I think everyone expected Pokemon Sun and Moon to be good. This is a series with a great track record with delivering sequels that bring enough to the table to feel new, but never straying too far from familiar ground. Broadly speaking, you know what you’re going to get when you buy a new Pokemon game, at least as far as the main series is concerned.
Sun and Moon are no different, but what took me – and, plenty of other people, it seems – by surprise is just how much the new pair of games does to build on what came before. It’s still the same turn-based monster-collecting RPG that we all know and love, with the same basic mechanics and structure, but it’s full of innovations to that formula. Many of these are little things that are typical of a new Pokemon generation, but a few are quite substantial. A new Pokemon game is always going to be the best one by virtue of the series’ iterative nature, but this is truer for Sun and Moon than it is for most.
The new setting is something that’s been well publicised. Based on Hawaii, the Alola region is a series of islands steeped in pseudo-Polynesian culture, which lends itself to Sun/Moon’s biggest departure: no more Pokemon League, no more gyms, no more badges. Instead, you have the Island Challenge, a long-held rite of passage for young Pokemon trainers in Alola.
Each of the four islands in Alola has a number of Trials, each of which sees you making your way through a dungeon of sorts. Puzzles ranging from simple navigation to playing “spot the odd one out” with a group of dancing Marowak hinder your progress, until you finally get to face a Totem Pokemon. Important-sounding name notwithstanding, these are regular Pokemon, albeit in a stronger form with a nasty habit of summoning allies to make your life more difficult. Once you’ve cleared all of an island’s Trials, you can face the Grand Trial: a showdown with a powerful Pokemon trainer specialising in a particular type.
Functionally, the structure is similar to the gym progression of previous games, but it lends itself to more variety within the Trials themselves. There’s one Trial that involves chasing a school of Wishiwashi down a river, and another where you need to run around a supermarket trying to take photos of ghosts. That said, I do wish there were more Trials all up. There are 18 different types now, and the Island Challenge is a perfect framework to represent them all in a Gym-like setting, so it would have been nice to see them all get their moment in the spotlight. At the very least, I’d have liked to see the stand-in for the Elite Four get their own type specialties, like they have in the past; in Sun/Moon they’re a re-tread of types encountered in earlier Trials.
The other major addition is supercharged Z-Moves. Completing Trials and doing certain other tasks nets you Z-Crystals, and once per battle, a Pokemon holding a suitable Z-Crystal can power up one of their attacks into a Z-Move. Most Z-Crystals are tied to a specific element: Firium-Z, for example, can turn any fire attack into Inferno Overdrive. There’s a Z-Crystal for each type, most of which are won through Trials. There are also a few Pokemon-specific ones, like Snorlium-Z, which turns Snorlax’s Giga Impact into the hilarious Pulverizing Pancake.
Those are the big changes, but Pokemon Sun and Moon are rife with other little tweaks that culminate in a vastly improved overall experience. There are far too many to go into any detail, but here are a few of the improvements you can look forward to:
All of this is wrapped up in a decidedly Pokemon-esque story, and I mean that as compliment. Pokemon games are often derided as childish, but I’d say they’re legitimately all-ages experiences. If anything, they make me think of Pixar films: they take serious issues – typically around environmentalism and conservation – and present them in a way that’s accessible to kids, but without talking down to them or alienating adults in the process.
In keeping with this approach, Sun and Moon balances out its seriousness with plenty of cute moments and oddball humour. Team Skull, the new villains, are particularly delightful – they’re incompetent Pokemon thieves who do a woeful job of trying to act “gangsta.” They come across like privileged suburban white kids who think they’re black because they bought a Tupac record one time. I don’t know if the goal was to lampoon whiteness, but that’s certainly something that Pokemon Sun and Moon have done brilliantly. I love it.
The one thing I don’t love is the technical performance. The 3DS – at least, the Old 3DS that I’m playing on – is aging hardware, and it really shows in Pokemon Sun and Moon. Regular battles have a bit of slowdown, nothing too serious, but two-on-two fights are full of frame rate issues. I’m about as far from the framerate police as possible, and even I found drops here annoying. I imagine it fares better on the New 3DS with its extra horsepower [Editor’s note: It does], but I sincerely hope the rumours of a Switch version are true.
Even with those performance issues, Pokemon Sun and Moon are games I’d recommend to anyone and everyone with a 3DS. It’s a given that a new Pokemon generation will come with improvements, but Sun and Moon go above and beyond to make sure this is Pokemon at its absolute best.
Matt received a physical copy of Pokemon Sun from Nintendo for review.