Pokemon fans had a good 2016.
The Pokemon franchise has seen a countless number of games, and the main series of titles have always been incredibly well received. Many people will agree, however, that the best titles we’ve seen lie all the way back on the Game Boy Color with Pokemon Gold and Silver. Indeed, Pokemon is a staple for Nintendo, but the property’s golden years seemed long behind it. This year, though, a new title challenged that school of thought — Sun and Moon are the best Pokemon games since the 90s.
Pokemon Sun and Moon take place in a brand new region called Alola, a Hawaii kind of area made up of diverse islands. It’s a much more tropical setting than anything we’ve seen before, and away from the mainland excitement, the residents of the islands have developed a close bond with their Pokemon. The creatures can be found more often among residents as both companions and aids, and even choosing your first Pokemon is a reciprocal moment of friendship. This sentimentality pairs perfectly with the wacky tone of the games, made clear in Sun and Moon’s marketing and ever more clear by this building-sized Alolan form of Exeggutor.
Fun and offbeat design carries over to many of Sun and Moon’s memorable Pokemon. There’s Mimikyu, the Ghost Pokemon that wears a Pikachu disguise because its real form terrifies humans to death. It just wants to be accepted and loved. Then there’s Bewear, the giant pink fluffy bear Pokemon that crushes living things to death with its hugs, or Sandygast, which is a Ghost type that has possessed a sand castle. The designs of Sun and Moon, both new and Alolan forms of Gen 1, feel right at home in the series. Of course, keep in mind that once the January update hits, the Pokemon Bank will let you bring every single Pokemon across the series into Sun and Moon.
Fresh mixups in the formula arrived as well, with the first and foremost being the removal of Pokemon Gyms in favor of the Island Challenge. At the age of 11, young trainers travel to the four different islands of Alola, undertaking unique Island Trials from skilled Trial Captains. Each one has special tasks to complete, be it taking pictures of Ghost Pokemon in a haunted supermarkets, or spotting the differences in two versions of a tribal dance.
Of course, there are trainers to battle along the way, and after you’ve completed all of the Island Trials on any given island, you can undertake the Grand Trial. Here you fight the Kahuna, or Gym Leader, of the island in a showdown Pokemon battle. Your reward isn’t a gym badge, but a Z-Crystal, an item that lets your Pokemon use powerful and flashy ultimate moves in battle. The whole process adds more meat to your Pokemon adventure and gives players more time with quirky leaders. There’s still plenty of battles, but now you’re always excited to see what the next trial has in store for you.
Another much needed change is the removal of HMs. You no longer need to allocate Pokemon moves for Cut or Rock Smash; instead, players will use the Poke Ride Pager. During your journey, you’ll register different Pokemon to this item, allowing you to call one at any time to carry you over water or bash through boulders. Combined with the infinite use of TMs, this makes building the team you want easier than ever.
Battles look better than ever before, too, with each Pokemon’s personality shining through their models, and animations looking smooth and crisp. There’s also a new battle mode called “Battle Royal” that pits four trainers against each other simultaneously. You won’t use this mode much until later in the game, but it’s a hectic experience that will keep you on your toes. After battle, you have the option of doing something called Pokemon Care. This lets you clean the dirt and grime of battle off your Pokemon, rub away status effects, and feed them beans or pet them to boost affection.
Despite all of these new additions to Pokemon Sun and Moon, one of the biggest improvements for the games lie in their presentation. The islands of Alola are gorgeous, with each one having its own distinct theme and aesthetic. Human character models have now been given more realistic dimensions, rather than the 2D and chibi models we had before. You can even customize your character extensively, changing their outfit, accessories, hairstyle, and even eye color. The soundtrack only helps to support the tropical theme, with fun peppy tunes throughout the games.
The one drawback with Sun and Moon may be the narrative, which still falls victim to the simplicity of Pokemon stories. While you don’t find incredibly deep character development and plot twists, Sun and Moon still has a light and fun plot.
The games introduce two new factions with Team Skull and the Aether Foundation. The former is a rough-and-tough gang of antagonists looking to steal people’s Pokemon. They’re definitely a fun set of bad guys, featuring an abundant use of “yo” as well as some incredibly over-dramatic body motions. Meanwhile, the Aether Foundation wants to create a paradise for all Pokemon to live in, though its leaders hide other intentions.
The two groups are polar opposites, but have some surprising links to discover along your way. The story also introduces a couple friends for your character, like the charming and always cheerful Hau, who functions as both your best friend and rival.
More than anything, Pokemon Sun and Moon do a phenomenal job of making your playtime feel like your Pokemon adventure. There’s always a new area to explore, new Pokemon to see, and new trials to undertake. Side quests and optional tasks are dotted everywhere as well, meaning there’s almost no moment where you find yourself with nothing to do. There’s also a host of post-game content to undertake after you become the Alolan Champion, even bringing back a few familiar faces like Red and Blue from the original games.
Sun and Moon do a perfect job of harnessing your nostalgia for old Pokemon games while adding new twists on series. The game feel fresh and exciting, but also comforting and familiar at the same time. They’re Pokemon games through and through, but have changed just enough to attract any player new or old.
Sun and Moon are easily the very best Nintendo had to offer this year, and one of the most engrossing gaming experiences of 2016, period.