Pokémon Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl: A Question of Faith
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
The fact that we’re at this point already makes me feel like I should start researching retirement homes.
Somehow, the original Diamond and Pokémon Pearl are fourteen years old. I was five when they released. 2007 was an era of portable DVD players, CRT TVs, and Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” topping the charts. It’s the 2020s, and it’s time to accept that the 2000s have come and gone. You’d think that really wouldn’t feel that weird to me, considering I was, like, a literal baby for a significant portion of the time I was alive during the era, but it does. I caught up with the 2010s kind of slowly. I still remember what a shock it felt like to ditch my old family CRT for a flatscreen. We were, admittedly, kind of slow to adapt to a lot of things. It took until 2020 for my parents to consider using a Netflix subscription, and they still use Windows 7 on the family desktop. Even if the era that you’d most closely associate with the parts of childhood I’d remember strongest were in the 2010s, they featured such a mixture of 90’s, 00’s, and 10’s technology and media that I just kind of average everything to the 00’s.
This is an article about video games, namely the Pokémon franchise, and if you want to know a company that was absolutely killing it in the late 2000’s, it was Nintendo. The two-fold combo of the Wii and the DS proved totally dominant in the market at the time, with the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 just not reaching the same kind of audience. That audience being largely casual gamers. The Wii’s motion controls and the DS’s intuitive touchscreen got a lot of people who otherwise might not have bought consoles to buy them. In all honesty, they picked a good generation to get a slice of: The Wii’s library in 2007 had absolute stand-out titles like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Paper Mario appealed to enfranchised players, while more casual titles like Wii Sports and Mario Party 8 bridged the gap. The DS’s library was in a great place as well, with titles like New Super Mario Bros. serving as the perfect gateway into the system’s more esoteric library. In retrospect, I think it’s fair to say that there was no more important franchise on the DS than Pokémon. Sure, Mario had some titles, but many of them were spin-offs or remasters. The DS Zelda titles are some of the franchise’s most forgettable. And while I’ll readily argue that the 2000s were the absolute peak era of Kirby, Kirby Super Star Ultra had yet to release. The thing is, this wasn’t only Kirby’s peak era.
Pokémon might not have been the breakout cultural force that it was in its earliest days, but it was still a massively successful franchise, and I’m willing to argue that the DS library boasts the series’s crowning achievements. Obviously I’m willing to argue that; they were the first games in the franchise I became familiar with. But I think I can make a strong case for why the fourth and fifth generation were the franchise’s halcyon days. Pokémon was big, but the games still burst with passion. It felt like all of these games were given the opportunity by Nintendo to live up to their potential and become great. Listen, my internet handle is literally just the name of a Pokémon. I don’t think I need to tell you that this franchise means a lot to me. That’s why it really blows to see what it’s become. As time has gone on, Pokémon feels like it’s lost so much of its magic. The games have become increasingly linear and easy, the graphics have gone from being some of the prettiest on the system to looking four console generations out of date, and the games are coming out with more and more blatantly cut corners that reek of a rushed development schedule and managerial incompetence.
Maybe I’m just growing out of it. Maybe I’ve just gotten more cynical as I’ve gotten older. Of course, Pokémon getting worse and me getting more cynical aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. Both can be true, and I’d say that both are true. The thing is, even with the series's “bad” entries like Sun/Moon and Sword/Shield, I’ve had a decent time (maybe not so much with Moon, but I do remember enjoying Shield when I first played it, though my opinion has soured over time). The concept of Pokémon, and the Monster Tamer subgenre in general, is a very good one. The experience of building your team, of going on a journey with your animal companions, is compelling enough that it can let you look past some of the game’s flaws. I still think the Pokémon battle mechanics are kind of bad from a strategic perspective. The thing is, the concept can only carry you so far. You’ve got to have worthwhile content, as well.
I’ve yet to officially introduce it, yet, but everything I’ve said above is in some degree related to Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl. This is the second part of our series on the game, and it isn’t really a “review” in the traditional sense; my excellent co-writer Henry Hunter has already reviewed the game, and I agree with the majority of what he says. I want to dedicate this piece more to discussing the narrative around the games and why they are the way they are. What really is a “faithful remake,” and does it justify what’s going on here? Has the Switch messed with our expectations for this series?
A QUESTION OF FAITH
The narrative around Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl has centered on them being “faithful” remakes of the original Diamond and Pearl. These games were meant to replicate all of the details of the original games, with a few exceptions. With the exception of the reimagined Underground, the game is fairly close to the originals. Which, in a way, is funny; the underground and the online features it boasted are the one aspect of the original Diamond/Pearl that haven’t survived to the modern era. DS online has been shut down, so the online functionality of the underground is utterly lost to time. Diamond/Pearl aren’t the only games to suffer this loss ‒ Dragon Quest IX’s grotto mechanic feels fairly lackluster without the online components meant to drive it. You’d think if there was anything that needed being remade, it would be the underground, since it was the thing that wasn’t accessible anymore. Instead, it’s the one thing that’s changed. Funny how it turns out.
Diamond and Pearl had a lot of pros, but we can’t forget that the games also had many cons, some of which the remake addressed. The game’s infamously slow engine that has led to the iconic joke about using close combat on an opposing Blissey has been, by necessity, fixed. The game runs on Unity, strangely enough, rather than any in-house technology. That can probably be explained by the fact it wasn’t developed by Game Freak, but by a third party, who likely didn’t have the resources to make their own engine, but I digress. There are other issues with Diamond and Pearl; notably, the wild Pokémon selection infamously lacks variety, with only one available fire type line for trainers who didn’t choose Chimchar; the game’s pacing is rather odd, with huge gaps between some early gyms while you fight the rest in lightning-quick succession; and, of course, the borderline ludicrous level scaling in the late game that feels downright untested.
These other three issues were largely not addressed in the remakes. Technically, more fire types are available thanks to the grand underground, but it feels odd to not just change the encounters in the overworld instead. The order of the gyms and the general pacing of the game mirrors the originals, though the faster engine does make it go by quicker. As for the level scaling? Well, the levels of the actual encounters are pretty much what they used to be, but there’s a weird, work-around solution. The forced universal EXP share, in theory, helps you catch up with the ridiculous jump in levels between the eighth gym and the league. The thing is, though, the level jump in Diamond/Pearl is so ludicrous that, even with time spent grinding and exploring the grand underground and the optional corners of Sinnoh, I was still egregiously underleveled for the final encounters. Henry’s review corroborates this experience. The balance of this game was so broken that even with the exceptionally cheese EXP boost that left me overleveled for most other fights, I still didn’t make the grade at the Pokémon league. I did manage to beat the league on my first try, but not due to any skill or strategy on my part; I just got a random lucky friendship effect that led to my last team member surviving a hit that should have been lethal, giving me just enough time to finish off Cynthia’s garchomp. It was a struggle; but it was only one at the end. It’s a shame that none of these well-documented issues were ever fixed, but I suppose the Sinnoh experience will always be marred by these preeminent flaws.
Here’s where the big twist comes in. We need to acknowledge that all of these issues were fixed within literally a year of Diamond/Pearl’s release, in Pokémon Platinum. Platinum was actually my childhood game ‒ before Shining Pearl, I’d yet to have played a non-Platinum version of Sinnoh. This likely skewed my experience of the remakes. I felt like they were, honestly, more regressive than anything else, not containing the changes and improvements made in Platinum. The games had to be like this to qualify as “faithful remakes” of Diamond/Pearl, but it left me questioning what actual advantages being a “faithful” remake even had. Admittedly, the original Diamond/Pearl aren’t all that readily accessible. Though their respective prices in the aftermarket aren’t that high when compared to some other Pokémon titles, playing these games [legally] still requires owning a functioning Nintendo DS or Nintendo 3DS, neither of which are currently being manufactured. However, if you have one of these systems or want to invest in them to play other games, I can’t really see a reason to get Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl over the originals. The originals contain much of the same content, for around $20 less than what the remakes go for. If the remakes featured the improvements made in Platinum were there, the remakes would be far more recommendable, even to someone with a DS, since they actually retail for $20 less than what an aftermarket copy of Platinum will cost you. But that’s not the case.
Platinum isn’t the only “third version,” of course. Prior generations had releases like Pokémon Crystal in the second generation and Pokémon Emerald in the third, which added content and improved the gameplay of their precursor games. I’d argue that in neither of these cases were the changes made as significant as those in Platinum, but that’s besides the point. When they did the generation 3 remakes, they didn’t remake Pokémon Emerald specifically, but they integrated some of its content into the remade versions, and even added substantial new content. The Johto games were always full to the brim with content, what with featuring two whole regions to explore, but if one were to look at some of the version differences between Gold/Silver and Crystal, they will note that in HeartGold/SoulSilver, a lot of these things were added into the remakes. The same can be said of Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire, which put a unique spin on Hoenn, what with the total re-imagining of Mauville City and the addition of the Delta Episode as a new way to obtain Rayquaza. Sure, Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl added a way to encounter Giritina, but it’s just a generic “catch a bunch of legendaries” area like the mirage spots in Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire. The biggest piece of wholly “new” content in Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl is the Grand Underground, which is a solid addition, but I don’t mark it as more substantial than an entire postgame story section like the Delta episode.
That’s the main thing about Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl: they feel like less substantial upgrades to the games they are remaking than prior remakes. The generation 1 and 2 remakes took advantage of the stronger hardware to realize their worlds far better than the GameBoy was capable of. The generation 3 remakes added all of the changes that had occurred in the series thus far, and included new features of generation 6 like mega evolution very prominently, even adding a mega-evolution-adjacent new form for the box legends. Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl, however? We don’t get dynamaxing from gen 8, nor z-moves from gen 7, nor mega evolution from gen 6. Sure, we get all the new moves and (hypothetically) new Pokémon that were added since the DS era, but neither of these things drastically alter the experience. Prior remakes felt as though they took advantage of the many years of progress that had occurred since the original games released, but Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl don’t feel like that. The thing is, I’d say the other remakes recaptured the experience of their original versions just as well as Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl [presumably ‒ to reiterate, I still haven’t played Diamond/Pearl] do, while still feeling like worthy updates. Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl don’t feel so much like remakes as much as they do remasters. They quote-unquote update the graphics, but don’t really change the original very much. The thing I wonder is, did we really need remasters?
THE WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME
The DS was an interesting console due to its physical construction. The presence of two screens, one of which being a touchscreen, allowed for developers to implement things that wouldn’t be possible on other setups. Keeping a permanent map or status screen up wouldn’t work very well on a single-screen display, but when the system has two screens that can be controlled by independent input methods, it works perfectly. The original Diamond and Pearl did this with its Pokétch, which was displayed constantly on the touchscreen. It wasn’t essential to gameplay, but it was a nice thing to have. The Pokétch returns in Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl, and actually becomes more important than in the original, since you now use the replacement for HMs from a Pokétch app. Before picking the game up, I wondered if they were going to reimplement the Pokétch and how they would do it. When I discovered how they did it, I wasn’t surprised, but I was vaguely disappointed. The Pokétch menu now pops up in the top-right corner of the screen, and can be expanded so that you can scroll around it using the r button and d-pad/thumbstick, or you can use the Switch’s touchscreen, though I found that to be awkward and unresponsive. The menu stays in the top-right corner of the screen unless you dismiss it.
I felt like this implementation was very awkward. I was left with the choice of either taking up a fairly large portion of the screen with the menu, or just not having access to it at all and having to basically use it as an openable menu whenever I wanted to open it. In the original games, the whole point of the Pokétch was that you didn’t have to open a menu to use it; it was always right there, on the bottom screen. I can’t blame the developers for struggling to implement this concept. The switch simply doesn’t have the physical architecture that would allow for the original version of the item to be re-implemented. That’s an inherent problem in trying to port games that feature hardware-dependent systems to different platforms. A similar awkwardness can be felt in the version of Super Mario Galaxy that was included in Super Mario 3D All-Stars. In this area, both the Pokémon titles and 3D All-Stars fall short. It feels like, in neither of these cases, the developers managed to properly account for the significant differences in the ways that players will experience the game on the new hardware. In both games, they tried to be as close as possible to the original, using a solution that ended up feeling more awkward than anything else.
Some of the blame has to be placed on the Switch itself. The Switch is a strange case, in that it’s both a handheld and a home console, and developers need to account for players using the system in both of these ways. I seriously don’t envy developers having to deal with this. Games need to be optimized so that they run well in handheld mode and in home console mode, they need to have controls that can’t rely on features that you would only expect to have in either mode, etc. Pokémon had always been a primarily handheld-based franchise up until the Switch era, when it was forced by circumstance to become a home console franchise. The thing is, nothing about these new games really feels like they’re meant to be played on home consoles. JRPGS tend to be great fits for the handheld playstyle, since they tend to feature long portions of gameplay without major story incidents and can be easily picked up for a half-hour grind session and then put right back down. As a JRPG, Pokémon fits this idea of being suited for handheld. There have been some Pokémon JRPGs on console before, like Pokémon Colosseum, but these games were spin-offs and not main-line titles.
We also expect different things from between home console and handheld titles. People tend to be more forgiving of unpolished or incomplete-feeling things in handheld games, since they a) have much stricter hardware limitations and b) tended to retail for less than home console titles. This might be a certified hot take, but I honestly think that if the gen 8 games retailed for $40-50 dollars, and the only version of the Switch that existed was the Switch Lite (i.e., a strictly handheld system), then these games would have been received better. Sword/Shield and Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl feel, at their core, like portable games. If they were strictly portable, they wouldn’t feel quite as lazy. Sun/Moon aren’t great games, but I wouldn’t say they’re lazy games. If the generation 8 titles were handheld exclusive, would I feel the same about them? Of course, we’re dealing strictly in hypotheticals here, so it’s hard to say for certain. But I feel as though a lot of the “gotcha” bits that people love to joke about ‒ like the questionable animations, low-quality textures, and the overall questionable artstyle of the remakes ‒ would feel far more forgivable in a handheld game than they do in what is technically a home console release.
I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about how the Switch affects our opinions of games due to this dual modality, but that’s not really what I’m looking to talk about here. Personally, I’m not huge on the Switch as a system because it feels like games intended for either mode are hamstrung by needing to work in the other mode, but that’s just me. I actually played through the remakes entirely while I was home from college on break, and I didn’t have my dock with me, so I played the games exclusively in handheld mode. I seriously wonder what the game looks and feels like on the big screen. I imagine my opinion of the game would be lower than it is now. The idea of seeing those lifeless, flat-colored character models on my 24-inch monitor just does not sound particularly appealing.
I have more to say about these games, but I’ll leave further comments for the upcoming third part of this series. For now, though, my final thoughts on the games overall are: I had fun but can’t, in good conscience, recommend buying them. The Sinnoh Pokémon games are enjoyable games, and these remakes aren’t significantly “worse” than Diamond/Pearl, but they’re still inferior to Platinum and more expensive than the original Diamond/Pearl. Are they the laziest games that we’ve ever seen from the Pokémon series? They very well might be, though there’s still Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon to contend with. I hope that with the release of Pokémon Legends: Arceus, they manage to turn this series around and finally start making games that feel worthy of being a part of the highest grossing media franchise on Earth again. But, for now, we’re stuck with Pokémon games like these. In another universe, this sort of criticism might be unfair, but as it is, there’s really just no better way to describe Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl than “lazy”. It feels like the developers did a solid job with what Game Freak and Nintendo were willing to offer them, but they just didn’t get allocated the amount of resources a project of this caliber should have. Either way, the end result simply fails to impress.
What do you think about these games? Feel free to tell me below. As for what I’m doing next, I don’t really know. It’s probably not worth adding these little teasers since I didn’t even follow up on the one I did in the Castlevania review. Maybe I’ll follow up on that one next. Either way, keep your eyes peeled for the third part of our ongoing series on this game, and I’ll see everybody next time.
Images: https://images.nintendolife.com/0a2884b6c7713/pokemon-brilliant-diamond-shining-pearl.900x.jpg https://static1.thegamerimages.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/pokemon-brilliant-diamond-shining-pearl-cynthia-guide.jpg?q=50&fit=contain&w=943&h=472&dpr=1.5 https://www.imore.com/sites/imore.com/files/styles/large/public/field/image/2021/10/pokemon-brilliant-diamond-shining-pearl-poketch.jpg https://pisces.bbystatic.com/image2/BestBuy_US/images/products/6414/6414121cv11d.jpg
Other: https://www.pricecharting.com/search-products?q=pokemon+diamond&type=prices&sort=name&broad-category=all&console-uid=G5®ion-name=all&exclude-variants=false https://www.pricecharting.com/game/nintendo-ds/pokemon-heartgold-version https://www.pricecharting.com/game/nintendo-ds/pokemon-platinum https://www.ign.com/wikis/pokemon-gold-silver-crystal-version/Version_Differences#Absent_Pokemon_in_Pokemon_Crystal