Every month, in accordance with dark prophecies written in the stars, I am fated to write an article on a topic chosen by my Dark Council, the conspiratorial conclave of readers who support me for at least $10/month on Patreon. This month, the decree of the Council was that I watch a video by Pokémon YouTuber Tama Hero (formerly Tamashii Hiroka) re-evaluating Pokémon: Ruby and Sapphire and use it as a springboard to revisit the characterisation of those games’ villains, Team Aqua and Team Magma. The video can be found here; you don’t have to watch it to understand everything I’m about to say, but I do think it’s worth your time if you like thinking deeply about Pokémon and game design. If you don’t know Ruby and Sapphire, the fifteen-second summary of Team Aqua and Team Magma is: Aqua likes the sea, Magma likes the land; they both want to wake up an ancient legendary Pokémon (Kyogre or Groudon, respectively) in order to “expand” the sea or land through floods or volcanic eruptions; they eventually succeed and very quickly wish they hadn’t; it’s now your job to clean up the mess.
So, I really liked this video. Jim the Editor didn’t, because it’s framed as a review but doesn’t really succeed at being impartial, which… is true, but not in my opinion particularly relevant. The way I see it, the ship has long since sailed on any kind of rating-oriented “review” of Ruby and Sapphire, but this discussion left me with a much clearer understanding of what those games were trying to do and a keener awareness of both their successes and failures in that attempt – and that, to me, is good media criticism, of the kind that I aspire to. Honestly, to me it often feels like saying at the end of a piece “I liked this Thing” or “I didn’t like this Thing” or “here is how much I liked this Thing out of 10” obscures a lot of what you actually thought about the Thing, which may be a lot more nuanced than your conclusion captures. I almost think there’s an argument for having no introduction or final summation at all, utterly refusing to give a condensed verdict just to force people to decide for themselves whether your analysis revealed more good points or bad points.
(There is a counterargument that this would needlessly cultivate an antagonistic relationship with one’s audience; however, the beauty of Pokémaniacal is that you bloodsuckers already know I plan to bring about the end of time so I can sacrifice you all to the dark gods I truly and ultimately serve, so really we have nothing to lose here.)
Tama’s main point, as I understand it, is that Ruby and Sapphire are worth our attention because they are the first Pokémon games that are determinedly about something. Pokémon has had environmentalist roots, in my opinion, from the beginning, but Ruby and Sapphire put environmental themes front-and-centre in a way that neither of the previous two generations had, and you can argue (as she persuasively does) that those themes inform far more than just the story and major characters, but seep into almost every part of the setting of Hoenn. The foundation of Ruby and Sapphire’s concern for the balance of nature and civilisation isn’t abstract, though. Tama’s video opens by explaining the controversy that inspired the plot of Ruby and Sapphire – something that was a real hot-button issue in Japan in the early 2000s, but which has always gone largely unnoticed by the English-speaking Pokémon community (this is the first I’d ever heard of it, and I’m not exactly new to this). That controversy was the Isahaya Bay land reclamation project.
The Saga of Isahaya Bay
Isahaya Bay is in the western part of Kyūshū, the island that Hoenn is based on, next to the city of Nagasaki. The map of Hoenn takes some liberties with the precise shape of Kyūshū (and rotates the island 90º counterclockwise), but Nagasaki basically corresponds to Slateport City. As Tama explains, Isahaya Bay was the site of a major reclamation project, begun in 1986 and completed in 2008. While Ruby and Sapphire were in development (they were released in Japan in late 2002), political conflict over the project had reached a fever pitch. Environmentalists were concerned with the potential destruction of one of Japan’s last wetland habitats, and local fishing communities feared that the project would devastate fish populations and seaweed cultivation in the area. Both were right to be worried – agricultural runoff from the reclaimed farmland has promoted toxic algal blooms that continue to do further damage to the marine ecosystems of the Ariake Sea year after year. On the other hand… Kyūshū did need that extra land. Modern Japan is heavily reliant on reclaimed land to meet the food production needs of its dense population. Most of Japan is mountainous, with little arable land, so land reclamation has always been important there, but became even more so over the course of the 20th century as the country rapidly modernised and evolved into the hyper-urbanised tech powerhouse it is today. A lot of the modern city of Nagasaki is, itself, built on reclaimed land. The Isahaya Bay project is still controversial today and protests are ongoing, but that new land is, as promised, being used to produce rice and vegetables to feed the town of Isahaya.
Obviously we all knew that the balance between civilisation and nature was a major theme of Ruby and Sapphire (as it was of Black and White, and in my opinion of Pokémon as a whole), but the incredibly specific real-world context of what was happening in Kyūshū as the game was under development brings a sudden clarity to my understanding of the entire story. One faction that wants to “expand the land” and an opposing one that wants to “expand the sea” seems… pretty out-there and abstract. How do you actually do that? Even as a child I had some notion of how global warming could cause worldwide sea levels to rise; I’d even seen it play out in a video game context before (Civilisation II, one of the first PC games I can remember playing, had global warming mechanics in 1996, a feature that subsequently disappeared from the series until Civ VI’s second expansion in 2019). But that’s apocalyptic stuff; no one would actually drive climate changes like that on purpose. Team Aqua and Team Magma in Ruby and Sapphire seem like cults devoted to aspects of the natural world, wanting to make one part of nature supreme over another, totally ignorant of the idea that the natural world falls apart without balance. And… well, they are; obviously Team Aqua, Archie, Team Magma and Maxie are all written to be villains, and they’re not even supposed to be particularly subtle or nuanced villains. But Team Rocket were villains who wanted to make money, and later Pokémon villains (except for arguably Rose or Lysandre, and even they’re a stretch) were all basically after some kind of personal gain. Team Aqua and Team Magma have always seemed like the odd ones out; like, where did this even come from? Knowing that “expanding the landmass” really was on the table and really was controversial in this part of Japan while the game was in development makes the entire concept feel far more concrete to me.
Tama notes that, even with the context of the Isahaya Bay project, land vs. sea is a theme that might have rung hollow to a lot of American Pokémon fans, many of whom live hundreds of kilometres from the sea. Even those in the densely populated coastal regions are aware that their country has vast amounts of fairly open inland territory. The idea of needing to manage a delicate balance between land and sea feels weird, even arcane, in that context. I have a rather different perspective. I grew up in New Zealand, an island country with a similar landmass to Japan. The ocean is crucial to my sense of the natural world around me; when I lived in Ohio, its absence felt downright perverse. It’s not right for humans to live so far from the sea, I tell you; it makes you go all peculiar. When Tama suggests that Team Magma and the land are by far the easier side to take, because the game gives us much more opportunity to get to know the land of Hoenn – well, even though I originally played Sapphire, where Team Aqua are the antagonists, and even though she’s correct that the game’s attempts to make the water areas interesting had significant failings, my feelings were quite different. To me, Team Aqua always seemed like the obviously less crazy side – but maybe that’s my own bias. Land reclamation has never been a particular focus of national controversy in New Zealand and hasn’t been used as extensively; compared to Japan, the country is sparsely populated and has a lot more agricultural land. Even now, it’s pretty difficult for me to appreciate the arguments in favour of closing Isahaya Bay; the negative environmental consequences seem decisive, and the benefits relatively minor, especially considering that the fishing and seaweed industries have lost what the terrestrial agricultural industry has gained. This may just be a conflict that doesn’t readily invite empathy for both sides unless you have a fairly specific cultural background. That doesn’t make it a losing proposition; Ruby and Sapphire could have been an opportunity to share this important conflict of modern Japanese life with the rest of the world. But… well, we’ve got to talk about the story.
Team Aqua and Team Magma
I think it’s hard to escape that the original Ruby and Sapphire do not portray Team Aqua and Team Magma particularly well. And I don’t mean that they’re presented as simple thugs; that is kind of true, but I can understand the need for a kids’ game to have obvious “baddies.” What bugs me is that Archie and Maxie don’t really have distinct personalities; aside from switching references to “the sea” for “the land,” most of the differences between Archie’s Sapphire dialogue and Maxie’s Ruby dialogue are pretty subtle. Both of them have grandiose, arrogant speech patterns that resemble Omega Ruby’s portrayal of Maxie. All their underlings, likewise, sound pretty much the same; their goals are reversed, but their methods and beliefs are not meaningfully different. On the one hand, you can see this as a deliberate choice: despite their diametrically opposed goals, Archie and Maxie are both blinded by their single-minded devotion and end up being effectively the same (and there are scenes in Emerald, where the player fights against both teams alternately, that play up this angle). On the other hand, it makes the conflict even more abstract, even more difficult to understand. With almost no actual arguments on either side, you’re forced to write them both off as fanatics. Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby, 12 years later, heavily emphasised that Archie is interested in preserving nature and restoring the ocean to a primordial state, while Maxie is concerned with expanding the landmass of Hoenn in order to further the advancement of human industry and technology, making the parallels to the original story of Isahaya Bay much stronger. Those elements… are there in the original dialogue, but they’re surprisingly easy to miss.
Whichever team you’re not fighting against on your version of the game has a very minor role. You kind of have to play both, or discuss the game with a friend playing the opposite version, to understand the whole picture of what’s going on in Hoenn – but even when you do, there’s not that much to find. As a Sapphire player, I never really picked up on Maxie’s angle – in fact, as a kid, even after swapping for my brother’s copy of Ruby, I assumed that he mainly wanted to expand terrestrial nature and create more habitats for land Pokémon, just as Archie wants more space for sea Pokémon (to be fair, Maxie does also mention this, in both Ruby and Emerald). To me it read as nature vs. nature with human interference in an existing balance, not nature vs. civilisation. Again, the lack of clear distinction and characterisation for the two teams makes the conflict feel very abstract.
Also, brief aside here: because the developers evidently didn’t have the resources to drastically change the big set pieces of the plot between the two versions, both games feature a showdown at Mt. Chimney, the volcano in the centre of Hoenn. Team Magma wants to cause a catastrophic eruption that will expand the region’s landmass. Team Aqua wants to make the volcano dormant so that its crater will fill with rainwater and become a habitat for Water Pokémon. These two plans are treated as equivalent menaces to the region. I can imagine legitimate geological reasons why killing off a volcano might be a bad thing, but Sapphire makes no effort to explain them – and, frankly, you don’t get to claim “we need to make the villains simple so 10-year-olds will understand,” then turn around and tell your players that preventing volcanic eruptions is evil with no further elaboration. Emerald, fortunately, resolves this by putting Groudon underneath Mt. Chimney and having Team Magma go there specifically to wake it up, while Team Aqua get to be the antagonists for other chapters of the game. Unfortunately, Emerald also tries to start Maxie’s redemption arc with trying to steal a bunch of rocket fuel so he can dump it in the volcano and cause an eruption, so… it’s a mixed bag.
I think it’s worth emphasising that having major storyline differences between the two versions of the game was a significant experiment that doesn’t really repeat in any subsequent Pokémon game. Diamond and Pearl, Black and White and X and Y all feature villains whose plans relate to a different legendary Pokémon on each of the games, but it’s still the same villain with the same goals each time. And… it really does pain me how much Ruby and Sapphire’s experiment could have worked but doesn’t. Having two games give very different perspectives on the same story is maybe the best possible use for Pokémon’s inextirpable paired-game format, and Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby in my opinion demonstrate the potential of that approach. The alternative – the single-game version – is what we see in Emerald.
Emerald and the Climax
I think the unified version of the story that we get in Emerald ends up being superior on the whole to the bifurcated versions of Ruby and Sapphire because we get to hear from both teams and both leaders, their plans make a little more sense, and we ultimately get to see Archie and Maxie realise their mistakes and repent. But… then there’s the climax itself. In Ruby and Sapphire, the team we’ve been fighting succeeds in awakening its legendary Pokémon and causes a natural disaster, which we have to forestall by travelling to Sootopolis City and defeating the Pokémon in the Cave of Origin. The idea of set-piece battles with legendary Pokémon being a key part of the climax is such an ingrained thing in Pokémon now that I think it’s worth dwelling on the fact that this was the first time it happened – all the legendary Pokémon in Red and Blue or Gold and Silver are strictly plot-optional, while Suicune in Crystal has its own subplot that’s totally independent from the Team Rocket storyline. The player is asked, effectively, to face down an embodied force of nature and tame it. Aside from being an awesome heroic moment for the protagonist, this is a pretty powerful statement of what Pokémon trainers do in their world – tame wild nature and bring it into harmony with human society. But if this story is really about whether or not humans (represented by the land) should leave nature (represented by the sea) untouched, then what does it say that both versions end with us capturing and taming the legendary Pokémon? Maybe that’s why Emerald instead sends us to find a third legendary Pokémon to help fix everything: the sky dragon Rayquaza, who has the power to quiet both Groudon and Kyogre.
Thematically, the sky can be seen as the third “domain” of the earth alongside the land and sea. It’s literally above the other two, and it has additional religious significance because it’s the home of the gods in many mythologies; in both China and Japan, the authority of the Emperor derives from the sky or heaven, as the source of order in the universe. There is certainly something vaguely deific about the cutscene that plays in Emerald when Rayquaza arrives to save the day, descending from the heavens in a beam of light to quiet Groudon and Kyogre through its presence alone. Rayquaza doesn’t fight the other Pokémon; its whole role is to pacify them. It’s hard not to read this resolution as saying “fighting is unnecessary; what we need is compromise; what we need is peace.” If Kyogre is untouched nature and Groudon is the imposition of human order, then Rayquaza would stand for some kind of ideal balance between them – a divinely ordained balance of nature and civilisation.
The big problem I’ve always had with this resolution is that the player has very little agency in it. We don’t have to fight Rayquaza; in fact we hardly have to do anything. We’re told where to find it, we go there, and it immediately decides to help. The climax of Emerald is, fundamentally, a fairly easy fetch quest. The “final boss” of the main storyline is effectively Archie, who battles the player just before awakening Kyogre, and losing that battle doesn’t stop him or even particularly slow him down. In fact, because the Mount Chimney subplot in Emerald is only about stopping Team Magma from awakening Groudon (which they eventually do anyway), I’m not sure the player ever actually does anything particularly important to the storyline. It’s Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark; if Indie had just stayed home, the Nazis would still have gotten their faces melted when they opened the Ark of the Covenant. From that perspective, Rayquaza showing up to fix everything is annoying enough. But thinking about what Rayquaza actually represents, I might have a bigger problem now.
If this really is all about land reclamation in Isahaya Bay – or even about nature and civilisation more generally – then what position does the game, any version of the game, actually take, if any? Team Magma with their “expand the land” rhetoric are presented as clearly in the wrong, but so are Team Aqua, who theoretically stand for the environmental interests. Portraying both sides as dangerous extremists, together with showing Rayquaza enforcing balance between the two, suggests that the game is angling for some kind of compromise position, but what does that actually mean? Tama Hero’s video suggests that the compromise is illustrated by Hoenn itself, in the countless examples that the region gives of humans living in harmony with nature and in accordance with tradition – and I absolutely agree that that’s probably the intention. But is that not the environmentalist position? And if so, then what on earth is Team Aqua supposed to represent? Archie in Alpha Sapphire wants to restore the primordial state of the ocean, so is that meant as a hypothetical where Kyūshū destroys the reclaimed land it has already? Like, “expanding the landmass” literally was one side of the debate at Isahaya Bay, but the other side wasn’t “expanding the sea”; there was no counterproposal for the Japanese government to submerge Nagasaki beneath the unforgiving waves to appease the demands of an increasingly rapacious and militant Kyūshū fishing industry. For me, it’s difficult to get around the fact that the real-world debate at Isahaya Bay was not between two equally radical proposals for change, but between one massively consequential development plan and the status quo – with both environmentalists and local traditional industries on the side of the latter. Preserving the bay was the compromise – land reclamation is still possible in less vulnerable areas, even if you stop it here – and that compromise was rejected.
I’m reminded of a really bizarre moment from the end of X and Y, where the rival character, Serena/Calem, thinks back on everything that has happened with Lysandre, Team Flare, Xerneas/Yveltal and the Ultimate Weapon, and says to the player: “Lysandre chose only Team Flare. You and I chose everyone but Team Flare. But since our positions forced our hands, you can’t really say any of us were right. That’s why I feel that… If both sides have something to say, maybe it’s best to meet halfway.” And… like… was… was that supposed to be the big takeaway from the story of X and Y? Did I play the same game that Game Freak made? Lysandre wanted to wipe out the vast majority of humanity and thought it was acceptable for all Pokémon to be collateral damage – how do you compromise with that? Pokémon likes villains whose main flaw is being too extreme in their sincere and well-intentioned beliefs, who come into conflict with the heroes because they refuse to give ground. We’re always striving for balance. But sometimes compromise isn’t feasible, desirable or even sane. As a moral for young children – like, under 10 – I can see the value of saying that talk and negotiation are always beneficial, because they usually are. That’s kind of the reason Pokémon has trading; completing the game is supposed to require cooperation and exchange. But even when you hit the 11-13 age bracket (which I was in when Ruby and Sapphire were released), I have to think kids are capable of appreciating more nuance, and frankly need to understand that agreeing to compromise will not always help them or make the world a better place.
My “deal” has always been that I have a “love-hate relationship” with Pokémon – it’s right there in the site’s banner. Ruby and Sapphire are… games that I honestly remember feeling slightly “meh” about when I played them as a child, and all of Tama Hero’s criticisms of their balance, flow and pacing ring true to my own experience. But they’re also, in retrospect, probably the Pokémon games I’ve replayed the most, and they’re games that seem like they wanted to be the same thing I want Pokémon’s stories to be: explorations of what it means for humans to live in harmony with nature, in a world where miracles are possible. And they almost, almost are.
Thank you as always to my shadowy Patrons, especially to Intonyeon, who suggested this topic, and to the other members of the Dark Council, Miame Irohara and Name (Required). If you enjoyed this article and like what I do, consider joining the ranks of the damned by signing up for a monthly donation at https://www.patreon.com/pokemaniacal – every little helps!