Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are strange. Though the franchise has had sequels and remakes in the past, notably in the form of Black and White 2, these new Pokemon games come just after one year after the original Sun and Moon graced the 3DS, choosing to forgo the usual two, three, or even 10 years apart. This means that the pair will release while Nintendo has a popular new console on the market called the Switch that could have very easily handled the remakes. One would think that it only makes sense for the company to give Pokemon the same treatment that Mario Kart 8 and Pokken Tournament received earlier this year, but Nintendo isn’t exactly known as a company that performs according to expectations these days.
This being said, Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon still both make a remarkable argument to exist in the DS and 3DS era of handhelds. One can find some changes from the original games in these new entries, but the charm that sets Sun and Moon apart from the rest of the Pokemon franchise is still very much found in the pair’s Ultra counterparts. There’s admittedly always been a whimsical side to the series, and Sun, Moon, and their respective sequels fully embrace that. For example, one of the biggest enemies in the games is an evil mom, the evil team of the games are wannabe hip-hop artists, and there are inter-dimensional monsters that threaten the fabric of existence itself. The list goes on and on, and Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon continue to deliver on the silliness that made the original games so fun to play.
That’s not to say that the new aspects brought into fold don’t provide great entertainment value on their own right. The Ultra Recon Squad introduces an alien duo that follows players throughout the game and throws at them plot points that seemingly come out of nowhere but still manage to be engaging, if only for the fact that the Ultra pair don’t rely on sci-fi elements as heavily as marketing materials may suggest. When these interdimensional moments do arrive they honestly do feel odd, but the fact that one’s trainer is now literally travelling through dimensions to collect Pokemon in an attempt to catch ’em all is hilarious enough to override that feeling.
There’s also the photography system to consider, whose Pokemon Snap influences are too obvious to overlook. Somehow Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon improve on the formula and make it more fun, allowing the player to incorporate his or her own character in photo sessions, dressing up in island-specific costumes that are perfect for the occasion. While on the subject on fan service, one can’t but to mention the addition of Professor Oak’s cousin Samson Oak in these games and the larger role he plays in each Ultra title’s storyline compared to the original games. All of these examples maintain that silly charm while serving as critical gameplay improvements over Sun and Moon.
Though there are likeable aspects of Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon that make them still worthwhile to play on 3DS, some tired elements of the franchise make their return, particularly the fact that the games take a while to get the ball rolling. One’s character still has to choose among three starter Pokemon, there’s still hundreds upon hundreds of weak-leveled Pokemon that besiege the player every time they set foot on a grassy patch or cave, and one still has to fight their way to the top against several themed bosses if he or she wishes to be crowned the region’s champion. One may be thinking that these tried and true mechanics don’t make Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon noteworthy at all. Fortunately, gameplay changes for the better once playing for a few hours.
Once one finds him or herself in the middle portion of the game, noncombat activities become just as integral to the experience as the traditional and streamlined turn-based combat. There’s fun to be found in the cleverly written childlike dialog, adorable animations from new Pokemon to witness, and cooler Z-moves introduced that will make the player open their jaw in awe, making them want to use the move over and over again. There’s also more to the world of Alola to discover, like a Ditto who’s shape-shifted into a cop and the beautiful rendered musical themes that play once entering new areas. No other Pokemon pair has fully embraced their setting like Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, allowing the two games to stand out as unique.
Each game is surprising enough to warrant a purchase should trainers have already played through Sun and Moon, even, with the most notable addition arriving through the Ultra pair’s reliance on a sci-fi plot. It’s here where players have been teased with the promise of traveling beyond Alola to catch legendary Pokemon found in other regions and where the appropriately named Team Rainbow Rocket can be found. All of the franchise’s prior team bosses, from Giovanni to Lysandre, are eligible to be battled against, culminating in a finale that’s actually worth not spoiling. It’s suffice to say that although Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon sprinkle sci-fi on the player at the outset, everything builds up an emotional weight that significantly sets the newer pair apart from the originals, if only for the fact that nostalgia is a pretty powerful thing.
Even after all these years, there’s still plenty to love about Pokemon. Pokemon Ultra Sun and Moon deliver on the precedent the original pair established, expounding upon a whimsical nature that provides for some genuinely smile-inducing moments. Both manage to bring the era of DS and 3DS games to a graceful end, founding themselves on the fundamentals that give the franchise an identity yet stepping forward towards a brighter, more engaging, and ultimately more fun future. Fans disappointed that the series has yet to come to Switch should be patient knowing that Nintendo is most assuredly improving upon the franchise for the next generation of Pokemon entertainment.