The Struggling Third Generation | Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire at 15
The sheer magnitude of Pokémon cannot be understated. It’s one of the biggest cash cows in gaming and an easy system seller for every Nintendo handheld. Pokémania leaked into every medium, the game series, the TV show, movies, playing cards, everyone knew what Pokémon was and couldn’t escape it. It was a genuine phenomenon. There was something about training and battling your Pokémon to beat other trainers and gym leaders and of course catch ‘em all. While Pokémon Go came close recently, Pokémon’s popularity was nowhere more prevalent than in the 90s till the break of the new millennium.
Pokémon Generation 1 (Red, Blue and Yellow Versions) was released in the mid-90s and, mixed with the show, took over pop culture. There wasn’t a kid in any school yard who wouldn’t argue why his favourite of the 151 pocket monsters was better than yours and everyone would race home from school to catch the latest episode of the show. And when Generation 2 (Gold, Silver and Crystal Versions) came out, it only helped elevate the series. Generation 2 took everything that made Generation 1 good and built upon it. New moves, a whole new world to see and 100 new Pokémon to gush over. While some still preferred the originals for the world and connection they’d built with it, there is no denying the vast improvements Generation 2 made and to this day it’s still considered one of, if not the, best entry in the series.
Then in 2002 came Generation 3 (Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald). Another new game, new region, new features, new Pokémon and the leap to the shiny new system; The GameBoy Advance. Though unfortunately, it was around this time when Pokémania was starting to die down. The core audience was growing up, rivals like Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh were growing more credible, but most of all people were just getting tired of the series. We were Pokémoned out you could say. A mix of that and an entirely new system needed to play meant that at the time, Generation 3 was the least popular of the series. Which is a shame because Generation 3 did so much for the series that it can be considered the most important or ground-breaking in the franchise to date.
The big innovation of Generation 3 was the evolution of the battle system. Now each Pokémon had abilities and natures. Abilities gave each Pokémon a uniqueness in strategy as to how you would use them yourself, or fight against opponents. Abilities would either make certain move types stronger or grant a higher resistance or complete immunity to them, such as ‘intimidate’ lowering the opponents defence as it enters the battle, while ‘flame body’ will inflict the attacker with a burn status condition upon contact with a physical move. These allowed for a deeper level of strategy not seen in previous generations, forcing the player to look at each Pokémon individually in battle.
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Your usual strategy for certain types may not work given their ability and the way you train a certain type of your own could change based on theirs. Abilities can throw off opponents at times, for example Gengar, a ghost type Pokémon, could previously be hit by ground type moves and given he stands firmly on the ground there’s no reason to believe you couldn’t attack him. But one of Gengar’s possible abilities is levitate which makes ground moves ineffective, so now your whole strategy will have to change. It makes the battle system much more engaging and competitive. Natures were also a new introduction that effect how a Pokémon’s stats will grow as it levels up. This expands the level of growth and strategy needed for Pokémon outside of battle as abilities do inside of battle.
Battles were at their most inventive at this point in the series and arguably changed the entire way the typical Pokémon game can be played by hardcore players, without alienating younger and casual players who usually never even notice these things. I know I didn’t. Combining this with the new double-battles involving two vs two teams also added to the system as you need to be aware of your partner. Using moves like Surf or Earthquake can obliterate enemies but also harm your teammate, while certain moves can be used to affect your teammate’s stats negatively or positively and can be used in conjunction with abilities and natures for some intense fights. Weather conditions were also introduced, making traversing the land more visually interesting, while also affecting battles. Water Pokémon would be stronger in the rain, fire types in the harsh sunlight and ice types wouldn’t be damaged by hailstorms.
An issue that may have just been personal for players was the lack of fanfare or interest in much of Generation 3 Pokémon. While there are certainly fan favourites like Absol, Metacross, Salamence and Blazikin being some of the most popular in the series, Gen 3 did suffer from some more forgettable Pokémon such as Electrike, Luvdisc and Meditite. This may have been down to kids immortalising the original 151 (with the help of the catchy rap) and Gen 2 only introducing 100 more, some of which were further evolutions or connections to originals like Scizor and Pichu. Gen 3 has a distinct feel to its 135 newcomers that’s hard to pinpoint but does feel different to the previous 251. While it was the weakest roster of newcomers in the series yet, it still wasn’t bad.
Despite them being the least popular games in the series at the time, Ruby and Sapphire still sold incredibly well with over 16 million copies sold, according to IGN, making them the best-selling games on the GBA. Upon revisits, Gen 3 does hold up well and possibly even better on reflection than the initial playthrough. The graphics are pleasing, Hoenn is a standout region that feels different to Kanto and Johto, the music is catchy and the standout Pokémon are some of the best from any generation. Remade a few years back as Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire for the 3DS, the games are not hard to find and revisit or play for the first time. But if you don’t enjoy some of the series newer elements like Mega Evolutions and miss the aesthetic of sprites compared to bland 3D models, then the original Gen 3 games hold up surprisingly well. They’re not the best in the series, but they’re not the worst.
It may have marked the end of Pokémania, but that wasn’t the fault of the product as Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald are still really fun games, it was more of a reflection of pop culture and children’s interest at the time. The demand for the eventual remakes shows that Gen 3 had some die-hard fans. And at the end of the day, it’s still Pokémon and who doesn’t love Pokémon?