When Pokemon Sun and Moon versions were released on the 3DS towards the end of 2016, they became the fastest-selling titles in Nintendo’s long history. New entries in the mainline Pokemon series are always a big deal, but it seemed more of a big deal than ever with Sun and Moon. Perhaps due in part to the (long overdue) changes the games made to the formula, and maybe partly due to the wild success of Pokemon Go earlier in the year, and maybe a little bit due to them being some of the last major 3DS titles before the Switch takes over Nintendo’s priorities. Whatever the case, Pokemon Sun and Moon were big. But did they live up to the hype?
In a lot of ways, Pokemon Sun and Moon were the breath of fresh air the series sorely needed for a long time. Despite Pokemon being a series that’s all about fantastic creatures and their evolutions, it has been – ironically enough – Nintendo’s most un-evolving series. Mario and Zelda have continuously changed up their formulas, but Pokemon was always content with going through the motions, and simply adding a new roster of creatures and some minor tweaks to the gameplay.
Of course, Pokemon Sun and Moon introduced a host of new Pokemon of their own, but here, even old school Pokemon were made new again. The games take place on the Alolan Islands, which are not-so-subtly based on Hawaii. Because of this, some familiar Pokemon have adapted and evolved differently in this region, which means not only do they have new character designs, but new types and movesets as well. Ratatas now boast villainous mustaches to go with their new Dark type, while Sandshrew’s shell looks like an igloo to match its new Ice type. Meanwhile, Exeggutor has become a palm tree, which somehow makes him Dragon type.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it does add a good dose of freshness to the mix. Not only do you have a whole new array of Pokemon to catch, but now you have to learn about old favorites in a whole new light, which makes the entire lineup of Pokemon feel newer than they have in a number of generations for the series.
Additionally, the games now feature creatures known as “Ultra Beasts,” which are more or less alien Pokemon. Mega Evolutions also return from X and Y, allowing for certain Pokemon to reach temporary “mega” levels during battle. And now Pokemon can learn powerful Z-moves, which can only be used once per battle, but can greatly change the outcome of a fight.
Another useful change that helps streamline the experience are that HM abilities have been removed entirely. Some of the existing HMs have simply become TMs, while now instead of teaching specific Pokemon the “ride” ability, the player now has the option of “Poke Ride” which summons specific Pokemon to carry you across different terrains.
Other new features include Pokemon Refresh, which are simple uses of the 3DS’ touchscreen to pamper your Pokemon (by coming their fur, using a blowdryer to remove dirt, etc.) and help win them over to you. You also have more customizable options for your character, and now players have their own plazas to connect with other players to trade Pokemon and items, or do battle. You can even customize what kinds of special shops appear in your plaza.
Perhaps the change I most appreciate is that the actual structure of the series has been altered. No longer do you have to go through the usual eight gym leaders before moving on to the final section of the game. Now, you travel across the four Alolan Islands, and go through trials and build yourself up to take on each island’s Kahuna, a supreme Pokemon trainer who serves as the final obstacle of each island.
This is a greatly refreshing change of pace. Though I enjoy the Pokemon series, it was re-using the same format for so long that it became insanely predictable. While this change in structure doesn’t radically change things up, the fact that it’s changed at all makes it more enjoyable than the series has been in a long time. And the changes made to the Pokemon themselves help liven up the core elements of the game.
With that said, I do have reiterate that the changes aren’t anything radically new or different. Pokemon Sun and Moon add enough newness to make things feel fresh, but perhaps not quite enough if you’re among those who want a little something more from the series. This is still a deep gaming experience, but if you’ve been waiting for a reinvention of the series in the same vein as what Mario and Link have accomplished in the past, you may be a tad disappointed.
Aside from new moves, Pokemon battles really haven’t changed. Pokemon can still only learn four moves at a time, and the battles still use the same turn-based setup. Perhaps a little more interactive battles akin to the Mario RPGs of yesteryear might help make Pokemon battles more fun. As they are, they aren’t necessarily boring, but they are starting to feel dated.
Another downside comes in the games excessive story and dialogue. I appreciate that Sun and Moon look to add more narrative to the series, and I like the story they have going on (especially the new villains, Team Skull, who act and talk like would-be hip hop artists), but things get so wordy and the cinematics can get so long, that you may find yourself skipping through as much of it as you can just so you can get back to the gameplay. Again, I enjoy the story, but maybe they could have told it with a few less dialogue boxes and some shorter cinematic moments.
Pokemon Sun and Moon are imperfect, then. But they’re still a whole lot of fun when they want to be. The fact that they’ve changed the formula up at all feels incredibly refreshing, and I greatly like the new Pokemon and the new spins on old ones. The graphics are an improvement over X and Y, and give the series a whole new visual life, and the music is enjoyable.
Pokemon Sun and Moon certainly serve as a fitting “final act” of the 3DS before the Switch takes away its spotlight, and they’ll satisfy Pokemon fans new and old. But hopefully by the time the next Pokemon generation rolls around, the series can double-up on that “newness” factor, and bring the series to a whole new level.