With the sixth generation of Pokémon, the main series had, at last, broken into the third dimension. The series’ signature gameplay remained familiar to veterans, albeit with some significant tweaks, and Pokémon X and Y were immense successes, soon becoming some of the bestselling titles for the Nintendo 3DS.
When it came time to develop games to signify the seventh generation, the team decided to go in a new direction with the series. Shigeru Ohmori, who had been with the series since Ruby and Sapphire as the premier game and map designer, now found himself in the director’s chair. Continuing with the precedent X and Y set, these games would not be named after colors, but rather another symbolic dyad. To this end, the team looked to the sky, and chose the classic pairing of the sun and the moon, inspired by the celestial bodies’ representation of human relationships. As for the setting, the Pokémon franchise would, for the second time in the main series, go to the United States for inspiration. However, in contrast to the industrialized New York City, these new set of games were to take place in a land heavily inspired by the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii was so chosen for its clear nights and plentiful sunshine thereby allowing its central themes to shine through.
Development began immediately after the release of the third-generation remakes Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. Despite wanting to retain the series’ gameplay, these entries, Pokémon Sun and Moon, were made from scratch. The idea was to celebrate the series’ upcoming twenty-year anniversary by applying greater changes than what the sixth generation brought to the table.
Pokémon Sun and Moon took around three years to develop with a team consisting of 120 people before seeing their worldwide release in November of 2016. Like X and Y, Sun and Moon met with critical acclaim. Coupled with the success of the mobile game Pokémon Go, the series was back in the mainstream limelight for the first time since 1998. Several critics praised the story of Sun and Moon alongside the new mechanics, which Alex Olney writing for Nintendo Life considered the most engaging to date. Were Sun and Moon able to provide an experience worthy of celebrating the series’ twenty-year anniversary?
Playing the Game
The protagonist of these games is a child who has moved from the Kanto region to an exotic locale across the sea. Depending on your choice, they will either be a boy named Elio or a girl named Selene. This locale is known as the Alola region. It is an archipelago consisting of four islands situated in the tropics. Shortly after moving in, the protagonist meets a young girl named Lillie. She is the lab assistant of Professor Kukui – the region’s premier Pokémon researcher.
The girl is accosted by a flock of Spearow while on a precarious, prompting the protagonist to step in and protect her. Before things can get serious, an unidentified Pokémon travelling with Lillie she named Nebby is able to use its power to ward off the Spearow, but destroys the bridge they are standing on in the process. Fortunately, the island’s guardian, a Pokémon named Tapu Koko, swoops in and saves the three of them. Astounded by the protagonist’s bravery, the island’s kahuna, Hala, decides to reward them with a Pokémon of their own.
Staying true to series tradition, the protagonist has one of three choices for Pokémon with which they can begin their journey. The three choices are Rowlet, Litten, and Popplio. Respectively, they are a small owl, a kitten with red and black colorization, and a seal with a round, pink nose. As usual, these Pokémon represent the Grass, Fire, and Water Types, although Rowlet changes things up a bit by also being a Flying Type. This makes it the first starter to begin as a dual-type Pokémon since Bulbasaur in the first generation.
Shortly thereafter, you are introduced to the kahuna’s grandson, Hau. He is the protagonist’s friendly rival, although in a slight twist, Hau will choose the Pokémon with a type disadvantage to your own. It may seem a bit strange given how rivals in previous generations chose their starters, but I find this is a great way to introduce the core mechanics to newcomers. Just like in the previous generation, your starter is guaranteed to have a move matching its type. This means anyone picking up the series for the first time can learn of the relationship between types as early as their first battle. It’s preferable to the first generation wherein you and your opponent were limited to Normal-type attacks and your success thus boiled down to luck.
Indeed, once you have exploited a Pokémon’s weakness, you will learn of a helpful new feature to assist you in any subsequent battle. When selecting an attack, its icon will display its effectiveness on the target Pokémon. The terms are “Effective”, “Super Effective”, “Not very effective”, and “No effect”. It may seem a bit like the game is holding your hand unnecessarily, but I find it a welcome addition that doesn’t detract from the challenge. A veteran player is going to have the type chart memorized while a beginner will appreciate having this information from the get-go.
Not only that, but the game doesn’t go as far as revealing the weaknesses right away. You need to have battled against or obtained the Pokémon before these hints will appear. Indeed, a blind player of any skill level is still going to find themselves experimenting with every new Pokémon they encounter because Sun and Moon follow in the footsteps of X and Y by featuring creative type combinations for the new species.
In fact, Sun and Moon go a little further with the idea than any generation preceding it by introducing regional forms. Not unlike how many real-life species of animals adapt to their environment across many generations, the unique climate of the Alola region has had many interesting effects on the Pokémon that call it home. Like many regions before it, Alola has a sizable Pikachu population. You may find yourself compelled to capture one and train it. When you do and decide to expose the Pikachu to a Thunderstone, you may be surprised when it evolves.
This is a form of Raichu endemic to the Alola region. As is befitting the Hawaiian motif, it is seen riding its tail as though surfboarding. The Alolan Raichu’s differences from its standard counterpart go far beyond its physical appearance, however. When the Pikachu has finished evolving, you are asked if it can forget a move in order to learn Psychic. Yes, this Raichu is a dual Electric/Psychic type. As you progress through the game, you will happen upon other regional forms. Some retain their original types while others’ are entirely different. You could very well discover an Ice-type Vulpix or a Fire/Ghost-type Marowak on your travels.
The idea behind these regional forms was simple, yet effective. The Pokémon franchise was celebrating its twenty-year anniversary by the time these games were finished, and Mr. Ohmori wanted to surprise and amuse longtime fans. As such, only Pokémon from the first-generation games received Alolan forms. It’s a clever, transformative way of celebrating the first generation while also providing players with new content. These fans would see species they had known for the longest time only to be thrown a curveball when they realize they have different type combinations and move sets.
In a lot of ways, the sixth-generation games, X and Y ushered the end of an era. One could argue the launch of the 3DS and its Sony competitor, the Vita, marked the exact moment when 3D became the standard even on handheld consoles. However, it was when Pokémon made the 3D leap that it became official. After all, it was the highest grossing media franchise in the world, yet the main games still used sprites when other big-name franchises – even on the DS and PSP – were rendered in polygons. Therefore, the Pokémon franchise’s own leap into the third dimension made it universal.
The reason this bears mentioning is because the game’s first notable improvement over X and Y presents itself before you even choose your starter. X and Y, despite being in three dimensions, was still presented similarly to the sets of games that preceded them. That is, character movements were still largely confined to a grid. You could deviate from the grid using the circle pad, which would cause your character to use rollerblades, but otherwise, exploration was still primarily built around utilizing the four cardinal directions. This is no longer true as of Sun and Moon. For the first time in the main series, character movements are entirely three-dimensional. Indeed, the two-dimensional cross pad no longer allows you to move your character at all; only the three-dimensional circle pad can accomplish this.
Although this seems like a fairly minor change, it actually has a profound impact on the Alola region’s layout. Prior to this generation, cities in a given region were connected to each other via routes. Said routes were effectively natural corridors intended to force players into going a certain direction. Later generations made this less obvious – particularly when the games utilized a three-dimensional presentation, and there was always the occasional dungeon that forced players to think about traveling in multiple directions. Nonetheless, the linearity of these routes always made it clear in which direction you needed to go for you to reach your destination – even if it ended up being more complicated than what was depicted on the map.
Alola completely dispenses with this notion by depicting the routes and settlements as subregions – so to speak. For example, Alola’s Route 1 isn’t so much a linear path away from civilization as it is a section of Melemele Island. In fact, the Alola region stands out from the six that precede it by blurring the lines between civilization and the wilderness. Many settlements have tall grass in which you can find wild Pokémon – just like in a route or dungeon. Conversely, many routes come across less as patches of untamed wilderness and more like unincorporated communities. In fact, the player character in this game breaks tradition by having their house situated on a route.
This shift lends a more naturalistic feel to the Alola region. Previous generations had your character exploring the countryside to be sure, but where they ended and the industrialized cities began was always well-defined. This is not so with the Alola region, for while technology and industrialization certainly exist, you are never far away from the land’s naturalistic beauty. In a way, the Alola region reads like a spiritual successor to the Nowhere Islands from Mother 3 in how humankind was one with the natural environment. The main difference is that in these games, the idyllic nature of the setting is genuine.
A subtler change the new perspective causes is that trainers you encounter no longer have extreme tunnel vision. When you’re about to walk into a trainer’s field of vision, letterboxes appear on the screen, and the music quiets down. If you continue to walk in that direction, you will trigger the encounter.
The feeling of togetherness this region exudes extends into how the wild Pokémon act in battle as well. When encountering a wild Pokémon in Alola, it may attempt to call for help at the end of each turn. If successful, a second Pokémon will appear in battle. This turns the encounter into an SOS Battle. Like a typical Double Battle, you can only capture a Pokémon when its partner has fainted. The main difference is that you cannot send out a second Pokémon of your own, making it a one-on-two encounter.
One may wonder exactly what the point of this mechanic is aside from making the random encounters more difficult. To begin with, the summoned Pokémon has a chance of boasting superior stats to those of your typical wild encounter. The fifth summoned Pokémon will have perfect Individual Values for one stat. On top of that, there is a chance the summoned Pokémon will be Shiny. If you manage to achieve a chain of ten intruding Pokémon, there is a 5% chance it will have its hidden ability. The coefficients for these three factors increase with each Pokémon that intrudes until thirty-one have appeared. At this point, the Pokémon in question will have perfect Individual Values for four stats, a 15% chance of possessing its hidden ability, and thirteen rolls to determine whether or not it is Shiny. As a nice touch, if your Pokémon has the Intimidate, Unnerve, or Pressure abilities, an ally will be less likely to appear, although the odds increase if the previous call was unanswered.
Even if you wind up forgoing this mechanic when looking for wild Pokémon to capture, you will unavoidably run into it during your trials in Alola. You see, Alola differs from any preceding region in that it doesn’t have Pokémon Gyms or even a Pokémon League of their own. What it instead features is the island challenge. It is a rite of passage trainers can partake in when they turn eleven. When visiting the four islands of Alola, you meet various Trial Captains, who give your character a difficult task they must complete in order to pass. These challenges vary wildly, but they all culminate in a battle against a strikingly giant Pokémon.
These monumental creatures are known as Totem Pokémon. Although you encounter them in the wild, they were trained by the Trial Captain, so capturing them is not an option. Instead, you must resolve these encounters the same way you fight a boss monster in a standard RPG – by reducing their HP to zero. This easier said than done, for before you get a chance to do anything, the Totem Pokémon will envelop itself in an aura that significantly boosts its stats. On top of that, these battles are SOS battles, meaning the Totem Pokémon will periodically call allies, putting you in a disadvantageous position of having to fend off two opponents at once.
Until this point, wild Pokémon were either fodder for experience points or potential new recruits, so giving them a new purpose was a great idea. One may assume that, even with help, fighting a giant wild Pokémon in place of a Gym Leader would take away a lot of the challenge. Fortunately, in practice, this is not true. In fact, many people consider the fight against a Totem Mimikyu – a ghost that imitates Pikachu so it may be adored – to be the single most difficult encounter in the game. This is because it can survive one hit with its Disguise ability, which negates damage dealt as long as its decoy is being projected. Other than that, you have to contend with an immensely powerful Pokémon and an ally when you’re only allowed to use one. You can’t expect the standard, random wild Pokémon artificial intelligence to give you any leeway either. Totem Pokémon fight as intelligently as if there was a trainer standing nearby.
If you are still disappointed by the lack of Gym Leaders, then Sun and Moon offer a compromise. When you have completed all of the trails on an island, you will be challenged by the kahuna. These people are the strongest Trainers on their island, and are to the Alola region what Gym Leaders were to the previous six generations. You may not necessarily have to fight your way past other gym members in order to reach them, but this still represents a nice variety in challenges.
Upon completing a trial, you are awarded a Z-Crystal. They could be thought of as analogues to Gym Badges, but their purpose is more of a reward for completing the trials than a hard requirement for completing the island challenge. Indeed, some Z-Crystals are not actually required to beat the game. Their purpose in gameplay is quite a bit different too. Gym Badges allowed you use HM moves outside of combat, successfully command traded Pokémon up to a certain level, and, in early generations, increased the stats of your Pokémon in internal battles. Otherwise, they were otherwise fairly limited in what they had to offer the player. Really, their main purpose was to act as prerequisites for the Pokémon League challenge.
Z-Crystals, on the other hand, offer something else entirely. In a way, their purpose is similar to that of Mega Evolution in the previous generation. While Mega Evolution allowed your Pokémon to assume a different form, Z-Crystals give them new moves. As eighteen of the Z-Crystals corresponds with the eighteen Types, equipping a Z-Crystal will replace a move of that Type with a Z-Move. Offensive moves will be replaced with a specific Z-Move. These Z-Moves are significantly more powerful than a regular attack, but can only be used once per battle. The moves you get depends on what you replace. Moves with higher base power will intuitively be turned into Z-Moves with greater force. Certain non-offensive moves can also be replaced, usually increasing their potency or giving them a secondary effect. Most notably, it finally gives a purpose to the infamously useless Splash move, which, when using the appropriate Z-Crystal, increases your Pokémon’s Attack stat by three stages.
On the whole, Z-Moves may not be as flashy as Mega Evolution, but it can easily help you out of a jam when you use them correctly. There are also Z-Crystals that can only be used by specific Pokémon – including the final evolution of all three starters. With the past few generations giving Pokémon exclusive moves, these extra Z-Moves go a long way in giving them an identity beyond their designs.
Aside from significantly revamping the overarching goal, the single biggest improvement Sun and Moon bring to the table is that they finally and permanently got rid of the HM moves. Well, that’s not completely true; the moves themselves still exist – you just no longer need to use them outside of battle. Instead, the Alola region has the Poké Ride service. It is a custom practiced in the Alola region in which certain, specially trained Pokémon are called via a device called a Ride Pager to perform a task. This includes smashing boulders, crossing water, and flying to previously visited areas. All of the mainstay HM functions are replicated by the Poké Ride service.
The idea of using HM moves outside of combat is one that never worked in practice. The first generation made them irremovable while the three that followed introduced more of them. This meant having to either short staff your team in inopportune moments or teach your mainstays these moves, thus requiring a trip to the one person capable of removing them when you were finished. The team supposedly learned their lesson in the fifth generation by greatly limiting how often you needed to use HM moves and using event flags to block progress instead. Unfortunately, the sixth generation allowed them to come back in full force while also using event flags to block progress, giving players the worst of both worlds. Thankfully, they finally wised up and removed the mechanic for good in these games.
Otherwise, what I most appreciate about Sun and Moon is that they bring back a level of challenge sorely lacking in the previous generation. Upon release, X and Y were considered the easiest games in the series – even by people who enjoyed them. A lot of it resulted from the developers introducing several quality-of-life enhancements to the series and succeeding a little too well.
The most notable enhancement was the Exp. Share, which conferred half of the gained experience points to the rest of one’s team. If you constantly kept it active, your team could easily be ten or even twenty levels above even that of the Champion herself by the time you reached the endgame. And then, if that wasn’t enough for you, interacting with your Pokémon in Pokémon Amie would break the game in many other fashions. This includes, increasing the amount of experience they gained, allowing them to endure fatal attacks with one HP remaining and giving them the ability to remove their own status conditions, among other things. Even if you deliberately turned off the Exp. Share and forewent Pokémon Amie as part of a personal challenge, X and Y were still not especially challenging, as even matching the levels of your opponents’ usually proved sufficient.
While Sun and Moon bring back the Exp. Share, the developers greatly toned down its effectiveness. They accomplished this by reintroducing the fifth generation’s scaling system wherein Pokémon gain less experience upon defeating one of a lower level. These diminishing returns ensure that, even with the Exp. Share, you likely won’t be over-leveled as you go through the game. Indeed, with the Totem Pokémon forcing your party into situations where you need to take on two opponents at once, even savvy players will likely be caught off-guard at least once during their playthrough. Suddenly, while the extra benefits given to you from Pokémon Refresh – this game’s equivalent of Pokémon Amie – were overkill in X and Y, they will likely end up saving your bacon more than once in Sun and Moon.
Now, that isn’t to say Sun and Moon don’t have their own shortcomings. Anyone familiar with these games, whether they like them or not, is probably going to cite the Rotom Pokédex as their least favorite aspect of the experience. As the name implies, it is a portable bestiary possessed by a Rotom – a Ghost-type Pokémon that can inhabit electronic devices. As it does, the Rotom is capable of speech, giving players advice on their next course of action on the bottom screen. When it is not speaking, it instead displays a map of the immediate area.
While the Rotom Pokédex can be useful if you set the game aside for a significant length of time, in most situations, its advice is unnecessary. As was the case in the generations leading up to it, Sun and Moon provide very linear experiences. There is only one place to go at any given time, and your destination is marked on the Pokédex’s map anyway, rendering what it has to say redundant. It also doesn’t help that you have to wait until the Rotom Pokédex’s dialogue is finished before you can view the map, and there is no way to speed up the dialogue. This makes conducting a second playthrough very tedious, as you’ll receive advice you don’t need. This problem doesn’t go away if you complete the campaign either – at that point, the Rotom Pokédex will give you general pointers.
Although I do appreciate Sun and Moon for bringing back a degree of challenge that had been lost in X and Y, it does bear some of the residual effects of those game’s excessive quality-of-life improvements – particularly when it comes to Pokémon Refresh. To be completely fair, I do find myself praising it for being a much more organic part of the experience than Pokémon Amie was. Once a battle ends, you may find yourself having to clean your Pokémon up. Exactly what you need to clean them depends on the attacks used in battle. For example, if your Pokémon was hit with Ground-type moves such as Sand Attack, you may have to brush dirt off of them. The moves they use can influence how you need to clean them as well. Certain moves may cause your Pokémon’s fur to become messy, requiring you to comb them. Pokémon without fur or feathers cannot be combed for obvious reasons.
The reason Refresh works better than Amie is because you’re given the option to clean your Pokémon immediately after a battle ends. I myself barely used Amie because I forgot it even existed for most of the experience of playing X and Y. Conversely, by informing you that your Pokémon could use sprucing up, it allows players to reap the benefits once they maximize their affection ratings. The icon for Refresh also shakes whenever your Pokémon are hungry, allowing the player to roleplay a little by feeding them.
However, as great as this mechanic is, it does go a little too far in much of the same way the Exp. Share did in X and Y. To begin with, there’s the fact that, like many DS or 3DS games, switching between control schemes is fairly awkward. To be fair, Sun and Moon aren’t nearly as bad as some of the early DS titles in this regard, as the core gameplay is primarily controlled via buttons and the circle pad while the touch screen is usually reserved for bonus features such as Refresh.
More pressingly, dealing with status conditions is completely trivial thanks to the fact that you can now cure them in Refresh. While status conditions were fairly annoying in early generations, they did force players to manage their resources wisely. In Sun and Moon, you are practically guaranteed to end the campaign with an overabundance of medicine meant to cure status conditions – assuming you don’t hock them for legitimately useful items such as TMs. The only time you would ever need to use them is in the middle of a battle, but it is usually a better idea to power through them instead of wasting a turn.
Still, even with these flaws, Sun and Moon manage to provide a more sophisticated experience than X and Y did. Just the fact that there’s any challenge at all places it ahead of the sixth-generation games, but the variety present in Sun and Moon ensure even veterans will find something worthwhile.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following section will contain unmarked spoilers for these games and the series thus far.
In many ways, Sun and Moon represent a return to form for the mainline series – something returning players will notice as soon as they begin the game. Whereas X and Y suffered from an oversized cast, this generation scales things back by featuring two significant characters for the protagonist to interact with: Hau and Lillie. The more economical cast size allows the character arcs to come across better with Hau acting as the designated rival character and Lillie tagging along to protect Nebby from the forces that seek to take the unidentified Pokémon back.
The plots of the mainline Pokémon games have largely been defined by the region’s resident gang of criminals and the seventh generation does not present an exception. Although still a lighthearted series overall, the modus operandi of each team reveals that the series had become more serious with each successive generation. The turning point for this occurred in the third generation wherein Team Magma and Team Aqua wanted to change the world for the better, and nearly destroyed it in the process. From that point onward, the team leaders became more openly malevolent, culminating in Lysandre – an unabashed classist who wanted to utilize an ancient superweapon to purge the world of the lower classes.
For Sun and Moon the writers scaled things back when conceiving Alola’s own resident antagonistic faction: Team Skull. Far from global threat the Nazis-in-all-but-name Team Flare presented, Team Skull represents a more mundane, small-scale brand of villainy, as their illicit activities primarily consist of theft and other petty crimes.
Of the previous criminal organizations, Team Skull is most similar to the most iconic one of them all: Team Rocket. However, Team Rocket represented an older, more sophisticated brand of villainy, being heavily based off the yakuza – or the mafia as per the Western localization. Meanwhile, Team Skull are, for all intents and purposes, street thugs – probably the last thing anyone would have expected the Pokémon franchise to introduce.
Specifically, the members of Team Skull are directionless youths who failed the island challenge and have consequently turned to a life of crime. Despite this, they are considered nuisances at worst by the Alolan populace. Compared to the likes of Ghetsis or Lysandre, Team Skull’s leader, Guzma, is content with being a big fish in a small pond, primarily concerned with making money to sustain himself and his subordinates. Even his Admins bear greater resemblances to punks and delinquents than an evil overlord. And there isn’t a twist in which it’s revealed Guzma is secretly using these youths to harness the power of a legendary Pokémon to take over the world – what you see with Team Skull is what you get.
So, I can imagine longtime fans being disappointed with Team Skull being such a minor threat. However, I posit that this shift was a smart move. The villain organizations of the mainline Pokémon games had become increasingly evil to the point where, by the end, you were fighting actual fascists, although they did retain their predecessors’ signature goofiness. Team Flare marked the moment when the trend passed its tipping point. At the end of the day, “the same, but bigger” simply isn’t a sustainable strategy when conceiving sequels, so it’s for the best that the team dialed things back for Sun and Moon.
The most significant turning point of the story occurs when the protagonist is taken to the Aether Paradise, the headquarters of the Aether Foundation. They are an organization dedicated to sheltering and rehabilitating injured Pokémon. If Team Plasma could be seen as an analogue to PETA, an organization with good intentions whose methods are horribly misguided at best, then the Aether Foundation is more akin to a humane society.
It is still not terribly surprising when their president, Lusamine, turns out to be the games’ main antagonist if for no other reason than because the opening shows Lillie escaping their headquarters. If the player had any remaining doubts, they would be washed away when, after the building is besieged by a powerful Pokémon known as Nihilego. Upon seeing it, Lusamine bears a wicked grin that would make your average slasher villain proud. Like the team leaders before her, Lusamine has an obsession with particularly powerful Pokémon – in her case, the Ultra Beasts.
Even if it’s not particularly mind-blowing, I do enjoy this development because it plays with the series’ formula. In previous generations, introducing the villain teams early was something of a shaky proposition. While it was nice to know who you would fight against from the beginning, it often ran the risk of muting their menace in the long term. The fact that Team Flare were genocidal maniacs didn’t mean much when you could mow down the nameless grunts and even most of the Admins with little effort – although I will say portraying fascists as hopeless incompetents made for one of the most realistic depictions of those who subscribe to such a philosophy I’ve ever seen.
In Sun and Moon, you go through similar motions with Team Skull only for the games to throw off the kiddie gloves when it forces you to battle the Aether Foundation employees. Much like the nameless grunts of previous teams, Team Skull have only weak, common Pokémon at their disposal. Your average Aether Foundation employee, being part of a well-funded organization, have far more variety in their lineups, meaning you can’t simply brute force these encounters and expect to win. They may not be as powerful as a Gym Leader, but their sheer numbers ensure your team will be worn down by attrition if you’re not careful.
The Ultra Beasts are extradimensional beings from Ultra Space. The series hasn’t shied away from portraying certain Pokémon as something out of a cosmic horror story despite their innocuous designs, but with the Ultra Beasts, the writers went a step further. These beings are repeatedly and demonstrably shown to be a threat to both humans and Pokémon alike, and it is even confirmed they have killed at least one human in the past. Similar story beats were only implied in previous generations.
More than anything, when you encounter them for yourself, it’s easy to get the sense that their existence is an anomaly against nature. Indeed, if you go for the obvious solution by trying to capture one, you’ll find standard Poké Balls have difficulty recognizing them. The Aether Foundation has been working on a prototypical device known as a Beast Ball, which can capture them more easily. As a nice touch, because they were built to capture beings with such different physiology, they work very poorly on standard Pokémon, being one-tenth as effective as a standard Poké Ball.
Lusamine’s obsession with these Ultra Beasts caused her son, Gladion, to realize she would destroy Alola if she let them into this dimension. One artificial Pokémon, Type: Null, was created as a weapon to fend off the Ultra Beasts. Gladion then absconded with Type: Null, becoming its partner, and joined Team Skull, becoming an enforcer to sabotage the Aether Foundation’s efforts. Naturally, this causes quite a bit of friction with Gladion’s sister, Lillie, who wants to keep Nebby safe from their mother’s machinations without resorting to petty crime.
Unfortunately, Gladion’s actions backfire when Guzma reveals his ties to the Aether Foundation and has one of his Admins kidnap and subsequently bring Lillie to Aether Paradise, setting in motion the endgame sequences. It’s revealed that Nebby is actually a Cosmog, which, depending the version you’re playing, evolves into Solgaleo or Lunala. Whatever it evolves into is capable of opening and manipulating Ultra Wormholes, thus explaining why Lillie tried to keep it a secret. It is interesting how, in making Team Skull such a joke, the writing staff found a way to make the driving conflict a little more personal.
Even if they don’t turn out to be actively malicious, the Ultra Beasts still present a serious threat to Alola – particularly when it turns out that Nihilego is a parasite capable of physically bonding with other beings. It finds one in the form of Lusamine, whose fixation with the Ultra Beasts makes her the ideal host. When Nihilego bonds with a host, it brings their potential, but at the cost of removing inhibitions. This is reflected in your final fight against Lusamine and her entire team receives a significant power boost. Lusamine may not be the threat to sapient life Lysandre was, but the surprisingly realistic portrayal emotional abuse of her children coupled with her complete insanity made her one of the darkest villains in the series by this point.
In November 2017, Nintendo released a second pair of games for the seventh generation entitled Pokémon Ultra Sun and Pokémon Ultra Moon. These games largely follow the same plot, but the most significant deviation occurs when it turns out Lusamine is not obsessed with the Ultra Beasts. Here, she’s portrayed as a more sympathetic character. While she still drives a wedge between herself and her children, her organization’s interdimensional experiments are instead driven by the desire to save Alola from a far greater threat. One may think some megalomaniac such as Ghetsis is to blame, but “Who might this person be?” is the entirely wrong question to ask.
Yes, for the first time in the main series, the main antagonist is a Pokémon. Its name? Necrozma. It moves from dimension to dimension, stealing all light from worlds, and leaving naught but ruin in its wake. Before this moment, the closest a Pokémon had come to being the main antagonist in the main series was in the first generation with Mewtwo, whose character design greatly resembled that of Gigyas from Earthbound Beginnings. Even then, Mewtwo’s creation and impact on the setting was relegated to background material. Plus, it could be captured just like any other Pokémon, echoing the series’ primary theme that they only act villainous at the behest of bad trainers.
Necrozma has no such excuse, depriving worlds of light entirely of its own accord. It could very well be the first Pokémon in the series to be outright evil. Naturally, staying true to the series’ themes, it turns out humans made it this way in the first place in the distant past, but as the adage goes, hurt people hurt people. While its backstory is sympathetic, it is a serious threat that needs to be stopped.
On top of that, it gains an Ultra Form, resulting in one of most difficult boss fights in the history of the series. Previous attempts to pit the player against one powerful Pokémon failed as long as they had a team around the same level. Here, even with a full team of six and powerful Z-Moves at your disposal, the odds are massively stacked against you. This makes defeating Necrozma the most gratifying triumph in the series’ history since stopping Ghetsis’s plans for world domination. Even better, if you had been regularly using Refresh and caring for your Pokémon this entire time, you could easily see them endure an otherwise devastating blow and deliver the coup de grâce with one HP remaining – something that happened in my own playthrough.
When you encounter it one last time, you can capture it like normal. Usually, when you capture a Pokémon, it’s with the intent to train them for battle or beauty contests. In this particular instance, the process is more comparable to those fantasy novels whose prologues involve the heroes’ precursors performing a sealing ritual on the ultimate evil.
If it’s one final thing I like about the plot of Sun and Moon, it’s that its ending continues to play around with the series’ conventions. In the previous regions, your end goal was always the same: qualify for the Pokémon League and defeat the Champion. Because Alola doesn’t have a Pokémon League, the locals deem it necessary to create one. The kahunas of the four islands band together and act as the Elite Four. But, then you realize that with no champion, you can just sit on the throne unimpeded. It is there that Professor Kukui himself challenges you to see if you are worthy of becoming Alola’s first champion.
The idea of fighting against the region’s professor had been toyed with in the first generation. Hacking the game files revealed that Professor Oak could have challenged Red at some point. As his team consisted of the same Pokémon that Blue has in his champion match, it’s very likely Professor Oak was originally intended to be the final boss at some point in development. For whatever reason, this didn’t make it into the final product, and while X and Y revisited the idea when Professor Sycamore challenged the player early on with a team consisting of the Kanto starters, it still amounted to an exhibition match you didn’t even need to win in order to progress.
Although Blue being Red’s first and final opponent on his journey allowed things to come full circle, it’s a bit of a shame even a postgame battle against Professor Oak didn’t make it into the final product. However, it is more fitting in this instance. After all, if either Elio or Selene wish to reign as the region’s very first champion, they must prove themselves worthy, and the Professor Kukui’s challenge is a final exam. It’s a way of making things come full circle that better fits the wildly different circumstances.
Drawing a Conclusion
When the mainline series jumped into three dimensions with X and Y, many longtime fans insisted the series had entered something of a dark age. Personally, I think the criticism was a tad overblown, but it did have some merit. While the presentation was improved, X and Y were rather infamous for being the easiest games in the series by a wide margin. Compounding matters, the story was decidedly not a worthy follow-up to the remarkably high standard set by the fifth-generation games. It wasn’t bad, but everything it tried to do had been done better in Black, White, and their respective sequels. Some regarded X and Y as improvements over Black and White, but I found them to be a regression into old patterns, and their callbacks to previous generations were more gratuitous than appreciated.
While I will admit Sun and Moon are not the best games in the series, they did, despite some odd design choices, restore some of the series’ edge that had been lost in X and Y. That alone makes Sun and Moon worthier of your time, but what I especially like about the games is how they slowly, yet surely, began to mark the moment when the series began to fully modernize itself. If you are looking for a gateway into series, they wouldn’t be a bad choice to start with.
Now, someone unfamiliar with the seventh generation may take notice of the Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon rereleases and wonder if they should dive into those games and not bother playing the originals. Even after playing both sets of games for myself, I find there really isn’t an easy answer to that question. I would make the case that the experiences offered by Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are a bit more complete than those of the originals. At the same time, the extra features present in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are unlikely to win over anyone who didn’t find the originals compelling. One thing I can say for certain is that anyone only interested in a challenging Pokémon game should ignore the originals, as the rereleases are noticeably more difficult. Another good idea would be to start with Sun and Moon and, if you liked them enough to conduct a second playthrough, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon work well as an unconventional New Game Plus. In any case, I can say that while the seventh generation may not have reinvented the wheel, it did help the series get back on track after X and Y refused to challenge players at all.
Final Score: 7.5/10