Pokémon Taps into a New Generation of Nostalgia with Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl

Games Reviews Pokémon
Pokémon Taps into a New Generation of Nostalgia with Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl

It’s only fitting that I beat the champion in Pokémon Brilliant Diamond in the backseat of my parents’ car on the way home from visiting my grandparents. After all, it’s where I was when I took down Cynthia’s Garchomp in Pokémon Platinum for the first time. In fact, that was the first time I’d ever rolled credits on a videogame.

I can already feel your eyes rolling as I talk about nostalgia, my age and how far I’ve come in a review of a remake—especially a review for a remake of my first Pokémon game. I’ve heard fans of Gen 1 do this for most of my life, though, so just hear me out.

We’re on the cusp of a new era of Pokémon. Not because the series has taken a wild, creative new direction, or even because a new generation’s out once more, but because the Pokémon Company has learned to capitalize on (or, depending on how you feel about it, weaponize) the nostalgia of fans beyond those who loved the original 151. Sure, other games have been remade, but no region aside from Kanto has seen this kind of love.

Growing up playing Nintendo games in the 2000s and 2010s, I played in the shadows of nostalgia. I was told to reminisce over 8-bit art styles and music from games I’d never touched. I was expected to be in awe of a past I didn’t know.

I’ve always watched as fans of Red and Blue got yet another spinoff or remake aimed at them (and eventually their kids) that didn’t connect with me any more than any other game in the franchise. But they sold well and resonated with those fans, so Game Freak and the Pokémon Company decided to keep making more.

Finally, though, they circled back to Sinnoh. With Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, the region gets the Gen 1 treatment. And that’s not it; as we speak, Game Freak’s hard at work on the next entry in the Pokémon franchise, Pokémon Legends: Arceus, which will serve as a prequel to these two remakes. It’s set to hit store shelves right around the 15th anniversary of the original Diamond and Pearl’s release in Japan.

If we weren’t getting a seemingly expansive, more daring foray into Sinnoh set years before the events of Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, I think these remakes would mean something entirely different. Instead, this time around, trainers from Pallet town aren’t the only ones who get to have their cake and eat it too.

That realization hit me as Cynthia’s theme boomed in my headphones and my Abomasnow finished off her Garchomp with Blizzard. As the game’s Hall of Fame theme played and my team and I were christened as Sinnoh’s new champions, my eyes glazed over as I struggled to hold myself together. I already knew what was being said. I’d read it dozens of times.

Instead of reading what Professor Rowan was saying, I found myself looking back at the 13 and a half years of my life that have passed since I first played Platinum when I was 8. I felt myself reliving the game that ignited a passion in my heart that would one day lead me right back to Twinleaf over a decade later. I thought about all the friends I’ve played these games with—many of whom have moved on and grown out of Pokémon, videogames, or even being my friend.

I’ve since moved to a bigger city, had adventures of my own, met new rivals and faced new challenges. But, I played a majority of Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl while home for a holiday during my senior year of college. I mined for fossils in the same room, battled my friends in front of the same TV, and caught a Shinx on the same ride to the grocery store. During all this, I also was reminded that once I left home, I could never really go back, not to the way it was.

I reflected on all this during that drive through Milwaukee’s north side, passing scenery that I’d seen hundreds of times. I realized that despite my problems with minor changes, revisiting Sinnoh will always feel like sleepovers in my parents’ basement, walks to the candy store, hiding my DS under my pillow at night, and of course, the last stretch of this drive home.

Playing a remake, especially a remake in a franchise that wields nostalgia with as heavy a hand as Pokémon, is like playing the knife game. Only instead of a finger, you skewer a treasured memory. Where other recent remakes like Resident Evil Remake, Metroid: Samus Returns or Final Fantasy VII Remake subvert, recontextualize or modernize their source material, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl follow the precedent set by the franchise’s classic remakes like Fire Red or Heart Gold, although they may not provide a definitive experience like other remakes do.

As far as one-to-one remakes go, even in the Pokémon franchise, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl play it very safe in many ways. In fact, I’d liken it far more to a remaster than even other Pokémon remakes. The routes, the writing, and yes, even some of the glitches are almost exactly the same. Save a few quality-of-life upgrades like an overhaul of HMs, the game providing you with your next objective each time you pause, and some new camera angles, you might not even know it’s a different game at all if you squint your eyes.

In fact, that’s been a major sticking point for some Pokémon fans. After the remakes were revealed, the game’s art style brought a lot of heat. It’s more reminiscent of a Nendoroid or a Funko Pop rather than the recent mainline games’ more typical anime-esque design. That’s not to rag on it; in fact, I’d say that’s the most daring thing about the games, for better and for worse.

The art style is nearly identical to the style of this era of Pokémon games. Even compared to the games that came before and after, the original Diamond, Pearl and Platinum look very chibi in their overworld. Every time I’ve seen someone try to say otherwise, I get the feeling that they’re looking through even more rose-tinted goggles than I am.

Given that it’s otherwise a near-identical remake, your enjoyment of this game will probably hinge on whether or not you like more classic Pokémon, whether or not you like the original games, and how old you were when you played them.

If you were a teenager who was disillusioned with the games because you didn’t like the designs or just wanted to repeat Kanto over and over again when you played it, you might be in for a surprise on your second time through. If you were a kid then who’s since grown up with the franchise, it’ll be a stroll down memory lane. If you’re really new to Pokémon, this is a great example of what Pokémon used to be like, with a few tweaks to modernize it.

You can see that in the reception that the game’s getting. It’s sitting at a comfy 76% on Metacritic and is poised to rank among the top-selling Pokémon games in recent memory. Diamond and Pearl have a dedicated, massive fanbase and a surprising cache in Gen Z’s hearts and minds that have brought some of Sinnoh’s best features into internet culture, especially the game’s soundtrack.

Hailed by many Pokémon fans as one of, if not the best soundtrack in the franchise, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl handle Sinnoh’s ever-important music gingerly. Instead of pursuing a fully-orchestrated, grandiose soundtrack that might fit a remake of X and Y or Red and Blue, it understandingly translates it with painstaking care.

It’s almost completely analogous to how Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl recreate the visual style of the originals. Only this time, it’s almost nonstop greats instead of recreating something made to accommodate the DS’s limited hardware. It juxtaposes the faster tracks against lo-fi or even country-inspired songs. Where the Hoenn region deals in horns, Sinnoh deals in bass and drums, and they slap.

The drama behind Cynthia’s theme is especially poignant in these remakes. As a game that’s uniquely vibe-y even compared to a lot of other Pokémon games, her theme dramatically, boldly ruins the vibe in the best way possible. As you progress through the game, you’re treated to largely optimistic, or at least more poppy tracks. Sometimes the game will get slow and sentimental like in Twinleaf Town, but it’ll largely stay more rock-n-roll in Oreburgh City, jazzy in Veilstone City, or upbeat on any of the routes connecting Sinnoh’s towns. Sometimes, it ramps up the tension when you battle against Team Galactic. And once in a blue moon, the game goes big and bold in standout moments that add gravitas to your most important battles. Battles against Team Galactic’s Cyrus and Dialga or Palkia serve as strong examples, but Cynthia’s theme punctuates it all brilliantly.

As you climb the elevator to fight the champion, you’re treated to someone wailing on a piano like nobody has ever wailed before, at least not in a Pokémon game. It gives way to a fast, melodramatic, dark song that’s fitting for such a punishing champion battle. It was Game Freak’s composers flexing every muscle they possibly could on the DS and it shows to this day. The way it’s treated here speaks to Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl as a remake overall.

I went in with admittedly tepid expectations: this wasn’t my second time through Sinnoh. In fact, it was probably closer to my fifth or sixth run through this fictional riff on Japan’s Hokkaido region, although it’s been a while. I’ve played almost every Pokémon game at least once since my first time through Sinnoh. Since then, the region had fallen out of my preferred locales in the franchise.

To me, Unova, the region that appears in Black, White and their sequels, still reigns supreme as the ideal region in nearly every way. I also really love Jhoto, even if it feels like the addition of Kanto on top of it shoots for quantity more than quality a lot of times and gives the game a bit of a breakneck pace. All that said, these remakes helped bump Sinnoh back up.

They reminded me of all of Sinnoh’s strengths. Beyond the music and visuals, Sinnoh’s the most cohesive region in the pantheon of Pokémon. It commits to the idea that nearly the entire place is built on and around Mount Coronet. Most of the game’s set in rocky, mountainous areas with wetlands and beaches near the coasts and a tundra to the north. The mountain even appears in the background of nearly every battle.

This, coupled with the more lo-fi, chill themes and clearly rural characters gives the region a small-town feel. Sinnoh’s homey and charming, even among other Pokémon games. For me, it feels like visiting home after moving away to a bigger city. That feeling’s present in other Pokémon games, but the Sinnoh games understood—and understand that still—more than the others before it. The characters you meet on your journey play a big role in this.

It all starts at home: your character’s mom isn’t just someone who wishes you luck on your way out or someone to send some of your money to. You encounter her on your journey and learn about her character and how she connects with other characters in the game. Your rival doesn’t hate you; they’re antagonistic the way a friend might be, but still a legitimate threat. They continue to unravel in interesting ways beyond just hating you less and less. It’s clear that Sinnoh’s story, structure and characters formed a stronger blueprint for every Pokémon game to come.

But, as I said, Sinnoh’s not the ideal region. That’s due in no small part to the game all but refusing to let you catch a wide variety of Pokémon until very late in the process. When Diamond and Pearl first released, the franchise had well over 400 Pokémon to draw from. The lack of diverse areas translates directly to the limited array of monsters you can catch and train. I felt like I needed more options for building out my team in any way I wanted. I love nearly all of the original designs introduced in Sinnoh, but I constantly felt restricted.

The remakes attempt to tackle this by reimagining Diamond and Pearl’s Underground. In the original games, the underground allowed players to dig for treasure and create secret bases, similar to Ruby and Sapphire. Players could decorate the inside of their bases with furniture, statues and more, a la Animal Crossing.

This time around, the spelunking remains largely intact, but bases have changed entirely. Instead of furniture, you’re only able to place statues of specific Pokémon in them. This ties into the other difference in the Underground: you can now encounter wild Pokémon. The statues you place in your base will make corresponding types of Pokémon more likely to appear in the Grand Underground.

Were the remakes less faithful to the originals, this might be less of a problem, but everything about them feels so out of place compared to the rest of the game’s more conventional elements. It’s fascinating that this was the solution that developers ILCA chose to try and remedy Sinnoh’s sometimes stifling offering of monsters.

The overhaul also feels like it misunderstands what made the underground so special in the first place. Diamond and Pearl were the first Pokémon games to introduce online play and made local wireless play actually accessible thanks to the DS. The underground wasn’t fun because of the spelunking: it was fun because it was a place to play.

Being able to play Capture the Flag with your friends or place traps for an unsuspecting trainer defined the underground as much as digging for fossils did. It’s a missed opportunity to just scrap those mechanics instead of trying to update them.

Of course, many of those mechanics hinged on the novelty of the DS’s touch screen. Much like the game’s various minigames and features, the underground just doesn’t translate well without that second screen.

The difference between quality of life and quality of play is really what separates Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl from the original Diamond and Pearl. I’d much sooner hand an 8-year-old a Switch with these remakes on it than a DS with the originals. They’re just more accessible versions of the same games in a lot of ways. The only real downside to these remakes is that anything that used the touch screen in the originals feels like an afterthought here. They’re still the same amazing, if a little formulaic, Pokémon games they were back in the day. And we may not be the same people we were back then, but we can at least remember how it felt when we first visited Sinnoh as we make our return today.

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Pokémon Shining Pearl were developed by ILCA and published by Nintendo. They are available for the Switch.

Charlie Wacholz is a freelance writer and college student. When he’s not playing the latest and greatest indie games, competing in Smash tournaments or working on a new cocktail recipe, you can find him on Twitter at @chas_mke.

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