System: Nintendo DS
Players: 1-2 (versus)
Release date: March 14, 2010
Developer: Game Freak
Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver are the latest games in Nintendo’s hugely successful Pokemon series, though they are both remakes of Gold and Silver: two Pokemon titles that were released back in 2000 for the Game Boy. Gold and Silver were believed by many to be the best games in the entire series, adding many innovations that have become standard, like the game’s internal clock and Pokemon breeding. Do HeartGold and SoulSilver manage to do these classic games justice, or do they not hold up after ten years and 200-and-something new Pokemon?
By now, I really shouldn’t have to explain the basics of Pokemon in great detail, but for those who haven’t touched the series before, HeartGold and SoulSilver are a great place to start. It’s an RPG where you play as a young kid who controls a team of up to six Pokemon – creatures you enslave (I mean…befriend) by capturing them in tiny balls. Then you force them to fight to the death (I mean…until they faint). Over the course of your adventure you travel the world, fighting rival trainers and evil organizations along the way. That’s really all the storyline there is. Pokemon is light on narrative, but it doesn’t really need to have a riveting story. It presents a world that you want to explore with creatures and places that are interesting. Having no story forced down my throat is fine by me because Pokemon is all about the gameplay.
The same old rules of battling Pokemon apply. Fire-type attacks beat grass-type Pokemon, grass-type Pokemon beat water-type Pokemon and so on. It’s like a game of elemental rock-paper-scissors, albeit with about thirteen other types thrown in. There have been a few tweaks to the battle system since Gold and Silver, though. Techniques are now also divided into physical, special and status-changing moves, and a lot of new abilities have been added over the years. Underlying the simplistic-looking battles are a complex system of Pokemon statistics, determined by natures, parents and a whole lot of other things only the hardcore battlers really need to take into account. At the end of the day it still feels very familiar, but a bit more refined. As refined as the gameplay is, there are still a few things about it that seem really outdated. Random encounters are so 1998 and I wouldn’t mind having more than one save file per game card.
The Johto region isn’t quite as interesting as other more recent Pokemon settings. Asides from a few cool locations like the Ruins of Alph, most of the journey takes place on unexciting roads between cities with a few caves and forests thrown in for good measure. That’s not to say that there isn’t enough to keep you occupied, though. Johto has changed a bit over the past ten years, with a new Safari Zone and Battle Frontier providing more that enough content to satisfy even the most demanding Pokemon fan. The addition of the Kanto region with eight more gym leaders from Red and Blue is just the icing on the 100+ hour-long cake. If you haven’t got time to spare, it’s probably best to shy away from HeartGold and SoulSilver for now.
The online trading and battling from the other DS Pokemon games makes a return appearance, as well as Platinum’s weird and not all that enjoyable mini-game plaza. Unfortunately, Game Freak apparently didn’t realize that no-one wants simple Mario Party-style mini-games in their Pokemon, so HeartGold and SoulSilver comes with the Pokeathlon, a shallow series of stylus-controlled mini-games. It’s a neat diversion at best, but it’s only really worth competing in it to get access to rare items and evolution-inducing stones. Voltorb Flip, a weird hybrid of Minesweeper and Picross, is much more enjoyable and infinitely better than the old (probably rigged) Game Corner slot machines it replaces.
The graphics are a nice-looking blend of sprites and 3D models on the overworld. The battle graphics are still the standard barely-moving Pokemon sprites, but some of attack animations look really nice and keep the battles looking interesting.
The music has also been completely redone, with Gold and Silver’s classic tunes being arranged to fit with updated hardware. The battle themes still get the blood pumping, the town themes are suitably serene, and the Pokemon Center music will still be stuck in your head for ages. Even if you don’t like the remixes, there’s always the option to use the original Game Boy tunes (though it’ll take some time to unlock). While the music has been updated, the Pokemon cries that play whenever you enter a battle haven’t. The cries from the more recent games sound passable, but the ones from the first two generations (which are the ones you’ll hear for the majority of the game) are still the same old ear-splitting sound effects.
The menus have been tweaked a bit to allow for a bit more stylus control. The DS’s lower screen makes it a lot easier to move Pokemon around in PC boxes and scroll through the Pokedex, so it’s a welcome change.
Perhaps the coolest addition HeartGold and SoulSilver makes is the Pokewalker. It’s basically an updated version of the old Pokemon Pikachu toys: a pedometer that gives out “watts” every few steps. What’s different about it is that you can now use these watts to trigger random Pokemon encounters (with an incredibly basic battle system) or find items. Screw Wii Fit, the best rewards for physical exercise have to be rare Pokemon and items. The Pokewalker makes it easy to find those hard-to-find Pokemon really early in the game (some would call it cheating the system), and level up while doing so. Gaining experience via the Pokewalker isn’t the best idea, though, as it requires taking a lot of steps for higher leveled Pokemon and only lets you level up a Pokemon once before it has to be transferred back to your Nintendo DS.
Another neat addition is the fact that your Pokemon now tag along behind your character in the game. It sounds like a tacked-on feature but it’s actually quite well thought out. Interesting things happen depending on what Pokemon you have with you and where: try taking a fire-type out in the rain, or a Tauros to a cattle ranch.
Small details like these are what makes the Pokemon series stand out amongst the hundreds of other RPGs on the Nintendo DS. HeartGold and SoulSliver provide a massive adventure that’s as charming as it is surprisingly complex. It doesn’t make any massive improvements to the Pokemon formula, but it’s a remake of an older game so who’s expecting it to? Sure, you may have been there before, but there’s more than enough reasons that you should give the Johto region one more visit.
Overall score: 9/10