Ruby and Sapphire Changed Pokémon For The Better

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Summary

  • Pokémon: Ruby and Sapphire introduced significant changes to the anime format, including new character designs for Ash and his companions, a new main cast, and a departure from traditional cel animation.
  • The character redesigns and frequent outfit changes helped keep the series fresh and engaging for viewers, allowing the Pokémon world to feel alive and dynamic.
  • These changes, along with the decision to have Ash only bring Pikachu with him to new regions, allowed the anime to tell more stories, maintain relevance, and prevent the series from becoming overloaded with characters.


One of the most fascinating things about revisiting long-running anime franchises is seeing which parts are remembered and which are forgotten. Pokémon is a fantastic example of this. While the original series is still adored by fans and widely talked about and the newer seasons are drawing in a whole new generation of fans, many seasons have gotten lost in the shuffle, rarely being discussed. This is true for Pokémon: Ruby and Sapphire, the block of episodes that started with the American dub’s sixth season. But, while it may be rarely talked about today, Pokémon: Ruby and Sapphire was an essential series. Without it, the Pokémon anime would never have made it to the present day.

Pokémon: Ruby and Sapphire made several massive changes to the Pokémon anime format, on-screen and behind the scenes. One of the first changes viewers notice is that Ash has a new outfit for his trip to Hoenn, making him look very different from the version seen in previous seasons. This new outfit saw Ash drop his jacket for a sweater-like one and swap his plain blue jeans for looser pants with line detailing. He even ditched his then-iconic hat for a new red and black one.

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Ruby And Sapphire Shook Up The Format

Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire screenshot showing Ash and Pikachu

Ash wasn’t the only character who got a redesign. All the returning characters massively changed their outfits. Brock, Ash’s long-time traveling companion, changed his outfit dramatically, swapping his brown pants for dark gray cargo pants and getting a more substantial jacket. In fact, Brock’s color palette was almost totally inverted, going from a terracotta shirt with a green jacket to a green shirt topped with a dark top featuring terracotta detailing. Misty, the third character in the original trio, would also get a redesign during her appearances, swapping out most of her original outfit.

Pokémon Seasons In Japan and America

Japanese Season Name

American Season Name

American Season Number

First Episode

Last Episode

Pokémon the Series: Ruby and Sapphire

Pokémon: Advanced

6th

275

314

Pokémon: Advanced Challenge

7th

315

366

Pokémon: Advanced Battle

8th

367

419

Pokémon: Battle Frontier

9th

420

466

But it wasn’t just the designs of Ash’s companions that changed. Ruby and Sapphire also shook up the main cast in several massive ways. At the end of the original series, Ash parts ways with Brock and Misty, his two previous traveling companions. In the first episode of Ruby and Sapphire, he meets up with May, a young trainer who is just starting her journey. After foiling a Team Rocket plot, May and Ash begin to travel together, with May remaining the season’s secondary character until she leaves in the final episode of the season. May also introduced her brother Max, who would soon start traveling with Ash, becoming a core cast member. Plus, despite leaving, two of Ash’s old friends would also return to the main cast. Brock would return in Ruby and Sapphire’s fourth episode and become a core group member, staying with Ash for most of the series. Misty, another of Ash’s old companions, would rejoin the cast for a few sporadic groups of episodes before departing again. And it wasn’t just human characters Ruby and Sapphire shook up. This series starts with Ash leaving his Pokémon (except Pikachu), with Professor Oak. This meant that Ash began with a blank slate when he arrived in Hoenn, forcing him to work up from the bottom again.

But the changes were not just in front of the camera. The behind-the-scenes workings of Pokémon changed dramatically during the production of Ruby and Sapphire. The most significant shift is that Ruby and Sapphire is the first series to not use Cel animation. While the original series had used cels at first, these were phased out near the end, with the 260th episode: “A Crowning Achievement,” being the last to be animated in this fashion. Thus, Ruby and Sapphire was the first series to be planned around this animation style from the outset. On top of this, Ruby and Sapphire was also the first series to feature CG animation, further changing the show’s production pipeline and visual style.

Another gigantic change would come near the end of the series, during its Battle Frontier arc, the 9th season in the American dub. This is because Pokémon‘s dubbing company, 4Kids, opted not to renew their licensing contract, meaning that Pokémon USA (which would become The Pokémon Company International in 2009) took over the dub.

At the time, the President of Pokémon USA Akira Chiba said:

“We felt it was in the best interest of the Pokémon property for Pokémon USA, Inc., to assume all aspects of licensing. This was a brand management decision. We would like to thank 4Kids for all of its great work over the last eight years in helping to establish Pokémon as one of the leading children’s brands in the world.”

The firm opted to bring the dubbing in-house and worked with TAJ Productions to make this happen. This led to several massive changes, some of which would spark controversy, including the decision to recast many of the show’s main characters.

Why These Changes Were So Crucial

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While on the surface, updating a character design might not seem like a massive deal, it really helped the franchise’s longevity. After being tested in Ruby and Sapphire, these outfit changes became the norm, with Ash getting new clothes whenever he went to a new region. These changes helped make the adventure feel grander and more exciting as they made the Pokémon world feel like a living place that exists beyond what the camera can see at that moment.

Plus, these changes helped Ash remain timeless. While Ash never aging has been a long-running joke within the Pokémon fandom, having him change his costume frequently has helped Ash stay fresh and has made it feel like he is growing and developing as he travels, even if he isn’t getting physically older. It’s also allowed him to keep up with trends naturally. Ash’s original outfit was painfully late ’90s, and if he had stuck with it for his entire run, he would have looked silly by the end due to being a walking anachronism. At the same time, sticking with one outfit for a long time, only to suddenly change, would look like desperation from the creators. So, by normalizing these semi-frequent costume changes, Ruby and Sapphire was able to help the show and its characters remain fresh over its long lifespan.

Changing the cast was also a massive and risky move. Because changing a popular show’s core cast can backfire and alienate fans or come across as desperate. While the original series had experimented with this somewhat with Tracey Sketchit, the introduction of May and Max completely changed the core cast dynamic, something only intensified by Ruby and Sapphire’s Brock being much more mature than the character who had traveled with Ash previously. This change proved that fans wouldn’t stop watching Pokémon if the core cast changed, even if the characters being replaced were iconic. This experiment in Ruby and Sapphire became the norm, with each new series saying goodbye to Ash’s old friends and introducing new ones. In many ways, this change paved the way for the introduction of Goh in Pokémon Journeys and Ash’s eventual retirement at the end of that series, with Liko and Roy taking over as protagonists.

The swapping of traveling partners allowed Pokémon to stay fresh and relevant. There are only so many stories that can be told with three characters. Once those stories are told, the writers are forced to repeat themselves or ignore the cast’s previous characterization to put them into new stories that don’t fit their original personalities, leading to weaker overall storytelling. By swapping out Ash’s companions, the writers can tell more stories, including ones featuring elements seen in contemporary Pokémon games, without needing to warp Ash, Misty, or Brock’s personality to make it work.

Plus, the decision to have Ash only bring Pikachu with him to new regions was a great idea that became the default for the series going forward. Having Ash drop off his Pokémon has prevented the series from becoming overloaded with characters. It also prevents power creep, meaning that, despite his many adventures, Ash can still be presented as an underdog and put in challenging situations without the stories feeling contrived. Also, dropping Pokémon between seasons means that the show doesn’t alienate new viewers, as anyone entering the show at a later season doesn’t have to learn about all the Pokémon Ash previously encountered, which is fantastic for a children’s show where a fresh group of viewers will start watching every season. In fact, if this decision hadn’t been made, Pokémon wouldn’t be the anime of choice for several generations of kids; the sheer amount of Pokémon to keep track of would make jumping in feel like a monumental task.

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This was all brought together by the production changes. While some fans were sad to see the franchise move away from traditional cel animation, it was a necessary change that allowed the franchise to keep up with the style of the time and maintain its breakneck production pace. Ruby and Sapphire showed that updating the visuals and the technology used to create them made it easier for the franchise to remain modern and fresh. Having these updates be a natural continuous process means that the anime avoids a common trap many long-running series fall into, where they stick with outdated visuals for too long and are then forced to have a sudden massive jump in visual fidelity to catch up with modern standards, leading to the seasons feeling disconnected from one another. With Pokémon, the visuals are constantly evolving and thus feel more cohesive and natural, even if a modern episode looks totally different from one from the original series.

Plus, while the voice actor change was controversial, it’s hard to argue that bringing Pokémon dubbing in-house wasn’t the right one in the long term. Having a single entity handle the distribution and licensing of the franchise outside of Asia has led to a more cohesive experience for fans across the globe. 4Kids’ approach to dubbing meant that episodes were often heavily changed, even if the episode’s content didn’t break any American broadcast rules. Since this change, the Pokémon anime has been more internationally consistent, allowing fans all over the globe to share the same experience. This increased cohesion has made marketing other parts of the franchise easier, as the company can line up the anime’s release dates and content with other international campaigns, leading to more profit.

Pokémon: Ruby and Sapphire is a fascinating series, as while it isn’t the most talked about season of Pokémon, it is a massive milestone in the franchise’s history. During this season, the anime experimented with several ideas that would soon become staples, and these staples allowed it to keep going for as long as it has without running out of steam. Without Pokémon: Ruby and Sapphire, the Pokémon franchise would be nothing like the juggernaut it is today, making it a fascinating series.

Ash and Pikachu smiling excitedly in Pokemon the Movie: Secrets of the Jungle

Pokemon

Expanding across a multitude of media, including TCGs, video games, manga, live-action movies and anime, the Pokémon franchise is set in a shared world of humans and creatures with a wide variety of special abilities. 

Created by
Satoshi Tajiri

First Film
Pokemon: The First Movie

Latest Film
Pokémon the Movie: Secrets of the Jungle

First TV Show
Pokemon

First Episode Air Date
April 1, 1997

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