With my Switch pre-ordered and all eyes upon Nintendo’s (hopefully) glorious handheld/home console hybrid future, 2016 was largely the death knell for both the Wii U and the 3DS. Where the final Wii U game I’ll buy was the likeable but largely forgettable Paper Mario: Colour Splash, the Nintendo 3DS went out with a much bigger bang: Pokémon. I know that the Game Boy existed prior to Pokémon, but for me it is the series which has defined Nintendo’s handhelds. It therefore seems fitting that what is probably Nintendo’s final pure handheld ends with the latest instalment in this now venerable series with an entry which shakes up the formula to the greatest extent seen in years.
Pokémon Sun and Moon take place in the Hawaii inspired Alola Region, which is structured differently to other regions seen previously. Where in all previous games a rigid structure of collecting eight Gym Badges before challenging the Elite Four has been enforced, Alola instead sees children sent across the four islands of the Alola Region to complete a series of Trials before confronting the leader of the island, known as the Kahuna. This being a Pokémon game there is also an evil team with nefarious aims; this time it is the unbelievably silly but oddly lovable Team Skull.
Pokémon games aren’t exactly known for their story, but since Black and White there’s been a marked improvement and this continues in Sun and Moon. The story goes to surprisingly epic places, from parallel dimensions to personal family struggles. Pokémon Sun and Moon has actual honest to God plot twists and it’s clear that real effort has been put into the writing and localisation. It’s quite funny at times, as most localised Nintendo games generally are these days. Look, I’m not claiming that Sun and Moon are particularly complex, but there’s a genuine narrative impulse to keep on going, something which could not really be said about most past Pokémon games. I particularly liked the dopey and loveable Team Skull, easily the most (only) memorable team since the original Team Rocket. They’re so…silly, with their juggalo aesthetic and white boy hip-hop hand waving. They’re so desperate to seem tough and scary but so not. The world of Alola feels alive and vibrant in a way previous settings haven’t.
Whilst a lot of the trappings have changed, the core gameplay is still much the same as it was 20 years ago. There are lots of big sweeping changes, but the ones that made me happiest were the simple quality of life fixes. When choosing a move, you can now see whether it is effective/super effective/not very effective beforehand, meaning that memorising type charts is a thing of the past, and any changes to stats like attack or defence are tracked and easy to see. There will doubtless be people why decry this as dumbing down, but memorisation was never an interesting part of the Pokémon tactics anyway. A pointless barrier is removed. There are all sorts of little changes like this, such as being able to add a new Pokémon to your party immediately upon catching them. Pokémon has been full of little niggles for years and Sun and Moon obliterate a large number of them. Bigger issues are fixed too; HMs are finally gone, replaced by the Ride Pager which summons Pokémon to do the same thing. Rather than teaching a Pokémon to Surf, you summon a Lapras to carry you. Rather than learning Rock Smash, toy summon a rideable Taurus who can do it for you. The days of having to lug around a Pokémon with ‘Cut’ and ‘Strength’ and all the others are finally gone and good riddance. Another nice change is an expansion of the Pokémon Amie feature from X & Y, which saw you directly petting and feeding you team. Now called Pokémon Refresh, after every battle you can cure any status ailments and boost their affection, which drastically quickens their rate of experience growth. The virtual pet element of Pokémon has never been stronger than it is in Sun and Moon.
Other changes include the addition of ‘Z-Moves’, which largely replaces the previous games’ Mega Evolution. Z-moves can be used once per battle and are essentially super powered version of regular moves. They’re…fine I guess, but don’t feel nearly as interesting or game changing as the previous generation’s Mega Evolutions. The new trials which replace Gym Battles are generally fun and varied, although not that far removed from the simple puzzles which you would often get in previous games’ gyms. There is one addition which I really hated and that was the ability to wild Pokémon to call for help, summoning in another monster. You can’t capture Pokémon with two on the screen at once, so you have to knock one of them down. The real problem lies in the fact that it doesn’t take up a turn to summon a new Pokémon, meaning that battles can get incredibly protracted and there’s essentially nothing you can do about it, as every time you knock down one Pokémon a new one is immediately called in. This mechanic is used to interesting effect in Totem Pokémon battles, which see you battling powered up versions of regular Pokémon during some of the Island Trials, creating some gloriously tense and challenging encounters. The problem lies when the random Zubat you encounter in a cave starts doing that and you’re stuck fighting Zubats in the same battle for five bloody minutes. It’s an annoying blight in an otherwise extremely solid game.
As for the Pokémon themselves? Sun and Moon may very well be my favourite generation in a long time. There are lots of brilliant brand new Pokémon with some interesting type combinations. For example, my adorable grass owl starter Pokémon Rowlet eventually evolved into the mixed Grass/Ghost Decidueye, not the Grass/Flying I was expecting. One of the absolute best additions are the Alola Form Pokémon, which are Gen 1 Pokémon redesigned and given a new type combination. For example, the previously fire type Vulpix/Ninetales become Ice/Fairy. My favourite of these was the incredibly adorable Alolan Raichu, who is now Electric/Psychic and surfs on his own tail. I wasn’t convinced on the concept at first, but now I see it as clever merging of nostalgia with invention. Some of the most unique type combos can be found in these Alolan forms and they play very different roles in the party, but they nonetheless feel familiar and tickle you right in the nostalgia. I played Sun and Moon entirely with new Pokémon and Alolan Forms and felt no temptation to go for any of the old ones.
Sun and Moon are easily the most beautiful Pokémon games ever made, with gorgeous environments and brilliant character designs. The music is solid too and the genuine sense of atmosphere created on the dinky little 3DS is impressive. By far though, the best part is the Pokémon themselves. They are best seen in the Pokémon Refresh mode. Every single Pokémon has several unique animations which are truly brimming with character. Some like to be rubbed certain places and not others; Pichu’s bereft face every time you rub it somewhere he doesn’t like never failed to get a reaction from me. The thing that blows my mind is that there are 802 Pokémon and that’s not even counting alternate forms, which likely add at least another few dozen. Every single one is given this level of love and attention and the work involved, as well as fitting it all on the cart, is truly impressive.
There are lots of other features I haven’t mentioned; like the whole series, this is a very feature rich game. There are whole mechanics and systems I essentially ignore as I’m here for the core gameplay of collecting, battling and levelling up, but as always there’s so much here for you if you want it. Pokémon Sun and Moon has a couple of niggles, but all round it’s a hell of an achievement. It’s the perfect swan song for the 3DS, a console I’m really going to miss. If you like Pokémon you’ll get this anyway, but if you haven’t played Pokémon in a few years and want to get back to it, this is a pretty damn good place.