If you like Pokemon games, you are getting this one. Definitely the culmination of the Pokemon franchise so far.
When I was 15, I left home in pursuit of adventure, a loyal pet the only one at my side. I ventured across far away lands, encountered beasts not imagined in my wildest dreams and was challenged to battle after battle until I reached my goal. That was just the trip to the local games shop to purchase Pokémon Gold all those years ago, but it was ever so worth it. Considered the epitome of the series by many, Pokémon Gold/Silver blew away Red/Blue and set the standard for future titles. Now, in a time when it probably would actually be safer to live in a world inhabited by dragons and hulking great blobs of pollution rather than wander city streets at night, Nintendo have revisited their classic with remakes in mind: Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver. Does the magic remain after all this time? Have there been sufficient additions for it to be worthwhile? Or is it all just a load of Pokéballs?
The story remains the same as ever. As a young trainer, you accept one of three rare Pokémon and set out to become a Pokémon Master, champion of battling and collecting alike. With fierce little beasties in tow, the world is yours to traverse at your leisure as you defeat fellow trainers, prove your worth by besting gym leaders to earn the right to wear their crest on your lapel and, of course, attempt to catch 'em all. What a world it is, too - Johto, the land in which SoulSilver primarily takes place, has never looked better. There are few corners that are not bristling with some form of activity or object, be it a mere patch of grass through which Pokémon creep, an Apricorn-bearing tree or a large arena in which to test your scrapping prowess. SoulSilver is a titan of a game - speed through it if you desire, but you will be far away from the best experience possible with it; such is the amount to do, your best course of action is to take your time and soak it all up.
There is always an instant level of familiarity when playing through a Pokémon game, one that is both as comforting as a warm blanket and mildly frustrating as you see something that is not pushed as far as it could be. Nonetheless, it is easy to understand why this is the position adopted by Game Freak - it works beautifully, even after all this time. SoulSilver is as the other mainline games in the franchise; you can play it simply, with no attention paid to your teams aside monster selection and movesets, you can play it in more dedicated fashion by meticulously adjusting statistics of monsters via hidden parameters, or you can do something in between the two. Either way, it's playable to all. Despite childish appearances, Pokémon remains one of the most hardcore experiences found in gaming - but only if you so choose. Prefer to play things without so much complication? You will not be punished for it.
The enhancements found in games released since the original Gold/Silver - tag battles, berries, online battling and trading, for some - have been melded into the remakes seamlessly, so SoulSilver/HeartGold are more than in line with their most recent predecessors, Diamond/Pearl/Platinum. Online activity now feels more prevalent, with players able to upload photographs of their creatures, show off their collections and record entire battles to share with the world - and, naturally, you can view others' uploaded content, too. Though accessing this content is generally limited to certain locations on the map, online feels more at home in SoulSilver than it ever did in Diamond/Pearl. The Mystery Gift Wi-Fi function will hopefully be used to deliver exclusive content direct from Nintendo more frequently this time around. Regrettably, the main area of online that could have done with a spruce-up, the Global Trade Station, remains untouched aside a slight adjustment in interface. Still you are able to search for Pokémon, only for other users to have put up exactly what you want - but only in exchange for the most ludicrous of level 100 legendaries. Still you can deposit a Pokémon into the system, suggest what you want in return for it, cross your fingers and just hope that somebody will fulfil your request. Why is it not possible to browse through the latest offers, or speculatively see what people are willing to trade for any particular Pokémon in your possession?
Game Freak have not spent all their time merely updating Gold/Silver to the standards of the later games, though, nor have they rested on their laurels despite sticking to the same basic framework and narrative. As you would expect of a remake, the visuals are the most noticable change immediately - Pokémon has always looked simplistic, but there is something spectacular about the way the areas - particularly the gyms - have been redesigned for the 3D engine first employed in Diamond/Pearl. Pikachu has a lot to answer for in the development of HeartGold/SoulSilver also, as two of the main new elements derive from its antics. The first is that the Pokémon at the head of your party - that is, the one that will be sent out into the fray at the outset of battle - trails after your main character at all times, outside of their Pokéball. It's a function taken straight from the animé-inspired Pokémon Yellow, where Pikachu trotted around after you whenever he was present in your party. It's a largely useless, but fun, feature; you can turn to your companion and interact with them to check how they're feeling, and occasionally they might find you an item, but that's about it. A lot of effort has gone into it, though, as any of the 493 Pokémon can follow you in sprite form.
The more significant electric mouse-inspired element is the fact that the game comes bundled with an allegedly Pokéball-sized pedometer, the Pokéwalker - our little friend Pikachu having had its own similar standalone device, Pokémon Pikachu, years ago. The Pokéwalker adopts similar mechanics but is integrated into the main games superbly. A Pokémon can be transferred onto the device in seconds - by pointing an infra-red sensor on the 'Walker at the inserted game cartridge while on the main menu - so that it can accompany you wherever you walk, gaining happiness and experience (up to the amount needed for a single level-up per walk) as it goes. The more steps you take, the more watts build up, which can be used on the Pokéwalker to initiate encounters with wild Pokémon in basic battles, where the only options are to attack, evade or attempt a capture. Items can also be found, and anything captured or discovered can be transferred back to your main game the next time you connect the device. Watts not spent on the road are also sent back to the main game and used to unlock new routes on the Pokéwalker, so while you're going about your day as usual the Pidgey in your pocket can be scouring through a variety of cities, caves, beaches and forests, each with their own different creatures and items to find. The device itself is tiny without being fiddly, though without a lock function the buttons do have a tendency to get pushed in your pocket accidentally, using up watts on encounters that you didn't want. If you can stand the shame, have a long t-shirt to cover it up or just feel like being out and proud, it might be best to attach the included belt clip to the device instead, rather than leave it wobbling around in your pocket. You can't cheat and shake the device to get ridiculous numbers of steps due to some kind of Nintendo magic, either. Curses.
The other major enhancement this time around is in the use of the touch screen. The interface has been completely overhauled so that it is more stylus-friendly; there are now touch panels that perform the same functions as the face buttons, and the menu is permanently open on the bottom screen. This means that accessing all your bits and bobs has never been easier - think of all the seconds you'll save, not waiting for the menu to open and close! Button controls are still there as they ever were, with a couple of minor changes; you can no longer switch the menu from the X button to Start (boo!), but you can switch A's functionality onto the L shoulder button (which is paradise if, say, you want to eat a piece of toast with one hand and carry on a battle with your hand still lazily clasped around the D-pad in the other). Touch control is at its best when using the PC boxes to organise your army. It is still a little annoying to have separate options for withdrawing and depositing Pokémon, but with the stylus in play it's best to just use the move option each time instead. You can drag and drop Pokémon from box to box and flick them around in an order you'd prefer in far faster fashion than clicking on each with a button, selecting 'move', choosing the place to go, and finally confirming the move. You can only move one at a time this way - it's begging for an option to draw a shape around a group of creatures to all move at once if you want to migrate a bunch to another box en masse - but it's a step in the right direction.
The touch screen is also prominent in the latest Pokémon ability contest, the Pokéathlon. Within a specialised dome you are able to take part in a series of touch-based mini-games to prove your monsters' athletic skills. There are a few different categories, such as power, skill, speed, and once you have selected where you want to compete you must select three Pokémon to form a little sports team. Each Pokémon is given a star ranking for each category, so the more stars on your team for the category you have chosen, the better your chances. You are then given three games to fight it out through against three opposing team, with the most points garnered at the end of it all winning. Some of the games are genuinely challenging - the football game comes to mind - and they're all fun and require at least a bit of skill; it's a really great little addition for an optional side-mission/activity. Win and you are awarded medals, and no matter what your position you'll be given points that can then be spent on prizes.
As the games upon which they are based did in the early 2000s, Pokémon HeartGold/SoulSilver have set a new level for the Pokémon franchise. If you enjoyed playing the original versions, you'll surely enjoy HeartGold/SoulSilver for the nostalgia if nothing else, but it serves as a fantastic re-introduction to the series if you have not played anything since; it's a superb mix of old and new, and even those who have constantly played Pokémon over the years will find new things to do. For those that have never played, it's a perfect entry point to the series - you can catch a majority of the Pokémon over the two, so it'll be easier to get up to speed with what you've been missing. Your best course of action is to get that DS charger snug in a wall socket, because you're going to be doing an awful lot of charging with the amount of content in HeartGold/SoulSilver. The only negatives you could really throw at it are niggles that could - and should - be fixed up easily in a future title. For now, if you only have the opportunity to catch one of the games in the series, HeartGold/SoulSilver should be that one.
The basic formula has not been changed, which means it's still as close to perfect as you can get. It's excellently balanced, and the new additions don't feel tagged on; everything seems like it has always belonged there. Brilliant.
Doesn't particularly tax the DS, but the sprite work is excellent and it's nice to see things with a touch of 3D. Where there are showcases, they are impressive. Still not a huge amount of battle animation, but carrying over in the fashion of Diamond/Pearl is better than nothing.
Catchy little tunes that will permeate your brain before you've even realised it. Lots of bleeps and bloops for the creatures themselves, but that's probably pretty much always going to remain at this point; you grow to love them. Some of them are hilarious; Togekiss sounding like a futuristic plane taking off comes to mind.
If there's one area that nobody could say anything against in a Pokémon game, it's the length and value. Players who enjoy it will easily be able to sink 100s of hours into this over time. I physically didn't have the time to do that before the review, but I can guarantee that if you look back in a year I'll have easily met at least 100 hours. At least. If that's not value for money, nothing is.
Pokémon HeartGold/SoulSilver represents yet another high point for the series, yet there is still room for improvement, expansion and a few things that need smoothing out. This is one of the most engrossing experiences you will find on the market at this time, and the game is still so addictive, so well-formed and lengthy as ever, only with the refinements of modern games slotted in seamlessly. Buy this immediately - you might not even need another game until the next DS rolls around. Or the next Pokémon, at least.
If you like Pokemon games, you are getting this one. Definitely the culmination of the Pokemon franchise so far.
Nice review Mike!
Wasn't too interested in this title, but may pick it up sometime in the future. I did enjoy diamond and haven't played any of the golden oldies so to speak, so this would feel completely fresh to me!
I am sorely tempted to try this...but at the moment Infinite Space is taking up all my time. I've not really got into a Pokemon game since Pokemon Blue! I got side-tracked playing Silver and never returned to the series, other than for LeafGreen.
I'm getting SoulSilver sometime this week since I pre-ordered it from Amazon.
Anyway, nice review Mike, the PokéWalker sounds like a great addition to the game.And the menu sounds like it's better to use.
Can't wait to play it.
Great review Mike, definitely have to disagree with balance being one of the reasons for a 10 in Gameplay though. The difficulty is as erratic and flawed as it was ten years ago, even with all the changes to types and battle mechanics, the levelling is just a bit silly at times.
As far as levelling balance and solid difficulty, as well as reasonable wild battle rates goes, Platinum is definitely still the culmination imo.
Still, brilliant game, mostly agree with what you've said and the scores
( Edited 28.03.2010 22:01 by SuperLink )