It’s been 20 years since the Pocket Monsters (or Pokémon) have burst onto the scene. What started out as a handheld game has seen unprecedented mainstream appeal and while the fad has considerably died down, 2016 saw sort of a renaissance of Pokémania with the launch of Pokémon Go, which still stands as the ninth highest grossing app in the App Store.
Despite the mobile game’s popularity, traditional handhelds have always been the true home of the series, and fans have gotten perhaps the freshest entry in the series with Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon. To date, the two have combined to sell over 3.7 million units in less than two weeks, making them the fastest-selling games in Nintendo’s long history.
What Is It?
Pokémon Sun and Moon represents the seventh iteration in The Pokémon Company’s flagship series, and while the series has been known to be one of the most formulaic in gaming, more than a few changes should surprise even lifelong Pokémon trainers.
With a new game comes a new region. Pokémon Sun and Moon take place in Alola, sort of a dramatization of Hawaii. While the actual geography doesn’t realistically resemble a map of the Hawaiian islands, the customs are all there. The game’s characters greet each other by saying “Alola,” the most popular baked good on the islands is the malasada, and the Alolan people even call each other “cousins” and speak pidgin when they ask you, “Howzit?”
In more ways than one, Pokémon Sun and Moon are more Hawaiian than the tropical depictions we see in other forms of media, and that in itself is an impressive achievement. This easily makes Alola the most inspired region ever explored in the Pokémon mythos.
Why Should I Care?
Cultural depictions aside, much has been made about how different Sun and Moon is compared to previous iterations of the flagship Pokémon series. Just about every main game before it was about exploring the entire region and earning badges by defeating the best Pokémon trainers to earn the right to compete in the Pokémon League and become Pokémon Champion. While Pokémon battles are undoubtedly still the biggest thing in the game, Sun and Moon‘s general plot moves forward differently.
The first thing to note is the fact that Alola has no Pokémon Gyms. Gone are the days where you travel across the land searching far and wide for eight badges. Sun and Moon replaces this age old aspect with the trials in what’s called the Island Challenge, in which trainers have to travel to every island in Alola completing tasks set by each of the island’s captains before facing the island kahuna. While this is essentially the same as the gym challenge, this method is actually a whole lot more elaborate and better streamlines the game’s 30+ hour journey.
Every other main Pokémon game before Sun and Moon felt systematic in their approach. Whenever you arrived in a new town, it was easy to explore it, and if you saw a gym, that’s usually an indication to leave town and do some grinding before challenging it. Or if you so chose, you could beat the trainers at the gym and head to the Pokémon Center after to heal your team before fighting the gym leader.
In Sun and Moon, it isn’t that easy. Each Island Trial–sort of a short dungeon–has to be completed in one go before taking part in that trial’s main battle with what’s called a “Totem Pokémon,” a Pokémon with souped up stats and a Z-Move. If you come out of the trial on top by defeating that trial’s Totem Pokémon, the island captains provide you with a Z-Crystal, proof of your success and progress in the Island Challenge. Z-Crystals can also be equipped by certain Pokémon to allow them to use a Z-Move.
Z-Moves are the biggest addition to Pokémon’s intricate rock-paper-scissors battle system. Trainers with a Z-Ring (provided at the beginning of a game) can have their wishes with their Pokémon combined to perform a technique with a significant stat boost. Using a Z-Move typically results in an unskippable cutscene happening in battle, similar to “summons” in other RPGs. They can only be done once per battle. To date, there are 18 type-specific Z-Crystals in the game along with other Z-Crystals that can only be used by equipped by specific Pokémon. There’s no word on whether the developers plan for more, but as Pokémon DLC in the past has suggested, we wouldn’t be surprised if this were the case.
These Z-Moves represent the biggest addition to the battle system since the introduction of “Mega Evolution” in Pokémon X and Y, which hasn’t seen any changes or enhancements. Mega Evolution is still very much a factor in battle, but in regards to new mega evolved forms or Alolan Pokémon having mega forms, there are none to be seen.
While there aren’t any new Mega Evolutions to speak of, one of the most appealing draws of the game is the existence of Alolan versions of a bunch of classic Pokémon. Take the Alolan Marowak (pictured above) for example. Because the Alola region is home to many grass-type Pokémon (a natural weakness for Marowak), Marowaks adapted by apparently rubbing their bones together to make fire. So in Sun and Moon, Marowaks are a fire and ghost-type hybrid, rather than the ground-type fans are accustomed to. That said, there are still standard ground-type Marowaks in the game, primarily owned by other Pokémon Trainers, but this is a pretty cool curveball the developers threw. None of us understand why the Alolan Exeggutor is considered a dragon-type though, nor do we understand why the Alolan Dugtrio grew blonde hair…
The last big change to note is the long-awaited removal of Hidden Machines (HM’s), which taught Pokémon abilities to use both in and outside of battle. In previous games, HM moves like Surf and Fly were taught to Pokémon for the purpose of getting to areas otherwise unreachable or to solve simple puzzles. While they were certainly useful, they were also a burden due to the fact that you couldn’t easily rid Pokémon of these techniques to teach them more powerful and useful ones.
Instead of HM abilities, Sun and Moon treats players to Ride Pokémon that they can use at the press of a button. Need to travel through the waters of Alola? Use the Ride Pokémon Lapras. Boulders blocking your path? Crush them with Ride Pokémon Tauros who also replaces the need for a bicycle. Can’t get to a certain place fast enough even with Tauros? The Ride Pokémon Charizard replaces the need for HM02 Fly. The addition of these Ride Pokémon is nothing short of fantastic with their only flaws being the fact that they don’t count toward your Pokédex and they can’t be used in battle.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
Throughout Pokémon‘s 20-year history change to series mainstays has been primarily conservative. Since the franchise has consistently sold well, who could possibly blame the developers for not trying to reinvent the wheel? The new 80 Pokémon introduced in Sun and Moon don’t come in the quantities usually expected from a new Pokémon title, but the 18 Alolan variations of classic Pokémon more than make up for it, especially to players who’ve stayed around since the original generation.
That said, despite all the welcome changes made in these fantastic new entries, the main thing Pokémon Sun and Moon suffers from is the excruciating amount of handholding for which Nintendo has become notorious. While the cutscenes are meant to be visually striking, they’re often nothing but annoying tutorials that definitely come off as redundant to Pokémon veterans. I understand that the games are targeted to children and new users, but no Pokémon game before this has gone to this extent with the unskippable explanations and tutorials, and it really bogged the first eight hours or so of gameplay down for me. All Pokémon Go did was teach you how to flick a ball around, and look how many people that game affected positively. Part of the joy of Pokémon and other classic RPGs is figuring stuff out for yourself, and it takes a bit of time before Sun and Moon really give you that feeling.
Annoyances aside, Pokémon Sun and Moon are giant steps forward from a series that might’ve been getting stale, and it’s hard to remember a time when the series was this engaging and enjoyable. More so than any Pokémon game before it, Sun and Moon are a great representation as to why gamers spend so much time playing RPGs.