By 2016, Pokémon X and Y had already transitioned the franchise into the new visual realm made possible by the 3DS, meaning that Sun and Moon would have to do something drastic to stand out from their predecessors. Thankfully, the combined powers of Nintendo, Game Freak, and The Pokémon Company came up with something pretty special for the games’ core concept – these would be the first entries in the RPG franchise that didn’t feature a series of eight gym leaders for the player to battle.
This major overhaul to the central narrative thrust of a traditional Pokémon RPG was baked into the original idea for the game’s region, the sun-kissed shores of Alola, which is based on Hawaii and features a notably distinct culture that sets it apart from the previous regions. Alola is made up of numerous little islands, and it plays host to revered local Kahunas, tough Totem Pokémon, and sacred deities called Island Guardians. It isn’t an exagerration to say that Alola presented a whole new vision of what a Pokémon game could look like.
However, for all of the things these games changed, they also managed to retain the core spirit of the franchise: there are still plentiful opportunities for exploration and battle, and there is still a criminal cabal that needs defeating (this time, it’s Team Skull). Starting a new game on Pokémon Moon in 2019, the opening beats of choosing your starter and leaving home retain that nostalgic joy that you get with every one of these games. There is quite a lot of hand-holding tutorial stuff, though.
Sun and Moon boasts 81 brand new Pokémon and heaps of old favorites, and the games also introduce a really neat idea: they establish the existence of regional variations of familiar Pokémon, which allows you to catch the unique “Alolan form” of select classic critters. We particularly love the Alolan version of Raichu, which uses its own tail as a floating surfboard of sorts. And, speaking of old favorites, you also get cameos from the original Kanto trainers (named Red and Blue after the games they debuted in), who pop up in the post-game Battle Tree. Basically, Sun and Moon manage to balance big new ideas with fan-pleasing fun.
Without gyms to defeat, the player is presented with the Island Challenge, a series of tasks that take you on a tour of Alola to battle Kahunas and tackle Totem Pokémon. The Island Challenge also throws puzzles at you and has a cute focus on helping people out. Whether you’re collecting ingredients or spotting the difference between some traditional dance routines, the local quirks on each island help Alola feel like a real place that’s full of culture and community. All in all, these games feel fresh and unique, like they’ve totally rewritten the rulebook – that’s a real achievement this far into a franchise.
What’s new? Heaps of stuff. As well as the introduction of region-specific critter designs and the tradition-bucking Island Challenge, Sun and Moon also gave us a talking Pokédex/Pokémon hybrid (the overly chatty Rotomdex, which dominates the bottom screen). There’s also the super-powerful Z-Moves (which complimented the returning Mega Evolution mechanic nicely) and the critter care function (Pokémon Refresh, which let you brush, clean, and feed your pocket monsters), both of which were also introduced here. As usual, the graphics got a bit of an upgrade as well. One thing that didn’t get overhauled, though, was the difficulty level – there’s still a sense here that a basic knowledge of type match-ups is all you need to succeed.
Weirdest thing: Towards the end of the game, you take a detour to the floating HQ of the sinister scientists from the Aether Foundation, which sticks out like a high-tech sore thumb against the friendly community vibe that dominates the rest of the game. After defeating the president of Aether, an Ultra Wormhole is opened that unleashes powerful Ultra Beast Pokémon into Alola. Compared to the seaside larks of the main game, this sci-fi action comes as something of a surprise.
Cutest critter: Of the three starter Pokémon, we’ve got a real soft spot for the grass-type bird Rowlett, especially after watching the corresponding anime series (where Ash’s Rowlett continuously falls asleep in a rucksack). The fiery cat Litten is pretty adorable, too, as is the electric ball thingy called Togedemaru. In the less-lovable column are the creepy Mimikyu (a ghost/fairy type that hides in a crude Pikachu costume) and the long-necked Alolan Exeggutor (which just looks goofy). Love them or hate them, though, you can’t deny that Alola’s native critters have loads of personality.
Poké-Legacy: Given what we know about the upcoming Sword and Shield games, it seems obvious that Sun and Moon have already had a sizeable impact on the future of the Pokémon franchise. Following the trail blazed by the final wave of 3DS games, the first new generation of titles on Nintendo Switch will also take place in a region that is stuffed with its own variations on iconic critters. Sword and Shield‘s Galar region, inspired by the UK, will also have its own distinct culture that plays into Britain’s obsession with sporting events. So, future games in the franchise can show as much imagination as the developers want, all because Sun and Moon rewrote the rulebook for what these games can be.