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20 Years Later — The Message of Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire

Bringing the reality of Kyushu to the fictional region of Hoenn.



Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire at 20: The Story of Hoenn

For all of its mustache-twirly villains, ludicrous fantasy plot elements, and epic ancient creatures, Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire’s story is arguably the most grounded tale the series has ever had. Looking back on Ruby & Sapphire 20 years after its release in North America, it may not be the most fully realized Pokémon game in terms of writing but it certainly handles an interesting perspective of reality as it shapes a commentary no other entry has aimed to commit to. The Hoenn region’s story lives in the shadow of real history as it attempts to reason with one of Japan’s most complicated long-term conflicts: the preservation of land and sea for the needs of society and nature itself.

Hoenn’s story holds more than the simple tale of a Pokémon trainer who gets roped into stopping natural catastrophes with the help of their allies. The story of Hoenn is a reflection of Japan’s real Isahaya Bay land reclamation issues and a complicated battle between choosing to help humans or the resources we as a species rely on. Game Freak may not present conclusions to all of its proposed questions in Ruby & Sapphire, but the developer undoubtly managed to make its message rather clear: the past, the future, and the present will always remain equal as society must learn to progress forward while taking care of establishments out of its control.

Like Water’s Reflection: Kyushu and the Hoenn Region

After the end of World War II, Japan saw a postwar miracle every other country yearned for; an economic boom later called the “Japanese economic miracle” that would last well up until the Cold War. Saying business was good for East Asia’s island country during this time would be an understatement as Japan’s economy was on a rapid rise of unseen proportions thanks to plenty of strategic moves spearheaded by the nation’s government in collaboration with the United States. Yet as the 80s were approaching, Japan began to hit hurdles caused by another rising statistic: its overwhelming population growth.

By the year 2000, Japan had over 128.6 million people living in its territory–which may not sound like a lot for such a hotspot, but for comparison, that number would be like if over a third of today’s population in the entire United State’s had to share all of California. Japan is far smaller than most people imagine it to be, and its small size has notoriously brought the country many hardships. Throughout Japan during the 70s, housing and food became a growing issue as the country’s population rate grew to a problematic size.

To combat the space and food issues the country faced, Japan planned to use the strategy of land reclamation to create more agricultural space. Land reclamation is the process of draining water to create “reclaimed land,” areas often made of landfill, clay, sand from dredging, and even soil used for construction sites. While this process may sound like a technical marvel and a smart strategy, draining water for land can be catastrophic to local environments when it comes to both its effect on nature and local economy. The effects of land reclamation were something Japan learned the hard way as the country struggled and thrived off its artificial land creation process, especially in Isahaya Bay.

Isahaya Bay — Image: The Japan Times

The Isahaya Bay Reclamation Project is a series of dams and dykes located in the Nagasaki Prefecture created to produce reclaimed land through controlled flooding. By messing with the natural water levels, the Japanese Government aimed to create more land that could be used for agriculture to help the country’s food needs.

Before 1987, Isahaya Bay was one of Japan’s last remaining wetlands not destroyed by land reclamation. Despite a plea from the people to find another solution to their predicament and keep the natural location unharmed, the Japanese Government decided to proceed with their land reclamation project to help their people’s hunger needs. For a long while, the Japanese Government would be able to scrape by with their decisions–that was until things escalated.

In 1997, protests had broken out across Japan’s bays that aimed to protect wildlife areas slowly being squeezed of their natural life. Environmentalists warned that fish and nori supply alongside migratory bird numbers would plummet at the bay if the government’s plan to drain the Isahaya tidal flat were to become a reality. For the next three years, events were staged everywhere against the Isahaya Bay Reclamation Project, but it wasn’t until the turn of the century closed in that the citizens of Japan stepped up to become more vocal. As the 2000s arrived, Isahaya Bay’s Ariake Sea had seen its worst seaweed harvest recorded in history due to the numerous drainages. This further caused fishermen and environmental activists to unify to protect their waters.

Since the project began in 1987, the Government of Japan had been at odds with the very same people they were trying to support. The Isahaya Bay became a battle of needs as the country’s government desired artificial land to support its citizens, and the people wished to protect nature and their jobs. As you can expect where this is going, the politics surrounding the Isahaya Bay Reclamation Project became the basis for the story of 2002’s Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire: a tale of two groups fighting for their needs, people who wanted to defend land and sea, yet both their wishes came to a complex end with no true moral high ground as everyone would ponder their perspectives.

Red and Blue Orbs

In Pokemon Ruby & Sapphire, Game Freak’s narrative focuses on two syndicates by the names of Team Magma and Team Aqua, hot-headed bureaucrats and careless pirates that dream of raising land and sea retrospectively. Together, the two fight in the peaceful land of Hoenn, a region based on Kyushu, the island of Japan where Isahaya Bay is located.

Like nearly all of Game Freak’s other mainline Pokémon games, Ruby & Sapphire’s syndicate team story is utilized as a major stepping stone to help direct the player toward the game’s next location while introducing them to more of the region’s history and modern intricacies. Unlike the Kanto and Johto regions that came before generation three though, Hoenn was carried by the syndicate’s larger presence; the game’s recurring characters had far more dialogue and involvement than any member of Team Rocket had.

Team Aqua and Team Magma - Pokémon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire for Nintendo 3DS
Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire’s Teams — Image: The Pokémon Company

While many may argue that “Pokémon’s story has never been at the forefront” or “you don’t play Pokémon games for the story,” it was clear that Game Freak had a reason for bringing so much attention to its seemingly cast of troublemakers. The complicated politics and decision-making surrounding the Isahaya Bay Reclamation Project was something that affected Game Freak’s staff, and they wanted to educate their audience on the issue by resonating each side’s real arguments through their characters.

In Ruby & Sapphire, Team Magma wishes to cause a meteorite to crash into Mt. Chimney to expand Hoenn’s land, while Team Aqua wishes to flood the world by raising the sea levels to give sea creatures the dominance the syndicate believes marine life deserve. While the goals of Team Magma nor Team Aqua fully align one-to-one with the Government of Japan or the activists that attempted to protect Isahaya Bay, the resemblance between the lot is uncanny. Their endgoals may walk on a line of fictional ultimate evil as they seem to spread chaos, but their reasonings tread deep into Japan’s reality at the time of the game’s release.

Team Magma, a play on the Japan’s government, wants to expand the land of Hoenn to help society further evolve as they will have more space to live and experiment. On the other hand, Team Aqua, a play on the citizens of Kyushu who stood in protest against the Japanese Government, wants to protect nature and allow it to thrive at the cost of human life and evolution. Much like the government and citizens of Kyushu, there is no true hero or villain in Team Magma and Team Aqua–while they may take their ideals too far, pointing fingers at one or the other is all a matter of perspective. Both sides legitimately have important goals that humanity yearns to achieve, they are problems society deeply cares about.

With commentary in media, nowadays you would expect a franchise like Pokémon and a developer like Game Freak to take on the side of mother nature above all else—after all, the original games were built on the ideology that kids should learn to love nature again—but admirably enough the story of Ruby & Sapphire stays far away from making any sort of bias or stance when the final act of its story rolls around. Sure, the game’s team leaders do have questionable moral compasses at times (holding scientists hostage and stealing Pokémon), but Ruby & Sapphire never shouts at the player “land reclamation is awful” or “the conservationists are all wrong!” The story understands the importance of both perspectives.

In Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire, the player character (Brendan, May, or whatever the player chooses to call their trainer) does not side with either party involved in the conflict. While the idea of this stance was better executed in Pokémon Emerald, which gave Team Magma and Team Aqua more dialogue before brushing away the story, it still certainly works in the context of the original releases–it just doesn’t hold the same weight as Rayquaza’s shining middle ground since one team ultimately gets less time to speak depending on which version you play. The player is a spectator of a battle unfolding; a battle for the future of mankind and Pokémon’s world.

The conclusion to the syndicate rivalry story before players continue toward the eighth gym is not executed perfectly, but perhaps its sudden cutoff was also an intentional choice. No matter where you reside on the real world matter or how knowledgeable you are of the issue it is commenting on, Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire’s story leaves the player with a rather complex thought as Team Magma’s leader Maxie and Team Aqua’s leader Archie both reflect on the same problem: how do we confront our relationship with nature and society? While neither Ruby nor Sapphire gives a definitive answer to that question, each version is unarguably able to help players find their own conclusion through Hoenn’s inhabitants and design.

No matter how you look at the country today, it is undeniable that Japan has always had a strong connection with nature and progression, and perhaps this is what Game Freak aimed to show in their home territory through the conflict being presented between Team Magma and Team Aqua. While Team Magma and Team Aqua’s plans do go south because of their inability to control the legendary Groudon and Kyogre, it is undeniable that their distinct loves and appreciations for people and nature are deeply rooted in Japan’s society and its outlook on future generations.

Hoenn Region illustrated map — Image: The Pokémon Company

Hoenn is a world that lives and breathes based on how humans and Pokémon coexist. Over the course of the player’s journey, their character comes across a wide variety of locations with a history that feels as if it once lived in our own reality. As per usual with all Pokémon games, the context of each location’s look and inhabitants is heavily explained in map text entries and avoidable NPCs only the most dedicated players poking through the region will find. Players who talk to Hoenn’s inhabitants will see just how vital the connection between humans and Pokémon–or rather humans and nature–are throughout the game’s world. Even if they may all be fictional characters and creatures, Hoenn’s small locations show how humans and nature could thrive together, and already do in many ways.

Is it possible for humans to live in such an environment that reflects this piece of fiction? Are we doomed to destroy what we love around us for our own needs? Again, while Game Freak may not confront the player with a definitive answer, the region of Hoenn certainly showcases that a bright path is always possible. It’s a world where evolution and the natural state of the world are hand-in-hand. Hoenn is a region surrounded by water and natural landscapes, yet its people are also slowly making major advancements in technology while attempting to preserve the natural state of the world.

Space Rockets at Mossdeep, Rustboro’s business industry, Pacifidlog’s above-water residence, and electric-powered bike trails connecting towns are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how Hoenn is rapidly advancing while accounting for the nature it is surrounded by. Each structure and advancement attempts to either integrate or circumvent what Pokémon have built around them. Hoenn’s inhabitants never show any ignorance for people and Pokémon. Like the player who witnesses the region’s syndicates duke it out for dominance, the common NPCs of Hoenn are a shining middle ground that ideally combine their lifestyles with nature.

Like the people of the Hoenn region, even as they become more technologically advanced, the people of Japan have always admired and appreciated nature–perhaps corporations, government, and elected officials have made plenty of mistakes in destroying conservations and building over areas that had gone untouched for years, but who is to say that making sacrifices for society’s progression is evil? Nature is a crucial part of Japan’s culture and everyday life, and the same can be said for technological progression as the country continues to become one of the savviest locations on the planet thanks to their research and advancements.

We Are Undefeatable Pokémon Trainers, But Not Undefeatable Humans

According to Junichi Masuda, Pokémon has always been forged around the importance of communication and idealistically making the world a better place. Game Freak has always aimed to get people to talk to one another about their adventures, collections of monsters, battle strategies, and anything that can bring them closer together. The purpose of Pokémon has always been to teach players that we must work together to make the world a better place–its the only way to preserve the now and push forward into the future.

After 20 years since Ruby & Sapphire’s release, the Pokémon fandom’s appreciation for each mainline game’s world design and commentary on select themes has become all the more stronger–and the same can of course be said for video games as a storytelling medium. For better or worse, the internet and social media have allowed audiences today to discover worldwide discussions of subjects and news. They are no longer restricted to a local scale where larger news stories are dictated by whatever is highlighted on television, in the newspaper, or even in magazines.

Image: The Pokémon Company

For as big of an event as the Isahaya Bay Reclamation Project was for the people of Japan, to the rest of the world it was a distant and unheard-of conflict destined to never reach the shores outside its compact home country. After 15 years since its initial “completion,” the Isahaya Bay Reclamation Project is still an ongoing issue, albeit one that mostly is surrounded by legal issues. However, there is no doubt that Ruby & Sapphire‘s message to find a balance between nature and progress have stuck with many–even if they missed the story’s reflection of reality or mistakenly antagonized the bottom line beliefs of the game’s syndicates.

While finding answers to critical questions is generally as complex as their creation, perhaps just adding some neutral perspective to the party is enough to help society progress forward and protect what it loves most at the same time. That is the message of Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire.

Creative writer, NXpress Host, and Games Editor. I have always held a high interest in the fields of professional writing and communications. You can find me with my head deep in the espionage genre or in a kayak upstream. I’ll always be first in line for the next Hideo Kojima or Masahiro Sakurai game.

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