Ed's note: You know the best thing about being the Editor of NZGamer.com? It's not the garage full of supercars. It's not the swimming pool full of money. It's not the screaming hoards of dutiful fans. It's that I get to schedule whatever I want for myself. Stacks of games come into the office every week, and I only have to play the ones I want. Pokemon SoulSilver was one I wanted. I am an avid fanboy - I thought I should be upfront about that.
At this point in the dynasty's lifespan (yeah, I went there), it's hard to know just how to review a Pokemon game. This is a problem we seem to run into with every release of a key Nintendo franchise. The developers have gotten so good at what they do, that it seems impossible for them to fail. Your Marios, Zeldas and Pokemon are going to release every year - sometimes even more often - and apart from a few poorly wrought spin-offs, each will be well received.
Well, here we go again, with Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver. These even have the audacity to be dirty old re-hashes of the 1999 Gameboy Color games, and still they'll keep you up at night as you take aim at the Elite Four.
But, one can't allow oneself to be seduced so when one's critical integrity is at stake, can one? Ah, to hell with that. Honestly, I knew this game was going to be awesome before I even opened the box. Sure, it's $80 odd for a game that originally came out more than a decade ago, but who cares? What you're getting is ultimately the best of the Pokemon series, updated, given a bit of a spit-shine, as well as shipping with a new bit of kit. Who's gonna argue with that?
Prophetically named - Gold and Silver really were the heart and soul of the franchise, I think - HG/SS are near carbon copies of each other, in traditional Pokemon format. We can expect a third fairly soon (as Platinum is to Diamond/Pearl, for example) but for now Pokemaniacs everywhere will have plenty to Jiggly their Puffs. There are slight differences between SoulSilver and HeartGold, which you can ignore in favour of purchasing the prettiest box. For the purposes of our review, Nintendo bestowed upon NZGamer.com the SoulSilver version, and honestly, it really wouldn't have mattered.
I ought to keep this background really brief. Not only because there is an entire semiotic language bound up in the name "Pokemon", but also because those new to the game will get all the context they need. Too much context, you might say, in the game's torturous tutorials. Let's all be thankful we're able to skip right to the guts of it: in Pokemon you'll play as either a BOY or GIRL who catches Pokemon (ubiquitous critters hiding in the land's bushes, caves, beaches and islands) and raises them in parties of six. In the world - Johto - you'll come across other BOYS and GIRLS (trainers) who you can battle. You will collect many items. You will collect many Pokemon. You will become obsessed with collecting items and Pokemon. You will no longer be interested in BOYS or GIRLS.
Pokemon sort of has everything - adventure, collection, a solid RPG mechanic, intrigue, action, some classic good vs. evil back-and-forth and little creatures you can stuff into balls and force to bite each other. Okay - I'm not gonna sit here and pretend that the entire premise is completely loco but that hasn't stopped it from becoming one of the most loved and certainly addictive game franchises in the world. HG/SS have come to continue in exactly the same vein - oh, yes, I mean exactly. The games are packed with side quests, minigames and other eccentricities, but the heart of the gameplay has not changed at all. And why should it? Game Freak had the format more or less perfected with Red and Blue. What we all buy each time a new version is released is as much a comfortable experience as a tangible product, and I reckon that same comfortable experience is upheld beautifully this time around.
So, it's Gold/Silver, again. But what's new? Well, updated graphics bringing them more in line with the last generation, the "Pokeathlon" event, the ability to have your lead Pokemon follow you in the gameworld and thusly (maybe) pick up items. Of course, the lion's share of the Pokemon from each generation to date are also included here. And... there's the Pokewalker.
When we first heard about the Pokewalker there was a bit of nervous apprehension about the whole thing. Number one, it looked like a Tamagotchi. It's awfully hard to get up on your high-horse when you're admitting to being a Pokemon fanatic, but still, you have to draw a line somewhere - and the line is nice and thick and in red pen around Tamagotchis. Fortunately, Nintendo have soaped our filthy disbelieving mouths out with this delightful new supernova in the Pokeverse.
In basic terms, it looks charmingly like a Pokeball, has three buttons and connects to your DS so you can send your Pokemon on a "stroll", collect items, catch Pokemon and romp with like-minded friends. When you transfer a Pokemon from your DS card to the Pokewalker, you can choose to send them to one of several different courses. Each course has various Pokemon and items available for you to discover. As you walk around in real life, the pedometer in the Pokewalker records your steps, converting these to Watts, which unlock new courses and allow you to search for goodies. Watts are a kind of currency: searching for Pokemon costs you 10 Watts, whereas rooting around in the grass for treasures will cost you three. When you return your Pokemon to the DS, any extra catches or items return with them, and remaining watts are calculated towards unlocking the next course.
The Pokewalker isn't a gimmick, despite having been in grave danger of being a gimmick. It deepens the gameplay considerably, and extends the Pokemon social space. Since getting SoulSilver, there has been a Pokemon on the 'walker pretty much full time - Super Repels, Star Pieces, Machops, Potions, Surfing Pikachus... these are just some of the spoils. Way more than value for money, or hooking into that pervasive love of the word 'free' that marketers know Gen Y hold so close, the Pokewalker is actually a very good reason to get HG/SS even if you resent remakes. Some pretty spectacular things happen at around 10,000 steps, too, so if you're walking to work, make sure you clip that little gadget to your belt. Or, put it in your sock and bounce your leg as you sit at home on the couch (yes, this sort of defies what I suspect is a noble quest to combat childhood obesity, but I actually know some lazy so-and-sos who are doing this).
Thanks to the spacious hearts of the kids who play Pokemon - they live and die by it, you see - Armageddon Wellington was a great place to check out some of the multiplayer aspects of the game. They didn't care that due to the late arrival of SoulSilver into the NZGamer.com office we were rocking only a level 11 Chikorita and a few shabby Rattatas. The trading, battling and general frolicking of Pokemon has carried over seamlessly from the last games, and as always is a major highlight. At Armageddon, the NZGamer.com stall was positioned just across the way from where a couple of poor beleaguered promo guys tried desperately to keep up with the secret language the kids all seemed to be speaking. So, where we could, we popped across to help, and to trick a few high level creatures out of those that had bought the game at launch.
Negatives? Probably the worst thing is that the Pokewalker and the DS have been poorly integrated. You can only access Pokewalker functionality from the main screen, which means the second you're in the game proper, you have to save and exit if you want to swap a Pokemon out of your walker with one you've just caught. This is a very basic oversight and it's surprising such a mistake was made.
The trading of phone numbers with trainers you come across in the world is another lowlight. It's sometimes very useful to be able to contact Prof. Elm for a bit of guidance, but the asinine conversations with Youngster Joey or Picknicker Billy-Tim Shimshaw are just too annoying. You can opt not to give these wackos your number, but by the time you learn what a horrid gameplay aspect they are, it's too late. The issue is that this takes the place of the VS Seeker, so it's the only way you can defeat NPC trainers a second time and really level up your Pokemon.
You'll see that we've given Pokemon HG/SS a 10 for value. Really, it should be an 11/10. Once you're finished with Johto, eight badges safely won and proudly worn, you'll be able to access Kanto: that's another whole gameworld, and another eight badges. This, essentially, is two games in one. Moreover, it's the best version of these games you have ever seen. The sound only just misses out on a 10 because it's the same as every other game, and the graphics... well, they don't matter, but it's just not possible to inch them up higher than 8.5 when there's still room for them to get a bit more whizzbang. That said, the graphics here are the best you've ever seen in a traditional Pokemon game.
If you're looking for a place to start - this is it. Gold and Silver, in their day, were amazing games and all of that colour has been passed on to the remake. Somehow, these games manage to function both as DS ports of old Gameboy titles, as well as being the next logical, generational step. If you're a hardened fan, well, then you've already got it, and you're probably fuming at something this review overlooked. If you're sort of sitting on the fence (however improbable - once it gets you, it really gets you) then HG/SS is an essential purchase for you, too.
Pokemon games are getting deeper, more complex and ever more exciting with each iteration. The only thing to do is keep catching em all. It would be rude not to.