A long-running franchise is a lot like a marriage (I know it’s not, but just run with it for now so we can all get back to the bar). At first it’s very exciting, if a little rough around the edges, as you get used to the foibles and quirks that you will soon come to love about that person/series/product line/battery-powered device. Then, as things progress and the relationship mellows out, everything becomes a bit more relaxed. You understand each other, you know what to expect from each other. There’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing that nothing is going to change… Until you realise the true horror of that concept. Nothing is going to change. No evolution, no progress, no variation. The relationship stagnates, and you must inject fresh life into the routine if things are going to continue.
Hence we have Pokémon Sun and Moon being the metaphorical bungee-jumping trip or open relationship that will make or break everything. I think we can definitely say at this point that Pokémon X and Y represented the death stare of middle-aged, resentful apathy, with Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby being the nostalgic wish for older, better times.
So this new generation has a lot riding on it. Well, a bit riding on it. Nobody’s under the illusion that this series couldn't sell anything but a billion copies at this point, but if Pokémon wants to keep a modicum of critical respect then it could afford to put in some effort back into the series. Now we find out whether things are back on track, or if we should resolve ourselves to avoiding the loveless glare of our former sweetheart from across the dinner table.
Pokémon Sun and Moon are available from Amazon.com for $36.98.
The big twist in Sun and Moon is that we’re not in pseudo-Japan anymore, but pseudo-Hawaii with a bit of pseudo-Polynesia mixed in. Our prepubescent avatar gets booted into his new home on the island network of Alola, with the traditional housebound mother waiting at home with no obvious source of income. Is the world of Pokemon socialistic, or is mama bear secretly the head of Team Rocket and just fleeing the country with several suitcases full of money, Walter White-style?
Whatever the case, our hero goes out to explore this new land and is promptly dragged into the usual Significantly Major Event with Greater Meaning than is Admitted By the Understanding Characters that are Knowledgable about Encroaching Times – which, by a staggering coincidence, just happens to spell out the words “S.M.E.G.M.A.B.U.C.K.E.T.” We find ourselves rescuing a mysterious figure and her very useless Pokémon from an dangerous attack, but in such a way that we need rescuing straight afterwards. Our hero is undeniably plucky in a generic sort of way, but he certainly leaves something to be desired when it comes to the execution.
But execution is not really the word in play here, as the kid is plucked from the jaws of death by a passing Deus Ex Machina, then rewarded for his incompetency with a Pokémon that he can use as a meat shield from then on. I picked the circus seal, partly because I’ve always liked my water-types, partly because it had a despairing look in its eye that I could empathise with, but mainly in the hope that when it took damage that its nose would make an amusing honking sound – no such luck, sadly.
Which wouldn't have been out of place in this game. There’s something undeniably more cynical about Sun and Moon, a strangely acerbic edge that I find strangely honest and likeable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we’re playing a JRPG of Taxi Driver, but it’s similar to the comparison between Ocarina Of Time and Majora’s Mask. The latter is a little less cuddly around the edges, but consequently it’s more easily appreciated by a slightly older audience, partly because the children may not realise how terrifying certain aspects might be.
I wonder if they were aware of how suggestively miserable some aspects ended up becoming. Flicking through the Pokédex was certainly something of an eye-opener, as half the entries casually describe a series of nightmarish existences that would make Werner Herzog curl up into a frightened ball and weep for his mother. “It is born asleep, and dies asleep,” reads one especially bleak bit of flavour text about a cuddly animated koala. “Its life is apparently no more than the results of it tossing and turning in its dreams.” Christ on a cracker, that’s very messed up!
If you want further evidence that somebody with depression was working on the writing team, the game provides the occasional binary dialogue choice, which usually allows you to play one of two roles – either a bouncy tag-along, or an unimpressed killjoy that makes me wonder if our dad was secretly David Mitchell. I always went with the sour attitude every time, and obviously nothing of significance changes either way, but it was nice not to have to put up with too much of Kawaii Hawaii without telling the more cheerful inhabitants to shut up and sit down.
Yes, I was that kid who criticised the other children’s finger paintings at school, why do you ask?
But everything slides predictably into place before too long. We have a recurring rival (the cheerful comrade type, not the snide jackass type) we have a professor who moonlights as a professional wrestler, a milktose companion who couldn't fight her way through a thick fog, a set of useless villains, a mysterious organisation led by somebody in ridiculous clothing, a legendary monster waiting patiently in the wings, and of course a series of gyms that – what’s that? We don’t have those any more?
Yes, it turns out that the gym system has been discarded for a slapdash, trail-by-fire idea that everybody involved seems to be making up as they go along. Broadly speaking, you show up at a new island, where a random number of “captains” will be dotted around the place with individual tasks to complete before you can challenge them. These tasks range from fighting powerful enemies to taking photographs of ghosts, but after you’ve done your arbitrary task and kicked in the teeth of everybody calling themselves El Capitan, you can finally hunt down the “Kahuna” of that island and do the same to him. Much to my dismay, I found no bug-themed island leaders who called themselves “The Kakuna Kahuna.” Missed opportunity, Nintendo.
On the whole the story is a big improvement from X and Y, which had more bottle-necking, unnecessary dialogue and annoying characters than the average Final Fantasy game. Sun and Moon know to make the narrative take a back seat when it isn't needed, and consequently this doesn’t break up the pacing, letting us enjoy a certain amount of exploration and trying to work out what the best team-comp is, like it matters.
The odd thing I noticed about this alleged 3DS game is that the 3D barely enters into it. The only time Pokémon Sun seemed to even admit to having a Z-axis was when I entered a contextual photography minigame, that had us getting paparazzi shots of unaware Pokémon for no discernible reason I could work out.
And thank Christ for that. Without the 3D function I could play for more than twenty minutes without getting the inevitable headache, though I admit that there's not much to focus on that makes this seem like some great victory. It's pretty much the same sprite animation we’ve come to expect in recent years, not very exciting to look at but perfectly functional, if a bit garishly coloured. And whilst the environments are nicely designed, they’re too small and disposable to produce any real atmosphere – by the time you're getting used to somewhere, you’ve left it behind again. There seems to be a town every thirty feet, and as a result there’s no wilderness that actually feels wild – only a sequence of expensive, overgrown gardens that we’re wandering through like a bored neighbourhood cat. Maybe if each island had a single ecosystem and only a couple of towns then it might've worked, but as it is you can go from dry scrubland from steaming jungles in a few minutes, and it all feels very unimpactful.
Oh, and the music’s fine. Not much more to say about it, really. It captures tone and summarises the situation fine enough, and though I found it all perfectly acceptable, I forgot about it the moment it was over and felt no need to go back to it.
In the days since Pokémon Platinum – the last high point of the main series, from which it has been constantly trending downhill until now – I grew to realise that the Pokémon games were not interested in evolution or developing their gameplay, despite evolving and personal growth being one of the core mechanics. Ironic, really.
So the most I can do is touch upon the small fringe assets that have changed since the last generation. I’m very glad to see that mega-evolution is being quietly pushed back into the shadows, as a long, unskippable animation that forced your most powerful pets into going Super-Saiyan wasn't what was necessary for a games series that was becoming too easy and poorly-paced to begin with.
Instead, the new gimmick is one-use attacks that vary depending on type. Every time you beat a Captain, they’re more than likely to cough up some kind of rock that you can give to any of your Pokémon to hold, one that empowers the moves they have. For example, give the electric rock to something that has a electric-based attack already, and you’ll discover the option to perform some planet-busting, lightning super-move. Honestly, I’m not sure this sort of thing is necessary – this is another overly easy entry in the series and fluff like this doesn’t help – but it can only be used once per battle and does require you get the appropriate bit of stone, so it does feel more impactful than mega-evolution was.
There’s also a peculiar emphasis on Pokémon care, with the constant ability to manually pet, clean and just generally tend to your minions between battles, which I guess is the spectre of Nintendogs coming back to haunt us. Frankly, the only useful function I got out of this feature was that you can use it to cure status conditions between battles, but I’ll admit that there’s a darkly adult humour to be found in rubbing certain spots on your Pokémon until they just burst with delight and spray particle effects over you with pure satisfaction! You might call it perverse, but I just consider it my way of trying to shove the overall Nintendo psychology forward into puberty, once and for all.
And, of course, there are new Pokémon to catch and catalogue accordingly, though the creators have elected not to make a whole new batch of critters fresh from the oven, adding only a few new kids this time, and instead proposing the idea that familiar Pokémon now look and operate differently owing to the new environment, hence why Muk is now coloured like he’s been eating tie-die t-shirts and Dugtrio has taken hairdressing tips from Baywatch.
I should clarify that this isn't just for aesthetics. Everything that's gone through a visual redesign has been made dual-type for its trouble, such as Alolan Raichu being a sporty electric/psychic type, rather than being the former bog-standard variety that could only fry your entertainment system, not your higher brain functions.
I rather like this idea, truth be told. The Pokémon roster is now so large that they never need add to its numbers again, and though there are new Pokémon added like the aforementioned Coma Koala, it's made pretty clear by the advertising campaign and the game itself that the real focus here is seeing how the Gen I group have grown up since those high school days. In fact, I would submit that this might just be the best way of going about things from now on – don’t keep adding new Pokémon in, that just comes across as overwhelming and forces you to come up with junk ideas like Vanillish to fill the gaps. Instead, why not focus on the regional variation, giving us a sense of investment in how the likeable Pokémon have changed and developed over time?
Beyond that, the game is exactly what you'd think it would be, even with the shaking-up of the gym system. Animals attack anybody foolish to enter grass higher than six inches, those animals can be shoved inside Christmas tree decorations, and then you can throw those animals at other animals in order to clear the path and possibly collect the meat for a top-notch barbecue along the way.
Huh. Actually, that never occurred to me before – is everybody in the Pokémon world vegetarian, or has it always been acceptable to throw a Miltank leg in the oven when you’re hosting a dinner party?
Honestly, Pokémon Sun is fine. Think of it as some solid fun that certainly could’ve been a bit more meaty, but otherwise feels like a cautious return to form after a few less-than-stellar entries in the franchise. What we need now is for this growth and development to keep going, for Game Freak and Nintendo to keep adding new stuff that can become a permanent mainstay of the series, not a series of discardable gimmicks, like somebody dangling their keys in front of a crowd of magpies. Buy a copy if you always liked the series, but if you didn’t, this is unlikely to change your mind.
|+ Story feels "for the family" rather than "for children"||– Not quite as fresh as it could be|
|+ Regional changes are a good idea||– The scale of the environment feels small|
|+ 3D isn't used to any great degree||– Still too easy as a whole|
|+ Mega-evolution is put on the back-burner|