How Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire Saved Poke-Mania

Coming at a time when Poké-Mania appeared to be ending, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire faced an uphill struggle

This article comes from Den of Geek UK. 

Pokémon Ruby and Pokémon Sapphire, which launched in 2002, and faced an uphill battle leading up to its release. Game Freak’s Junichi Masuda, who’s directed several installments in the series, has openly admitted that these Gen-3 Pokemon games were “very stressful” to make, presenting one of the biggest challenges in the franchise’s history.

After all, Pokémon Red and Blue had already delivered a brilliant proof-of-concept, and Pokémon Gold and Silver perfected the formula shortly afterward. With the Star Wars prequels hoovering up pop culture attention and hogging toy shop shelves, making a mark was no easy feat for Game Freak with Ruby and Sapphire. Did the world need another Pokémon game, or was this a fad nearing its end?

Starting a new game in Sapphire now, it’s clear that Game Freak didn’t want to waste any time getting the player into the thick of things. Your character starts in the back of a van and is quickly dumped in their new abode. You’ve barely had time to set your clock, an act which is mostly useless now, since the internal clock on these Game Boy Advance cartridges has long lost its effectiveness, before the game rushes you out to grab a Pokémon.

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For the first time, you pick your first Pokémon out in the open, nabbing a ball from Professor Birch’s bag to help him out in a tight spot. You’d be forgiven for not even realizing that this was your “choose a starter” moment since they traditionally take place in a lab. Traditions are damned this time, it would seem, because Ruby and Sapphire have an important task to tackle – speedily proving that the Pokémon brand still has legs. And speaking of speediness, you’re given running shoes straight out of the gate.

Further Reading: 10 Facts You Need to Know About Pokemon Sword and Shield

Although storytelling is rarely of paramount concern in Pokémon games, Ruby and Sapphire do have an interesting setup: the player character has just moved from Johto, the primary setting of Gold/Silver, to the Hoenn region, because their dad is taking up a role as a gym leader in Petalbug City. You have to tackle a few other gyms before you take on your father, which provides a nice little target to set you off on your adventure.

Ruby and Sapphire come across as very keen to show off new ideas — you can make a secret base in a tree, and even buy furniture to spruce it up — as well as twists on the established formula — this time, you teach a child how to use a Pokéball instead of learning it yourself, and it’s Lanette’s PC rather than Bill’s where your Pokémon are stored. However, there is a sense that not much has actually changed at the game’s core, with the gyms mainly sticking to familiar specialties. The first one, for example, is Rock-type, just like Brock’s in Red and Blue. It’s like the developers are battling against the fact there are only so many different types of Pokémon and so many things you can make them do.

Nevertheless, Sapphire is easy to spend time with, especially once you get Surf and the map starts to feel a bit bigger. Going back to visit previously-unreachable locations, like the Abandoned Ship on Route 108, brings with it a sense of real achievement and reward for your hard work. Meanwhile, the graphical uptick from the Game Boy Color to the Game Boy Advance ensures that this feels like a new experience, and the trumpet-heavy score makes Hoenn sound like a genuinely different land to the ones you’ve previously visited.

As the game progresses, it starts to feel a little on the easy side, especially if you’re already familiar with type match-ups and employing some tactical use of the EXP Share item. By the time you’ve reached the fourth or fifth gym, your starter Pokémon may well be powerful enough to knock out any opponent with a single blow, especially if you chose Torchic at the start, who grows up to be Blaziken, a fiery fighter of a bird with some powerful kick-based attacks.

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However, the efforts that Game Freak goes to in order to prevent the formula feeling stale do pay off. It’s more than just a rehash of the games that have come before, as showcased by the very limited number of first-generation Pokémon that pop up regularly. Most of the critters feel alien and new, and the little changes peppered throughout (e.g. your “rival” is more of a friend than an enemy this time around) help the whole endeavor feel different enough.

Further Reading: 7 Free Pokemon Games You Can Play Right Now

These games may not be a total reinvention of the wheel, and with hindsight, it is easy to wonder why Game Freak didn’t push the limits of the Game Boy Advance a bit further and make the visuals and mechanics more of a leap. But with things considered, Ruby and Sapphire proved that the Pokémon brand was far from dead, and served up an addictive experience with its fair share of original ideas. Basically, these games kept the franchise chugging along nicely. 

Gameplay notes: The biggest new feature that Ruby and Sapphire served up was double battles, which allow the player and their opponents to field two Pokémon each. This, until your Pokémon level-up to unbeatable levels, is a neat way for the game to provide more challenging bouts.

Weather changes, abilities, natures, conditions, and Pokémon Contests were also added in Ruby and Sapphire, as was the aforementioned secret base mechanic, which allowed players to make a hideaway and decorate it however they pleased. You can also link up with other players and battle NPC versions of them within their bases. And there’s a new HM, Dive, which allows the player to access underwater areas.

Further Reading: Detective Pikachu Ending Explained

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Weirdest thing: Mushing up berries to make sweets called Pokéblocks seems a bit odd, as does putting Pokémon through pageant-like contests in front of enthusiastic audiences. Arguably, though, the strangest things in Ruby and Sapphire are its replacement for Team Rocket. You now get two evil teams, Team Aqua and Team Magma, who clash over some barmy concepts (e.g. at one point, Team Aqua wants to deactivate a volcano so it can fill up with rainwater and become a haven for water Pokémon). 

Cutest critter: 135 new Pokémon were introduced in Ruby and Sapphire, including such fun additions as the type-changing chameleon Kecleon and the walking speaker system Loudred (recently seen in Detective Pikachu). But which one is the cutest? Well, it’s a matter of opinion, of course, but who doesn’t love Mudkip? The water starter Pokémon has a giant fin on its head and a very expressive face, as well as orange spikey cheeks that can be seen (if you like) as its wacky sideburns.

Poké-Legacy: Ruby and Sapphire may not be remembered as the most important games in the series, even if their existence did help keep the brand going at a difficult time, but this duo of titles did introduce an awful lot of mechanics that stuck around. Although we can’t make secret bases these days, double battles are still common and weather changes have become par for the course. These games also connected up to Pokémon Colosseum, Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness and Pokémon Box on the GameCube, which was pretty forward-thinking and impressive for the time.

Add that legacy to an enjoyable gameplay experience, and it’s clear that Ruby and Sapphire really are gems. They faced a tough task, but they rose to the challenge and delivered a fresh experience that brought new life to the franchise. Plus, they brought Mudkip into our lives and hearts.