It has been nearly a decade since the North American release of Pokémon Gold and Silver. It has also been nearly a decade since Game Freak and Nintendo wowed me with a new installment of the series. The follow-ups to Gold and Silver, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, were the first real misstep in the series. The first games to have serious flaws. The first games in the series I found to be a chore to complete.
Before the release of a true sequel, we saw the release of enhanced-remakes of the original Pokémon Red and Green, Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen. These games, being nothing more than the original games with a fresh coat of paint, confirmed suspicions I had while playing Sapphire; Game Freak had begun coasting. They had started to disregard what made the series so iconic, so acclaimed, so addictive. Pokémon had entered a common phase of widely popular series, one that many never get out of.
Then came Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, the first games in the series for the Nintendo DS. Diamond and Pearl felt very much like experiments, which is to be expected, being that the DS is radically different than any console the series had appeared on to that point. While still not up-to-par with what their early predecessors accomplished, there were flashes of what makes Pokémon, Pokémon.
When Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver were announced, I had strong trepidations toward the idea of Gold and Silver being remade. After the less-than-amicable treatment that was given to Red and Green, I felt as if Game Freak and Nintendo were going to have a difficult time releasing games that could be favorably compared to the best games in the series. Because that is just what Gold and Silver are; the best games in the series.
Gold and Silver innovated the series. Perfected the series. They are the most well-rounded games in the series because they did the most for the series. Using the same successful formula that its predecessor used, these games still managed to step outside of the box enough to create a superior experience. Something that has been lacking since.
Now, the remakes are here. They are the most acclaimed games in the series since Gold and Silver, and, as always, are doing gangbusters in stores all over the globe. The burning question; do HeartGold and SoulSilver return the series to form?
The short answer; no.
Don't misunderstand me, though, these are the best games in the series since those they are based upon.
For the most part, HeartGold and SoulSilver amend most of what the series has done wrong over the last decade. They aren't plagued with an overwrought plot that doesn't mesh with the whimsy and simplicity the series established when it debuted. They return to the series' roots of being a fantastic meeting of the perfect casual gamer's RPG, while maintaing a deceptively deep game as a whole. They don't try to pile on unneeded or uninteresting new features and/or gadgets.
But there is a reason these glowing positives are here. And in that reason lies HeartGold and SoulSilver's most glaring of flaws; they are remakes.
I'm not against remakes, in fact I am perfectly fine with them. The inherent problem with them, though, is if not enough effort is taken to differentiate them from what they are making anew, there is no point in their existence in the first place (see: Gus Van Sant's Psycho). But at the same time, a balance has to be struck. Straying too far from what made something loved for the sake of remaking it is also a pointless exercise.
HeartGold and SoulSilver almost strike that balance. Almost.
The visceral reaction to the game when first played is how beautiful it is, even compared to Diamond, Pearl and Platinum (which only sheds more light on D/P/Pt's experimental nature). The Johto region is simply one of the most well designed in gaming, period. Not just in the Pokémon series. There is a fluidity there, and aesthetically, a fusion of actual culture and imagination that rarely is seen. HeartGold and SoulSilver contain a gorgeous version of this region. One that really brings to the surface the DS's capabilities.
English HeartGold and SoulSilver logos
As with FireRed and LeafGreen, each town, route, etc. gets its background music remixed for the DS. Most of these work perfectly (New Bark Town, Ecruteak City and Cianwood City stand out as pieces I'd listen to outside of the game), but there are a few (Goldenrod City, Vermilion City, and Cinnabar Island in particular), which have remixes that borderline annoying. These tracks don't take away from the core experience, though, so they aren't real detractions.
I'm not a fan of Contests. They have never been refined enough to be anything more than distractions from the progression of the main game. The new Pokéthlon falls under this same description. Though I will say, given that there is more direct interaction though a series of mini games, it is a much more entertaining distraction than Contests.
The new Pokéwalker is also a pleasant distraction. It isn't quite as perfected as it could be, but given that it is a new facet of the game, this is to be expected. The Pokéwalker has been compared to the Pokémon Pikachu, and Tamagotchi pets. Now while those are apt comparisons, I liken it more to the Sega Dreamcast's VMU Memory Cards. They were neat little ideas based on the electronic pet phenomena, and were more directly connected to the console and its games than the Pokemon Pikachu was to Gold, Silver and Crystal, much like the Pokéwalker is more prominently connected to HeartGold and SoulSilver. In the end, though, the Pokewalker is more of a well-played marketing scheme than anything else. Just like the VMUs.
Where does HeartGold and SoulSilver stand in the grand scheme that is the Pokémon franchise? It is the closest we have to a replication of the charm and colorful ideas the series brought to the table years ago. Though the idea that Game Freak and Nintendo had to directly replicate the games that originated, and innovated much of what made Pokémon stand out among the rest of the RPGs out there is a little scary. Generation V has been announced, and that, obviously, means new games, a new region and new Pokémon. This is where we will learn whether this series will really return to form, or will only be great when reliving its past.