeartGold & SoulSilver is the furthest-evolved we’ve seen of the series yet.

It’s true that not much has changed between Diamond & Pearl and these games, but not much really needed to. The changes are small – for example, you can now have one Pokémon companion of your choice walking behind you at all times instead of just carrying them all around enclosed in their Pokéball containers. It’s a small touch, but one that helps you feel more connected to your team.

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Another new addition is the Pokéathalon, a competition that takes the form of several highly-addictive minigames that you can enter for prizes – and you might well find yourself ignoring the rest of your Pokémon journey just to compete over and over again. There’s also the Pokéwalker, a device that lets you carry around one of your Pokémon in real life to train it while you’re not playing the game.

Pokémon Gold & Silver are some of the most beloved games in the series, notably because there was so much to do. While every game past Red & Blue had quite a few new challenges once you’d beaten the Elite Four and Pokémon League Champion, the amount of content in those games pales in comparison to what there is in those games – and in the remakes. There’s another whole region to explore and battle your way through – a region that will look very familiar to people who only played Red & Blue – and it leads up to what is still quite possibly the coolest showdown in the entire series.

The games are retro design at its finest, but some of the old-school design choices may put people off: Would it really be hard to let us walk diagonally for a change, Nintendo? Nor are all of the new features successful. While the overhauled Pokégear cell phone theoretically lets you set up rematches with previously-defeated trainers in a way that wasn’t possible before – thanks to memory limitations in the original versions – it also feels annoyingly vestigial. Yes, it’s cool to be able to rematch the Gym Leaders, but it starts to get irritating when your mother calls every other hour to tell you that she bought you a new item at the store, or every other trainer you’ve defeated rings you up to mention that they failed to catch a Spinarak.

But these are just nitpicks, really. HeartGold & SoulSilver combine the old-school flavor of the beloved second-generation games (before the designs started to get pretty weird) and the biggest Pokémon world to date with the evolved and refined gameplay mechanics of the current games in the series. They’re the best of both worlds, and the definitive Pokémon title for fans of the series both old and new alike.

Why are you still reading this? Those Pokémon won’t catch themselves, you know!

Bottom Line: Pokémon HeartGold & SoulSilver are the definitive Pokémon games. The gameplay is refined and polished to a mirror shine, and traipsing through the lovingly rendered regions of Johto and Kanto brings with it a fond nostalgia that few other games manage to evoke. The Pokéathalon is a great new addition, the expanded contact list on the Pokégear cell-phone less so. It’s Pokémon as you know it, but they could very well be the best Pokémon versions yet.

Recommendation: If you’ve ever loved Pokémon or ever wanted to give the series a try, HeartGold and SoulSilver are worth picking up.

Score: [rating=4] – if you’ve never played the original Gold & Silver, add a star for a perfect five.

John Funk wishes that Youngster Joey would shut up about his goddamn Rattata.

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