I’ve been playing a lot of Pokémon HeartGold recently, alongside a couple of other Japanese RPGs. While those two games – Resonance of Fate and Infinite Space, if you’re interested – are both splendid in their own ways, Pokémon really shows them up in design terms. For those who dismiss the series as nothing more than kiddie fare, this might shock you, but I’d happily argue that Pokémon is as masterful an example of its art as Advance Wars.
Both Resonance and Infinite have design choices which irk a little. They’re minor flaws in otherwise intricately-woven tapestries, but, try as I might, I simply can’t find any similar problems with Pokémon. Its pacing is immaculate; it’s massively accessible while retaining fearsome depth; its battle system is endlessly flexible, and by the time it’s all over, there’s a very palpable sense that you’ve been on an epic journey.
It also handles random battles better than its peers. The only time you’ll find your eyes rolling at the frequency of encounters is on the rare occasions you venture underground, and it so happens that their regularity can be…well, regulated, as long as you have a Repel item. Besides, most of the time you’ll reach the exit having gained just the right number of levels to be able to handle the next gym battle. And if you’ve not, you can now use the Pokéwalker pedometer to alleviate the very mild (and always entirely optional) pain of grinding. Most of the time you can get by with a balanced team and some decent tactics, even if your Pokémon are a little underpowered.
Dig deeper and you discover just how artfully Pokémon hides an incredibly complex numbers game. Poké-forums buzz with chatter about EVs and IVs; players soft-reset their console until they get that Cyndaquil with an Adamant nature; trainers play for hundreds of hours to build the perfect team with the perfect movesets, entering contests, breeding and endlessly tweaking to get their ideal stats.
In a parallel universe where Advance Wars is the Nintendo series franchised into a kids’ cartoon and toy line, this wonderful little niche RPG is revered among gaming connoisseurs, its players free of the apparent social embarrassment that such associations currently bring in this world. They’re playing possibly the best Japanese role-playing game ever made. Why aren’t you?