Work and play. Both are forms of physical action, but why are some actions deemed entertainment while others are considered dull chores? When is work actually work and when is work play? Is fun in the eye of the beholder or this there another explanation for what tickles our funny bone? This is the fundamental question that I struggled with while playing Pokémon Sapphire/Ruby, the latest incarnation of Nintendo's megalithic and seemingly unending intellectual cash cow property.
For those who come from an alternate universe that is identical to ours, but lack videogames in some Twilight Zone twist, the Pokémon experience began as an obscure portable Game Boy title that encouraged players to capture, train, evolve, breed, trade and compete little pet beasts called Pocket Monsters (Pokémon for short) against one another in sportsman-like pugilistic duels. The popularity of the game has since spawned several color-theme sequels (Red/Blue, Gold/Silver, etc), dozens of derivative games on larger Nintendo platforms (Pokémon Puzzle League, Pokémon Stadium, Pokémon Snap, Pokémon Pinball), a long-running animated television show, and 5 feature movies. The marketing and branding machine is so all-encompassing that there's even a Pokémon theme store in the heart of Manhattan's Rockefeller Center solely devoted to peddling Poke-branded wares (there are a couple of these in Japan as well).
Which brings us back to Sapphire/Ruby, the continuation of the franchise next in line for the milking-it-for-all-its-worth award normally reserved for Capcom games. Even with a predictable commercial stigma that 10-year olds can see coming a mile away, the game delights and triumphs as an irresistible pass-time. Nintendo hasn't forgotten how to engage a gamer and at its core, Sapphire/Ruby, no matter how familiar it looks, sounds and still feels like a good game. The production values are like a well-oiled machine with all its screws on tight. The Pokedex menu and storage interface has been refined to a shiny sheen, as one would expect for a third sequel. There are well over 500 species of Pokémon that have been created to date over the course of the series (some reused, many new in the latest game) and yet Creatures, the developers behind the Pokémon series, somehow are able to bleed another creativity drop out of their depleted minds and make number 501 still seems special with the trademark Nintendo appeal and not some cheap knock-off. Granted, not all the new Pokémon are equally "special" and the names are sometimes so inane that I instantly forgot them, but the sight of a fully evolved Pokémon in comparison to its original form is still able to elicit National Geographic-like wonderment.
The developers aren't stupid either. They know that to keep the army of Pokémon acolytes happy, there needs to be some tweaks and additions—no matter how insignificant or illusionary—to give the diehard enough incentive to abandon their previous stable and start anew after plunking down the suggested retail price. Among several new features, which include 2-on-2 battles and a personal hideout base that can be decorated, the most significant are the berry collecting and beauty contests. Through out the land of Sapphire/Ruby, there are patches of soil that are ideal for planting dozens of different types of berries. Berries can used in battle to heal ailments or they can be mixed into PokeBlocks—Pez-like candies that are feed to Pokémon to improve their personality. Beauty contests are events in which Pokémon compete to see who has the best personality in separate categories (e.g., cool, tough, beautiful).
The essence of the game, whether it's to become the League Champion or to win a beauty contest, is to enlist a group of Pokémon among hundreds of unique species and then customizing them with the attributes, attack moves, and personality as the trainer sees fit. In order to succeed in battles, one must level-up by repeatedly battling wild Pokémon that can be randomly encountered outside of towns or battle other trainers and Gym Leaders. In order to excel at beauty contests, the right combination of berries must be planted, watered, harvested, mixed in Pokeblocks and feed to Pokémon with the right inherent personality disposition. It's this dynamic where my opinion of Sapphire/Ruby becomes decidedly mixed.
When all the activities and science of the game are new to the player, the possibilities of seem boundless and the work is unconsciously fun. The gameplay has a potent drug-like addictive quality, which often results in players obsessing and intimating over their Pokémon like real-life pets. Near the end of the game however, after countless battles to raise experience levels and earn badges to advance deeper and deeper into the quest, capturing/training/evolving tens of hundreds of Pokémon, and planting/watering/picking the umpteenth berry, the outcomes grow predictable. The game universe eventually shrinks to something the player can wrap around their hand and the demands to achieve increases while the rewards dwindle and don't seem to match the effort required. The gameplay becomes more work than play and turning on the game starts to feel like punching in for a shift with little motivation to continue.
Granted, it took me over 50 hours of playing time to get to this state and I had already since long become League Champion, but it's disappointing that Nintendo hasn't addressed this plateau that all trainers will inevitably reach with new ideas to extend the journey or at least make the leveling-up process less painful. They've certainly had time to ponder this dilemma after numerous sequels. The sole motivation to continue to train a Pokémon to its ultimate peak performance after "beating" the game is to duel with other trainers, but doing so is ultimately futile because the primary factor between the winners will not be their strategy and knowledge in combat, but patience. A player must display a monk-life state of tolerance and patience to endure an insane amount of time-wasting repetitive battles to level-up over and over again until one as obtained the highest achievable level or at least one significantly higher than that of the opponent. That's not a contest of wit and strength. It's more like a marathon of the will.
Sapphire/Ruby's main shortcoming is that at the end the rainbow, it expects players to stay in Oz rather than go home. Nintendo needs to realize that the ruby slippers were made for the purpose of getting somewhere. If they want players to stick around longer, they need to create new goals and extend the perception of the world further. Otherwise, too much work and not enough play makes for a part-time job. The only difference is that Nintendo isn't paying the player either.