They say that the Pokemon generation you’re most nostalgic for is the one you started with. I find that’s not the case with me. I started right at the beginning with Red and Blue and to tell you the truth I’d be fine with never seeing the original 151 Pokemon and the Kanto region ever again. The two generations I felt the most affinity for were the two generations that followed, after that first wave of Pokemania. I’ve already written a bit about Generation 2 (featuring Gold, Silver and Crystal) but now I’m playing through Emerald in the third generation of games (which released as a ‘definitive edition’ of Ruby and Sapphire). Gen 3 is an interesting case because Pokemon had all but faded from the spotlight - I hadn’t even realised new games had released! I was at a friend’s house and he was showing me his copy of Sapphire version and it blew my mind that they were still making Pokemon games what felt like a lifetime later (it had really only been about two years since Crystal) and that it looked so GOOD. This new graphical style looked so slick and vibrant, a far cry from the boxy, limited-in-colour sprites of the Game Boy Colour era. I don’t remember the transition period, the next thing I knew was that our whole group was smack bang into our own mini-Pokemania. A collective thousands of hours would have been spent between Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald across our group designing Secret Bases, putting together themed tournaments and uncovering every secret the games had to offer. While I don’t have exact numbers I’m sure they were the Pokemon games I’ve put the most time into throughout the series’ history.
And yet, seemingly paradoxically, the Ruby and Sapphire remakes on the 3DS (Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire) are probably the games I’ve played the least. Something felt off about them that I wasn’t able to put my finger on, and outside of raising a competitive team I barely touched Omega Ruby after I finished its main story. Part of it I’m sure is because I no longer had a close Pokemon-playing friend group who I could play the games alongside like I did back in the day, but I would later discover that the remakes had made some weird changes to the content and flow of Ruby and Sapphire and didn’t carry over some of the better changes that Emerald had made. The most disappointing of which was that it didn’t implement the Battle Frontier, a substantial collection of postgame challenges introduced in Pokemon Emerald. It didn’t even have the Battle Tower from Ruby and Sapphire, instead bringing over the Battle Maison from X and Y. They’re functionally the same thing but it was weird seeing a clearly French mansion (filled with French maids and other French-styled characters) plunked in the middle of a tropical island, especially knowing what was meant to be there instead. I was too young and inexperienced to conquer the Frontier when I originally played Emerald so the prospect of being able to use all the quality-of-life improvements the series had accumulated over time to build a team able of taking it on was exciting, and the disappointment of not being able to do that was immense. But enough about ORAS and the Frontier, those are topics for another time; what first impression did Emerald give me when I revisited it after all this time?
As soon as I saw those sprites and heard that familiar Littleroot tune they brought back all those memories of my time playing these games in school (and my failed attempts at ROM hacking many years later). I’m someone who thinks nostalgia is often overplayed and used as a crutch (*cough* Let’s Go *cough*) but I’d be lying if I said it never had an effect on me. The music of Gen 3 is iconic (some would say infamous) because of its grandiose feel and frequent overuse of horns and trumpets. There’s really nothing else like it, and I find it fitting and pleasant more often than not. And there’s no denying that the spritework in these games is gorgeous, especially when you’re playing on a vibrant DS Lite screen. It’s so clear and colourful, allowing for all sorts of different environments.
This pleasant feeling was soon cut down by how much of a DICK the male rival is. My character is a girl just like they were when I initially played Ruby, which means that the regional professor’s child who you’ll clash with during the game is a boy with the design of the male player character option. I didn’t remember the rival characters of these games having any real personality at all, so I was taken aback at how rude the male rival is. He constantly talks down to you and downplays your skills and achievements despite the fact you constantly beat him. I’m not sure if the female rival is the same, but the dynamic is certainly a lot more interesting when it’s a guy acting like this to a girl. You want the rival to be someone who needs a good smacking around, so him being casually sexist in addition to being a general dick certainly makes the wins more satisfying.
The thing that stood out the most while playing was how far the series has come in terms of quality-of-life features. TMs which allow you to give your Pokemon useful moves they can’t learn normally are still single-use here, which means I’m too reluctant to use them in case I need them for a different Pokemon later on (you can’t get more than one copy of some TMs). I was overjoyed when this was changed in Black and White because it provides you with so many more options both during the storyline and when getting into competitive battling. Then there’s so many smaller things like your collection of items being sorted more logically in future games, or not having to go back in and out of menus just to heal your Pokemon. But by far the biggest QOL loss I suffered was nothing to do with the game at all and instead something with the hardware - there’s no sleep mode! I’ve become so accustomed to shutting my 3DS or pressing the power button on my Switch to pause what I’m doing and resume it later. Even if I was in the middle of a battle or a cutscene I could just pop it into sleep mode and continue later. Being a GBA game I don’t have the same luxury with Emerald, I have to turn the console off when I’m not playing. And if I turn it off before I save then that’s all my progress gone.
One of the more divisive elements of Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald is the design of their world. The Hoenn region is one of the larger regions in the series and it consists of a huge ocean component. Due to surfing on water not being as fast as riding a bike on land, and water being able to trigger random encounters willy-nilly unlike on land, it led to a lot of players becoming frustrated with these segments and would eventually spawn a meme many years later. I personally like the water travel in Emerald, though I can’t deny that the random encounters do get annoying after a while. But the size of the oceans works in the game’s favour, allowing them to hold all manner of secrets (which I’m sure I’ll discuss as I get to them) and it helps your journey through Hoenn really feel like a massive trek and adventure. The region feels huge and this is established early on when you have to use a sailing boat to reach some coastal parts of the map. You zoom through giant spaces, getting a taste of all the places you can explore later on. The possibilities presented to you early on are so exciting.
But I feel the region also works because of how it ties into the themes of the game. The themes of coexisting with nature and disrupting the balance of land and sea are key to the games’ plot. There are two rival teams, Team Magma, who make regular appearances with differing roles depending on the game in question. In Emerald they’re both antagonistic forces aiming to shape the region through natural disasters - Team Magma wants to expand the landmass of the Hoenn region with volcanic eruptions and the power of the legendary Pokemon Groudon, while Team Aqua wants to raise the sea levels with the power of Kyogre. Each thinks what they’re doing will aid in the wellbeing of both Pokemon and humanity in different ways, but as you’ll find out later in the game (or can safely assume already) they end up causing more trouble than they solve. You’ll also see and hear about many examples of humans and Pokemon living in harmony with their environments as you progress through the game, even early on. Thanks to this worldbuilding Hoenn feels more real than a lot of other regions in the series, and almost like a character in the story in of itself.
It also helps that Hoenn is such a varied region right from the get go. You have traditional towns and cities like Petalburg and Rustboro but also some incredibly unique ones. Some of these don’t appear until later on but so far I’ve already sailed across the seas to the small, isolaed island town of Dewford and the bustling port city of Slateport. Slateport makes a fantastic impression on you; you approach it from the beach and are instantly greeted with a grandiose fanfare and a large marketplace. This marketplace teases an amazing feature you’ll encounter later on - Secret Bases. All of these things had me so excited when I initially reached Slateport as a kid.
It says a lot about Hoenn and all the features of Emerald that I’m only just starting to speak about the actual Pokemon battles. This time around I haven’t been worrying about assembling an optimal team and have instead been making an effort to use Pokemon I either don’t normally use or haven’t encountered until I’m already at or near the end of the storyline. I’ve also nicknamed every Pokemon who’s going to be a member of my team to build more of a connection to them and to remind me of the good times when (if now, I guess) I transfer them to future games. I chose a One Piece theme for my nicknames and it’s fun coming up with nicknames but also difficult to do on the fly when there’s such a ridiculously huge pool of characters to draw fitting nicknames from.
Probably the most disappointing aspect of the most recent Pokemon games for me is that they’re so easy. Aside from a couple of battles I was just smashing my way through them without much thought (though I haven’t played either Ultra Sun or Ultra Moon yet which people tell me are amongst the hardest in the series). A part of revisiting older entries in the series that has me curious is seeing whether these games are just as easy when I know what I’m doing or if there’s a greater degree of challenge, whether that be due to the removal of mechanics like Z Moves or just generally better balancing. At first I wasn’t struggling too much, things were about what you’d expect and my Grass type starter Pokemon tore the Rock Gym apart. But then I reached the second Gym in Dewford it really took me by surprise. Not only were there few options for super effective moves against his Fighting type Pokemon, but his Pokemon were quite high levelled for the area too.
I thought I was more prepared for Wattson’s Electric Gym because despite not having Ground or Rock moves to rely on I had a lot of strong moves that did neutral damage against electricity. Of course, I wasn’t counting on him having Magneton on his team. Magneton is part Steel type, which resists a lot of other types. Later games removed Steel’s resistance to Dark types which was something I’d completely forgotten about and so suddenly my powerful Mightyena was of no help at all. Wattson generally wasn’t an issue but that damn Magneton was a hurdle to overcome. In more recent games you can get by using pretty much whatever Pokemon you feel like and ignoring random encounter battles, but after these two Gyms it was quickly apparent that that wasn’t going to fly here.
One of the cool things about battles in Emerald is that there’s a bigger focus placed on double battles. Routes have been redesigned from Ruby and Sapphire so that there’s opportunities to face two trainers at once, and train two Pokemon at once. You’ve got a lot of options to fight them like this, but also be able to take them on individually or choose which trainers get paired together based on where you enter their vision. I feel Pokemon’s gameplay shines best in the doubles format, which is why the official Nintendo-sanctioned tournaments use this format. Doubles provides more depth - there's combinations you can only pull off here but also a lot more you've got to be aware of, like strong moves in Singles that are now capable of damaging your partner if you use them. So I like that there’s many more opportunities to experience them here, and if memory serves correctly then it’s the game with the biggest focus on these battles. There’s definitely more than Ruby and Sapphire, which really didn’t focus on the format at all despite being the games to actually introduce it.
Emerald has made a great first impression and has already got its claws in me despite having not even reached the juicy bits yet. The first few hours provide a strong introduction to the Hoenn region and the new Pokemon and mechanics this generation introduces. The thing I’ve loved about this journey back through the series so far is getting excited about playing through Pokemon again. The recent games have introduced amazing mechanical and QOL improvements that have made the multiplayer better than ever, but their singleplayer components have been quite lacking. While the older games definitely aren’t perfect they’re still more enjoyable to play through before you reach the multiplayer endgame. There’s plenty more to Emerald that I’ll be touching on later so make sure to keep an eye out for that.