Normally, a remake is nothing more than a cheap attempt to recycle past content for profit
- A terrific update of two classic Pokemon titles, the PokeWalker accessory adds an interesting layer to the gameplay
- The core gameplay while still engaging could use some form of major innovation, veteran players will not be challenged
Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver serve as a terrific reminder of why the original Gold and Silver versions are considered masterpieces: even though the core mechanics are in need of an evolution, these lovingly crafted remakes tout completely new artwork, incredible sound editing, DS touch-screen features, and a massive quest that will take you all the way from Johto's scenic cities to quiet old Pallet Town. Add in the ingenious PokeWalker, and it's clear that this is a perfect experience for both old-school trainers and the newest generation of Pokemon fans.
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It's a little insane to think that I've been playing Pokemon for almost half of my life. From the first Red and Blue versions on the classic Game Boy through the Nintendo DS entries, I've invested years of effort into "catching them all." It's a testament to the franchise's addictive nature that, despite a lack of major changes to core experience, I'm always drawn back in with each new instalment. Pokemon diehards all have their favourite titles but for me, Gold and Silver, which debuted on the original Game Boy, still stands as the height of the franchise. Not only did those games introduce a lot of new Pokemon, fresh artwork, and a better battle system, but Gold and Silver were also twice the length of the original Pokemon adventures. It's been a long time since I last visited the Johto and Kanto regions, so I was happy to see them given new life in the form of two remakes, HeartGold and SoulSilver.
Normally, a remake is nothing more than a cheap attempt to recycle past content for profit; in short, they're just polished versions of the original in a shiny new box. But what makes HeartGold and SoulSilver worthwhile is the level of refinement present in the final product. Even though they're the "same games," a lot of work was done to give fans of the original plenty of reasons to squeal with delight. Every little animation and graphical touch seems carefully thought out, and they really contribute to the addictive draw of the games. For example, much of the aesthetic emphasis in these games is geared towards your Pokemon traveling beside you on foot -- rather than simply sitting in your inventory -- much like Pikachu did in Pokemon Yellow. As such, the leading critter in your team's lineup now tags along behind your trainer, and the varying animations in each species definitely add some unexpected character to the titular pocket monsters. Tiny Pokemon like the bug-type Caterpie will be appropriately dwarfed by everything else on the screen, while mammoth-sized dragons like Gyarados will loom over your relatively small avatar. Moreover, several Pokemon have even been redrawn with new sprites, and every location in Johto and Kanto has gotten a full remodel to bring the regions up to scale with the rest of the DS lineup. As a result, much of the game retains only the barest semblance to its 8-bit predecessors, but nostalgic fans will easily recognise many of their favorite locales and landmarks. In particular, seeing places like the Viridian Forest in the DS engine gave me goosebumps.
Another thing that really surprised me about HeartGold and SoulSilver was the impeccable sound design. The ambient sound effects peppered everywhere in the game -- such as the rushing water of the oceans and the rustle of the wind -- are fantastic as is the music. Game Freak deserves a lot of credit for providing a deep and memorable soundtrack, which is filled with appropriately ominous cave-dwelling tones and exciting boss battle themes. Music in the older Pokemon games has always been catchy, so it's a treat to hear HeartGold and SoulSilver play the nostalgia card with both old melodies and retuned mixes. If you listen closely, you'll even notice that the sound effects in Pokemon battles have been wisely tweaked. Actions occurring on your Pokemon's side of the screen are delegated to the left speaker, while your opponent's actions are mapped to the right speaker; to get the full effect, try playing the game with headphones.
More than anything, Game Freak's biggest success is that they've made HeartGold and SoulSilver feel like true DS titles, rather than Game Boy Advance games with touch features thrown in as an afterthought. In fact, these games are so well designed that it illuminates a lot of tiny flaws found in other DS titles such as Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum. After years of fumbling through oddly structured menus, I'm glad that I can finally navigate the game's interface both easily and quickly with the DS touch screen. Additions like this make it clear the developers have finally realised how to fully utilise the DS hardware, and they're something that I sorely wished they had used for Diamond and Pearl. Looking back, it's appalling to think I once blindly accepted the fact that it took up to an hour to sort though my item inventory and Pokemon collection on Platinum.
Of course, HeartGold and SoulSilver wouldn't be anywhere near the experience it is without the PokeWalker, the complimentary Poke Ball-shaped pedometer that comes with each game. It's a widely accepted sentiment that the gameplay of the core Pokemon series needs a fresh innovation, and the PokeWalker is definitely a step in the right direction. Taking my Pokemon into the real world is an addictive experience to say the least, especially since I can use the PokeWalker to catch wild monsters or search for expensive, rare items on various routes. In fact, it's really smart that Game Freak is able to supply the PokeWalker with unlockable content, contingent on the amount of walking you accomplish (I'm averaging 15,000 steps each day).
If I have one knock against HeartGold and SoulSilver, it's that it's way too easy. Even though plenty of trainers and Gym Leaders have gotten updated lineups and movesets, it's ridiculously easy to pile all your experience into a few Pokemon and brute force your way through the majority of the game. As a Pokemon addict who's been there since the start, the lack of challenge can make the overall experience a little tiresome in long stretches. On the other hand, plenty of trainers have had no problem brutalizing my Pokemon over Wi-Fi, so that's likely where the real fight will be for many other players.
But in the end, HeartGold and SoulSilver are games that I will likely be playing for sometime, alongside my beat-up copies of Pokemon LeafGreen and Emerald. Sure, it's the same thing that we've all been playing for years, but that doesn't mean it's any less fun the umpteenth time around. For veteran trainers, the nostalgic thrill of running through Johto and Kanto again is a worthwhile venture, but even if you've never played a Pokemon game (or it's been years since your last one), you'll be hard pressed to find a richer world with a more engrossing portable RPG experience.
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