They're a fantastic return to the Johto and Kanto regions
10 years ago, the Pokémon remakes HeartGold and SoulSilver saw their release in Japan. And since 2009, they've garnered near mythic status in the Pokémon community as a shining example of not only how good Pokémon can be, but how you should approach a remake. And I totally agree with putting this particular example of Pokémon on a pedestal because HeartGold and SoulSilver ARE that good. But just to make sure I wasn't blinded by the nostalgia of going to the GameStop in my college town, picking up my copy of HeartGold (my friend nabbed SoulSilver), and nearly failing a class because I got so invested in exploring the Johto and Kanto regions, I decided to replay it.
The first thing I was struck by is how well Game Freak nailed the atmosphere of the Johto region. It's calm and rustic, with the windmills in your hometown of New Bark Town immediately symbolizing a more quiet kind of progress than the bustling "Can ya believe it? We can put CREATURES in COMPUTERS!" of Kanto. It's not a complete geographical contrast to Kanto (Like, say, Sinnoh is to Hoenn), but the way it approaches Pokémon in general sets it apart, all while having a brisk Autumn feel in some of its locations. Johto is a spiritual place, one where myth cohabitates with mankind. Its legends are marked by shrines and towers, while Kanto's legendary Pokémon are tucked away in hard-to-find caves, outliers to the world that Kanto has become.
This theme is also extended by the fact that in HeartGold/SoulSilver, you can have Pokémon follow you around on your journey. Any time you want, you can turn around and see how your starter or any of your other party members are doing. It begins as a fun little novelty, but as I mentioned, it goes a long way in developing a theme around the way that man and 'mon coexist. Plus, it's hilarious to be treated like a normal child by the world when you're eternally leading the Red Gyarados around like a poodle. Like, I've captured and tamed the lake monster that everyone was afraid of. Could you please show me the slightest hint of respect, Youngster Joey?
And speaking of Joey and his endless, heartwarming enthusiasm for Rattata, you now don't have to make space in your phone to keep his number like you had to do in Gold/Silver/Crystal. There are numerous slice of life improvements like this peppered throughout the game, like how you deal with apricorns, the way you use running shoes, the way you can track legendary Pokémon, and many other little things. It's stuff like this that eases your journey, and while much of it comes from the Nintendo DS being a technological leap from the Game Boy Color, it also shows that Game Freak was dedicated to making HeartGold and SoulSilver a smooth experience.
Even without the stuff that was added to the remake, I just love Johto and its characters. I love Silver, this mysterious jerk who never really gets redeemed fully, but just becomes bearable to be around by the end. I love Professor Elm, who can't seem to get it together. I love the bigger roles of the Kimono Girls, and how they tie more heavily into the story. I love the fact that your Mom saves your money because even though she can trust you to travel the world with six deadly monsters at your hip, she doesn't quite think you can handle your own finances.
I love the personalized gyms of the gym leaders, especially Claire and Bugsy's, which must cost a fortune in maintenance fees. And I love the cameos of Professor Oak, who shows up every once in a while to be excited about Pokémon and then leaves. Go back to your lab in Kanto, Oak. You have a job.
I love the Sprout Tower and that Bellsprout, who mostly exists as "Let's get Charmeleon to level 25" fodder in Generation 1, attains the respect that it deserves. I love the Slowpoke Well and the Ice Path. I love the Goldenrod Radio Tower, and everything about Goldenrod, in fact. It's like they took the size of Saffron City and the various attractions of Celadon City and combined them into one perfect hub. And I love Kanto, too, as when you finally make it there as Champion, it feels like coming home.
I would be remiss, though, if I ignored the wonderful score. Now, Generation II's score is already extremely underrated. There are parts of it, like the Route 42 music, that exudes pure Pokémon-ness. I don't know another way to describe it, but it captures a feeling that is equal parts thrilling adventure and innocent joy. Other standouts include the opening theme, the Ho Oh battle music, and the Azalea Town theme, which makes me want to look up real estate prices in Johto right now. Look, I know that it's fictional, but it's also 2019. If we can't relocate to a city that's populated by magical beasts and only exists in a handheld Nintendo console, then science as we know it has failed us.
There are numerous region changes, too. Now, I think the Johto that we find in the original Gold/Silver/Crystal is a really spectacular region. There isn't an inch of wasted space in Generation II's Johto, with no route running too long and no section dragging down the pacing. But everything from the addition of an upstairs level to Professor Elm's lab to the new Safari Zone near Cianwood City in HG/SS feels like a natural expansion. The world isn't overhauled in any way (though the DS upgrade does a lot to make Kanto seem more vibrant than it did in the original games), but rather, it's filled in. Without ruining the mystique of the region, Game Freak obviously took a look at Johto and thought "Wouldn't it be cool if we had this, too?"
And that's why HG/SS is both a solid remake and a love letter to the originals, like all of the best remakes are. John Carpenter's The Thing took a classic story down a bold, terrfiying path, while also paying homage to one of his favorite directors (Howard Hawks) who directed the original. Werner Herzog's Nosferatu combined the German Expressionism of the 1922 original with his own deep dive into the lead vampire's immortal loneliness. And I know it sounds weird to compare Pokémon HeartGold/SoulSilver to Nosferatu and The Thing, but these games serve a similar purpose by embracing what makes the originals great and also seeing what aspects deserve further illumination.
I know that we have a knee jerk reaction to remakes because a ton of them aren't very good, and can feel like betrayals to what made the originals so beloved in the first place. But that's why HeartGold/SoulSilver is such an incredible adventure. They're not only examples of the Pokémon franchise at its best, but they prove that a remake can be a worthwhile, as long as the people behind it really, truly care.
What is your favorite part of HeartGold/SoulSilver? What starter did you pick on your first playthrough? Let us know in the comments!
Daniel Dockery is a writer and editor for Crunchyroll. You should follow him on Twitter!
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