When was the last time you played a Pokémon game? It was this summer, wasn’t it? Back when any grown adult who hadn't cursed at the sight of yet another Pidgey hanging around their local bus stop could consider themselves a social pariah.
Things have calmed down a bit now, of course. We now pop down our local with the express aim of having a pint, instead of reasserting our status as gym leader. For a startling few months, the world was served with a timely reminder that trying to catch ‘em all is still ridiculously addictive fun.
If Pokémon Go was a smash hit because it took a classic formula and updated it with augmented reality smarts, then Sun and Moon cannot claim to be anywhere near as bold. These two new Pokémon games for Nintendo’s 3DS make some welcome changes, but stick to many of the same traditions established almost two decades ago by Red and Blue. And that’s OK with us.
If you thought Go was one hell of a timesink, then you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Let’s say you’re a casual Poké fan: you bought a GameBoy Color just to play Red and Blue but your trucker hat and badge collection have since been on hiatus. Well Pokémon Sun and Moon are gonna prove quite the step change.
More than being taken aback by the 3DS’ stunning animated visuals and the fact that Charmander isn’t a starter Pokémon, you’re about to find out just how much the mechanics of these titles have broadened out. Pokémon are now gendered, can be bred, belong to almost 20 types and now have special superpowered Z-moves that you can use once per match. You can’t just multiply yourself up some Rare Candy anymore and blitz your way to a win.
On the other hand, pretty much every recognisable facet of what made this franchise an initial success is still in place. Even down to the fact that your mother remains quite happy to scoot you off out of her house and into a world full of feral creatures with hardened appendages sprouting out of god knows where. So long-time fans who picked up a copy of X or Y probably won’t notice a huge difference beyond the game’s window dressing.
Both Sun and Moon are set in the new Alola region, a collection of five tropical islands populated by humans, Pokémon and an astonishing amount of cartoonish melodrama. As you’d expect, the difference between the two titles is mainly cosmetic.
If you’re playing in the daytime in Sun it’ll be daytime in the game, whereas in Moon you’ll be greeted with a nighttime visage instead. There are also exclusive Pokémon to each game, but to most intents and purposes they’re pretty much identical. You know the drill then: you get one version of the game and your friend/sibling/godchild gets the other one.
Either way, the tale of shady corporations, cutesy heroes and blundering villains isn’t going to change, and this fact is almost as inconsequential as the snot-nosed Youngster Jimmy whose Rattata we gave an overdue hiding to on Route 1. What works about these games is their structure, and this was dramatically simplified for GO.
With Sun and Moon, you get the full-fat Poké experience. So you can raise your ‘mon without pretending you always used to walk 10,000 steps a day before downloading an app for children. It also means any player will have to think about the way they raise their team, fill out their Pokédex and battle their way to the status of master. Well, for the most part.
WINNER TAKES IT ALL
As ever, your base Poké adventure is pretty easy. We couldn’t tell you the difference between the Johto and Unova regions, but have managed to battle our way through Moon so far without losing a single battle. That’s no new phenomenon, but it does mean the game’s most challenging moments - like completing your Pokédex and battling your mates - are mainly reserved for after you’ve completed it.
Even gym buildings have been replaced with Island Trials, which mix Pokémon battles with finding items and tests of your Poké knowledge. While these Trials do a thoroughly good job of bringing Alola to life, making you feel as though you’re not stuck on an endless battle-catch treadmill. They also involve a bit more story than simple defeating five or so trainers in a row. That said, they aren’t all that taxing.
For a proper fight, you’ll want to head over to the new multiplayer mode, Battle Royale. Rather than pitting a horde Pokémon together in a tremendously gruesome, televised battle for survival, this is simply a four-way battle for trainer supremacy. And it works really well. Each player chooses a team of three Pokémon to fight with and the person with the most KOs at the end of the battle wins.
The twist? If one player’s team is completely wiped out then the match is over. So each Battle Royale tends to start with everyone ganging up on an poor soul before scrambling to change the course of events after one player has taken a clear lead.
Meet your new starters
Just because Pokémon Sun and Moon aren’t too tough, that doesn’t mean you won’t have fun with them. Far from it, from the bonding with your Pokémon to taking photos of them via Poké Finder, these games are stuffed to the brim with distractions. Most of which are more twee than a Belle & Sebastian vinyl made from repurposed charity shop cardigans. Honestly, you can waste a solid half an hour deciding the best tropical shirt to don your trainer in before heading out on the open road again.
Just as cutesy are the starter Pokémon you have to choose from, which look like they were made to be transformed into plush toys. There’s Rowlet, an owl-like creature with a leaf-shaped bow tie, and Litten, the fire-breathing kitten. Best of all is Popplio, a clown/seal hybrid that’s infinitely less terrifying than that sentence implies.
In a world where an ice cream-shaped Pokémon called Vanilluxe exists, you’d think that Sun and Moon’s creators would have run out of ideas for new monstrosities by now. To their immense credit, the new Generation VII beasts look just as adorable as ever. That new Poké-themed merchandise isn’t going to sell itself, you know.
Pokémon Sun and Moon Verdict
So if Go reignited your Poké-fandom once more, then Sun and Moon will keep it burning well into the new year. Mainly by reinventing things just enough to keep the wheel turning.
Is this change going to be enough to appeal to the droves of millennials who walked miles this summer in the hope of finding a wild Pikachu? Probably not, but that’s no biggie. Sun and Moon are mainly for kids and people whose party trick is reciting the entire Pokédex from Red and Blue. And they’ll likely find hours of enjoyment in Sun and Moon.
Whether it’s a timely nostalgia trip or brand new adventure for you, these games deliver the goods.