The social pressures of grade school made me do a lot of things I consider embarrassing. I put myself in the kinds of situations that make you stop mid-task and swear lightly under your breath when they pop back into your mind. But you need to shake that feeling, and finish drying those plates, because your parents aren’t around to do it for you at this point.
When the time came in middle school that friends were less concerned with staying up late and playing video games, and the focus shifted to girls, sports and being cool, talking about Pokemon was like thinking the easiest way to dry gasoline was exposing it to heat.
With the exception of car rides, my Gameboy Advance stayed at home, always at least a driveway’s length away from the bus, and far, far from the school. However, it was still used regularly. I would sit outside on my stoop on summer and weekend mornings, joined by my cat, and eat my cereal and play Pokemon Emerald by sunlight, because I didn’t have a backlit screen yet.
But, at least publicly, I wasn’t playing Pokemon.
Unbeknownst to the majority of my peers, throughout middle school, I remained deeply invested in Pokemon. In the hormonal hellscape that section of your life is, I often returned to the Hoenn region (often neglecting my schoolwork), because unlike navigating these newly formed social structures, I at least knew how to make it by in the systems of Pokemon.
That’s not to disparage the series. Every entry is iterative, generally giving you a few new features than what’s present in the last game (and speaking of, everyone please calm down about the lack of International Pokedex in Sword and Shield. We’ve been waiting for so long for a proper console release of a mainline game, so cool it and be patient). Booting up a new Pokemon game for the first time, even with its new region, creatures, and characters, feels more like a return than a new arrival. But the formula works, so why change it?
Like most leaps forward in Pokemon generations, Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald received a graphical update. From 16- to 32-bit, the series’ entry on Game Boy Advance brought players to its most tropical journey to date with a beautifully varied pallet compared to previous games. I adored the look of Gold, Silver and Crystal, but I am smitten with Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald’s visuals. And from the first few minutes of the game, you realize that the scale has shifted.
You hop off a moving truck and walk into your new home in Littleroot Town. In the first two generations, Pokemon sprites outside of battle typically occupied the same amount of space as a player or human NPC would. Standing in your new living room, you see two Vigoroth, much taller than you, moving much faster than you, carrying moving boxes. It’s not the fully animated Pokemon models from X,Y, Sun or Moon—but it’s significant.
The additional pixel concentration made surfaces feel more textured. Look long enough and you still see the clusters of pixels, but the repeating patterns in the landscape still appear so much more convincing than games past. And seeing a river run, rainfall or lava boil makes an already lively game series even moreso.
For those people who didn’t spend the entirety of the game with the volume down, because you weren’t trying to annoy your family with the battle theme every few minutes, you had a whole new sound chip to hear new and familiar tunes through.
The region of Hoenn gave us a story that was more involved than the last two generations. You’re seen as a legacy in the region—your father already lives a couple towns over and runs a Pokemon Gym of his own—giving you and everyone else the expectation that you’re bound to be a Pokemon trainer.
Your rival isn’t villainous or a total tchoch’. He’s a kid whose curiosity about Pokemon outweighs the severe anxiety he has for the world, creating an occasional companion for you on this journey instead of an inconvenient battle when you least expect it. .
While weather effects were introduced in Gen II, they’re used as a narrative vehicle in R/S/E. The presence of legendary Pokemon looms stronger than previous games, with crime syndicates seeking some apocalyptic cult style dream of having these creatures either flood the world or dry it up to make it one large parcel of land. While you’ve always had high potential as a child with Pokemon in these games, wandering solo through dangerous locales, the stakes set in Gen III are much higher. As for the weather, it’s no longer present just in battle. Gen III ditched the day and night cycle, but gave you sections of the world with precipitation.
Maybe the most important update was finding a moving speed between the iconic power walk from Red, Blue, Gold and Silver—you now had running shoes. I didn’t realize just how slow you moved before running shoes. The bike was buried in your backpack, requiring several inputs just to equip, and was used pretty situationally, where long stretches with few turns actually were present. In Gen III, Game Freak introduced the option to select a BMX or long-distance bike, the former capable of wheelies and bunny hops, and the latter hitting top speeds with less handling.
I try not to fall into the camp of saying the old games are the only ones worth playing. I don’t believe that. But I do think this generation of Pokemon is the strongest in terms of a lot of aspects: design of the Pokemon themselves, new features (double battles, Pokemon contests, the dive HM). Visually, it’s probably my favorite as well.
That’s pretty hard for me to reckon with. I have such a strong reverence for Pokemon Blue since it was my first game in the series. It came at such an impressionable time in my life that it’s hard to discount it in any way. Is it my favorite out of the bunch? Maybe. Are Pokemon Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald better games? Absolutely.