Treading the familiar ground of Pokemon Omega Ruby

When is a retelling of a story simply a retelling or a reboot or a remake? Does the distinction even matter? If the story is the same but with more modern sensibilities, is it worth experiencing again? These are the things I think about as I tiptoe through the tall grass of the Hoenn region, waiting for my DexNav to tell me what beastie belongs to the tail sticking up out of the foliage. I’m in Hoenn again, just as we were 12 years ago when Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire first launched, but this time with the modern coat of paint afforded by last year’s Pokemon X and Y.

After the jump, shit, I’m still only in Hoenn.

Any serious fan of Pokemon knows that if you’re into games for amazing new narrative experiences, this series ain’t for you. Each game follows the same blueprint of arriving in town, getting a starter, rising through the ranks of gym leaders and ultimately defeating whatever Team Evil was attempting to use Pokemon for nefarious purposes. The starter may change, the name of the evil team may change, their plan may change. But if you play a Pokemon game, you’re gonna face off against gym leaders, you’re gonna beat an evil team, you’re gonna defeat at least one legendary, and at some point you’re gonna cut down a tree and surf on the ocean.

So why keep doing it? Part of it is that you don’t play Pokemon games for the story as it’s written; you play for the story of the team you assembled and how you spent two hours and dozens of Pokeballs fighting to capture a single legendary that you probably never even used because your crack squad of monsters was a six-beast team of town-leveling destruction. As much as we may want a different Pokemon game, there’s comfort in the reliable familiarity of how these games are structured. You can pick up any Pokemon game and if you have ever played one before, you can slide right back into things and focus on the important aspects of capturing monsters and exploring the countryside.

At least that’s why I keep playing. Honestly, I could give a pikachu’s patootie about stopping Team Magma (Team Aqua in Alpha Sapphire) and their plans of using legendary Pokemon to terraform Hoenn to their land-loving liking. Nor do I care about the meteor rocketing towards the planet. I don’t care about beating gym leaders beyond the new moves afforded by doing so and the ability to control higher and higher level monsters. I just want to run around the tall grass capturing creatures until my DexNav tells me I’ve caught everything. Then it’s on to the next route to start all over again.

The modern aspects that the game retains from Pokemon X and Y are greatly appreciated, as are the new tweaks to these systems. The revamped experience sharing of X and Y was one of the best things to happen to Pokemon games in years, allowing all Pokemon that participated in a battle to obtain the full amount of experience rather than dividing up the experience among all battlers. In a similar vein, trainers are given an Experience Share early on, a handy device that gives all non-participating beasts a little bit of experience for every battle. It’s not a lot of experience and you can turn the share off if you’re a purist. But keeping it on is a great way to get new monsters leveled up relatively quickly without the party management shenanigans usually associated with recruiting new beasts.

The best addition is the DexNav, a Pokemon tracking and search app that’s part of the revamped set of tools your trainer acquires. As you travel the highways and byways of Hoenn, occasionally your DexNav will signal that an unusual Pokemon is in the area. Gently pushing the thumbstick now allows you to tip-toe through the grass so that you can sneak up on the tail or set of ears poking up out of the grass, catch the monster by surprise, and battle it. Sometimes the monster is a common beast that has an uncommon move, just the thing to avoid the usual forced Pokemon breeding needed to finagle custom move sets. Sometimes you’ll come across a beast easily double the level of other monsters roaming the route. As Pokemon games are a constant cycle of obtaining new monsters and leveling them up to prepare for the next Gym Leader, the ability to grab a level 15 monster rather than a level 5 is appreciated. After two hours of play I had three monsters with double digit levels, one of which was my starter and the other two captured via the DexNav. The DexNav will also show you what the uncommon beast is so that you can decide whether or not it’s worth a Pokeball to capture. It also keeps track of which monsters you have caught on the route and a general idea of how many are left to nab.

Super Training and Pokemon-Amie make a return if you want to relive the Wii-ification of Pokemon through training minigames and Tamigotchi style activities designed to make your monsters stronger, faster and more affectionate about being your personal squad of Thunderdome participants. As these are remakes of Ruby and Sapphire, Pokemon Contests are also here complete with cosplaying Pikachus if you’re into seeing monsters dress up as other monsters. I don’t get it but everybody got their something. You can also make customizable Secret Bases to scratch that Bond villain fetish so common among Pokemon enthusiasts.

After the complete revamp of the Pokedex in X and Y I was wary to come back to older monsters. X and Y had a Pokemon that was a ghostly sword for Mewtwo’s sake but the Hoenn region hasn’t had the same type of foot traffic as other regions. So while I couldn’t cleave beasts with a spectral blade, I wasn’t awash in rattatas and pidgeys either. Plus, several monsters have had MegaEvolutions added to their repertoire as well as Primal Reversions; think MegaDeevolutions for Kyogre and Groudon, the two legendaries crucial to Team Magma and Team Aqua’s plans. The game has plenty of “new” beasts if you’ve spent most of your time in the more recent Pokemon games.

As with every Pokemon game, once you’re done with the main story there’s plenty to do outside of filling out your Pokedex and it’s these activities, along with the tantalizing glimpse of a new monster over the next hill, that keeps these games feeling new even when treading familiar ground. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire don’t have the same groundbreaking feel as X and Y, but the solid combination of new systems with a familiar region shows that sometimes you can go Hoenn again.