Pokémon Omega Ruby and Pokémon Alpha Sapphire, the two new Pokémon games, are educational games. I know this because I’ve been playing Omega Ruby for a a week, and I spent more time reading, doing calculations, researching, categorizing, navigating, and strategizing than I spent playing. Or at least it felt that way to this Pokémon novice. Pokémon Omega Ruby (Alpha Sapphire is essentially the same game) offers a colorful environment, a classic coming-of-age storyline, and lots of challenges for the kids ages 6+ who are its major market.
A franchise with solid gameplay, world-class cuteness, and roots in Japanese culture, Pokémon reigns as one of the most popular game (and cross-media) empires of all time. Besides the dozens of Pokémon video games, the Pokémon product universe includes card games, board games, books, movies, television series, and toys.
My son Chris Jaech and I played Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire at the same time. He’s a Pokémon player from way back (when he was a kid he played on car trips a lot). Overall, I’d say he was right when he said replacing my Candy Crush time with Pokémon Omega Ruby on the Nintendo 3DS would be a good move. (These games are also available on the 2DS.)
Here’s one of the weirdest parts of the whole Pokémon thing: Pokémon are, essentially, animals that are pitted against each other by trainers. Think cock-fighting—only incredibly cute, augmented with stirring music and colorful visual effects, and stripped of all violence and realism.
You begin the game as a kid just starting out in the Pokémon trainer hierarchy. First you pick a gender and name for your trainer character. I was a girl named Lydia, and I found out right away that my father was a famous Pokémon trainer. From there, I started out on a journey through the Omega Ruby region, called Hoenn. Within Hoenn’s highways, waterways, and towns, your goals are to improve your skills as a trainer, do favors for people, fight a group of evildoers called Team Magma, and collect things. Collecting things is a huge part of playing Pokémon. You collect Pokémon by capturing them. Besides Pokémon, you also collect hundreds of items, such as potions and abilities, to cure your Pokémon and help them grow and evolve and then win more battles so they can grow and evolve more. All this work is in service to the major goal of the game, which is to defeat other Pokémon trainers and become the best Pokémon trainer in the Hoenn region.
Oh, and here’s a little more about the villains: Team Magma (in Omega Ruby) wants to radically increase landmass, while Team Aqua (the villain in Alpha Sapphire) wants to radically increase the size of the oceans. This part of the plot is a bit murky, but near as I can tell, these agendas are villainous because they violate the basic and overriding principal of of balance in all things.
Pokémon games are role-playing adventure and strategy games. Here’s how it works: You travel from place to place capturing Pokémon and improving them by getting into battles with other trainers. In the towns, you go to Pokémon Gyms to fight the important trainers, defeat them, and earn badges. The battles get more and more challenging, and you have to employ increasingly complex strategies. The gameplay is based on a rock-paper-scissors type of scheme. Pokémon are of various types (water, flying, grass, etc.) and each type is weak to other types. Their various attacks are also weak (or strong) to other attacks. The complexity makes my head hurt. It is possible to use charts and graphs to plan out attacks and be more effiicient, but I ended up just playing the game and hoping the weak/strong rules would eventually seep in.
The battles are turn-based and involve attacks like slapping, ramming, blowing grass, spitting poison, and so on. Every time you use an attack there’s feedback that tells you how effective it has been. You can use a turn to switch out Pokémon and replace them with other Pokémon on your six-Pokémon team, and there are all kinds of other actions you can take besides attacking—such as take an antidote or potion to counteract an attack or increase your health.
Pokémon don’t die in battle; they faint, shrink, and disappear to fight another day. Or you can capture them inside Pokeballs that you buy in shops you can find in the towns as you travel. There’s a battle in this video:
Some people love to collect all the types of Pokémon. A few Pokémon are available in one game exclusively. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire have a new feature called DexNav, which can help players find hidden Pokémon. This makes it a lot easier to capture all of the Pokémon in an area before moving on. DexNav can also make trying to catch a super-strong specimen of a certain variety significantly easier, since you can use it to repeatedly encounter the same Pokémon. Another way to collect Pokémon is to use the online system, Player Search System, where you can trade with your friends or with strangers around the world.
A cool new feature in Pokémon Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby is a new type of flying-mount Pokémon. Once you work to mega-evolve it, it can fly you all around above the Hoenn Region.
Some parents see how obsessive kids can get about the whole Pokémon phenomenon and decide early on their kids will never be allowed to play it. And then most of them change their minds. It generally happens slowly. A child goes to school or to a friend’s house and comes home talking about the TV show or the trading cards.
Eventually, parents are worn down by the overwhelming popularity of Pokémon and their kid becomes a video game addict and languishes in their basement the rest of his or her life.
Whoa. Just kidding.
Kids love to be part of the group. They love cuteness, and they love collecting. They also love mastering something complicated, and that’s hands-down the best way to learn. Many American kids go through a Pokémon phase. Later in life, they may play the new Pokémon games as they come out, even into adulthood, partly because they enjoy the nostalgia. As a mom whose grown kids played Pokémon some when they were young, I believe Pokémon games are very beneficial overall. But here are some things to think about when you’re considering kids and Pokémon.
- Consumerism and Immoderation: Some kids are prone to get into a fandom like Pokémon so much that their love can border on obsession. And some kids may want to collect more than digital Pokémon. They may ask for stuffed animals, toys, books, and so on. In my opinion, you can usually wait for the phase to pass, but in some cases a habit like Pokémon can become destructive. It’s always a good idea to talk to kids about the pitfalls of consumerism and collecting. And parents should have ongoing conversations with their kids about how important it is to balance activities (including screen time) so you don’t spend too much time on any one thing.
- Animal rights: The idea for the game is based on insect-collecting. When I played I felt a slightly creepy undercurrent that reminded me of the practice of cock-fighting. However, in the game, the trainers are constantly told to be kind to their Pokémon, and the Pokémon do faint rather than die in the game. Again, it’s a good idea to talk through issues like how our actions affect animals, both wild animals and pets.
- Emotional literacy: Aside from encouraging you to pit cute digital animals against each other, Pokémon does try to boost emotional literacy. You are constantly reminded as you play that hard work and training lead to success. Failure is only a step on the path to getting better. If you persist and have faith in yourself, eventually you will be the best. You are also encouraged to help other people. The enemies are people who want to upset the balance of nature, and your best overall strategy in the game is to strive for balance in your choices of which Pokémon to capture and place on your team, which abilities to strive for, and so on.
- Education: After playing this game for a while, I am really impressed that young kids can play it. The amount of reading that’s required is just staggering, and I can’t imagine playing the game without researching it on various websites and wikia. Most tasks, from finding your way around to deciding which Pokémon to send into battle, require or encourage you to think, strategize, analyze, and calculate. Pokémon is a game that teaches kids many useful skills.
Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are rated E for Comic Mischief and Mild Cartoon Violence. Pokémon don’t die; they faint when the lose. Battles are accompanied by sound effects like smacking sounds and colorful visual effects—some of which suggest explosions. There’s also a little body humor, much like you’d find in TV cartoons.
Note that Nintendo recommends that parents use parental controls to restrict the use of 3D for kids 6 and under. However, whether 3D technology can harm kids’ vision is still a controversial issue.
Pokémon is one of the most beloved and popular video game franchises for a reason. The world is complete, the art and music are engaging, and the gameplay is challenging and fun. Pokémon games also encourage reading, critical thinking, and math skills.
Every couple of years new Pokémon games come out, and parents of Pokémon fans should consider whether the latest game offers enough new content and features to make it worth buying. Even though Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are a remake of the Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire games released 11 years ago on the Game Boy Advance, die-hard fans will of course buy Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire for the flying feature, the DexNav, and the new and beautiful graphics on the 3DS—or they’ll buy it just because it’s Pokémon. There are few gameplay differences between Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire and Pokémon X/Y, but again, real fans will probably want the newest games anyway.
As always, Pokémon games are a solid choice—and if your kids are in a full-on Pokémon phase, almost an easy one. Especially if a long car trip is in your future.