Review: Pokémon Sapphire (GBA, 2002)

My most played game of 2021 is an RPG originally released in 2002. I started my adventure early in the year, and within 20 or so hours of gameplay (spanning a few weeks), I had finished the main story of the game. My current playtime in Pokémon Sapphire is approaching 150 hours. That figure does not even measure time spent resetting — loading up the game at a specific spot and performing a specific task that carried a randomized outcome — which doesn’t get tallied against the save’s total playtime. My estimate places my playtime in Pokémon Sapphire closer to 200 hours. In 2021 alone. On the same save file.

You, my cherished reader, might be asking yourself something along the lines of “how does one put 200 hours in a single game and not get bored of it”? I’ll tell you how. Everything about Pokémon Sapphire is designed to give the right player a nearly evergreen gameplay experience. For you see, “finishing” the game works more like finishing a tutorial. Once you’ve made a record in the Hall of Fame, you gain access to the real game inside Pokémon Sapphire: the “Battle Tower”.

Battle Tower is the standard postgame mode in nearly every Pokémon game released since Ruby and Sapphire. The gist is that you bring a team of 3 Pokémon creatures, battle against randomly-generated opposing teams of 3, and you need to win 7 battles in a row to maintain a winning record. Every successful 7-battle run nets you a prize, with the truly worthwhile prizes only given out after you’ve reached a streak of 42 wins in a row. Later Pokémon games become more lenient with how prizes work, and generally it is less random, which is ultimately a good thing. What attracted me to Pokémon Sapphire, however, was the sheer challenge of it all.

Not only is the Battle Tower in Pokémon Sapphire the most challenging postgame mode in the entire series, but the process of raising Pokémon up to be competitive in that environment is brutally time-consuming. Breeding Pokémon creatures for the right stats and moves requires a lot of ingenuity, not to mention optimizing the stats of those you want to use. All of this is to say that my current record of 71 consecutive wins felt so incredible to achieve. The game dared me to understand it, investigate the mechanics and navigate them in gameplay, and I was all too happy to meet the challenge.

I am not bored of the game at all. I want to continue raising more Pokémon, experimenting with movesets, developing a winning strategy. I really want to push my win streak even farther. The game continues to challenge me, tells me “maybe a different team would have gone farther”, or even “you made a misstep earlier and now you need to get back to 42 wins to have more chances at obtaining Leftovers”. It’s like a positive feedback loop of gameplay, and what’s flabbergasted me about it is that this isn’t a game that demands further payment.

2021 was a year that saw many games which were seemingly designed to nickel-and-dime players out of all of their money. I’m glad my 2021 was dominated by a game that was so much more pure.


As an addendum to the above gushing, here are a few facts about my current Pokémon Sapphire adventure.

To endeavour to achieve anything related to the above would add several hours upon my already lengthy playtime. I’ll write more once I’m there.