2016 was the year of the Pokemon. Pokemon Go was one of the cultural phenomena of the year, the free-to-play mobile game generating an exceptional level of interest that briefly captured the public imagination. Of course, Pokemon Go was developed and published by Niantic, rather than Nintendo, but Nintendo still benefited from the massive exposure their franchise received. Pokemon Go’s runaway success undoubtedly helped sales of Pokemon Sun/Moon, the fully-fledged Pokemon RPG released for 3DS last year. Nintendo shipped over 12 million copies of Sun and Moon in 2016 (over 15 million at time of writing), making it the best-selling game of the year, two million clear of Fifa 17.
The Pokemon bug got me too. Before Sun, I hadn’t played a Pokemon game since the one that started it all, Pokemon Red/Blue, almost twenty years ago. Although the series is often associated with the famous catchphrase, “Gotta catch ’em all!”, there is more to Pokemon than an addictive compulsion to catch cute monsters. The Pokemon games – at least the main-series RPGs released on handhelds, if not necessarily all the spinoffs – have always been robust and well-crafted, even if (by all accounts) few have recaptured the perfect balance and pacing of the originals. Sun/Moon were generally well-received by critics, and with their cheery aesthetic and legions of cute monsters, this is a hard game to dislike. But while it reminded me why I have such fond memories of the franchise, it never quite lived up to my hopes.
Pokemon Sun/Moon are set in the archipelago Alola, a new, Hawaii-influenced setting for the series. This establishes a bright, sunny and colourful tone, likely to prove appealing to all but the most morbid of players. Alola also features quite some biodiversity, and there are about 300 monsters in the game. This means not all of the 800 or so creatures in the franchise are present, but there are still some new ones in addition to “Alolan” variants on familiar creatures. The quality of the monster design varies a little, and like many people I strongly favour the “original” Pokemon cast; but I suppose there needs to be some variation, otherwise I might as well have just played Red/Blue again. As a solo player, I was irritated to find some monsters won’t evolve without trading with another person. Believe it or not, as a man in his 30s I don’t know many people who play Pokemon, and I can’t rightly start hanging around outside schools asking people to trade. Thus I was never able to evolve the likes of Machoke and Kadabra into their final forms. I get that playing and trading with others is part of the game, and the developers want to get you interacting with other players in the world; but I just found it a shame not to be able to get the evolutions I wanted.
For a game as aesthetically cheerful and upbeat as Pokemon Sun/Moon – the closest thing to a holiday without actually taking one – the gameplay mechanics are surprisingly liable to frustrate. Wild monsters can summon a partner to help them in a fight, and you can’t throw a Pokeball to catch a monster unless it’s on its own. Monsters can also summon a partner on the same turn you take one of them out, leading to a near endless supply of reinforcements you have to eliminate (which can make you fell pretty bad, too, like you’re killing a bunch of wildlife for no reason). Of course, Pokemon can also break out of a Pokeball, and you often need to make several throws before a successful catch. This means random fights in the wild can go on for much longer than you would expect, at least if you are bothered with trying to catch new monsters (and who isn’t?) At the same time, the actual story progression for the first 20 or so hours is really easy – even boss fights feel trivial – and I didn’t find the artificial “challenge” derived from the frustrating and random catch system to be very rewarding.
As far as presentation goes, the music is chirpy but some themes can become a little grating. On the other hand, the graphics are impressive: as well as being bright, bold and full of colour, they’re surprisingly crisp and detailed. It’s a joy to see such a nice-looking game on a handheld, and it’s a tribute to Nintendo’s 3DS hardware. To get it running smoothly they’ve dispensed with 3D effects – a move in line with the recent release of the 2DS and 2DS XL. I still think the 3D effect is quite cool when it’s used, but Nintendo ditching it does encourage you to think of it as something of a gimmick. It’s funny now to read game reviews from five years ago which criticize inadequate or unimaginative use of 3D, when the Big N themselves seem to have abandoned it.
As for the 3DS’s other features, the bottom screen is mainly used for a world map, but it’s annoying that about half the screen is taken up with the googly eyes of Rotom Dex (the Pokemon who lives in your Pokedex). You can use the touch screen for selecting commands, or for stroking your monsters after battle to reward them, cure status ailments, and increase your affinity. I tended not to do that much just because it made me feel guilty for playing a game instead of bestowing affection on my actual cats. That said, the relationship between people and animals is at the heart of the Pokemon experience, and if the game helps nurture childish affection for animals, then that can only be a good thing. It’s also nice to think of children being able to spend time with Pokemon as surrogate pets if they’re not allowed or able to have real ones at home.
This is a game heavily marketed at young kids, of course, perhaps explaining the very low difficulty (a shame Nintendo didn’t adopt the same policy when I was a kid). Only towards the end do you have to deploy much in the way of strategy or grinding, and the rock-paper-scissors elemental system is quite straightforward. The main story is quite short and simple, clocking in at just over 30 hours. There’s a fair bit left to do in the post-game, but unless you’re really into context-less Pokemon battles and filling out your Pokedex, it’s unlikely to grab you. The game also has lots of little side mechanics – like developing little islands to house your Pokemon – but none feel very compelling, or are well-integrated into the core gameplay, meaning they’re easy to ignore.
I noticed a couple of other curious things as well. One was a literal way the game has of describing your actions after you acquire an item, explaining each and every time that you “pick up an item and put it away in the item pocket”. It soon felt like a bizarre pastiche of Hemingway. I was also put off by Team Skull, the rival faction you encounter over much of the game’s story. Team Skull are a bunch of generic ne’er do wells who are cruel to Pokemon and engage in various low-level crimes and disorder in Alola. They have a very “ghetto” style, wearing gangbanger outfits and using a rap music motif. The weird thing is, although Alola is an ethnically diverse place with lots of light- and dark-skinned people, every single person in Team Skull is white, giving it the profile of a racist gang. I don’t know whether this was conscious, and whether the developers were scared of being accused of racism if they had non-white members indulging in stereotypically “gangster” behaviour. It may just be an accident because the Team Skull “grunts” (as they’re called) all have the same character model.
In the end, Pokemon Sun/Moon is an enjoyable game with a good heart, and one that’s worth playing. 3DS owners are, of course, spoiled for choice when it comes to Japanese RPGs, and there are plenty of other games that can offer better and more sophisticated stories and gameplay. But there aren’t many that can show you more love.