Soundtrack to Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire

Indulgence week, part the eighth: the games are outstanding remakes; the soundtrack is a poor imitation.

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The return to the land of trumpets and water was heralded with great enthusiasm by Pokémon fans the world over, myself included. And unlike some past games, these do not disappoint. From the obvious visual and gameplay enhancements to smaller tweaks and improvements, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are GameFreak's freshest remakes yet.

Each member of the Hoenn Elite Four has redesigned the path to their chamber with a slickness their Kalos compatriots would envy. Mauville City's extensive renovations encourage the player to shop til they drop en route from the food court to the fancy apartments. Ten years later, the salty breeze stings sweeter than ever cycling along Route 110's scenic seaside paths.

The second Johto adventure effectively ignored the heart and soul emblem promised in the title, and Black and White were briefly linked into the yin-yang of truth and ideals. But never before has the symbolism of the titles tied so elegantly and so deeply into the actual game. Team Magma and Team Aqua are far more fearsome than in the originals. Instead of bland ciphers, the executives of each syndicate are sharply redrawn as genuinely threatening characters of crystal-clear motivation. In Omega Ruby you find yourself precariously allied with Team Aqua to avert a nihilistic doomsday scenario — under the helm of the dry, analytical Maxie, Team Magma act in lockstep to awaken Groudon (note the omega marking on its claw) and boil the planet into oblivion, hastening the arrival of an eventual future world of lava and flame. The story of Alpha Sapphire has you working tenuously alongside Team Magma to impede a catastrophic worldwide reversal — jolly pirate maniac Archie and his eccentric Team Aqua goons haphazardly throw themselves at their goal of reviving Kyogre (spot the alphas on its forehead and flippers) from its slumber, drowning the globe once more in the primordial oceans of the distant past. As each monster reverts to its primal form and prepares to unleash its wrath, snatches of the track played during the same scene in Ruby and Sapphire can be heard peeking through the mix. It seems I'm not the only one who loved the originals to bits.

In addition to blowing us all away with an updated version of Ruby and Sapphire's ambitious plotline, these games introduce their own content with the Delta Episode, which continues the story after defeating the Pokémon League for the first time. Having already abated one crisis, the powers that be rope you into another: an enormous meteor is crashing to earth, and will shortly destroy life as we know it. You must locate and enlist the aid of Rayquaza, a third legendary monster rumoured to hold the power to calm both Groudon and Kyogre from their rampage. Known to the indigenous inhabitants of Hoenn as the Delta, Rayquaza only appears at times of great change and upheaval. And lo and behold — it reveals itself to you at Dragonhark Altar atop Sky Pillar, the triangular temple rising grandly from the depths of Hoenn's abundant ocean. Skeptics and purists may have questioned the inclusion of sequel material in a self-styled remake, especially one that leans so heavily on textdumps. But after riding on the back of a massive green dragon into space to smash the meteor into smithereens, most of them seem to have come down on the side of approval.

The changes are not all as extensive as the inclusion of the Delta Episode, but small tweaks also count for a great deal. At the very beginning of the remakes and the originals, you are asked to help out your sickly neighbour. He is moving to Verdanturf Town to help with his asthma, and his family is worried that he will be lonely. With your kind assistance, Wally catches his first Pokémon — an adorable little psychic elf called Ralts. Alone, it is quite weak, unable to fend for itself. But when raised with care, it eventually evolves into a Gardevoir. With its newfound power, Gardevoir is able to return the affection it was shown, and is fiercely protective of its trainer. Wally and his partner boldly challenge you at the end of Hoenn's Victory Road, acting as a final boss before the Pokémon League, representing how much they have grown as pair thanks to your help.

Alternatively, by means of a branched evolution introduced after the release of Ruby and Sapphire, Ralts may instead evolve into Gallade. The latter is equally strong, but displays an affection that is less motherly and more chivalrous. In Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, any suggestion of an untoward power dynamic is removed. Wally and his Gallade are true partners, supporting and encouraging each other through the toughest fight you have yet to face.

GameFreak played the remake card straight with HeartGold and SoulSilver, doing little more than bringing the graphics into line with contemporary standards. Fortunately for us, this little more included substantial improvements to an already engaging soundtrack. Here, the reverse has happened. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, for all their glorious scenery and tightly-focused plot, plainly have not the faintest idea how to port the charmingly persnickety Hoenn soundtrack to the 3DS.

Virtually every track is an exact replica of its third-generation counterpart. No effort was made to modify the music of Ruby and Sapphire to better suit its new technical limitations. Where the bright, intricate orchestrations of Hoenn were complemented by the nimble sonic pallet of the Gameboy Advance, the 3DS blunts a vibrant and exciting anthology into a clumsy, disappointing mess.

As with X and Y, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire adequately service the more electronic tracks: the rival character's leitmotif breezes by unremarkably, and a certain excitement remains when challenging the Pokémon League Champion. But the remakes' insistence on adhering to the symphonic tone that brought so much life to the originals is a fatal misstep. Each time the player enters a Pokémon Centre, they are reminded of a certain brisk ditty that imitated actual tinny muzak pumped through real-world public buildings. But here, the same melody is artlessly rendered in a heavy string ensemble soundfont that can't keep up with the ornaments and grace notes that first tickled the ears ten years earlier. The lively march that used to spur the player up ashen slopes to the peak of Mount Chimney has been neutered, snare and timpani reinterpreted as an asinine soft-rock brushed-drum rhythm. The plumes of steam and lava are a wonder to behold, but are robbed of their gravitas by incessant and incorrigible waka-waka guitar noodling. Bold orchestral figures used to propel the player through the thick jungles of central Hoenn, a whole symphony orchestra devoted solely to your excitement. But the spark has since been extinguished. The plodding uncanny-valley strings and brass of X and 
Y come within a hair of ruining the entire experience.

Worst of all, the watershed moment about which I waxed lyrical in my earlier polemic has been carelessly expunged. When first fending off the villains of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, the heavily updated dialogue foreshadows great danger far more effectively than the originals. But any sense of danger has been completely removed from the accompanying music. The deep buzzing synth line has been reassigned to the regular bass instrument, which instead of dramatically dropping out simply continues cluelessly. The delicate complementary harp figure is played instead on the heavy string ensemble from the Pokémon Centre. And most dismayingly, the haunting bells have been replaced with a blaring brass imitation.

There are several such moments where the soundtrack team seems to display outright contempt to what made the music of Ruby and Sapphire so strong. Rather than respelling the feel, the intent, for the strengths of the 3DS; rather than crafting an engaging compilation worthy of the excellent originals, they have slavishly and obliviously adhered to recreating what cannot be recreated.

I counted only two significant departures on the whole Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire soundtrack; one an anemic new adaptation, the other the games' single genuinely brilliant musical moment. Out of necessity, the credits have been significantly expanded, along with their musical accompaniment. Many, many more people were involved in the production of these games — copious graphical enhancements aside, all games from generation six onwards allow the player to select what language they wish to play in, necessitating acknowledgements for seven separate translation teams. What was once a neat, simple piano tune has now been expanded into a meandering medley of Hoenn's greatest hits. It begins and ends the same (apart from the underlay of the very first figure being inexplicably tweaked to clash with the melody), but cuts out the vital development of the B-section for directionless escapades. Admittedly, this works slightly better when accompanied by the games' visuals: a series of tableaux depicting important battles the player has won, encouraging reminiscence and reflection on their long journey. But an overall impression of unfocused distraction remains.

On two occasions the player must clash with the game's primary villain. Archie's demented laughter and Maxie's shrewd gloating are lent the credence of the elements — the first fight finds you perched over the seething crater of Mount Chimney, the second deep within a seafloor cavern. A blaze of electric guitar underpins a smoky modal melody, accompanied by a pounding beat that would make the Kalos Elite Four shiver in fear.

Excellent though this one track is, it is not indicative of the general attitude Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire take to soundtracking. After defeating Hoenn's Pokémon League, mysterious portals appear around the region, and the player may challenge dozens of powerful new legendary beasts. They come in thematically linked pairs or trios, each set boasting its own special battle theme. When this feature was announced, I anticipated a slew of thrilling new arrangements of the most judiciously tailored elements from past soundtracks, like Black 2 and White 2 provided with the Pokémon World Tournament. Imagine my disappointment at the decision to simply copy the original versions wholesale. Not one note was changed, and not one instrument was updated. Confronting the undead canines that once roamed the Johto region is even set to Gold and Silver's original grating chiptune.

Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are thrilling and engaging games. I remain deeply impressed with GameFreak's continued efforts to surprise and improve. But to see a superlative set of tunes treated with such negligence and nonchalance is severely disappointing.