There’s something about video games that ties gamers to their childhood. Although games are constantly evolving to keep up with the times, there are some with a rare ability to harken back to their predecessors. For many, the Pokémon series sits on a pedestal of nostalgia; an old go-to that exemplifies what they love about games.
Pokémon Sun and Moon, the two newest entries simultaneously released Nov. 18 by developer Game Freak, bring the most innovation to the series since Pokémon Gold and Silver while retaining the series’ playability and its nostalgic appeal. Creature-collecting games with light role-playing elements, the experience focuses on leveling up Pokémon and building a well-rounded team that can get you through the challenges and battles that come your way.
To a certain extent, Sun and Moon are exactly what you’d expect. The player begins as a child in a new place, chooses their first Pokémon from a selection of three and moves through the world catching new ones in order to become the best trainer in the region. Even if you’re not caught up with the series, the pieces of Sun and Moon quickly fall into place. But that’s not to say that everything is the same.
The uniqueness of their setting is one the games’ best attributes. Most installments define their worlds aesthetically; for example, Pokémon X and Y’s architecture and clothing were inspired by France and other parts of Europe. In contrast, Sun and Moon take place in a region called Alola, heavily influenced by Hawaii’s geography and culture. Instead of shallow appropriation, Game Freak crafted a varied chain of four islands, each with its own subculture of towns and people. These islands are populated by non-player characters ranging from sight-seers to kahunas, the games’ stand-in for the gym leaders of Pokémon past. With the introduction of a wider range of characters, the games begin to distinguish themselves from previous entries.
Long-time fans of the Pokémon series will appreciate the removal of “Hidden Machines” — better known as “HMs” — from the games. In previous titles, you had to sacrifice one of four ability slots to accommodate for a lesser ability necessary for physically navigating the world. Game Freak has eliminated the dated system, instead giving you access to an item that summons Pokémon according to the player’s specific needs, such as flying and surfing. This change does wonders to the games’ customization, allowing unfettered tweaking of pets.
Another change to an old standby is even more surprising: the elimination of gyms, static areas for training Pokémon. Instead, Sun and Moon introduce the “challenge” system. Granted to the player by individuals appointed as captains by a high-ranked kahuna, these tasks vary drastically. Some are simple, necessitating the defeat of a set amount of enemies in an area. Others are more creative, such as scouring for ingredients to make food. Each one of these challenges is fun and surprising, ending in a tense battle with a Totem Pokémon, a creature variation more powerful than its usual form. Despite the excitement of these missions, they can make leveling up Pokémon difficult at times in comparison to the more focused training grounds that the gyms of previous games provided.
Sun and Moon also introduce little usable items called Z-crystals, which have replaced X and Y’s mega-evolutions, gained from completing island challenges and found scattered throughout the game’s environment. When equipped to a Pokémon that can hold it, a Z-crystal can unleash one super-powered move per fight. These moves can easily turn the battle in the player’s favor when backed into a corner; conversely, when used against the player, they’re forced to come up with new strategies on the fly. The crystals foster an interesting give-and-take dynamic that adds another layer of strategy to what can sometimes be an overly simplified RPG.
Finally, Pokémon encountered in the game’s wild areas now have the ability to call for companions to fight against the player. Whether help comes or not is up to chance, but if they do, the new foe adds tension to what would otherwise be an ordinary encounter. At times, though, this became tedious. You might wipe out one enemy, only to have another appear when you’ve expended your moves. But this, along with the other additions, constitutes a strong argument against the assertion that Pokémon is a repetitive series.
Even with this new roster of features, Sun and Moon wouldn’t be a great Pokémon game without an expanded selection of the series’ signature companions. Alola has its fair share of new Pokémon, and though the three starting creatures are — as with other recent generations — lacking, those found in the wild are consistently cool, with a few uninspired exceptions.
But it’s with older Pokémon that Sun and Moon do truly interesting things. There are a fair share of series veterans in Alola, ranging from first-generation mainstays (think Pikachu) to later add-ons. In another first-time step for the franchise, Sun and Moon feature Alolan variants on these classic creatures, gaining new types, moves and looks. Some players might be upset by these changes, but it’s exciting to see Pokémon you knew as a kid make their comebacks in unpredictable ways.
Threaded through these systems is a story about the player undertaking the island’s challenges as a newcomer. The player makes friends with a large cast of well-realized characters, and there’s even some nice subversion of plot expectations. Sun and Moon might have the best base plot of any games in the series so far, but things thin out once that plot is over. With the exception of an incredible surprise for generation-one fans, the end-game content is sparse. One can capture legendary Pokémon and creatures called Ultra Beasts, but these can be tedious, and some players will lose interest after the main story is complete.
Despite all of these changes, Sun and Moon are Pokémon games through and through. It’s a simple breath of nostalgia in a changing time; a little bit of old, a lot of new and, most importantly, just as much fun.