I’ve been a Pokemon fan for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching the anime and trading cards with classmates on the playground. I recall the excitement and pure, childish joy I felt each time I finally saved up enough of my allowance to buy the latest game.
Fast forward about ten years, and something has changed. It definitely wasn’t my love for all things Pokemon, but my eighteen-year-old self playing the third generation remake, Alpha Sapphire, only felt a small fraction of the excitement my eight-year-old self had felt playing the original Sapphire. I had little explanation for why this was, until I realized I had become bored. After talking to some other older Pokemon fans, I found that this wasn’t an isolated issue. The children that adored the Pokemon franchise decades ago had grown up, but the games hadn’t grown with them. Making a Pokemon game had become like a recipe: have one main character, add a rival, a professor, eight gyms, an elite four, a team of bad guys, and a few new Pokemon, and that’s the game. There had been no real divergence from that basic formula in twenty years. It all became clear in the fifth generation: Black and White (and Black 2 and White 2) could have simply been considered a swing and miss, but with all the new features in X and Y, the game had no reason not to be the best Pokemon game yet. However, due to extremely simple game play, one dimensional characters, and a dull plot, it was one of the worst games yet for older fans. What had started off as a great adventure had grown old, especially for the older fans who were tired of playing the same story over and over again.
So, when the seventh generation was announced, I did not have high hopes for it. I could already see myself becoming frustrated with the dull characters and bored with the easy gameplay, as I had been for the past two generations. However, I still bought and played through the game, and I was completely astounded to see that I could not have been more wrong. The seventh generation truly catered to its older fans by improving the gameplay and the story to go with it. Pokemon Sun and Moon reminded me of why I’ve been a Pokemon fan as long as I have.
In Pokemon Sun and Moon, it’s time to dust off that experience point share that you haven’t used since its introduction at the start of generation six, because you’re going to need it in order to beat this game’s challenges. The increase in difficulty compared to previous games, in addition to fixing some long-time annoyances, adds up to an overall great game to play. Say good-bye to the days where you could button mash your way to the Pokemon League because your team was at least twenty levels higher than any NPC foolish enough to challenge you. As I played through, I noticed I was spending significant amounts of money on healing items and a lot more time considering what moves I should make, as if I were battling actual people. I normally don’t balance my play-through team to cover weaknesses, but half-way through the game, I had to go back to the start to catch and train up a Pokemon, all because I needed more type coverage to make it through the story. On top of that, NPCs actually use moves and items that make sense, including proper type match ups, strategic use of status moves, etc. I would go into battles with the rival trainer not fully confident I would win, and on a few occasions, I even lost. Losing a Pokemon battle during the main story wasn’t something that had happened to me since I was eight playing Pokemon Diamond, so imagine my surprise when I found that at one point, even wild Pokemon were at a higher level than me, with my experience point share on. The challenge was refreshing. Once again, I was immersed in the strategy of the game. I felt the familiar excitement and thrill of battling that had been lost for nearly ten years.
Another reason that makes it difficult for the player to waltz their way into the Pokemon League is the fact that there isn’t one. Not at the start of the game, anyway. Instead, the player undergoes the Island Challenge. There are no gyms to beat, no gym leaders to battle, and no badges to collect. Instead the player goes from island to island, completing trials and facing island Kahunas and totem Pokemon in this Hawaii-inspired region. It all starts with a trial.
First, the player must find the trial captain (who are similar to gym leaders) and complete their trial. Where they differ from gym leaders is that the player must complete some sort of task rather than battle them. In some cases, you could be running around a jungle searching for ingredients for a recipe, and other times, you could be chasing an illusion made by ghost Pokemon around a haunted abandoned grocery store. Each captain designs their own trial, generally relating to the type they represent. This leads to a wide variety of challenges for the player to complete. Oftentimes, these tasks helped to illuminate some new feature of the game. Though some may find this tedious, I found that it was a nice change of pace from the rhythmic experiences of gyms. I even found it a little helpful that they showcased some of the new features that I may have missed or otherwise overlooked.
You cannot complete a trial without winning a battle against the totem Pokemon. A totem Pokemon is a Pokemon that is larger and stronger than others of its species, knows moves they shouldn’t for their level, and will call ally Pokemon to help them defeat the player. The trial is over when you beat them.
Depending on the island, there can be anywhere from one to four trials to complete before you face the island Kahuna in a Grand Trial. If the trial captains are like gym leaders, then the Kahunas are like the elite four (some of them actually are the elite four once the league is developed). Kahunas are hand-picked for their job by their island’s deity Pokemon. Facing the Kahunas is more straightforward than the trial captains. You simply have to go and battle them, but that is no easy task when the NPCs have some strategy on their side as well. At the end of each trial and grand trial, the player is rewarded with a new Z-crystal that allows them to use the Z-move for the corresponding type of the trial or grand trial they beat. Z-moves are an interesting addition to the game: they are moves that can either be entirely new or power up existing moves. The idea behind them is that the trainer and Pokemon combine their power for an all-out move that you can only use once a battle. This adds a new element to the strategy of battling. I personally feel like they were added because mega evolution was overdone, but I find them much more entertaining than mega evolution. I love watching all the new animations for each Z-move, especially the unique ones tailored to specific Pokemon like Pikachu, Snorlax, and Eevee.
The island challenge set-up is much less repetitive than the gym set-up. It is much more interesting and entertaining than yet another generation of gyms would have been. In addition to some major gameplay changes, Pokemon Sun and Moon have changed some smaller details that make gameplay a lot smoother, the most notable one being the elimination of HMs. Finally, there is no need for useless Pokemon who know only terrible HM moves and rot in the PC, only to see the light of day when the player needs to move a boulder on one route- or even worse, take up a valuable move slot on your team that they can’t forget easily. The seventh generation brings us the ride system, where players can call upon a ride Pokemon instantly from anywhere to get past environmental obstacles you would have needed HMs for. Some ride Pokemon take on the function of the dowsing machine and the bicycle from previous generations. Of course, HM moves are still available to be taught to Pokemon, but they work as TMs now. That way, you can still teach your team the few useful HM moves like Surf or Fly. The ride Pokemon system allows for the challenge behind HM moves to remain (such as strength rock puzzles) without the annoyance that HMs pose. Overall, the more challenging NPCs, in addition to the introduction of the Island Challenge and ride Pokemon system, make game play much more enjoyable than it had been in previous generations.
As the Pokemon franchise has gotten older, there have been more opportunities to appeal to the older fans of previous generations. This was pretty much the founding principle behind Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. Pokemon Sun and Moon have many throwbacks to the first generation, but it is done in a way that enhances the story, rather than being the main focus. There are many references to the Kanto region in this game; many of the characters are affiliated with Kanto. The story starts when the player and their mother move from Kanto to Alola, and ends when one of the player’s friends moves from Alola to Kanto. However, the main character isn’t the only Kanto trainer in Alola- after beating the main game, the player can go to the Battle Tree: this game’s equivalent of the Battle Chateau. At the Battle Tree, you can battle famous trainers from previous generations. This includes characters like Wally (from Pokemon Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald and their remakes), Cynthia (from Pokemon Diamond, Pearl and Platnium), and most excitingly, Red and Blue (from Pokemon Red, Green, Blue, and their remakes). Getting to see some of my favourite characters and their teams from past generations was a really entertaining aspect. I never enjoyed the Battle Chateaus in past games, but I frequent the Battle Tree post-game hoping I will get the chance to battle some of these famous trainers again.
The most obvious, and in my opinion, most interesting reference to generation one was the introduction of Alola forms. Some Pokemon from generation one now find themselves in Alola, with new types, move pools, and appearances, depending on how they adapted to Alola’s environment. I had a great time using some of my old favourites again, experimenting with new strategies and how I could use them in battle.
While some of the new forms were a bit lackluster or amusing, most of them were very well done. Alola forms are a great way to combine nostalgia with a something new and different to make old favourites new again. In Pokemon Sun and Moon, there is a good balance between new and old aspects for long-time fans and new players alike to enjoy.
As I mentioned previously, Pokemon X and Y had all the makings of a great game, but what made it so terrible was the plot and the gameplay. Most notably, the characters (Shauna especially) were extremely annoying. Every time a cut scene would start, I would cringe, knowing that either Shauna or Calem were on their way to bother me with some daunting task or lifeless dialogue. On top of that, Team Flare was lackluster, to say the least. However, the seventh generation managed to include interesting characters and a thought-provoking plot. Through its characters, this game introduces and explores themes such the ethics of being a Pokemon trainer, corruption in seemingly well-meaning organizations, and even the obligations of family members to each other. Evil organizations are a staple in Pokemon games, but unlike in previous games, Team Skull is disorganized and generally lacking in direction. Lead by destruction in human form, ya boy Guzma, Team Skull is viewed as more of an annoyance than an actual threat to the people of Alola. They are looked down upon and often the topic of jokes and mockery.
Similar to Team Rocket from generation one, Team Skull don’t have any grand scheme. They just go around bothering the player with battles and occasionally steal someone’s Pokemon. I found Team Skull to be extremely entertaining; they were funny and rather harmless, but I felt that the game still needed a real antagonist. That came in the form of another group in Alola dedicated to the conservation and protection of Pokemon: the Aether Foundation. President Lusamine talks passionately about preserving the beauty of Pokemon and cites her deep love for them as the reason why she created the man-made island of Aether Paradise. The player gets their first glimpse of Aether Paradise before the game even starts: the opening sequence shows Lillie running through Aether Paradise with a Pokemon in her bag as she is pursued by workers. When she is cornered, the Pokemon in her bag creates a bright light that engulfs her, ending the cut scene and starting the game. Lillie is introduced as the professor’s assistant who has been staying with him for “personal reasons” for three months.
She behaves rather mysteriously at the beginning of the game, never giving much information to the player as to why the Pokemon she keeps hidden in her bag is so important to protect or why she must travel around looking for information about it. On their journey, Lillie is quite timid. She is very scared of Pokemon and strangers. While Lillie is off on her own, the player and rival, Hau, often run into Team Skull, particularly an enforcer called Gladion. Like Lillie, Gladion has a mysterious Pokemon of his own; he can be seen as a secondary rival to the player due to their frequent encounters and battles. When the player and Hau receive an offer to visit Aether Paradise, Lillie behaves strangely when she refuses to join them.
Soon after the visit, Lillie and her Pokemon are kidnapped and brought to Aether Paradise, leaving the player, Hau, and Gladion to save her. It is there that the main plot of the story is revealed: both Lillie and Gladion are children of Lusamine, having fled the Aether Foundation when their mother’s growing obsession with Ultra Beasts — extradimensional Pokemon of extreme power — led to her insanity and neglect. Gladion and Lillie had both separately stolen Pokemon Lusamine had been preparing to sacrifice to free the Ultra Beasts before they escaped Aether Paradise. Although the corruption of the AetherFoundation was somewhat predictable, I am still glad it was included in the game. For so long, players were just told that the evil team was evil, and that was that. By introducing the Aether Foundation, which in all respects, is built on good morals of saving Pokemon in danger, and showing how those morals are twisted under poor leadership, Nintendo makes the story more dimensional than ones in previous games. In addition, Lusamine doesn’t do what she does because she relishes in creating chaos (well, maybe that’s a small part of it), but she honestly believes that what she’s doing is best for the protection of the Ultra Beasts, and that the sacrifice of her children’s Pokemon is a necessary evil to achieve what she considers to be the greater good. However, her good intentions are lost the more she obsesses with the Ultra Beasts. What was once “protecting Pokemon is beautiful” turned into “protect beauty”.
Regardless of her children’s attempts to stop her, once Lusamine has Lillie, she uses her Pokemon to unleash the Beasts on Alola so she can protect their beauty. She travels into Ultra Space in order to totally harness their power. After this, Lillie’s character development progresses rapidly. She decides to stop running from her problems to stop her mother’s plot instead. She starts to dress differently and refers to her newly found determined spirit as her “z-powered form”. This is important to Lillie’s development. She states earlier in the game that she simply wears whatever her mother wants her to, causing her to resemble the Ultra Beast her mother became obsessed with. When she changes her clothes, it’s symbolic of her discovering who she is without the commanding influence of her mother. From there, gone are the days of scared and helpless Lillie. She works tirelessly with the player to gather information, summon the legendary Pokemon, and finally travel into Ultra Space to stop her mother. Before the final battle with Lusamine, she scolds Lillie for trying to disrupt her perfect world, saying “I don’t care if you are my child or not… if you’re not beautiful enough to be worthy of my love, then I don’t NEED you!”. To this, Lillie responds, “I am the one who is sick of you, Mother! Children are not just THINGS!… We are not made for you to just discard when you get bored of us! That is terrible, Mother! You are terrible!”.
In turn, Lusamine compares her disposal of her children to the player disposing Pokemon they no longer use to into the PC. Once the battle is over and Lusamine collapses, she asks Lillie when she started becoming beautiful. I was shocked to see this scene. Having this as the climax of the story was so completely different from the battle-centered plot the games normally focus on. The franchise used this chance to make the story more interesting and show Lillie’s development, rather than simply and poorly building up to the final battle, as they had in the past. I found that having a good plot behind the battles made the game much more exciting to play.
Overall, Pokemon Sun and Moon introduced better gameplay, plot, and characters on top of making the game more difficult to beat, and along with a touch of nostalgia, it definitely takes the series to a new level of maturity. By catering to older fans through increased difficulty and complexity, the franchise is beginning to explore the deeper potential and conflicts that the concept of the Pokemon universe has to offer. Pokemon Sun and Moon is leagues better than recent generations, and hopefully, it will set the franchise down a path to even better games in the future.