When I drove down to Nintendo last week to spend a couple hours with Pokémon Sun and Moon, it was with the expectation that it would follow the well-worn template set down by other games in the series. And for better or worse, my expectations were largely borne out: Game Freak has Pokémon down to a science. But that doesn't mean I was disappointed.
On the contrary, Pokémon Sun and Moon looks to build on what worked in the previous games while having its own voice and outlook. This is definitely the freshest the series has been in a while. With that, here are some observations from my time with Sun and Moon.
The presentation is lovely this time around
Pokémon has never been what you would call ugly, but its presentation has typically been utilitarian at best. In that light, Sun and Moon's colorful menus really stand out in comparison to previous games in the series. Everything is bigger, brighter, and more attractive in this game, which has the effect of elevating the visuals as a whole. Even the Pokedex has been possessed by a Navi-like Rotom that bobs around the bottom screen and offers advice. The upgrades extend to the graphics; and while the difference isn't quite the N64 to PS2 upgrade touted by the Treehouse representative at the event, the animation and character models are noticeably better. All in all, Pokémon Sun and Moon stands to be one of the better looking games on the Nintendo 3DS.
The Totem Pokémon elevate the trials
Much has been made of Sun and Moon's trials, which ostensibly replace the gyms from the previous games. Well, I'll let you in on a little secret: They aren't that different. Yes, there are a handful of quests and items to collect; but at the end of the day, they aren't that dissimilar from the gym puzzles of previous game. The biggest difference is in the Totem Pokémon—powerful monsters that stand in for gym leaders. Going head-to-head with a buffed up Pokémon is an interesting wrinkle, especially with it being able to summon in additional monsters to help it, forcing you to fight 2-on-1. The asymmetric battles are something that Pokémon hasn't really done before, and it's evidence of Game Freak pushing both its engine and its traditional battle format a bit. I don't know if it's a massive difference—truth be told, I was kind of hoping some of the challenges would be resolved with minigames ala The Orange Islands—but it's still a nice change of pace.
Hau is another in a long line of lame rivals
Okay, I'll start by saying that I like Hau—the main rival in Pokémon Sun and Moon. He's fun, he's energetic, and he looks like he would be right at home bumming around a beach in Waikiki. But alas, he's not a great Pokémon trainer. Right at the outset, he breaks tradition and chooses the monster that is weak to your starter, which results in him getting rolled in less than two moves. He reminds me of Brendan—the friendly but ultimately weak rival from Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire who can't even bother to fully evolve his starter. We're a long way from the halcyon days of Gary/Blue, who managed to be both an excellent trainer and an unrepentant prick. When you beat Blue, you felt like a million bucks. Hau, though, probably won't amount to much more than a speed bump, putting him in the same forgettable category as Barry, Bianca, and Calem (Cheren was alright). Bring back the hateful rivals, Game Freak! It's been too long.
Game Freak has dropped 3D entirely
One strike against Pokémon X and Y was its poor 3D implementation, which was patchy and tended to hurt the framerate. But rather than try and improve it for Sun and Moon, Game Freak has opted to drop it altogether. Why? At a guess, it's because it doesn't play nicely with their engine, and because they have bigger fish to fry. But with both Fire Emblem Fates and Super Smash Bros. both supporting 3D and looking markedly better than Pokémon Sun and Moon, it makes one wonder how good Game Freak's tech actually is. With all that said, I never turn on 3D anyway, so I don't really care. But I'm sure a few people will be disappointed that Game Freak is moving backward rather than forward on this front.
Pokémon Sun & Moon follows a positive tradition
Game Freak has a good track record with games like Sun and Moon. Gold/Silver and Black/White were both second generation games on their respective handhelds, and both were well-received by fans. When Game Freak is working with familiar tech, they tend to stretch out and get a little more ambitious with their content. To wit, Gold and Silver has one of the franchise's best surprises: the return to Kanto. Black and White, for its part, boasts one of the most expansive and interesting regions in the series. If these games are any guide, Sun and Moon is where Game Freak will cut loose a bit.
The signs are already good. One of Sun and Moon's new features is the Festival Plaza—a ring of shops that brings to mind Black 2 & White 2's excellent Join Avenue. It enables players to collect Festival Coins by meeting other players and completing requests, which can in turn be spent on upgrading the plaza's myriad stores. They include dye houses, clothing shops, and hilariously, a bouncy castle for Pokémon to train in. As it happens, Black 2 and White 2 is my absolute favorite game in the series, so I'm delighted that Game Freak is going back to the well in this instance. I'm also intrigued by the new Poke Pelago—a series of islands where you can send your boxed Pokémon to play and hang out. From the sound of it, it will offer a way to passively train your monsters, which is badly needed.
At the end of the say, Pokémon Sun and Moon will follow the same basic outline as every Pokémon game, which was obvious to me as I met the region's professor, obtained my first monster (Litten), and battled students at the Alola Region's Pokémon School. Game Freak will never shake up the formula too much, because they have too much to lose in doing so. But to the extent that is possible, Sun and Moon appears to have some really good ideas, and it's more polished and attractive than ever. I'm officially excited.