A Pokémon Diamond & Pearl Retrospective

The recent announcement of Pokémon Unite… didn’t go so well. The Pokémon Company announced a broadcast for June 24, 2020 a week in advance. As you might expect, fans went crazy speculating the broadcast’s contents. A Let’s Go-styled game set in the Johto region was a common guess… but what everybody really wanted was the announcement of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl remakes! Of course, we didn’t get them (yet), and in hindsight, it would’ve been too soon. Especially considering that, at the time of writing, Pokémon Sword and Shield’s Crown Tundra DLC pack remains unavailable.

The desire for Pokémon Diamond and Pearl remakes is real, though,  and now’s as good a time as ever to talk about what made the originals so special. Pokémon Pearl was the first video game I ever owned, and it holds a special place in my heart to this very day. Today, we’re going to look at everything. Its presentation, soundtrack, Pokémon inclusions… everything. This game is special to me for a reason, and I’m going to do my best to outline what makes these entries so unique.

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Introduction

It’s no secret that Pokémon Sword and Shield are the most controversial entries yet. And it’s also no secret that every “gaming journalist” starts every one of their Pokémon posts with this line. Now – perhaps this is just me – I feel like Pokémon lost something when they made the transition to 3D models starting in X and Y. The models themselves look fine, yes — but even in X and Y and Sun and Moon, they looked a bit lifeless. It’s the animations that cause this, I believe.

Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, as you know, use two-dimensional sprites for the entire game. I feel that these better encompass the essence and “soul” of Pokémon. When an opposing trainer sends a Pokémon into battle, it strikes a pose and stops moving. To those of you who started playing with X and Y (or later), this might appear jarring to you. But I believe this is a good thing – especially as a child – because it forces you to let your imagination run wild and “fill in the blanks” of the battle, if that makes any sense. With X and Y (and especially Sword and Shield), you can’t really fill in the blanks, because the game fills them in with lackluster animations. I don’t want to see my Luxray standing idly and breathing, I want to see it move around and attack! Of course, this doesn’t happen in Diamond and Pearl either, but it makes it much easier to imagine it.

So what exactly am I getting at here? I think Pokémon Diamond and Pearl are among the most charming Pokémon games out there. Platinum, HeartGold, and SoulSilver moreso, perhaps, but we’ll save the latter two for another post. As I mentioned before, I have a lot of memories with Pokémon Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum. And I’ve got what may or may not be a “hot take”: I think the Sinnoh region is one of the best regions Pokémon has to offer.

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Region Design

The Sinnoh region is one of the most varied locales in Pokémon. You’ve got beaches, forest, volcanoes, swamps, mountains, caves, snowy fields, and vast oceans, and the game does a good job of splitting them up such that none of the environments get old too quickly. I won’t go too in-depth about each individual area, but a few of my favorites include Spear Pillar, Hearthome City, and the Pokémon League.

Some might argue that the region is too varied. Sinnoh is large, but it isn’t huge, and the fact that the same landmass contains icy mountains and a hot volcano is a bit strange (though many games fall victim to this, not just Diamond and Pearl). It also doesn’t help that Mt. Coronet is really big, which means many of your trips through Sinnoh are going to revolve around it. You have to pass through Mt. Coronet to reach Oreburgh City, Hearthome City, Celestic Town, Snowpoint City, Spear Pillar… the list goes on.

There’s another problem, too, and it’s one I absolutely agree with: Sinnoh is HM heavy. You’ll need Surf, Waterfall, Rock Smash, Rock Climb, Strength, Fly, Defog… and that’s a lot of move slots to reserve. Most players choose to keep one Pokémon as an “HM slave”, which, in the case of Diamond and Pearl, is most often Bibarel (Bidoof’s evolved form).

Back to positives, though, Diamond and Pearl have some of my favorite areas in the series. Hearthome City was always one of my favorites. You might think I liked it because it contained the Contest Hall or Amity Square… but no, I just appreciated the city’s design and colors. I remember I’d always save in the center of town before I stopped playing. I’d also like to add that Diamond, Pearl and Platinum has day and night cycles. That’s nothing too crazy; X and Y and Sun and Moon have that too. But Diamond and Pearl have separate day and night tracks… for almost every area in the game. With the system’s volume turned up, Sinnoh becomes more moody and atmospheric than (in my opinion) every other game in the series. I have fond memories of spending hours digging through my PC Boxes while the Pokémon Center’s night theme played. There hasn’t been a Pokémon Center nighttime track since, and that’s a shame — it’s something I’d really like to see come back.

While we’re talking about the Sinnoh region, I’d like to bring up the Mystery Zone. If you grew up playing Diamond and Pearl, chances are you’ve at least heard of the Action Replay. If you don’t know already, it’s a cheat device for the Nintendo DS. There was a walk-through-walls code I remember using, and if you walk out of bounds, you wind up in an area the game labels the “Mystery Zone”. It’s a dark, empty void… but if you run through it for long enough, you might enter unused or inaccessible areas. Interestingly, it also plays an otherwise unused mix of Route 206’s theme. The Mystery Zone isn’t something most players will encounter, though, but I figured I’d include it because I find it interesting.

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Presentation

I touched on this earlier, but I like Diamond and Pearl’s presentation. Even though its Pokémon sprites don’t move, their stance says a lot about each Pokémon’s personality. I’ve attached a few of my favorite battle sprites below. What I like about the renders of each Pokémon is that they look intimidating. They look powerful. When Pokémon Platinum was released later on, it did update several Pokémon sprites, which I think generally look better. A few of Platinum’s sprites – such as Empoleon – don’t have the same feel as their originals (the one shown below is from Diamond and Pearl).

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Of course, the games’ presentation isn’t limited to Pokémon battles. The overworld is an even bigger and more important portion. Overall, I think Diamond and Pearl have a decent presentation, but Platinum really amps it up and makes its locations look much better. There are furniture additions, color changes, and lighting adjustments that make Platinum’s locations pop. Above is a comparison of the same area; to the left is Diamond and Pearl and to the right is Platinum.

Another thing I love about Generation IV is its soundtrack. Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum share the same music tracks (though the latter does add a couple of new ones). Some of the tracks might not be too memorable (such as the rather generic cave theme), but many of them have stuck with me for over ten years. Mt. Coronet, the Pokémon League, Battle! Frontier Brain and Champion Cynthia (the piano theme, not the battle theme) are a few of my favorites. That being said, future Pokémon games have memorable music, too, so this strength isn’t exclusive to Diamond, Pearl, or Platinum.

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Pokémon Design

Given that my first Pokémon game was Pearl, it should come as no surprised that most of my favorite Pokémon were introduced in Sinnoh. I believe Sinnoh has one of (if not the) strongest set of starters — at least, in terms of design. Torterra is a giant tortoise based off the world turtle. It’s slow, but rather strong and (physically) defensive to make up for it. Then you’ve got Infernape, a fast and powerful monkey that can’t really take many hits. Then we have Empoleon (my first-ever fully evolved Pokémon), a regal king penguin with high special attack and special defense.

Fan favorites of the generation include Staraptor, Luxray, Garchomp, and Lucario. I like Rampardos, Carnivine, and Spiritomb too, but don’t hear them talked about quite as often. There are some I really don’t care for, though; Bastiodon, Wormadam, and Floatzel being among them. I’m not too fond of the newly-introduced baby Pokémon either, mostly because I’m not sure what purpose they’re supposed to serve. And though I like many Sinnoh Pokémon, I understand that this generation is hit-or-miss for players who aren’t looking on with nostalgia goggles.

Let’s talk about the Legendary Pokémon next. We’ll start with Uxie, Mesprit, and Azelf, otherwise known as the Lake Trio. I am nostalgic to encountering them in-game, but recently I’ve started to somewhat dislike their designs. They’re very samey, only having different colors and eyes. Sure, their stats are different, but I tend to have mixed feelings towards Legendary Pokémon that look alike (Tornadus, Thundurus, and Landorus comes to mind). I did appreciate that Mesprit was difficult to capture, though — in case you aren’t aware, it was a roaming Pokémon that would flee on encounter. You’d have to trap it with Mean Look or just throw a Master Ball at it. Cresselia was a roaming Pokémon, too, so there were plenty of legendaries to track down. Yes, two is plenty.

Next up are the box legendaries Dialga and Palkia. I’d say they’re my second favorite box legendaries (behind Xerneas and Yveltal, which might be an unusual opinion). Dialga and Palkia, though, set a standard of sorts. Their designs are very busy. Dialga has spikes and line patterns all over its body, while Palkia has colored stripes and designs. I wasn’t following the online Pokémon community when Diamond and Pearl were released, but if I had to guess how fans reacted… perhaps they didn’t think Dialga and Palkia looked like Pokémon. And maybe that was the point of their somewhat crowded designs: to make it clear that they were much stronger than the average Pokémon (which they were).

Then we have Heatran, one of my personal favorite Legendary Pokémon. It doesn’t have much more behind it: it lives inside a volcano and gets angry if you steal its rock. But that’s totally fine! I don’t think every Legendary Pokémon needs a reason to exist. Heatran’s premise is simple, and its design isn’t too complicated to look at. It is quadruple weak to Ground-type moves, though, so I didn’t use it too much as a kid. It felt like all of my opponents were going to use Earthquake!

Regigigas, the master of Regirock, Regice, and Registeel, was introduced as well. Outside of events (which, of course, are no longer active), it’s actually impossible to capture Regigigas unless you transfer the Legendary golems from Generation III to Generation IV. I don’t particularly like Regigigas; its moldy design and strange color palette (yellow, white, black, and green? What?) kind of repels me. Its typing puzzles me, too. Regigigas’s Pokédex entry states that it “towed continents with ropes”, but it’s a Normal-type Pokémon, not a Ground- or Grass-type. Maybe there’s something I’m missing with this one?

Giratina might be my favorite Legendary Pokémon introduced in Sinnoh. Its design isn’t quite as busy as Dialga or Palkia’s, and its area of capture (Turnback Cave in Diamond and Pearl, and the Distortion World in Platinum) clearly tells the player this Pokémon is special. I like its unique Ghost / Dragon typing, too.

And finally, we’ve got the Mythical Pokémon of the generation — Manaphy, Darkrai, Shaymin, and Arceus. Out of the four of them, I’d say Shaymin is my least favorite — particularly its Sky forme. Three of these Pokémon were obtained in a unique way. You had to fall asleep and catch Darkrai on Newmoon Island, obtain a pass and open up Seabreak Path for Shaymin, and obtain an egg from Pokémon Ranger for Manaphy.

As for Arceus, it was actually intended to play a role in an unused event. The player would have been gifted the Azure Flute, which they’d have to play at Spear Pillar to summon a staircase. After ascending the stairs, players would find a wild Arceus waiting at Level 80. The event is fully functional in the game’s code, but the Azure Flute was never officially distributed. Instead, Arceus – the God of Pokémon – was gifted to the player via a delivery man. From Generation VI onward, all Mythical Pokémon (at the time of writing) have followed this trend. I really miss Mythical Pokémon events, and hope that they’re brought back in the future. Arceus did activate a neat event in HeartGold and SoulSilver, though, so there’s that.

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Gameplay

We’ve talked designs, so now let’s talk functionality. And I’ll get this out of the way, because it’s a common criticism I completely agree with: Generation IV is slow. HP bars take forever to drain, and move animations are rather long, too. Luckily, you can turn off move animations, but you’ll still need to wait for the opponent’s HP bar to deplete. If you one-hit KOed a Blissey, well… have fun waiting. This is honestly my biggest complaint: battles are just really slow.

There’s another problem – one that’s especially prevalent in Diamond and Pearl – a severe lack of Fire-type Pokémon. If you don’t choose Chimchar as your starter Pokémon, you either use Ponyta or no Fire-type at all. Platinum introduced Houndour and Houndoom to the region, though, which helped increase the variety. Unlike future Pokémon games, Generation IV locks a good chunk of its postgame behind “completion” of the regional Pokédex. “Completion” is in quotation marks because you have to see every Pokémon (as opposed to capturing all of them). Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum all have version exclusives, but luckily, you’re able to see all required Pokémon via trainer battles without trading.

Pokémon can be transferred to these games via Pal Park, which is only available after obtaining the National Pokédex. It works just fine, but its mechanics are rather silly. You can only transfer six Pokémon per 24 hours, so if you’ve got a hundred Pokémon in Ruby, Sapphire, or Emerald, get ready to transfer Pokémon every day for the next two weeks or so. There’s no real reason behind this restriction, especially given the fact that it was removed for HeartGold and SoulSilver.

Now let’s move on to the positives. Generation IV brought a unique set of features and changes with it. First up is the physical / special split. In prior games, each type of move would either be physical or special. For example, every offensive Water-type move was special. This was a problem for Pokémon like Gyarados, who had a high attack stat but a low special attack stat. Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum introduced physical and special offensive moves for almost every type, which helped certain Pokémon become more viable. It introduced the Masuda Method and Poké Radar as well, which quickly became staples of the series.

Generation IV is known for its strong postgame. I’d argue HeartGold and SoulSilver do it better, but that’s for a different time. Sinnoh’s got the Fight Area, Resort Area, and Survival Area, as well as Stark Mountain and a whole bunch of Legendary Pokémon to catch. There were a whole bunch of Pokétch apps to collect, and each of them could be displayed on the Nintendo DS’s bottom screen at any time. There was a digital clock, a notepad, a coin toss, a calendar, an alarm clock, a calculator, and even a type chart. The Pokétch was a really neat feature with a bunch of handy add-ons, and collecting new apps for it was a rather satisfying experience.

Then there’s the Sinnoh Underground. Oh, the underground. It’s one of the strongest multiplayer experiences in any Pokémon game, and it was never brought back! Basically, there was a huge underground network in the shape of the Sinnoh region that you could access at any time. Nearby players would appear, too, and each player could drill a hole in a wall to set up a secret base. Inside that secret base was a flag you had to protect. Players would infiltrate each other’s secret bases (which could be rigged with traps) in an attempt to steal their flag. Stealing 32 flags would allow you to encounter Spiritomb in the overworld (fun fact — my Spiritomb encounter as a ten-year old was shiny, and I think I’m lucky that Spiritomb was my first Shiny Pokémon!).

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The Verdict

I’m glad Diamond and Pearl were the Pokémon games I grew up with. They introduced great new Pokémon and even better features. Every time I load up Pearl or Platinum, I’m reminded of simpler times. I understand that Generation IV might not make you feel that way, and if that’s the case, I hope there’s some sort of media that does. Sinnoh certainly had its flaws, but it’s also been over ten years since we’ve been able to visit the region. I can only hope that Diamond and Pearl remakes really do come out someday… and that they have a bit more love put into them than Sword and Shield. At any rate, thanks so much for reading — this was a long one, so I appreciate you staying until the end! But if you just scrolled down to read the conclusion, that’s fine too.

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