10 for ’10: Pokemon Soul Silver

Pokemon Soul Silver

Developer: Game Freak

Publisher: Nintendo

U.S. Release Date: March 14, 2010

Genre: It is a Pokemon game.

This game killed Pokemon Gold and Silver for me. Not because it’s a bad game, or because it’s unfaithful to the source material. Instead, it’s because it’s too faithful to the source material.

This merits some explanation. I’ve been a Pokemon fan more or less since the first games came out… but I haven’t been one continuously. My Pokemon fandom can be divided into two very distinct stages. First you have my little-kid Pokemon fandom, which encompasses the first two generations. I was fascinated with the whole concept back then — it was just so different than anything I’d run across before. I became addicted — I’d buy anything that had a Pokemon label on it, from the main series games to the weird spin-offs to the card game to the TV show to the manga.

I eventually burned out on Pokemon after a while, though, and gave it up for a few years. I mostly skipped Generation III (something I’ve come to appreciate in retrospect, because Hoenn sucks, even in hindsight), eventually returning to the series years later, in late 2007. My reasoning at the time was that I wanted a long-form game for my shiny new DS Lite, the other games in my collection at the time being mostly short platformers that I could (and did) beat in a weekend. I knew it would be a while before I could buy more games, so I wanted something that would fill that span and ended up picking up Pokemon Pearl.

A funny thing happened — I found that I still liked Pokemon, liked it a lot, but I liked it for different reasons than I did when I was a kid. As a kid I liked Pokemon because it was OMG SO COOL, but as an adult I found myself drawn more towards the clever monster appearances, the deliberate pacing, and the sheer modularity of the game design. I had matured in the intervening years, and so had my tastes in games and what I most appreciated about them. (This maturation resulted in a newfound disdain for the spin-offs, incidentally. Where before I was a lifer and inhaled all of it, now I restrict my attention purely to the main series games.)

Through all of this, though, I’d still convinced myself that Gold and Silver were the best Pokemon games. They were the last ones I played during my “child phase”, and while I wasn’t exactly a child when they came out (I believe I received them for my 14th birthday), my ability to understand and appreciate games was still unformed back then. Gold and Silver were basically “Red and Blue, but more” — more monsters, more types, more moves, more Gyms — but all the stuff from the old games was still in there. (You could even go back to the region that the first games took place in, and fight all your old foes again.) It wasn’t until Gen III that Game Freak started trimming stuff away for each new thing they added, so Gold and Silver seemed like the pinnacle, the games with the most content, the best monsters, the funnest quest. And so the hypothetical Gold and Silver remakes seemed like the Holy Grail — that ideal game design, but polished with all the innovations and conveniences that later games added to the formula.

It took them thirteen years to come up with this?

Things started out promising enough. One of the first features to leak out about the game was the “walking Pokemon” gimmick, where any of the 493 Pokemon would appear on the overworld, following your human character around, as long as you put them into the top slot of your party. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this is quite simply the best idea anyone has ever had. The best thing about Pokemon is that the monsters you catch are your Pokemon, and the walking Pokemon feature makes them more tactile and immediate than ever. They become less game tokens and more constant companions. The fact that your Pokemon will hug you if you treat them well and react (adorably, usually) to stimuli is icing on the cake. The first time your Espeon becomes confused when you take it into a dark place you’ll find yourself swearing to never do it again.

Other neat features appeared as well… Elite Four and Gym Leader rematches… reconstructed areas like Viridian Forest and the Unknown Dungeon that were removed from the original G/S due to space constraints… a new Safari Zone… ability to catch rare and legendary Pokemon that were thus far unobtainable in Generation IV… even the Pokewalker, which I rarely used, but which I’m told is an excellent piece of kit. It seemed everything was coming together for the most epic Pokemon adventure since Pikachu first stepped off the boat in Seattle.

So I bought the game, and I played it, twice. (First with a team of my favorites I’d bred specifically for the occasion, and then again with a team that played things straight.) And, while good (it’s definitely a Pokemon game, with all that implies), the remake exposes some of the flaws of the original Gold and Silver that I’d overlooked in my fanboyish enthusiasm.

First off, the leveling curve in Gold and Silver (and by extension Heart Gold and Soul Silver) is an absolute disaster. You won’t be consistently fighting monsters in the 20s until after the seventh badge! Every trainer in the game is ten to twenty levels below an equivalent trainer in any other game, but the Gym Leaders and other major trainers are on pace. This makes grinding more or less necessary just to get through the game… but there aren’t any good grinding spots, since the wild Pokemon are insanely low-level as well and the Vs. Seeker was deleted for whatever reason. I can sort of get why this was the case (the Elite Four is at the halfway point in this game, rather than being the final bosses as in every other Pokemon game), but it still doesn’t make the grind any less tedious. And forget about beating Red unless you specifically set out to do it; his levels have been kicked up (oh, and the place where you fight him has constant hail). Soul Silver is loaded with places where you are just completely stonewalled if you happen to be underleveled, and that kills pace. In Platinum you never have to backtrack or grind unless you want to; it’s almost required in HG/SS. I understand wanting to be loyal to the original game, but… surely bumping up the enemy levels, thus ensuring a smoother progression, wouldn’t have hurt anything?

Next, the quest is pretty weak. Johto is a lot more barren than I remember… there’s barely anything to see and not a lot to do. Also, it’s a lot more linear than, say, Kanto — you can do the seventh Gym out of order, but that’s about it. There are very few side areas of note — fewer than in the original, even. You now have to go deal with your cover legendary before you can fight the Elite Four, where before they were just squirreled away in out-of-the-way areas and you had to seek them out. Despite rebuilding the Seafoam Islands, etc., Kanto is pretty empty as well, and it was noted for being kind of a letdown after you got past the “wow, I can go back to Kanto?” moment in the original as well.

The Safari Zone is a huge disappointment as well. It’s neat that you can customize it, but the process of attracting new Pokemon is sufficiently arcane and time-consuming that I still haven’t bothered with it.

Even the excellent walking Pokemon feature is marred by shallowness — once you’ve played for ten hours or so, you’ll be getting the same reactions from each of your Pokemon in every area. After twenty hours, you won’t even bother talking to your Pokemon anymore. They try to get around this with special easter eggs where you’ll get a different reaction if you take a specific species to a particular place, but there are sufficiently few of these that the odds are against you ever seeing one. They were probably bumping up against space restrictions here — it’s difficult to imagine that they could have fit in individualized reactions for every species in every situation, but it does expose some of the falseness of the mechanic.

Despite all my griping, Soul Silver is still a worthy Pokemon game. But that’s what I meant when I said that it killed the original Gold and Silver for me. I played the original G/S during a period of my life when I was willing to overlook or unable to see their flaws. By lovingly recreating those very flaws, Soul Silver has destroyed those games’ specialness for me. I’m able to see them for what they are now rather than what my 14-year-old self saw them as, which is a little tragic, but probably inevitable. Platinum is still the definitive Pokemon game, at least until we see what Black and White have to offer.

But at least we got a badass Ho-Oh theme out of it.

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