Review: Sun and Moon are Kinder, Gentler Pokémon Games

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If you’re returning to Pokémon after a long absence, you may be pleased to find that the latest iteration is a kinder, gentler monster-battling game.

Thanks to the tremendous success of the Pokémon Go mobile app, there’s a lot more attention on Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon, the latest installments in the long-running series of role-playing games that released this week for the Nintendo 3DS system. With that influx of new (and lapsed former) players brings a challenge: Trying to satisfy the people who grew up with this 20-year-old series while still aiming it at youngsters and less-experienced Pokémon trainers.

That’s no easy task, either. Pokémon is, at its heart, about capturing and training magical creatures that possess elemental powers. You carefully select a team of your favorites, then set out to conquer the world by forcing your monsters to fight others’ until one side gets knocked out. That process involves strategy and planning; you must compose a group of Pokémon that can tackle any challenge. After two decades and dozens of games, there are now more than 800 different kinds to keep track of, each with a spreadsheet of stats, attacks, skills and other traits for you to learn.

For players who are migrating from playing the simpler Pokémon Go app, this could surely be overwhelming. The main series of Gameboy and Nintendo DS Pokémon games could always be boiled down to a form of trumped-up cockfighting, but Sun and Moon try to slough off that aggressive past by baking friendship into the gameplay. The result is a gentler (re-)entry point for the series than we’ve seen in more than a decade.

This pair of almost-identical games (there is a slightly different mix of Pokémon in each, to encourage trading between players) tries to mend that divide by reframing the franchise’s core premise. While the popular Pokémon TV show always focused on the buddy-buddy relationships between protagonist Ash and his Pokémon friends, that rarely came through in the player input of the games, in which your group of monsters was just a ruthlessly efficient arsenal. Instead of focusing solely on teaching captured creatures how to fight, Sun and Moon also aim to help you build a relationship with them, shifting your role shifts from taskmaster to caregiver.

Part of that shift comes from a change in setting. The games take place on the islands of Alola, loosely modeled after Hawaiian and Pacific Islander culture. Everyone is laid back, friendly, earnest, and thrilled to help you along your journey. Whereas previous games would play up the narrative that your team stood against the world, pitting you against gauntlets of opponents and challenges without rest, every few minutes in Alola turns up a new friendly face.

Previous Pokémon games would subject you to regular gauntlets of one-on-one matches, without rest. Instead of those marathons, your Alolan opponents will often take the time to heal your Pokémon and let them rest up before another bout. This takes the emphasis away from the endurance of the older games, and helps it feel more like bursts of friendly competition.

There’s also a Tamagotchi-like feature. In Sun and Moon, your Pokémon will ask you to clean them off between fights, care for them, and give them medicine if they’re ill. Even when nothing’s wrong, you can feed and pet your creatures with the 3DS’ touchscreen. As you grow closer to your pets, they’ll become much more effective in battle, and they’ll become more emotive: If they take a massive hit from another Pokémon, they’ll be concerned about disappointing you. When they do well, they’ll turn back to give you a nod and wink.

These are small touches, but they reframe just about everything else in the game. Complete knock-outs are rarer too, making these matches feel more akin to friendly sparring than bloodsport.

This time around, the main antagonist on your journey is a band of disaffected street thugs known as Team Skull. They’re comically over the top, throwing out ridiculous gang signs and generally wearing their incompetence on their sleeves. Antagonists in previous games have always had grand designs like world domination, or using the power of legendary Pokémon to reshape the planet. But Team Skull’s goals are far more modest. They want to have enough money to pay rent, they want to have a safe place to live. They want to just be okay.

Not too far into the game, though, you discover that another, more sinister organization, driven by money and power has taken the reins of Team Skull, manipulating the despondent youth to their own ends and using them as a goon squad of sorts. When the dust of that conflict clears, though, you see the group for what it is. You get the chance to talk with them, hear them out, and come to realize that they were never bad people—just lost and confused and in need of something to do.

Pokémon has always been a franchise that is, on some level, for children. Not exclusively, of course; there are more than a few college-aged folks that grew up with the series that are playing for nostalgia (like myself), but that means the game’s developer has to find narrative threads that are straightforward enough for children to digest but don’t leave adults rolling their eyes every few seconds.

Sun and Moon is the first to find that sweet spot. It manages to keep the core gameplay of battling and trading magical monsters intact, while weaving in ideas that were vital to the television show and to the idea of Pokémon in general. Helping and being helped, working together, and loving everyone, regardless of where they’re coming from, is a lesson that we can all forget at times. And I’m overjoyed to know that children picking up these games today might just walk away better, more empathetic people even though at the end of the day they’re still teaching digital animals to tear each other apart.

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