Editorial

Letting Go of a Dream to Save the World: Looking Back at Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire

pokemon ruby and sapphire

Today is the 15th anniversary of the release of Game Freak’s Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire in North America. Both games marked a drastic change for the franchise. As Generation III began, Game Freak moved to a new region, called Hoenn, and broke away from the continuous storyline previously established in Red/Blue/Yellow’s Kanto and Gold/Silver/Crystal’s Johto. This separation allowed Game Freak to transform its tried-and-true formula and write a new type of story. Ruby and Sapphire’s narrative was strangely introspective for a franchise commonly marketed towards a child’s incessant need to collect.

Game Freak used Generation III to focus on humanity’s relationship with Pokémon and nature. Ruby and Sapphire started this conversation. Both titles played similarly to previous games in the franchise, but contained hints to a deeper, more complex message for the player. These clues ranged from the three starters, multiple criminal organizations, and main narrative to the design of the cities, inclusion of secret bases, and layout of the region. Hoenn was a brand new world built to tell a different kind of story: one where the hero learns to save the world by giving up on a personal dream. This message begins to come through with the emphasis on Hoenn’s connection to nature.

At One with the Elements

Most Pokémon regions are massive continents. However, only half of Hoenn is actual land; the rest is composed of oceans. Though not a perfect circle, the region is rounder than Kanto and Johto and seemingly takes on the shape of a yin-yang symbol, as if the existence of Hoenn is built on an established harmony between land and sea. Hoenn has a tropical climate and features more varied weather patterns than Kanto and Johto. Instead of bulldozing through the terrain as the citizens of previous regions did, the inhabitants of Hoenn incorporate the region’s diverse landscape and weather patterns into their dwellings and lifestyles. Except for the coastal Lilycove, no major metropolitan city exists in Ruby and Sapphire.

Hoenn

Artwork of Hoenn for 2004’s Pokémon Emerald

The link between the Pokémon introduced in Ruby and Sapphire and the themes of nature is also stronger than that present in previous games. For example, fire, water, and grass are crucial to the survival of the real animals that inspire Hoenn’s three starters. An amphibian (Mudkip) will die without water until it evolves into its land-based form. A chicken (Torchic) will wither in the egg without constant warmth. Possessing no form of natural defense other than camouflage, a leaf-tailed gecko (Treeko) will be hunted down and killed if it is found outside of a tree or grass.

This correlation between Pokémon and nature comes to a head in the backstory of Ruby and Sapphire, which centers on the actions of the three legendary “weather” Pokémon (two of which are on the cover of the two games): Groudon, Kyogre, and Rayquaza. These three represent the four basic elements believed to create all things: water (Kyogre), air (Rayquaza), and fire and earth (Groudon). This correlation stands in stark contrast to the legendary Pokémon encountered in the Kanto and Johto regions that were created because of (or represented) forces of nature. Ruby and Sapphire were the first titles to start treating legendary Pokémon as the physical embodiment of these forces. The games transformed the idea of legendary Pokémon from “exotic rare creatures” into beings that might reside in something akin to the Greek pantheon. The line separating Pokémon from the nature of their attacks had suddenly blurred and, in some cases, become nonexistent.

Artwork from 2016's Pokémon Go

Artwork of Groudon, Kyogre, and Rayquaza fighting from 2016’s Pokémon Go

“The Arrogance of Man…”

This emphasis on nature provides the perfect backdrop for Game Freak’s tale. In a world where pieces of nature have suddenly begun to take a physical form, which can be enslaved and controlled by humans, Game Freak can tell a story of humanity’s arrogance. Ruby and Sapphire replaces Team Rocket with two new criminal originations: Team Magma and Team Aqua. In Pokémon Ruby, Team Magma aspires to control Groudon and force it to expand the landmass of Hoenn so humanity and Pokémon can have more room to flourish. In Pokémon Sapphire, Team Aqua believes both humanity and Pokémon will benefit from larger seas, so the group sets out to force Kyogre to drown out the land. Though the two organizations are in direct conflict with one another, both are trying to fundamentally accomplish the same thing: overthrow Hoenn’s balance of land and sea.

Painting the bad guys as the only ones aspiring to control nature would be easy. However, the hero of both games runs into a few other individuals who are attempting the same feat (albeit on smaller scales). Perhaps the most blatant example is the scientists working at the Weather Institute who create an artificial Pokémon called Castform. Though described as something meant to help the Institute predict weather patterns, the scientists admit the original project behind Castform’s creation was to build a machine to control Hoenn’s climate.

All four forms of Castform as seen in the Pokémon anime

All four forms of Castform as seen in the Pokémon anime. Left to right: normal, hail, rain, heavy sunlight

Game Freak does not end with the NPCs. Through rewarding gameplay mechanics and narrative beats, the developer transforms the player into someone who also believes controlling nature is okay. Using Pokémon to temporarily change the weather during battle can offer a few excellent perks. The new Technical Machine “Secret Power” teaches any Pokémon how to carve into trees, caves, or shrubbery to create secret bases where players can challenge their friends to creative puzzles and fun Pokémon battles. Bicycles, which were previously only used to travel quickly between two locations, have been customized to overcome the environment’s natural barriers and deterrents. The plot of Ruby and Sapphire is even written to fill the player with overconfidence by implying the hero can do no wrong. This 10-year-old is wise enough to stop Team Magma and Team Aqua and set nature back on its “correct course.”

Never in Control

Despite Teams Magma and Aqua’s noble intentions, the escalating series of events in Ruby and Sapphire’s stories showcases how nature in Hoenn, much like nature in the real world, cannot be controlled. Teams Magma and Aqua fail to control Groudon and Kyogre, and both divine creatures rebel against their would-be masters to cause near-catastrophic environmental changes. Only through the hero’s actions, forcing Groudon or Kyogre to faint and retreat back to their respective resting grounds, do things return to normal. As with any other Pokémon, the player can also catch Groudon or Kyogre if they want.

However, no character in Ruby or Sapphire specifically tells the hero they should (or even can) catch Groudon or Kyogre. The protagonist is asked to stop the Pokémon, but the game never actually suggests catching the two as an option. If the player believes these two forces of nature are no different than the birds and dogs spotted on Route 103, their belief is their own supposition. In this assumption, Game Freak is able to highlight the player’s growing arrogance. Groudon and Kyogre are not like any other Pokémon. The power these two wield surpasses the might of any Pokémon that came before them. Groudon and Kyogre are responsible for the land and sea of the world: capturing them and storing them away is the equivalent of snuffing out two gods.

Once caught, neither Groudon nor Kyogre can be completely controlled. These creatures obey their trainer’s orders, but, in battle, their mere presence invokes changes in the weather. Groudon can make the harshest hail or darkest cave transform into blazing sunshine, and Kyogre can create the fiercest rainstorms in the driest of deserts or hottest of volcanoes. These two are forces of nature, not simple animals. The player, arrogant in their ability, can continue to use these two legendary monsters to challenge the eighth Gym Leader, Victory Road, Elite Four, and Pokémon Champion if they wish. However, in doing so, the player causes irreversible environmental damage across Hoenn and becomes no different from the criminal organizations they fought so hard to stop. Groudon and Kyogre are meant to slumber beneath the waves to ensure Hoenn remains in balance. They are not weapons to fuel someone’s ambitions, whether such dreams are the betterment of humanity or becoming a Pokémon Master.

groudon-god-like

After dealing with Groudon or Kyogre, if the player returns to Mt Pyre, they can meet Maxie or Archie (the leaders of Teams Magma and Aqua respectfully) one last time. Maxie and Archie return to Mt Pyre to give back the Orbs they stole to control Groudon or Kyogre. When they see the hero, the leaders say, “I understand now that humans cannot freely control the balance between the land and sea… So I have come to return [the Orb]… I doubt we will cross paths again… Farewell.” Before leaving, the player can approach the altar where the Red and Blue Orb usually rest, and they are given a choice: keep the Orb they currently have or return it to—as the game specifically calls it—its rightful place as Maxie and Archie did. Through Maxie and Archie’s sacrifice and this subsequent choice, Ruby and Sapphire highlight the importance of returning something to where it belongs. Just like the Orbs, Groudon and Kyogre do not belong in the backpack of a child. The player is a hypocrite for believing they were somehow special enough to hoard what their in-game allies have repeatedly said is dangerous for humans to interact with.

Don’t Catch ‘Em All

Within his or her own hypocrisy, the player begins to understand the message Game Freak is trying to get across. Nature cannot be controlled, and humans need to learn to live in balance with it. This balance benefits the world and needs to be protected at all costs, even if that cost is a selfless dream. This lesson is why the hero is in Hoenn. The hero’s father, Norman, moves his family to Hoenn from Olivine: a city in Johto with an emphasis on steel Pokémon and industrialization. Norman hopes his child will learn something in Hoenn (and even gives them the Balance Badge as a hint halfway through the journey). In a world where people are beginning to discover new types of god-like Pokémon that represent aspects of nature, the hero must learn to live alongside (instead of against) Pokémon and nature. Hoenn, a region far from the industrialization of Kanto and Johto, is the perfect place for such a lesson.

Hoenn is filled with individuals who respect nature. Cities such as Fortree—a collection of tree houses built alongside the nests of bird Pokémon—and Pacifidlog Town—a series of wooden rafts constructed on top of a Corsola colony in the middle of the ocean—were made in tandem with what was already there. The Pokémon of the region exist in balance with each other too. Ruby and Sapphire feature more Pokémon that share a symbiosis with one another than any game before them (as well as most of those that come after). Some relationships are just how two Pokémon reflect each other (such as Lunatone and Solrock), others a means of survival (such as Wailord and Relicanth), and some a result of a rivalry (such as Zangoose and Seviper).

rubysapphirefortree

Everything and everyone exists in balance within Hoenn. For the player to disturb this balance would be wrong. The player can choose to ignore the warning signs, capture every Pokémon, and then use their army to become the most powerful trainer in Hoenn. If the player is simply going to misuse the nature of Hoenn to accomplish their own goals though, they are as villainous as Maxie and Archie. Sure, maybe the player will be unable to topple the Elite Four without the power of Groudon or never earn Professor Birch’s approval if they fail to add Kyogre to the Pokédex. However, both Maxie and Archie were able to set aside their own goals and pride to make Hoenn right again. Game Freak just wants to know if those playing Ruby and Sapphire are strong enough to do the same.

Defining a Generation

Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire started Generation III. Both abandoned the simplistic theme of connectivity of the first two generations of games in favor of introspective contemplation. Ruby and Sapphire asked players whether or not being a good Pokémon trainer or being a good person is more important, and the question would be explored in different nuances in later Generation III titles, such as Emerald, Colosseum, and XD: Gale of Darkness.

The dawn of the 21st century marked the first time Pokémon ever started exploring concepts deeper than whether or not someone could “catch ‘em all.” Later games in the franchise would build on Ruby and Sapphire’s successes by giving future legendary Pokémon more god- or spirit-like backstories, as well as shaping new regions and storylines around hidden thematic questions. Nonetheless, few of these games would come close to capturing the level of craft that went into the lore, world-building, and characterization of 2003’s Pokémon Ruby and Pokémon Sapphire.

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