It’s not easy to remember a time when the Pokemon product release wasn’t an instant hit. However, 2010 was a completely different time for the franchise. The heights I experienced during the heyday of Bokmania in the late 1990s and early 2000s were but a sad memory at this point. Trading Cards saw a significant drop in sales, which shifted manufacturing from Magic Publishers Wizards of the Coast to an in-house team. The release of the third generation of Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire in 2003 began a slow slowdown in the series. The games on GameBoy Advance have been released to good numbers, but less than both the original GameBoy and GameBoy Color titles.
In 2009, new versions of Pokemon Gold and Silver, Pokemon Heartgold, and Soulsilver were released with average sales numbers (by Pokemon’s incredibly high standards, at least). As a result of declining sales and massive interest in the intervening years, the resale price of games has skyrocketed. Used prices for a full box version of any game have gone up to $300. One of the most notable aspects of these second generation remakes was the addon that was packaged with the game, the Pokewalker.
The Pokewalker is a great piece of video game history. The device is a legitimate pedometer — a device that counts steps — and so good at it, that an Iowa State University study found that the Pokewalker was more accurate than many pedometers available at the time. “When comparing all of these actions, Pokéwalker performed very well,” said Lanningham Foster, who is looking at the measurable health benefits of active video games. “It is very precise and accurate. So as a tool that can be used to actually change behavior and that a child can use to understand and know how much they really walk, it could be a good tool.” In addition to encouraging physical and social interaction in order to take full advantage of it, Pokewalker was a great gameplay feature.
By gaining “watts” through regular use of a pedometer, players can catch Pokémon and find items that can be transferred to the Nintendo DS. The device also made interacting with other players easy. If you’ve ever used a Nintendo DS in its lifetime, you’ll remember what a nightmare it was to enter people’s friend codes in order to play with them online. Connecting your Pokewalker to other players allows you to mix records, unlock current player information, and active party in the coach’s house – a nondescript building in the final stages of the game post.
One of the other features on the back of the box was a Pokémon that had already followed you, allowing you to interact with them. The ability to roll around and interact with your Pokemon at any time was a great addition. While this can technically be done in Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum, it can only be done in a specific area of the game. HeartGold and SoulSilver was the first time the feature had made a full comeback since Pokemon Yellow on the original GameBoy.
Two things that are really unique about these games are Pokeathlon and Voltorb Flip. Pokeathlon has replaced the competition system from third-generation games, and offers significantly more engaging gameplay compared to competitions. Pokeathlon is a series of mini-games in which you can use Pokemon; You play games, you earn points, and then you exchange those points to unlock hard-to-get items. Game Freak hasn’t put much effort into creating a similar feature since then. The mini-games themselves are quite simple, but offer a lot of variety in how you approach the games, and what Pokemon you use. Changing stats in each game encourage you to use a Pokémon sitting in storage that might not have seen the light of day otherwise.
Meanwhile, the Voltorb Flip really only exists because of the technology.
Due to the restrictions of gaming laws in Europe, typical slot machines from older titles cannot be played in PAL versions of the game without showing an ESRB rating. Instead of producing another version of the game for that region with the mechanic removed (which is still in the original Japanese version), they chose to create a game to replace it. The Voltorb Flip has been described as “a cross between a picross and a minesweeper”. Using the stylus to click on the cards reveals information about the nearest Voltorb. With this information, you can determine which slots have Voltorbs at the end of the game, or which safe spots your game can advance. The game is really fun, and I think most players would like to see Game Freak at least try to do something similar instead of omitting the problematic game corner in each release without offering an alternative.
These games contain a huge amount of content. While Johto’s regular division has a decent amount to do before you fight the Elite Four, you also have a modified Kanto version of the original Pokemon Red and Blue as well. After completing the Johto section of the game, players can set out and explore a whole other area.
This section culminates in one of the most challenging battles in the entire series. After climbing Silver Mountain, the highest point in the game, you meet Reed, the head coach from the first game. Although technically a different character, Team Red is based on Ash from the cartoon. Team Red is best known for their level 88 Pikachu, the highest level Pokemon they’ve encountered in battle in the entire series.
It’s hard to explain what this amazing moment is. Most players hike to the top of Silver Mountain without expecting anything, or perhaps a legendary copy-and-paste encounter. Red and Blue, being a boss encounter at the end of the game, brought back some of the word-of-mouth factor that games haven’t really been around since the original Red and Blue, as everyone was learning the nuances of the game for the first time. . Not only is there a huge part of the game after the Elite Four, but it culminates in a totally unexpected battle with the legendary Pokemon! It really is the climax of the series.
Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver were a breath of fresh air at the time of their release, and they haven’t been matched since. The last Pokemon games released on the Nintendo DS were Pokemon Black and Pokemon White, both of which were criticized at the time (the fact that they came right after Heartgold and Soulsilver did them no favors). After the Pokemon Black and White mayhem, the series has seen a major shift in its design philosophy going forward. Smartphones are starting to become more popular, and Game Freak has become somewhat open about the need to change its design to keep pace with modern kids and the types of games they can access at the time.
While the Pokemon games released since then have their fans and advocates, it seems that the effort to create new content and build as complete a package as possible wasn’t the priority it once had for Game Freak. Until that changes, Heartgold and Soulsilver will likely continue to be viewed by many as the last great Pokemon.