Since its 1996 inception, Pokemon has both garnered a loyal fan base and changed its core series of games very little. There is good reason for this, as evidenced by the fact that Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver, of the franchise's fourth generation, are every bit as compelling as the first-gen Red and Blue titles.
Now, this could be that, after 14 years, Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver are making a return to the second-generation Pokemon region of Johto, and later to first-generation region Kanto. The franchise has got around. It's tried a few different things, been a few different places, and now it's bringing what it has learnt home.
Too high-falutin'? Let's put it this way: Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver bring all the best bits of all the previous handheld Pokemon games together in the original worlds.
These Pokes are made for walkin'
Now, apart from obsessive Pokemon fans, one would think there really isn't a lot of draw left in the series. The Pokedex has expanded from a nice, comfortable number of 150 cute critters in the beginning to an intimidating 493 in the Diamond and Pearl versions. Suddenly "Gotta catch 'em all" seems like a mammoth task, and is not for the faint-hearted. This is where Nintendo got clever: bundled with each game is a "Pokewalker", a Pokeball-shaped device in the style of the Pokemon Pikachu 2, which combined a Tamagotchi-esque digital Pikachu with a pedometer.
The Pokewalker, though, can have any of a player's Pokemon uploaded via wireless interaction with the DS. Once installed, each step the player takes will earn something called Watts, a sort of currency that can be used to search for items and rare Pokemon on the pedometer itself, or transferred back to the DS to unlock new walking routes, which in turn unlocks new Pokemon to be caught on the Pokewalker. (Are you tired of all the Pokes yet?)
As an added bonus, Pokewalkers can talk to each other via their infrared sensors, allowing your Pokemon to play with a friend's Pokemon and exchange gifts. And each Pokemon that gets taken for a walk will gain an effortless level per stroll. It's a neat little feature that actually encourages players to put the console down, interact with friends and maybe get some exercise into the bargain — all the while looking and feeling exactly like a bit of extra fun. Point to Nintendo.
Welcome to the jungle
I have actually read some diehard fans complaining about the continuity of the world, how it doesn't seem to fit geographically with the events of previous years. If you are a diehard fan, it is up to you how you want to take the transformation of the worlds you know and love. If you are going to let something like a hillock being somewhere you don't think it should be spoil your enjoyment of the game, perhaps HeartGold and SoulSilver aren't for you.
If you are not a diehard fan, perhaps you are in for a bit of a learning curve. HeartGold and SoulSilver really presuppose that by now, you know how the gameplay mechanics work, although, to be fair, the actions themselves aren't terribly complicated. What gets complicated is the advanced rock-paper-scissors system that allows the player to gain advantage in battle. There are so many different types of Pokemon that keeping them straight in your head can be a little difficult at times.
However, the game starts gently, allowing the player to get a feel for the gameplay, and tips from non-player characters along the way will usually nudge you in the right direction. Since there can be quite literally hundreds of hours worth of gameplay in HeartGold and SoulSilver, this allowance for natural progression is imperative. Nevertheless, if you're new, you'll probably want to keep the manual nearby for quick reference.
Down to business
The story is the same as all the stories, really: you play a girl or boy on the road to becoming the ultimate Master of Pokemon in the entire world. This would be quite an ambition in and of itself, but at every turn, the mysterious and dastardly Team Rocket is up to shenanigans, and it will be up to our intrepid protagonist to put the kibosh on their degenerate plans. Luckily for us, Team Rocket wear uniforms, mutter loudly to themselves and even announce their faction by name (with the occasional evil Ha! Ha! Ha! thrown in for good measure), making them easy to spot and foil.
The Pokemon battles, which involve turn-based combat, can be surprisingly tense, particularly as the game progresses and the enemy Pokemon grow more difficult to defeat. Early in the game, you'll find that it's fairly easy to remain on a consistent level against the other trainers, but later on you'll probably need to get out a bit more and spend time simply battling wild Pokemon. As this doesn't yield as much experience as battling trained Pokemon, it can grow tedious. Likewise, early game puzzles are fairly simple to solve, growing more difficult the further along you go.
As for mini-games, such as the Game Corner with a card game that is a sort of hybrid of Minesweeper and Picross, and the Pokeathlon, in which you can enter your Pokemon in a sort of Pokemon Olympics (replacing the Beaty and Toughness contests of previous games), they provide enough of a diversion that you can quite easily forget that you have any other objective.
There are a lot of changes to previous iterations of the game, and if you want to read up on those, we refer you to the Bulbapedia article, since this is a review, not a list.
One thing that hasn't really changed much at all, in spite of the technology that would allow it to do so, is the look and sound of the game. The DS has some decent graphics capabilities, but we're still looking at a pixellated isometric screen and battles that are only animated in the strictest sense of the word. Likewise, the music and sounds are the blippy stuff of old-school Pokemon. It would have been nice, too, to see the main gameplay incorporate the DS's touchscreen in a meaningful fashion; if you liked, you could play the entire main game from start to finish without ever picking up a stylus.
Granted, this design choice was probably for nostalgia purposes — people respond to what they know and love — but given the number of Pokemon games that already exist in this style and the fact that the technology is there to do something new and interesting, it feels like Pokemon is a bit overdue for a cosmetic upgrade.
There is a reason, however, that the franchise has endured for so long. The gameplay is just as solid as it ever was, and Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver contain in their tiny cartridges (plus a pedometer) more hours of absorbing gameplay than possibly any other Nintendo DS game on the market.