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Since February, The Pokémon Company started the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Pokémon franchise. While I thought it was going to be a few small events during the month, it ended up being a giveaway of all the mythical Pokémon, a Super Bowl commercial, several big releases of the trading card game, the Nintendo 3DS eShop releases of the first generation games, Pokkén Tournament’s Wii U release and beating Street Fighter V’s launch, the Pokémon Go phenomenon, and of course the announcement, the constant trailers and the release of the seventh generation of Pokémon games: Pokémon Sun and Moon. So with the biggest hype train in gaming history backing it up, is it worth this incredible push?
…Sure, I guess?
You play as an eleven-year-old kid who just moved to the Hawaii-looking Alola region. You and your new friend Hau set off on an adventure to beat the Alolan Island Challenges. This deviates from the normal “beat eight gyms and go on to the Pokémon League” we’ve seen for almost two decades. It’s execution is a little messy due to some vague understanding on the steps of the process. These trials feel more like story arcs with each island, meeting and learning about the Island’s Trial Captains followed by doing their dungeons’ task, which finalized with fighting the gym leader-like “Kahuna.” This generation’s new formula actually paces like a Zelda game with this explore-dungeon-boss layout. Unfortunately, there are only four of these trials to go through since there are only four islands.
Like Pokémon Black and White 2, this is only half your journey, as you are also escorting a girl named Lillie and her mystery Pokémon Cosmog. She adds character to your faceless, quiet trainer, because her interactions with you makes you feel like someone that belongs… while making you sound like a hero to others. That’s also because you’re dealing with the idiotic Team Skull and helping out the Aether Foundation on their research of the world-bouncing Ultra Beasts. During your quest, you observe Lillie growing into a different type of girl, becoming one of the most dynamic characters in the Pokémon franchise. That being said, this is no Final Fantasy or Witcher since Pokémon still lags behind other RPGs with character development. Pokémon Sun and Moon however contains the best story since the series started pushing for more of it in Black and White.
I expected a bigger focus on story, but the best part is that I didn’t expect it to be as dark as it is. Now it’s not pushing any envelopes with maturity or anything of that sort, it’s just that the game has a heavy theme of death. From multiple graveyards with depressing stories attached to them to one of the Totem Pokémon’s freaky introduction, I was really shocked seeing this much death and other downer moments. Though what you see in-game is nothing compared to your imagination after picturing the crazy messed up Pokédex entries they wrote in here. I have to admit I loved reading these.
Like the gradual steps the Wii U took to allow the Nintendo Switch to become what it is, Pokémon Sun and Moon continue the path X and Y started three years ago to transform Pokémon from its 2D roots to a legit 3D experience. Now the transformation is just about there with the game in full 3D and properly crafted locales, instead of those made to fit a character on a grid. For once outside the GameCube spinoffs, you actually feel like you’re playing a console-like Pokémon experience. It also helps that everything is modeled and animated cleanly too, though I’d like to see the faces textured better.
Don’t expect your journey to be in stereoscopic 3D, since the game is almost exclusively in 2D to squeeze as much power in the 3DS. That being said, the game performs a little worse on older 3DS, older 3DS XL and 2DS units with longer load times and lower framerate. New 3DS units perform much smoother with only occasional framerate hiccups when four Pokémon are out in battle.
Since Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, Game Freak have been the forerunners in online tech on Nintendo handhelds. Pokémon make any other DS and 3DS online attempt from Nintendo and third-parties alike look like a joke. The ways they keep you connected is highly admired and saves a ton of needless connection work, and Pokémon Sun and Moon are no different. If you have an Internet connection active when you play it, you have access to battle and trade at any time, with friends or strangers alike, just by clicking onto the Festival Plaza. Though I liked X/Y’s implementation more since it was all on the bottom screen during normal gameplay, this still works seamlessly. Connecting locally is easier than ever too, just press the bottom screen alongside your friend and viola, that’s it.
Pokémon Sun and Moon added the fewest amount of new Pokémon to the Pokédex with only eighty. Like any other generation, there’s winners and losers, but it’s about a 50/50 split. For each good Pokémon like the adorable Rockruff or the absolutely amazing Mimikyu, there’s a useless Pyukumuku or the gimmicky Wishiwashi. The annoying part to this lack of new Pokémon is that including the Ultra Beasts, there are a ridiculous sixteen legendary Pokémon, eighteen including the mythical ones like Magearna!
To fill that empty hole of love I want to give to new Pokémon, Game Freak instead made some older Kanto Pokémon useful again. Newer generations made Pokémon like Dugtrio or Ninetales practically useless with better typing out there, but slap a new type or two on it and now you may want to try them out. An Ice/Fairy Ninetales can do more than its basic, fiery cousin and the thirty-foot Exeggutor is now Grass/Dragon! Though I have to admit I didn’t use any of them since none of them were either appealing or, like Exeggutor, weren’t available until very late into the game.
There’s one thing that truly annoys me with Pokémon games is that the newer games usually take something out while putting new stuff in. We lost the ability to take a Pokémon along us or make Poké Balls like in HeartGold/SoulSilver, we lost the underground and all the nifty apps in Diamond/Pearl, lost trainer customization in Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire (which thank goodness returned here!). Now, Sun and Moon threw X/Y’s Mega Evolutions in the backseat for the generation’s one hit wonder: Z-Moves. These attach to other attacks for a one-time ultra move, much like a Final Smash in Super Smash Bros. These aren’t one-hit-KO moves, but just a flashy, more powerful move. To be honest, I didn’t really use them, or ever needed them as a normal move sufficed just fine. Out of all the gameplay modifications throughout the years, Z-Moves are the most needless.
One neat removal in Sun and Moon however are HMs. These once-necessary moves required you to have a Pokémon that could surf the waves, cut bushes or break rocks. It’s been a long-standing frustration as it tied up those precious four move slots on your Pokémon, and it took a few decades to iron it out. Instead, you get a pager to summon Pokémon to do these errands instantly. After playing the game, I’m a bit of two minds about it, since HMs added a requirement to explore places with the right tools, though I’m happy that I don’t need Pokémon with Surf and Fly in my team for the first time… ever.
Pokémon usually takes it’s own route doing things, and that’s what made is such a smash success. Sun and Moon did many of these new things to cater to another popular 3DS game in the East: Yo-kai Watch. The talking Rotom Pokédex, the push into full 3D worlds, the darker undertones and the bump in production value are all cues that made Level 5’s newer monster catcher so appealing and popular.
Nitpicks and minor issues aside, there is no other handheld game that will put the effort I’ve seen with Pokémon. Game Freak’s RPG series tends to outshine them not being the 3DS game that utilized good visuals, or the one that upped its already great production, or because it’s the one with a stronger story, or because they refreshed its already deep tactical gameplay, or because they were the ones that the best online features on the system. It outshines them because it did all of those things simultaneously. We all may have personal favorites on the system, but there’s no doubting that Pokémon Sun and Moon are the best overall games on the Nintendo 3DS. It’s going into the right direction as it finally veers into the place where Pokémon can blow up all over again: the high-def, mobile console that is the Nintendo Switch.