Pokemon Sun and Pokemon Moon together usher in the 7th Generation in Nintendo’s 20 year old monster catching and collecting franchise. While many games choose to embrace nostalgia when celebrating 20 years, and the Pokemon Company has done plenty of that in other areas, Sun and Moon choose instead to abandon many of the gameplay loops that Pokemon fans are used to, turn them on their head and offer a familiar yet fresh way to experience the world of Pokemon.
Sun and Moon take place on Alola, a set of distant tropical islands, and they make a point to note that Alola is an region that is distinct from Johto and Kanto with its own traditions and customs, a refreshing twist on a 20-year-old formula. The inhabitants of Alola are very aware that they do things a bit differently than the rest of the Pokemon world. Townsfolk will often muse over the differences between Johto, Kanto, Kalos and other Pokemon locations. Every design decision, from Alolan Pokemon forms to the removal of HMs is grounded in the story and lore of the islands.
Perhaps the biggest change to the Pokemon gameplay loop is the removal of Pokemon Gyms and badges. Island trials, Alola’s version of gym battles, has the player take part in a unique and different challenge per trial. For example, one trial asks you to defeat three specific Pokémon in a designated area, while another asks you to notice the difference between sets of dancing Pokémon. Some of these trials require a bit of memorization, and a few in particular can be a real hinderance to accessibility. One trial, for example, has players listen to a sound and guess what Pokemon or item makes that sound, which is a huge roadblock for hard of hearing or deaf gamers. Another particular trial requires the player to mash the A button to mix ingredients. While neither of these examples result in a hard stop, it’s always concerning when a game inserts an uncharacteristic QTE or mini-game in the main story. Many times, a random QTE popping up once in the middle of a game offers no value to the story and brings little added value to gameplay.
These tasks usually end with a battle against a Totem Pokémon, powerful “boss” Pokémon that serve as the final part of an Island trial. Defeating these Totem Pokemon rewards you with a Z-Crystal that corresponds with the type of Pokemon you defeated. These Z-Crystals, once equipped to a Pokemon with a move matching the crystals type, allow your Pokemon to unleash a super powerful Z-Move once per battle. Z-Moves typically obliterate whichever Pokemon is standing in your way, assuming it’s weak or neutral to your type, which makes most random encounters and single Pokemon trainer battles trivial.
One of the most impressive improvements in Sun and Moon are the backdrops during Pokemon battles. Random encounters in the tall grass and trainer battles are still a staple of Pokemon gameplay, but no longer does the game whisk you away to a nondescript location to do battle in. Backgrounds are incredible and more closely match your surroundings before the battle begins. In some settings, you may see a town off in the distance, or townsfolk watching along as you battle in the middle of town. There has never been a mainline Pokemon game with such a stunning sense of immersion as Pokemon Sun and Moon.
Pokémon Sun and Moon make some great steps towards making gameplay both more accessible and easier to understand. The biggest change to actual gameplay comes with the ability to see which moves are most effective against a certain Pokémon in battle. After facing a Pokémon for the first time, every subsequent battle against that species will show the extent of your moves effectiveness against them by pointing out which moves are effective, super effective, not very effective or not effective at all. With 18 different Pokémon types and 324 possible type combinations, it’s a very good thing that having to memorize or guess type effectiveness is a thing of the past. Other new accessibility features include more shortcuts, both with face buttons and touch screen shortcuts that reduce the need to flip through menus.
While there are some less than ideal aspects of the Sun and Moon end game that will give competitive players and breeders headaches, especially compared to the near-perfect Battle Resort from Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, Pokémon Sun and Moon is a step forward in almost every other direction. That is not to say there aren’t places where Sun and Moon fall short. As ambitious as Sun and Moon are, the toll it takes on game performance is obvious. Any time there are more than two Pokémon in a single battle, a common occurrence with the ability for wild Pokémon to call in an ally, there is a significant slowdown and framerate dip at times. As beautiful as Pokemon has looked since X and Y switched to 3D character models in 2013, you have to wonder what a boost in horsepower could mean for the this franchise.
The state of the game’s economy is also particularly confusing. The flow of the progression, especially during the first half of the game, means that there are much fewer trainer battles than past generations. This means, in part, that the player has access to a smaller pool of money than fans of Pokémon will be used to. Sun and Moon supplements this by having a few “side quests,” which tasks the player with catching a certain Pokémon type in a specific area in return for some money, though this can take more time than players might want to spend. While more money-making opportunities pop up further into the game, the early portions of Sun and Moon might be a grind for players that use a lot of items, catch a lot of Pokemon or want to purchase clothes and other cosmetic items for your character.
These are all nitpicks in a game that is mostly superb, however. Pokemon Sun and Moon reinvents the classic formula and succeeds in ways that are perhaps a bit unexpected. For 20 years Pokemon fans have been treated to a simplistic yet addicting gameplay loop, and turning that on it’s head was a bold move that is paying off in spades. Sun and Moon feel as fresh as they are familiar, a reinvention that elicits feelings of the first time I picked up Red and Blue as a child. Instead of looking backwards and copying, Game Freak took what they’ve learned over the past 20 years and laid a new foundation for the next 20 years. Fans of the Pokemon series have never had so much to look forward to.