Have you ever been fishing? Have you ever looked out over a calm pond of water, mist delicately wafting off the still water? Have you ever been to the water’s edge, and pull out two bucks to get a bluegill from an underwater vending machine?
We’ll get to that later, but for now, let’s delve into Pokemon Sun and Moon. This game is
for the 3DS, and is a continuation of “Pokemon,” a multimedia conglomerate that has spanned generations. Game Freak, the developers of most Pokemon games, have taken a new approach to the main series in both the flavor and mechanics department, for better or worse.
Here’s where I need to make a disclaimer. I come from a place of bias, and problems that are presented may not be problems for other people. This article is not intended to diminish the quality of someone else’s play time. If you had fun with Pokemon Sun or Moon, then the game was successful, and there’s nothing I can say to take that away. It is also important to remember that new games don’t tarnish the experiences of previous ones. I have Pokemon emerald, so if I ever want to play it, I’ll just pop it in. It is a shame, however, seeing a franchise that is so beloved, make so many confusing choices. Understanding why you love a game is crucial when it comes to game design, whether it’s mechanics or flavor.
Let’s start by talking about mechanical changes, as the main gameplay loop isn’t that different from past versions.
Pokemon are monsters that roam the world. You, being a Pokemon trainer, hunt down these beasts and train them to fight one another. Each Pokemon has a unique set of moves, different elements associations, statistics, and passive abilities. You are only able to carry up to 6 Pokemon at a time, any extra will be sent a storage unit that can be accessed at buildings known as “Pokecenters”. Pokemon can become stronger the more they battle and will eventually change form, through a process called evolving. The new forms of the Pokemon increase its stats dramatically and give them access to new moves. You also have an inventory, which holds various items that will help you on your journey. These items have a wide range of uses, from teaching your Pokemon attacks to curing debilitating ailments to traversing terrain. The terrain for this game is a region which consists of four islands, more on this later.
Pokemon Sun and Moon add a new batch of Pokemon to their already impressive roster, bringing the total to 721. Whenever there is an addition to Pokemon, it is often criticized, the general consensus is that Pokemon has “run out of ideas.” these comments are pointed at Pokemon that emulate things that are not beast like in nature. Now there is no accounting for taste, some people just like the visual design of some Pokemon. I like Trubbish, despite all the flack it gets from the general audience. These comments often pointed at the visual design, and don’t consider what need that Pokemon fills within the game. In most cases, these Pokemon fills in a gap in the roster, they fulfill a role that has not been explored by games in the past. One Pokemon that comes to mind immediately is Vanillite, a Pokemon that was designed to look like an ice cream cone. Up until its release, there was no common ice Pokemon. In past titles, ice type Pokemon were found at the tail end of the game, whereas Vanillite is found within the first quarter of Black and White.
Battles, which are the main gameplay mechanic, consist of you and your opponent taking turns using different moves against each other. The combat is simple to understand but offers a lot of complexity for those who choose to delve into competitive Pokemon battling. There is a multitude of moves that are finely tuned to bring the pain. These attacks can damage, debilitate, buff, heal, and even jettison opponents out of the fight. Moves also have elements associated with them, which are matched up against the element(s) of the opponents Pokemon. Certain elements are strong against some, and weak to others. For example, fire is weak to water which is weak to grass, which is weak to fire (You see that right there? Rock paper scissors. We’ll go over that some other day). The main challenge of the game comes from learning all of the interactions between elements and using the correct one for the fight that you’re in.
Pokemon’s newest gimmick is Z moves, an attack that takes the place of a normal technique your Pokemon has if they are holding the correct Z stone. These moves can only be used once per battle, and are very powerful. Not only are they powerful, but the moves also get their own cutscene, interpretive dance, and real life bracelet that can activate the move in-game. Yes, you too can purchase your very own Z bracelet! But don’t forget to buy the 9-pack of Z crystals (sold separately) if you want a stone of all types. I’m glad I wasn’t a parent this holiday season, one version of Pokemon, with the bracelet and the stones combined will cost a staggering 90 dollars.
Let’s be clear, the Z bracelet is a colorful toy that was meant to attract kids attention. The bracelet adds no mechanical depth to the game, everything that a Z bracelet can do can be accomplished within the battle menus. The bracelet is merely a peripheral gimmick to the game that is the equivalent of pressing two buttons. But hey, if you don’t want it don’t buy it.
This is where Game Freak dropped the proverbial Pokeball. But what is “it”? What did Pokemon Sun and Moon do so wrong? Well considering that we’re in the flavor section on the article, you can assume it has something to do with aspects of its presentation.
Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokemon, stated that he drew inspiration from his bug collecting experiences as a kid. Pokemon games, at their core, are about exploring and taming the wild; to seek new monsters and train them for your journey to the top. This game feels like your mom is forcing you to put on knee pads to play in the back yard. This brings us to the first problem.
This game talks too much. About two hours into the game I asked myself “how many times have I been stopped and talked to by an NPC?” I had thought to restart my game and count, but that would require me to mash the ‘A’ button through it all again so I decided against it. This is the biggest offender for this game and ends up souring the experience completely. Previous Pokemon games are not completely innocent in this regard either. Often at the beginning of Pokemon, tutorials are given to the player in the form of NPCs talking to your character. After the first couple of towns, the forced interactions with NPCs thinned out. Pokemon Sun and Moon however, stops you seemingly at the entry and exit of every stage. Every new area begins and is punctuated by one or more members of the colorful cast rambling on about how great the area is. “WOW Nolan!! Check this OUT! This shop sells CLOTHES! For you to WEAR!!” oh, I never would have gotten that from the sign with a shirt on it hanging off the building. With all of these characters coming and going, the Alola islands are more akin to an amusement park than an ecosystem.
The second problem won’t be a problem to most people, and that is the changing from 2D sprites to 3D models. This started happening in Pokemon X and Y, and it appears that 3D models are the way of the future for Pokemon. The move to 3D however, is a choice that affects the cohesiveness of the overall game. The sprites of old had the advantage of the player’s imagination. Game tiles have a small canvas of pixels to work with, so often the sprites became representations of objects. Adding extra detail means that the player doesn’t need to fill in the gaps that would normally be there from the limitation.
This isn’t so bad for the actual Pokemon, the monsters are very emotive and look appropriately sized and proportioned. The part of the game that takes the hit from 3D however, is the environment. In Pokemon Emerald (a sprite based Pokemon game), you didn’t bat an eye when you stood next to a building and you were 1/4th its size. The game world feels about the size of a park, the character models are appropriately sized to buildings and objects. Yet, the actual size of the maps are small, which gives you the sense that the islands are tiny. This is amplified by the third problem.
The Islands come off more as a high-end theme park, able to get from one side to the next in five minutes. Each town and Pokecenter has their own unique distractions, like buying coffee or getting a haircut. Everyone is dressed and looks like a tourist, to the point where they seem to outnumber the island natives. Every environment looks more like a greenhouse or butterfly reserve, rather than a thriving biome of Pokemon activity. In addition to all of this, the region is split into four different islands, which can only be accessed by flying or by NPC aid. This is an area where flavor can affect mechanics. Having four different islands is an easy way to gate off areas to a player. The player, after all, needs to have already visited a town’s Pokecenter to fly there on their own.
Progression in Pokemon Sun and Moon is dotted with these events called trials. Trials replaced the standard Pokemon gyms, places to prove your pokebattling prowess against the gym leader. Trials consist of a small challenge in the form of a puzzle, and are concluded with a fight against a “totem Pokemon.” These beasts are super charged Pokemon that can’t be caught and must be taken down as part of the trial. Although given a new name, trials function exactly like gym fights. The trials take place in sectioned off locations, Pokemon cannot be caught, and there is a boss Pokemon to defeat. This is very similar to how gyms worked. The fights took place in a building, Pokemon cannot be caught because they were owned by other traders, and the boss at the end was a gym leader. The prize for winning against a totem Pokemon is different, however. In Pokemon Sun and Moon, defeating a totem will land you a Z stone, instead of the gyms prize of a badge.
Pokemon trials were meant to be a different means for players to progress in the game. Up until this point, every game has had gym fights. While it is good to shake up a game’s formula when it gets stale, the trials fail to change anything. The puzzles of the trials are juvenile at best, and usually involve looking around an area for an item to progress. The trials even conform to typing, based off of the totem Pokemon that is necessary to fight. What would have been better for the trials is if they actually tested an aspect of being a Pokemon trainer. Imagine a timed trial where you had to hit targets with a type that correlates with the targets color. This would allow the player to put their knowledge of types to use as well as their ability to glean typing from looks. Instead what the trials end up being is a test to see if you can press the ‘a’ button in the correct location.
But the worst offender, the straw that broke the camel’s back, the cherry on the sundae: fishing spots. In Pokemon Sun and Moon fishing has been designated to specific rocky outcroppings underwater. These can be accessed from the shore, or from the back of a Lapras, if you happen to be surfing. This, to me, encapsulates everything wrong with this game. No attempt was given to make this world seem like an actual world. Even the simplest little mechanic, fishing, would give me some sense that there are creatures outside the play area. But instead, we have fish dispensaries that require a fishing rod to activate, an underwater vending machine if you would.
There are echoes of this in other environments across the map as well. In cities there are sectioned off bits of tall grass, presumably for trainers to catch Pokemon. But why would there be any Pokemon there? No one is tending to to the field, so there’s no food unless they eat grass. To get to that area, you need to cross roads and sidewalks. To top it all off, it is packed with a wide variety of Pokemon, and will never run out. Are you telling me, that several different species can find their own ecological niche within a 10 by 10 foot plot of dirt and grass?
These problems can be solved, however, by adding more detail and space in the maps. Now, can the 3DS can handle more data than what Pokemon Sun and Moon already put in? probably not, the 3DS isn’t a terribly powerful device, and 3D models take up a lot more space in memory than 2D sprites. It could be entirely possible that the development team wanted to make expansive wonderful maps, but was kneecapped by data limitations. It’s also possible, that the development team chose to focus on different things like story and characters.
Pokemon is a series that is going to stick around. It has garnered popularity the world around and has had success across many different types of media. Nintendo has recently announced their newest gaming console, the Nintendo Switch. With this new hardware on the horizon, and a new Pokemon game coming out every 3-4 years, it’s not out unlikely that the next Pokemon game will be for the Switch. Will the extra power from the console fix the problems that the limited hardware of the 3DS? Or will we get another amusement park with ball pits and vending machines?