With the massive initial success of “Pokemon Go” earlier this year, the monster-collecting cash cow entered the public consciousness in a huge way. Excitement about Pikachu and co. was as high as it’s ever been since the franchise blew up in the late 1990s.
That timing turned out to be great, as there’s a pair of brand new “Pokemon” role-playing games out for Nintendo 3DS: “Pokemon Sun & Moon.” These games have always been the primary driving force behind the franchise, ever since they debuted on the original GameBoy in 1996.
Whether you’re a longtime fan or someone who just got into “Pokemon” this year with “Pokemon Go,” great new features make these the most fun and refreshing critter collecting simulators in years. Here’s why:
'Pokemon Go' is a GPS app where cute creatures occasionally show up for you to throw balls at. 'Pokemon Sun & Moon' are fully-featured RPGs with a story, a huge world to explore, and much deeper combat than their mobile cousin.
However, don't let that intimidate you; the 'Pokemon' RPG games have always been casual and accessible as a means to attract a younger audience. 'Pokemon Sun & Moon' do an even better job of easing in new players than previous games.
Sun & Moon are not separate games so much as they are slightly differing versions of the same game. Basically, the kinds of Pokemon you can find and catch will differ based on which version you get, with the most significant difference being which legendary Pokemon you'll find near the end of the game.
Otherwise, the world, story, and gameplay mechanics are more or less the same. Buy whichever one has a cooler looking Pokemon on the box.
The basic concepts you might know from 'Pokemon Go,' such as different Pokemon having different strengths and weaknesses, are basically intact here. You will make your way through the world, catching Pokemon to make the best and most varied team of six battle-ready pocket monsters you possibly can.
Put simply, there's never been a better time to jump on the bandwagon.
The main problem with the 'Pokemon' games is that they have followed the same repetitive structure for 20 years. Any changes made to the formula before now have generally felt marginal from a casual perspective, which made it difficult for me to care for several years.
'Pokemon Sun & Moon' shake things up for the first time, completely uprooting the design in favour of something better.
You see, in the old games, you would travel from town to town, levelling up your team and taking on each town's Gym Leader. When you conquered a gym, you would get a badge that would let you take on the next gym.
This time around, we're in the new, Hawaii-inspired region of Alola, a chain of tropical islands. Each island has a set of unique, element-based trials to complete, with each trial eventually rewarding you with access to powerful, spectacular super moves for your Pokemon.
Once you finish all the trials on a given island, you take on that island's Kahuna, who essentially replace Gym Leaders in Alola. Each Kahuna has a varied team of powerful Pokemon, so you'll need to keep a well-balanced team yourself.
The new trial-based setup brings a ton of much-needed variety to the series. In one of them, you have to watch Pokemon dance and memorise their moves, while in another, you navigate a haunted grocery store on a ghost hunt.
Each trial culminates in a battle with a Totem Pokemon, which is a beefed up version of a regular Pokemon. These battles can be tough, as Totem Pokemon can use unique abilities and call in allies to ruin your day.
Overall, it's several orders of magnitude more engaging than the old Gym system because there is so much variety. Not every trial is amazing, but the good ones far outweigh the bad ones.
In the older 'Pokemon' games, you would occasionally need to use moves such as Fly or Surf to navigate the world when your feet wouldn't do. That means you had to teach those moves to a Pokemon and keep that Pokemon in your party in order to get around, even if the Pokemon wasn't of any use in battle.
It was a frustrating, antiquated feature that needed to go. Thankfully, it has, thanks to the new Ride Pager system.
With the Ride Pager, you can summon a handful of different Pokemon to ride on, with each having different abilities to help you out. Tauros can run quickly and crush rocks, Machamp can push huge blocks to solve puzzles, Charizard can fly, and so on.
You don't actually get those Pokemon to use in battle, but the fact that you no longer need to keep inferior Pokemon around just to navigate the world is a massive improvement.
The evolution isn't just relegated to gameplay design, as this pair of new games adds something resembling a real story, which the older games never really had.
Before, you played as a kid whose goal was to become the Pokemon League champion. You'd run into fun characters and scenarios along the way, but even the most involved storylines usually existed to get you from one town to another.
'Pokemon Sun & Moon' don't have some epic tale of love and loss at their core, but what's there is certainly more interesting than it has been in the past. Alola is a decent setting with a sense of cultural identity and there are some sci-fi twists to be found later on in the game.
Again, it's nothing outstanding, but it's enough to keep you motivated to see it through to the end.
Battles in 'Pokemon' games are generally one-on-one turn-based affairs, where you pick moves from a menu and switch Pokemon in and out of battle depending on their effectiveness against the opposition.
That's largely true here, though some new tweaks make it more accessible and exciting than before.
First, the best new feature in the entire game aside from the Ride Pager is a small change to the battle menus: The game will now tell you if each move will be effective against the opposing Pokemon if you've encountered that Pokemon before.
Previously, you were just expected to know which types were strong or weak against other types. That's fine in cases where common sense prevails (fire melts ice, for example), but when the more arcane types like Fairy or Dragon come into play, it can be confusing to the layman.
Thanks to some new menu text, that's a thing of the past. Great!
Otherwise, the main new addition to combat is Z-Moves, a new type of ultimate attack. There is a Z-Move for each different type of attack, which are all unlocked by playing through the story.
They are pretty darn spectacular and fun to watch. My personal favourite is the one where my main dude Incineroar (a pro wrestler tiger with a flaming belt) traps his opponent in a wrestling ring before nuking the ring with an atomic body slam.
If you don't already own a 3DS, it might be worth waiting for Nintendo's upcoming Switch console to play this
'Pokemon Sun & Moon' look quite nice for 3DS games, as the Pokemon are lively and their special attacks look fantastic. Unfortunately, the games occasionally push the hardware past its limits.
Anytime more than two Pokemon are on screen during a Team Battle, the game slows to a crawl. There is also an optional mini-game where you take pictures of Pokemon using a first-person camera view, which is downright unplayable due to the way the game chugs when you use the camera.
I have a sneaking suspicion that this has something to do with unconfirmed reports that 'Pokemon Sun & Moon' are coming to Nintendo's upcoming Switch console in 2017. Switch is going to be exponentially more powerful than the 3DS, so the game should look and run much better there.
Plus, with Switch, you'll be able to play the game in HD on a large television. Plenty of people just don't have a desire to fit handheld gaming into their lifestyles, which is totally understandable.
In all honesty, the only real complaint I have about 'Pokemon Sun & Moon' is that they're currently locked on an underpowered, five year old handheld console with pretty pitiful screen resolution. That's supposedly set to change within the next year, and if you feel comfortable with waiting, that's the way to go.
They aren't flawless or revolutionary RPGs, but 'Pokemon Sun & Moon' are as good as this series gets
I also want to mention that you can trade and battle Pokemon online with friends or strangers in 'Pokemon Sun & Moon.' It seems to work as well as it has in the past, so if that's your thing, have fun.
Overall, this isn't some grand, mind blowing RPG on the same scale as 'Final Fantasy XV.' It's more 'Pokemon,' but most importantly, it's much better 'Pokemon.'
Whether you're a seasoned vet or a new fan, 'Pokemon Sun & Moon' is absolutely worthwhile. You can easily get 30 or more hours out of it without ever engaging in multiplayer or optional mini games, which is made more impressive by the fact that I so rarely found any of it tedious or poorly designed.
It hooked me from the minute I first booted it up, which is no small feat considering I fell off the 'Pokemon' train about a decade ago. Thanks to 'Pokemon Sun & Moon,' there's never been a better time to hop back on.