It’s a testament to a franchise to be just as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. While some things don’t change, like Ash Ketchum still being a loser, a lot of the latest entry gives Pokemon The Force Awakened treatment: making something old feel new again, even if it isn’t dramatically so. While the franchise has grown in depth tremendously, especially since 2007’s Diamond/Pearl introduced online activity, none of the games managed to really recapture the sense of wonder many felt during their first playthroughs of Red/Blue or Silver/Gold. That sensation of exploring a new world teeming with new life.
Alola is a world where for the first time in the franchise’s history actually feels like a world where people and Pokemon live together. Rather than reuse key items and force useless moves on your team, the newly introduced Ride Pager solves both problems. The Ride Pager allows you to ride on one of seven Pokemon that perform special functions. You can call on Charizard to fly you anywhere you’ve visited on Alola, ride a Stoutland to look for hidden items, or even be carried by a Machamp while it shoves big blocks out of your way.
There are three key ways to experience Pokemon: 1.) to fight everyone and prove you’re better than them, 2.) to complete your Pokedex and catch all 802* Pokemon, and 3.) to wander around and take in the sights. For a while the third option wasn’t really a viable one since the main plot line in nearly all entries have been too linear for their own good. You essentially run a loop around the world map and grind through the mandatory 8 gyms before taking on the Pokemon League. The story is always meant to act as a coming of age tale, but it always comes off as children wandering away from home fighting organized crime with extremely dangerous monsters. Alola’s trials, which replace gym battles, feel so much more fun and organic than anything provided before.
For returning fans, Sun/Moon streamlines a lot of its more complex inner workings to get you into competitions more quickly. The new Z-moves are cute more than useful, not quite being the gamebreaker some may have feared they would be. Plus if you’ve been stockpiling Pokemon from either X/Y or Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire, you can only transfer your Pokemon through the Bank, which itself won’t be prepared for Sun/Moon until January.
The biggest reason Pokemon continues to be great is because it’s strikes a balance between being shallow enough to understand and enjoy on a superficial level but deep enough that it takes hundreds of hours to wrap your mind around combating complex tactics employed by some of the best real players around the world.
One has to wonder how much of Sun & Moon’s current success is in thanks for Pokemon Go’s insane ascension in the mobile market (and it’s equally insane dip following months of updates and tweaks). While Nintendo hasn’t had success creating new franchises, Pokemon has always been a go-to. Right now it’s Nintendo’s fastest selling title ever and for good reason. Sun/Moon is nostalgia refined and distilled. Forget the cutesy graphics for a moment and the whack anime that accompanies it. Pokemon has been a pillar franchise for Nintendo for a reason: because few games are as good as you remember them to be. Sun/Moon is that kind of game.