It’s been a while since Pokémon Go’s surprise popularity peak, but with the release of the latest games, Sun and Moon, the Pokémon franchise is back in the limelight. The new games offer a fresh and updated take on the title while still staying true to the original formula; they remind us why the series is still so popular after 20 years.
One of the largest changes these games have brought is the Island Challenge, in the new Hawaii-themed region of Alola. This is a refreshing change of pace from the previous games’ usual setup of beating gyms and collecting badges. The challenges come in all sorts of forms, including a scavenger hunt, memorising dance moves and tailing after some water pokémon. These challenges are integrated with the new environment, making you explore the new area and helping Alola feel like its own region rather than an overworld map. The Challenges prevent things from getting too mindless, sometimes showing up unexpectedly, and make you constantly fine-tune your team while always being on alert.
The rewards of completing these challenges are Z-crystals, the new feature created for this generation. These help spice up battles and don’t feel as gimmicky as the trailers made them out to be. The basic gist is that Z-crystals allow Pokémon to use Z-Moves, which can only be used once per battle and have varying effects. Some are straight up attacks whereas others can be status changes. The rest of the battling system remains the same as before with some minor tweaks like knowing the type effectiveness of your moves, and the new Battle Royale, which is a free-for-all match between four players.
With a 30-plus hour story mode, these games are largely focused on world-building. They are written and made in a way that makes you focus on the journey and adventure, rather than grind towards the end. The plot is enjoyable and helps stitch the entire game together, even if it isn’t particularly special and a bit predictable. There is an air of general mystique that draws you forward and lets the characters speak for themselves. This game in particular has a larger emphasis on cutscenes, making it feel like a moving story, à la the animé.
As you progress through the world, there are a number of interesting and unique characters you meet who add their own flair to the mix. There’s the new Pokémon Professor, Kukai, who is permanently shirtless and always ready to get into the thick of things. There’s also Lillie, a character with a mysterious past, and your fun-loving rival Hau. There’s even someone who’s similar to the edgier, douchebag rivals of the old games, namely Gladion,who’s obsessed with beating you. The trial captains themselves have more personality than the old gym leaders due to how much they’re involved in the Island Challenges and not confined to gyms.
But, of course, this wouldn’t be a Pokémon game without the pokémon and these games do not disappoint. Apart from the 80 or so new Pokémon (bringing the total to over 800!) there are also regional variants of some older Pokémon. Once again, they are in line with the nature of Alola, with designs and characteristics that make sense for the region. For example, the Alolan form of Exeggutor, apart from now being a grass and dragon type, is huge and basically resembles a palm tree. The games capitalise on the fact that there are so many pokémon now, letting you catch a wide variety right from the start. This makes team-building more fun and enjoyable as opposed to before when you were stuck with birds and bugs for the first three routes or so. The very outdated system of HM’s has also been removed and is now replaced with Pokémon Ride, which fulfills the same purpose while being more fun and enjoyable. This also means you can have a full team of Pokémon that you like, rather than having one or two as obligatory HM slaves.
Pokémon Sun and Moon can arguably be considered the best games in the series released up until now. They’ve rejuvenated the system while keeping the original DNA enough that new players can easily jump in while older players can still play with a sense of familiarity. It’ll be intriguing to see where the series goes next, because Sun and Moon is clearly the beginning of a new era rather than the end of an old one.