" ...in 2011 Emerald suffers from two major problems. There's not enough new content... and, secondly, it's completely dwarfed by the most recent release in the series."
Like those that have come before it, Pokémon Emerald stands on somewhat awkward ground. In essence, it's effectively the same game as Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, but makes small modifications and adds a bit of content to make it the "definitive" version. Reviewing it six years after its release doesn't change the fact that it's recycled content. Is it better than Ruby and Sapphire? Yes. Is it worth getting if you already have one of them? That's a much tougher argument to make.
Pokémon Emerald is probably proof that we're never going to "catch 'em all". The trilogy of Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald add on approximately one-hundred new Pokémon to catch along with the already existing two-hundred-and-fifty or so. In Emerald, a few Pokémon previously exclusive to Ruby and Sapphire are now available in the one version and there's substantially more focus on the legendary Rayquaza. It's a nice bonus, but it doesn't set Emerald apart from its counterparts enough. What's more significant is that all the Pokémon sprites are now animated. When they first pop onto the screen in battle they perform some sort of action: Poochyena growls for example, and Wingull flaps its wings. The animation adds some life to each battle, and Emerald made this the standard for later games in the series. For the first time the back sprites are animated too. The graphics still hold up fairly well today, which is a nice bonus.
Outside of the animations there are some other welcome changes to the graphics. Many of the caves and routes have received small makeovers with brighter colours or more interesting environments. Meteor Falls is a great example of this. In Ruby and Sapphire it was an unrealistically bright colour, but Emerald has dimmed down the lights and made the area match its name. A few of the gyms have changed too. The Mossdeep gym, for example, has undergone a complete overhaul. The spinner tiles have been completely removed and replaced with warp panels, making the gym similar to Saffron City from Red and Blue.
Like the graphics, there's little change to the music. It's catchy music and it suits the Pokémon universe well, but there's few differences from Ruby and Sapphire. Some Pokémon sound effects are a little sharper or slightly different, but still bland and likely to go unnoticed. The battle music is great, there's no doubt about that; it's just Emerald falls into the same trap as Pokémon Yellow and Pokémon Crystal: lack of new content. That didn't stop me from humming along to the music as I played, mind you.
The story in Emerald stays true to the roots of Ruby and Sapphire, but it does mix things up a little. As with every other main series Pokémon game your character starts off as a young trainer who, after being given a Pokémon by a local professor, sets out on a journey to defeat all eight gym leaders and ultimately become the new Pokémon champion. In Ruby, the main antagonists were Team Magma while in Sapphire, Team Aqua took the spotlight. Emerald brings them both in for an ultimate showdown so both can be stopped once and for all. There are some additional scenes, characters, battles, dialogue, and the inclusion of the new legendary to incorporate this, but it's not different enough to be appealing unless you're a Pokémaniac. The plot isn't too bad when compared to previous titles, but it falls flat when set side-by-side with the more recent Black and White, and even the remakes of Gold and Silver. Admittedly, anyone who has played Pokémon before probably knows you don't play it for the plot.
Gameplay-wise it's much the same story. The turn-based battle system of Pokémon pitted against Pokémon remains the same, but it's still highly enjoyable. The rock-paper-scissors style of different types being weak and strong against one another (water, fire, poison, rock, etc.) makes for some fun battles and there are plenty of different strategies to employ depending on your chosen team of six and the moves they learn. As Pokémon battle, they earn experience and eventually level up. They discover new moves, become stronger, and some even evolve into new forms. It's an easily accessible system for newcomers and younger players, but there's extreme depth for those who want to train their Pokémon to be the best. The problem in today's market is that it's just nowhere near as intricate or detailed as more recent titles in the series and there's little to make it standout.
Unfortunately, this classic gameplay style isn't without its frustrations. Gym Leaders, and even some regular trainers, have an annoying habit of using powerful healing items on their Pokémon. There were a number of Gym Leader battles in which I didn't have the type advantage, but I could wear them down by being smarter. I found myself constantly frustrated, however, when they used up to three full-heal items on one Pokémon that I struggled to beat down the first time. To be fair, I could have used healing items too, but having items banned from gyms altogether seems like a wiser gameplay mechanic rather than artificially lengthening battles and making them far more frustrating. Furthermore, apart from picking an advantageous Pokémon type, strategy is pretty much thrown out the window for most of the game. Whoever has the highest level Pokémon wins ninety percent of the time. Players looking for a strategic challenge have to wait until the end of the game for Battle Frontier.
Having said all that, Emerald isn't without new gameplay features. Both legendaries Groudon and Kyogre are now catchable in one version, double battles are more common, gym leaders can be rematched, the Sootopolis Gym has a new leader and the Elite 4 has a new champion, Battle Tower has many new features and is now called Battle Frontier, and a new battle area called Trainer Hill has been added. Plenty of smaller changes exist too, such as minor costume modifications for characters, item locations, slight modifications to puzzles, and more. Emerald features the same sort of differences we've come to expect after Pokémon Yellow and Pokémon Crystal, but it still leaves you wanting more.
All the extra activities from Ruby and Sapphire return as well. You can still plant berries, take part in beauty contests, and breed Pokémon, which all add a significant amount of extra time to theoretically sink into the game. Add on potentially setting out to catch all the Pokémon available, and you have a very lengthy adventure that could easily take over one-hundred hours. The cartridge can even be used with more recent titles in the series. By popping it in the GBA slot of your DS and loading up a DS Pokémon game, you can catch Pokémon that are otherwise unobtainable in those titles. They can then be transferred across from Emerald to those later games through the Pal Park.
Pokémon Emerald is a solid game. At the time of its release it was the best the series had to offer. There's a ton of stuff to do from catching and battling Pokémon to participating in contests, and the graphics and sound were the sharpest at that time. Unfortunately, in 2011 Emerald suffers from two major problems. There's not enough new content between it and Ruby and Sapphire to make it a worthy purchase for anyone who has played them and, secondly, it's completely dwarfed by the most recent release in the series. If you love your Pokémon and never played it, then it's definitely worth a purchase. Is it worth coming back to for everyone else? The short answer is probably not.