This Week in the Mercury


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Mega Review: Pokemon: HeartGold and SoulSilver (A Verbose Sequel To A Mini Review)

Posted by Earnest "Nex" Cavalli on Sat, May 1, 2010 at 8:21 PM

The Only Review Pretentious Enough To Include A Foreword: Sometimes I write a Mini Review about a game that I feel deserves some coverage, but just isn't pulling enough of my attention to warrant a full review either. Such was the case with Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver, games whose Mini Review landed on Blogtown last Tuesday.

Since I wrote that Mini however, I've discovered a huge bag of affection for the game that was apparently hidden behind my right eye. Missing this metaphorical bag before I wrote my original review was an unavoidable error and while my original piece is still factually accurate, it fails to convey my current feelings about the game now that my total time played has entered the triple digits.

Thus, I feel it's only proper that I should re-review the duo.

I started out around 2:30 AM, planning to write a standard review on the games. Instead, after 4 hours of typing, re-reading, editing and watching the early 90s cynicism (and Christina Applegate-brand boobies) of TBS' early morning episodes of Married …With Children gradually metamorphose into the early 90s bubblegum positivity (and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen-brand boobies) of TBS' early morning episodes of Saved By The Bell, I held in my hot little hands the 4,000-plus-word, 10-plus-page-long Mega Review you see below.

Part long-form gag, part metaphor for the games industry at large, part standard text review, and even part self-effacing, soul-crushing confessional, don't expect these Mega Reviews to become standard any time soon. It takes way too much out of me, both physically and mentally, and I simply don't have the kind of time or interest in the vast majority of games to devote myself and endanger whatever part of my brain may actually require regular human sleep.

Still, you have this Mega Review. The first, and maybe the last. Let me know what you think in the comments (and by the way, "tl;dr" stopped being an apt comment the moment I finished this sentence).

Oversized Box = Oversized Adventure?
  • Nintendo
  • Oversized Box = Oversized Adventure?

Over a decade ago Nintendo launched two unassuming GameBoy titles based on one of their designer's fond childhood memories of capturing the insectile denizens of his rural Japanese backyard, and reenacting gladiator battles worthy of accompanying the pedophiliac trysts of Rome's most decadent salad barons.

Aside from that last bit which flew right the hell off Ye Olde Rails, that sentence aptly describes the humble beginnings of the Pokémon franchise, a series that has been a license to print money, both for Nintendo and for any company lucky enough to be within 500 nautical miles of the franchise's hyper-lucrative merchandise rights.

This is not an article about how successful Pokémon has been, however. You can glean that info pretty easily from a multitude of sources. Type "Pokémon" into Google and you'll come up with tens of billions of results (only a few hundred million of which involve hot Charmander-on-Blastoise action — mostly because the type difference would lead to a dead, half-erect Charmander and a weepy, unfulfilled Blastoise).

No, this piece is instead about how the series has evolved and grown over the years — or, more specifically, how the very latest games in the line, HeartGold and SoulSilver, haven't — and what that means for you, the consumer, and presumed Pokémaniac who would spend your life reading walls of text centered on the exploits of tiny fictional monsters and the people who love them.

Hit the jump for the only article you'll read this month that DOES include the word "Pokenomics," but REFUSES to include an image of Elie Wiesel dressed as a Sneasel (purely out of respect for the 12 miners who recently perished in a mine collapse in Wyoming while attempting to rescue a trapped Dugtrio).

(Author's Note: The aforementioned Wiesel-as-Sneasel image does not exist, so please do not ask me to send along a copy.

I'm more than happy to send along images of Oprah dressed as Snorlax however, to anyone who sends The Mercury a self-addressed stamped envelope, a 3"x5" card describing why they deserve an image of Oprah in full Snorlax regalia from Ohayocon 2004, and a check or money order in the amount of $13, plus $2.33 for shipping and handling.)

Few of you realize this, but The Portland Mercury — Blogtown, PDX in particular — is only a journalistic outlet as far as it serves our true purpose: Bugging each of your homes and offices in an effort to snag bits of embarrassing conversational transcripts. Short version: We know all about that drunk Saturday night you spent with your pinky finger tucked gingerly inside of your dog's rectum.

pokessmain.jpg
  • Nintendo

Slightly longer, more apropos version: I saw you arch an eyebrow and scoff at the idea of reading an extended article about Pokémon. "That shit is for kids," you said, casually leering at your dog's bajingo while she tried desperately to shrink into the corner, tail tucked between her legs in an effort to conceal any and all orifices from your now disturbingly predatory eyes.

Y'know what? You're not wrong. Or, at least, you weren't wrong. Pokémon has always ostensibly been aimed at the younger audience, but what happens when your franchise is able to remain lucrative for so long that the "younger audience" grows up, gets a J-O-B and is suddenly the "not-so-young-anymore audience?"

Those kids who grew up with Pokémon now find themselves in possession of the disposable income that their preteen affection for Nintendo's Pocket Monsters could once only dream of. Back in those halcyon days, asking your parents to drop by the Freddy's on 39th to buy you a copy of Pokémon Crystal was tantamount to asking your sister to drop by your room down the hall and give you a friendly blowjob.

Nintendo of course, loves this now-incredibly-disturbing development.

They've already got these kids addicted to their product, and now that addiction can finally bear some really lucrative fruit. If it helps you envision the scheme, think of Nintendo as the R.J. Reynolds Corp., Pokémon as the most directly targeted cigarettes since American Spirit stopped selling smokes wrapped in pages torn from first edition Bukowski novels, and Neil Gaiman doodles of Che Guevara, and Pikachu as the most adorable camel to ever put on a leather jacket and wrap his manly mits around the shapely rump of a lady camel (whose confusingly gorgeous face simultaneously looks like a vagina, a Porsche and John Wayne).

So, to recap (in case you had to step away for a moment to rub one out to that John Wayne/vagina-faced shecamel (Shamel? Chamois? ShamWow? Everybody know the Germans make the best female camels!) mental picture or the idea of American Spirit selling cigarettes that you don't have to go all IKEA on before you can smooch the nicotine monkey on your back): We now have an entire generation of gamers who grew up with Pokémon, have nothing but rosy-hued memories of the cartoon series, the toys, the films, the licensed clothes and the games — ESPECIALLY the games — and is entering the period of their lives where they have enough of a career that they can afford all the cool shit their parents wouldn't waste cash on when they were kids, but not old enough that they have a wife and kids of their own to support, or any pesky personal hangups like fiscal accountability or the concept of "owning too many videogames about kidnapping adorable monsters."

Nintendo, on the other hand, has an infinitely large bag of cash to collect.

Team Rocket: All Up In Your Shit
  • Nintendo
  • Team Rocket: All Up In Your Shit

Maybe I'm being a bit too generous here. Nintendo does have to do a bit of work to earn their supper, but it should be fairly clear to anyone who's ever seen a Nintendo-centric forum, or read any of the scribblings of a gaming journalist with a known pro-Nintendo bias (would it be unprofessional to mention past employers?) that there is a huge swath of the game consuming public that will buy anything Nintendo makes simply because our collectively remembered digital childhood owes so much to Shigeru Miyamoto and John Wayne's smoky vagina.

It should almost be read as an act of generosity that Nintendo even attempts to do anything novel with the newest Pokémon titles. Wait, did I say "newest?" I meant "most recently remade." I meant Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver. Two games that could have been simple rehashes of Pokémon Gold and Silver respectively, but instead stand as the best Pokémon games ever made.

Why? I have no damn idea! I can almost picture a white haired Nintendo exec, one of the old money types who started with the firm back when it was still printing Yamata no Orochi versus Susano-o fistfights on Hanafuda cards, shouting at any and every game developer he can get his bony septuagenarian fingers on for wasting valuable creativity on a Pokémon game that could have instead gone toward the upcoming blockbuster Ice Climbers 2: Nana Versus The PoPoPocalypse.

Johto: Now With 20% More Gender Equality!
  • Nintendo
  • Johto: Now With 20% More Gender Equality!

"Those stupid round eye gaijin buy the Pocket Monsters no matter what we put in them, you fool!" he screams, before demanding they slice off their "developing finger" as a sign of loyalty.

He's right too. We stupid round eye gaijin do buy these games, no matter what they put in them. Remember Pokémon Pinball? Remember Pokémon Snap? Remember Pokémon Box: Ruby And Sapphire? IT WAS LITERALLY JUST A GODDAMN BOX FOR YOUR 'MON, AND YET I FUCKING OWNED TWO COPIES!

Luckily, Nintendo has these games down to a science. Aside from week-long, million dollar corporate think tank retreats to a hyper exclusive resort nestled in the most scenic cleavage to be found on the most scenic face of Mt. Fuji to select new colors and semi-precious stones to attach to the title of each new game — Black AND White? Those retreats pay for themselves! —, these things have long been pumped out purely on whatever provides corporations with a metaphor-apropos analogue for muscle memory.

Until HeartGold and SoulSilver, that is.

Flash Is Your Best Friend
  • Nintendo
  • Flash Is Your Best Friend

I hate to try to ascribe motive and intent to a soulless megacorporation (well, "ultracorporation" really, now that the Wii is the biggest gadget since Furby started selling adorable secrets to The Reds), but since I'm already anthropomorphizing even more fictionalized versions of fictional spokesanimals, and my father may very well start beating me for the first time in our nearly 3 decade relationship for penning nearly two whole paragraphs centered on the nicotine-smeared vadge of his generation's heroic ideal, I may as well say it: These latest Pokémon games feel like an act of love.

HeartGold and SoulSilver were obviously created to make cash, let's not kid ourselves here just for the sake of this incredibly extended metaphor, but every facet of the game feels as if it was personally coded, drawn, planned or written by a long-time Pokémon fan who leveraged his or her job at Nintendo to surround themselves with a team of like-minded Pokéfans all in an effort to build the ultimate Pokémon game; Created by fans, for fans, with enough novel new ideas and shiny graphical touches to absorb a whole new group of gamers, ensuring the series will never, ever stop making millions for Nintendo.

Take, for example, the "Pokégear" device you're given near the beginning of the game. Think of it as the Pokémon world's iteration of the iPad. Part phone, part multipurpose computer, part sex symbol for adults and children alike, the Pokégear is everything you didn't know you wanted until Professor Elm left his in a bar in Veridian City and Pokémodo posted images of the thing all over the Pokénet.

... Unless Your Best Friend Is A Steelix
  • Nintendo
  • ... Unless Your Best Friend Is A Steelix

The key feature of this Pokéstatus symbol — aside from offering me an all too rare opportunity to type that last paragraph in a Smurfin' awesome variant of Smurfspeak — is that you're able to phone dozens of people whose Pokémon you've previously trounced in battle. You can challenge them to another, increasingly difficult fight (for cash, prizes and experience), or you can simply have a short, unrelated chat.

Some of them will tell you about their kids, some will remind you to protect ya neck or ask politely if you would like to take a peek at their gravel pit, and others — like that cunt Beverly — will find items in the wild, offer them to you for free, then occasionally call and ask you to travel to the middle of Smurfing nowhere to pick up a single Nugget, when it would have been much easier for you to catch the Magnet Train over to her house.

"But yes Bev," you say, "I would fucking love to hitch a ride on the sharp-as-shit steel claws of my Skarmory out into the middle of the National Park just to pick up a Nugget that I don't even really believe you fucking have you filthy bitch."

All I can say is that she's damn lucky that rock didn't turn out to be hot. She would have caught a Dragon Rage to the labia courtesy of Ruby, my shiny, red, caught-in-the-wild Gyarados with what the DSMIV describes as "anger problems that scare my balls off."

Does anyone know why they make Valium for Magikarp, but not for Gyarados? Anyone?

Even The Sheep Are Deadly
  • Nintendo
  • Even The Sheep Are Deadly

Now, did you read all of that? That last half a page? I can't be accused of having the strongest grip on reality circa 3AM after two days of sleep deprivation, but even the sane wouldn't have to make a giant logical leap from the added story depth of the Pokégear to conspiring against other characters' sexual organs with your favorite hyper-rare Pokémon.

Developer (and series creator) Game Freak Inc. has implemented things like the Pokégear before. Past Pokémon games included phones or computers through which you could talk to other characters. None of them were ever this well implemented, certainly, and even more certainly — Hypercertainly? Zertainly? Yogurtainly? Oooh! I like that last one. — they've never included anything even remotely like the Pokéwalker in any of their previous games.

In fact, the closest analogue I can think of, in the entire history of gaming, is the NES' Power Pad (think: A somehow less cool Dance Dance Revolution pad, only its single purpose is a track and field game that both sucked and blew in equal proportions) and that isn't really anything like the Pokéwalker at all.

"So Nexy? What's a Pokéwalker?" you intone to your computer's monitor, offering me not even half a second to unfurl my pre-planned answer to this very question.

Pokéwalker, Roughly Life Size
  • Nintendo
  • Pokéwalker, Roughly Life Size

"The Pokéwalker" is a silly (read: family friendly) name for what is essentially an electronic pedometer painted to look like a standard Pokéball fused with a late-90s era Tamagotchi machine. By transferring one of Pokécaptives you've acquired within either HeartGold or SoulSilver to the Pokéwalker — did I mention that it's a free pack-in with either version? It is, and I fully expect it to become a vaguely valuable collectible in about 70 years. — you can transfer the motion of walking around in the real world, while toting the Pokéwalker in a pocket or attached to a belt loop, into fictional steps taken by your chosen 'mon in one of the device's dozens of unlockable courses.

Pokéwalker Screenshot, Roughly Life Size
  • Nintendo
  • Pokéwalker Screenshot, Roughly Life Size

And how do you unlock the aforementioned courses? By walking around. You walk, the Pokéwalker translates this into your 'mon walking around, your 'mon walking around is translated into currency called "Watts," and you can then use these "Watts" to either buy new courses to walk through, or a chance to gather items or catch a few dozen Pokémon that are exclusively found within the tiny digital world of the Pokéwalker. Once the novelty wears off you can then transfer whatever you discover back into the Nintendo DS game, completing the bizarro digital Circle of Life without ever having to hear a single show tune courtesy of Nathan Lane, Robin Williams or whoever got stuck voicing the meerkat between those two walking singing, talking dancing incarnations of adult onset ADHD.

Another Pokéwalker Screenshot (Because I Hate Your Eyes)
  • Nintendo
  • Another Pokéwalker Screenshot (Because I Hate Your Eyes)

With nowhere else to toss them in, allow me a moment to point out the little touches within the two games that only long-time Pokéficianados will catch: The additional frames of animation for each 'mon, for instance, or the slightly altered movesets; Even the updated, stylus-centric (and amazingly functional) interface.

Each of these alterations are so subtle as to be almost invisible to those not specifically looking for changes from either the original versions of these games or the previous entry in the series (2009's Pokémon Platinum), and would mean next to nothing on their own. Taken altogether though, HeartGold and SoulSilver are more attractive, easier to play and technically superior to any game ever released as part of the Pokémon line to date.

If not for their comparatively derivative gameplay, it even stands alongside a certain beloved Nintendo DS roleplaying game that originated on another Nintendo console and only found a home on the modern handheld as a convenient (albeit sterling) remake. Of course, I'm speaking reverently of the phenomenal Nintendo DS version of Square Enix's classic roleplaying epic Chrono Trigger.

Ever imagine the day when a Pokémon game would be recommended alongside Chrono Trigger? Yeah, I'm blowing minds left and right this morning. Just think of me as a cerebral Amy Fisher.

That line would have been hilarious when I was 9.

I know a lot of you are only still reading this in the hopes that I'll toss in another joke about violence toward someone's vijay-jay (or you're balling up your virtual fists, waiting for the moment where you can assault me in the comments for my apparent support of beating up ladyjunk). I'm not sure when that became a theme for this article, but here we are: I'm feeling sorta dirty and you've got your pants down around your ankles and a rapidly failing boner (or whatever the female equivalent of "boner" might be — I'm voting for "cartilager" which, fun fact, is also the Shark Week equivalent of "boner").

This group will never try a Pokémon game. It's "for kids," they think to themselves while zipping up and hoping against hope that the latest article from Erik "Nex, Why The Christ Are You Still Typing?" Henriksen or Wm. Steven "This Is Why We Pay You In Angry Punches" Humphrey or one of The Mercury's myriad pretty lady writers (who would justifiably punch my junk to bits if I attached any of their names to this increasingly baffling article) includes a naked picture of Rose McGowan, a Polaroid of a shirtless James McGoohan, or a 2GB RAW image file of a Big Mac without pickles.

I don't care about those people.

Those people are as dead to me as the obese skeleton of William Howard Taft to the endlessly shrieking corpse of Sam Kinison. They are the gamers whose very existence gives companies like Activision a solid argument for continually issuing endlessly derivative Tony Hawk sequels, no matter how ill-advised, or buying and melting down Call of Duty creator Infinity Ward in an apparent effort to ensure that Modern Warfare 2 is the last good war game Activision will ever publish.

The rest of you — those of you who consider yourselves open-minded — you're the ones this was all aimed at. Maybe you played Pokémon Red on the GameBoy back in the late 90s. Maybe you've never played a Pokémon game. Either way, if you're looking for a handheld game, I want you to do yourself a favor and buy either HeartGold or SoulSilver. Doesn't matter which since the only real differences are a few 'mon appearing in different areas in one or the other and the obvious metallic title schism.

Everything Looks Better In Red
  • Nintendo of Japan
  • Everything Looks Better In Red

No matter which one you end up buying, your $40 will nab you at least 80 hours of solid, portable, Japanese roleplaying. Not the more modern, Final Fantasy 7-inspired, "endless cutscenes and moping, weepy heroes"-style Japanese roleplaying either. No, this is the more lighthearted, Dragon Quest-esque roleplaying. Heroes are heroic, happy, and determined. Villains are jerks who dress like Robert Smith at a job interview, and the whole world is a pastiche of bright colors, smiling villagers and of course the real stars of the game, the 500+ adorable monsters.

It bears mentioning that HeartGold and SoulSilver were designed first and foremost, to be accessible to young people, so you won't need any prior knowledge of any other Pokémon titles, or even the game's mechanics, to jump right in and play. The slightly more complicated bits are all explained in extremely well designed, completely integrated gameplay tutorials, and unless you're illiterate AND unwilling to spend five minutes working out maybe three or four design choices over the course of the entire game, you should be able to grasp everything fairly quickly. The most complex learning curve I had during the entire game was in trying to learn the completely optional gambling game found in Goldenrod City's Game Corner. It's one part Sudoku, one part Minesweeper, and as addictive as either of those games. Thus, it's a perfect example of the effort/reward curve in the latest Pokémon duo: If you take the time to learn your way around the system, you're given a brand new, hyper addictive way to waste a few hours of your life. Plus, if you're good the game is a quick, fun way to earn some spare scratch to buy extra items for your favorite Poképanion.

Getting back to the main game itself though, be warned: If you enjoy that initial 80 hours, it's frighteningly easy to lose an additional 200 hunting down the more elusive Pokémon and completing side quests throughout the gigantic, fictional world. The 112 hours displayed as my "time played so far" on the primary save file I'm playing flew by without my knowing it. That may have had something to do with my obvious sleep deprivation, but its just as likely to have been a result of SoulSilver offering even those tired of traditional JRPG cliches a whole flotilla worth of entertainment options.

Oh, and did I mention that HeartGold and SoulSilver also happen to include what is essentially a remake of the very first generation of Pokémon titles (Pokémon Red/Blue/Green/Yellow) for you to play through after you complete the newer content? They do, and it's all seamlessly integrated into the experience as a single, gigantic world. Collect your eight badges in the Johto region, tear through the Pokémon Masters at the Indigo Plateau and you're gifted a ticket on a cruise ship back to the lands that played host to the very first Pokémon adventure. Being that you're a new trainer, you're more than free to earn all the same badges picked up by the original protagonists of Red, Green, Blue and Yellow, only, being the wise, loving developers that they are, Game Freak Inc. makes the experience just different enough that though you travel the same land and are free to catch a ton of the same Pokémon, it's a whole new adventure with new characters, a new plot and something like a three year chronological gulf since the earlier games. The resulting segment feels less like a retelling and more like a newer version of the same quest where you'll run into the same characters as the original heroes, listen to comments on what they did differently all those years ago and hope to assemble a more impressive team of monsters.

Your Rival: Whose Stupid Hair Is Rivaled Only By His Stupid Name
  • Nintendo
  • Your Rival: Whose Stupid Hair Is Rivaled Only By His Stupid Name

When I was writing that last paragraph, describing the thought the developers put into what is essentially post-game content, that was when I attached myself to the admittedly hyperbolic idea that the creation of HeartGold and SoulSilver are real acts of love on the part of Nintendo and Game Freak Inc. Adoring, heartwarming, platonic love. The Mary Shelley-esque love between a normally curmudgeonly, nearly hermit-esque, twentysometing and the incredibly adorable, blonde, curly haired, dimpled, six-year-old sister of his very best friend. The little girl represents everything that is sweet and wholesome and happy and yet unsullied and innocent in the world, and even in the cynical, jaded, monochromatic realm of skulls, sadness, slow death and cripplingly lonesome darkness, the completion of this game — so representative of caring, affection and gratitude — makes the world just a bit more magical.

Pokémon HeartGold is post-coital glow in cartridge form. Pokémon SoulSilver is three Percocet that just happen to look like a Nintendo DS game. They're the early favorite for best handheld title of 2010 — and hold their own against Final Fantasy XIII (a game that proudly boasts a $100+ million development budget and an all-star development team, many of whom can almost directly take credit for the existence of "Japanese RPG" as its own genre) as the best roleplaying experience of the year — and it would be a real shame if you missed out on all that because you can't get beyond your ego's cries that anything sporting the word "Pokémon" in the title is only suitable for kids.

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