My approach when faced with the lead-up to a main series Pokémon game is to stay away from most of the content being released; I’ll catch the essentials – the E3 showings, the announcement of the starter Pokémon, that sort of thing. However, I’ll keep a lot of the details a secret to myself. There two reasons for this: first, my excitement for Pokémon games only really builds up just before release and secondly, it makes the discovery of the world and all the new Pokémon designs a wonderful surprise.
Now, why I am telling you this? Well, it’s because this has paid off in a special way for my purchase of Pokémon Sun, one of the latest entries in the franchise. Around 8 hours in, I have just finished off the starting area of Melemele Island and got a general feel for the game. That feeling? A refreshing one.
Alola and all of its intricacies and systems feel like the most different Pokémon setting for a long time. Perhaps not since the jump from Game Boy Advance to Nintendo DS with the fantastic Diamond & Pearl has Pokémon felt so inherently new; the main reason for this being the region itself. Alola isn’t one large network of towns and cities, but rather several islands. Pokémon regions are based off of real-world places and there’s more than a hint of Hawaii to the place. The place looks vibrant and inviting, helped by the more realistic scaling of people in the environment. As well as this, the quirky, cheery music, and ridiculous/brilliant (take your pick) new takes on classic Pokémon like Rattata, Diglett & Meowth do a great job at clearly setting Sun/Moon apart.
Yet, along with those recognisable Pokémon names comes a fierce respect of the series’ heritage. It’s not new for these games to reference older regions, but it does feel especially well-done here. In Pokémon Centers, food and drink sellers will acknowledge how their source was, say, Kalos (the setting of X & Y), and there are very strong ties to Kanto from Red & Blue. You’re told very early on that Kanto residents formed Alola and this explains how many of the Pokémon on Melemele Island, at least, are from there. In a year when Pokémon Go took over the world with the original 151, it’s apt – and very clever – for Game Freak to keep the focus on those iconic Pokémon.
The Pokémon games have long held the virtually impossible task of keeping the series new and exciting, without losing the magic formula that keeps people coming back. Look at the battle system, which is basically unchanged in the core of what it is since the first games. The Z-Move (a once-a-battle special attack that a Pokémon holding a Z-Crystal can perform) appears like the Mega Evolution of this generation – a fun and spectacular addition, but really just another cherry on top of the cake. Layering more onto that battle system is fine by me, though. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – look at long-running series like Call of Duty of FIFA; you wouldn’t massively change the winning gameplay base there, for the same reason.
What is a big change is the Captain/Island Kahuna system. My experience with the first island showed me that finally – finally – Pokémon is looking at the request so often brought up: change the Gym Leader formula! Since the first games, we’ve always set out with the 8 Gyms and their respective Badges as our targets. With them, we would be able to challenge the Elite Four and try to become the Champion. In Alola? Gym Leaders are gone; instead, there’s a new system of a trial set by a Captain. Consisting of more than just defeating powerful Pokémon, this is something unlike previous Pokémon games. That joyful unpredictability takes me back to those older games, when I wouldn’t necessarily know all of the systems and what I should be doing. Years of playing Pokémon can take away the feeling of discovery at their heart, so having this return is wonderful. Completing the trial led to a Captain battle and then, once the trials and Captains of the island (in this case just this one) were conquered, I could tackle the Island Kahuna.
You can just tell how much effort has gone into truly making these games feel like something completely different for Pokémon. Browsing hats at the store, riding a Tauros round the island, and learning about the mysterious Lillie and her Pokémon Nebby (who she happens to hide in her bag) are just some of the unexpected things in Sun. Within 8 hours of gameplay, Alola has surprised me time and time again, while still keeping me in the dark on what’s to come. Team Skull, for example, are utterly ridiculous as they dance up to you with their rebellious hip-hop backing track; ridiculous in a good way. If Pokémon Sun keeps this pace of new ideas going, it may well be my favourite Pokémon game for quite some time.
It always helps when I can catch my Growlithe early-game, too. Thanks for that, Game Freak!