Pokémon took a massive leap forward with Pokémon X & Y. I found it easy to forget, having that game in my hands, that the series was still full of blocky, barely animated sprites as recently as 2012—I honestly had to Google to remind myself exactly how rough it actually was. With that massive technological upgrade came the removal of some of the vestigial RPG speed bumps meant to stretch the experience out, and Pokémon was finally ready to join us all here in the future. Even odder, then, that Nintendo would release Pokémon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire (Pokémon ORAS) as their follow-up, a game so firmly rooted in the past.
2003, to be specific. Pokémon ORAS exists as a gold-plated version of the Game Boy Advance games Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire, with the setting, story, list of Pokémon and mechanics of those games dipped in the molten goodness of last year’s Pokémon X & Y. The game features a nod to its GBA origins wrapped up in the surprisingly cinematic opening sequence. It’s sweeping and beautiful and a real improvement from the intro in previous games, which typically are unmoored from the story and consist of a Pokémon professor breaking down the premise of the world in a bit of blunt exposition. Pokémon ORAS showing me the beauty of the Hoenn region I was about to explore felt like the promise of a modern experience, but once I started into the game, I quickly realized it was more of an unintentional tease.
Once I’d stepped into the world of Pokémon ORAS, everything I had to do for the first few hours felt strangely out of date. Everything looked very charming, but from the way towns and roads were laid out, to the dialog, to being forced to run back-and-forth between the first few locations just to get that first Pokémon… most of the smoothness of X & Y was gone, seemingly beholden to the way the original Ruby & Sapphire began. The story, too, was a letdown. The colorful gang of friends which included my rival were fully realized characters in X & Y, and it really hit how much of an advancement that was for the series any time I had to interact with my wooden, personality free rival in Pokémon ORAS. With those characters so fresh in my mind, talking to her felt like watching the house band at Showbiz Pizza the night after seeing my favorite band. There’s also a strange bit of the story where my character’s father is a Gym Leader. The stiff, impersonal writing that’s typical of older games makes dad feel distant when read today—he comes off as a real jerk who’s got more encouragement for some nerd named Wally than his own kid. It’s barely touched, replaced with the out-of-the-box story of beating gym leaders, stopping bad guys from getting the legendary Pokémon before it’s too late. I’m sure people exist whose nostalgia for the original Ruby & Sapphire would fuel some outrage if Nintendo had altered the story significantly, but everybody else would have appreciated it.
After pushing through the story, getting my bike and clearing the first few gyms (which feel more like part of the tutorial than a challenge, another let-down), Pokémon ORAS started to open up to me. While the Hoenn region where the game takes place wasn’t as thematically consistent as the adapted France of X & Y’s Kalos region, each of the game’s distinct areas—the caves, the volcano, the forests—all look great rendered in this updated style. But that graphical update feels a little hollow without a consistent world to hang them on, and I frequently found myself wistful for the pastoral beauty or ornate decadence of X & Y’s region. It’s hard to wow me with a giant shopping mall of the redesigned Mauville City when in the previous game I got to bike around the anime’d up Paris of Lumiose City.
Like those environments getting updated to the new look of Pokémon, some old features from the original Ruby & Sapphire return, boosted by the technological leap from GBA to 3DS. “Pokémon Contests”, where the game tests a Pokémon’s cuteness, coolness and other abstract concepts, returns as the obligatory non-battle related mini-game. It’s not really what I play Pokémon for, but “Pokemon Contests” does provide one fantastic new addition to my experience—a little guy called Cosplay Pikachu. I feel like I need to type that again, so you’re sure it’s not a typo. Cosplay. Pikachu. A unique Pikachu that can’t evolve or be bred, he learns a different move depending on what the player chooses to dress him as. If I need to up his “Cool”, suddenly Rock Star Pikachu’s dressed like he’s on the way to a KISS concert. I increase his “Toughness” by dressing him as a luchador and suddenly this Pokémon is ready to bust out topes and pescados around the ring. This one Pokémon with six costumes isn’t a major addition to the game, but it’s fun, adorable, and exactly the kind of silliness I want out of the series.
“Secret Bases” are also back, and are a more conventional addition to the “collect and battle” format of Pokémon, giving players a reason to explore the world beyond just capturing more creatures. What starts off as a “you got your Animal Crossing in my Pokémon” riff—customizable rooms with furniture that players have to track down—eventually grows to allow you to search for the secret bases of friends via Wi-Fi or QR Codes. Beating friends adds them to your secret base, building up an army and letting you essentially create a personal gym.
With all that recycled content, Pokémon ORAS does offers a few new features—the most significant of which is called “DexNav”. It’s a curious kind of Pokémon fish-finder (well, not “Pokémon fish”, all kinds of Pokémon… it’s the finder part that’s important) that helps hunt down Pokémon hiding in tall grass. Keep it on and a shadowy shape of a native Pokémon appears rustling in the blades. Creeping towards it slowly enough via the analog stick prevents it from running away, and provides the chance to capture Pokémon with moves or stats they wouldn’t normally have.
This might not sound like a big deal, but hardcore players who wanted these Pokémon/move combos in previous games would have to use a lot of breeding tricks to get them otherwise. Being able to circumvent the random and somewhat archaic breeding metagame is a huge advantage for serious trainers, and the more relaxed players will likely enjoy just the literal change of pace the sneaking adds. The one problem with the DexNav and its overstuffed parent program PokeNav Plus is that it dominates the bottom screen, creating a bit of a navigational mess if whenever I want to dig into the excellent online features that are all brought over from X & Y, or the Pokémon Training or Amie minigames, which I often find myself forgetting about entirely.
Missing from Pokémon ORAS, though, is X & Y’s Trainer customization system, and its loss is massive. Customizing and dressing your character has been a staple of RPGs for years, and letting me choose my hairstyle, accessories and clothing lets me express myself through my character, making them feel more like me and less like some random, voiceless JRPG protagonist. Worse than that, choosing a skin tone has been removed from character creation. Back is inputting your name before the simple binary choice of boy or girl—a design decision I find as inexplicable as it is disappointing. I’ve spoken before about Nintendo’s need to get with the times and be more inclusive in their games, but the character customization in X & Y was one small spot where they took a step forward. I have no idea why they’d choose to take that step back.
Despite my gripes, all these little bumps and rough patches don’t completely sour the experience. Exploring, catching Pokémon, battling and evolving them is still at the center of Pokémon ORAS, enhanced by so many of the excellent visual improvements and online features from X & Y. But too many times I found myself running up against something that just felt archaic, knocking me out of my Pokémon groove so I could push through it. These little quirks and irritants don’t make it a bad game. It is, in fact, good. But without them, it could have been great.
Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were developed by Game Freak and published by Nintendo. They are available for the 3DS.
Casey Malone is a writer, comedian and game designer living in Boston. He wishes Pignite was in this game but will make due with a Wobbuffet.