It has been 20 years since Pokémon first took over the world. That phenomenal journey has been one that has seen developer Game Freak embrace near constant evolution, with periodic hardware advancements allowing their creativity to remain unbridled in producing six meaningful generational leaps.
In that time the Pokédex has grown to list 721 Pokémon and we have had the chance to explore six distinct regions, but the clearest change has been in appearance. Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue‘s black and white pixels on Game Boy are now a distant, nostalgic memory, and the world of Pokémon has come alive as it made an aesthetic shift away from blocky sprites to 3D graphics.
After delivering 18 mainline games, The Pokémon Company promised that their past experiences would come together to form an all-new adventure. That sees the seventh generation arrive in Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon, which, as the Nintendo DS did before it, sees the beloved Nintendo 3DS welcome a second gear change for the series.
We marvelled at the evolution that came in Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, wandering wide-eyed as we explored the Kalos region and Lumiose City’s whimsically Parisian streets. Now, some three years later, we pack our bags to catch a flight to the tropical Alola region, which takes inspiration from Hawaii’s sunny climes.
Given Pokémon GO‘s overwhelming worldwide success and the well-paced marketing campaign that Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon is churning through, the brand has had an incredible presence throughout its anniversary year and the Nintendo 3DS exclusives can only capitalise on that. The first news blast this month alone has seen us learn about Dartrix, Torracat, and Brionne, unlocking Ash-Greninja in the Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon Special Demo Version, hanging out in Festival Plaza, and exploring Poké Pelago. It has been constantly exciting to await the news to then pore over every detail that has been shared. But, if there was anything else that could make us upgrade our ticket on the Alolan hype train, it was being lucky enough to be given the chance to experience the game’s opening hours.
Your adventure begins much in the same way as past generations. Beneath a moonlit sky – I chose to play Pokémon Moon to see how the 12-hour time difference would work – the camera pans around your new home town, and we see your character’s Mom ask Meowth to fetch you to help unpack. Unsurprisingly jetlagged after your long flight from the Kanto region, Meowth discovers you conked out on your bed and unresponsive to its playful purring. Eventually stirred from your sleep, you dash past your fun-filled room – complete with a globe, Pikachu toy and Ditto pillow – to help out.
After your Mom expresses how excited you must be to meet Alolan Pokémon, it is here that we meet the energetic Professor Kukui for the first time. Having once battled the Indigo Gym Leaders while researching Pokémon moves in the Kanto region, Kukui continues his work at home in the Alola region.
As you have recently arrived, he wants you to meet Hala who is Melemele Island’s Kahuna – super-strong Trainers that Kukui believes that you will find unbeatable – and receive your first Pokémon. Relieved of your unpacking duties, you grab your hat and bag from your room and set out with Kukui.
It certainly felt slightly peculiar to be setting off on an adventure in the middle of the night, but, in this streamlined introductory sequence, Kukui wanders along the first route with you while warning about tall grass and pointing out a nearby Trainer battle. By this point, you have already seen Rockruff, Alolan Meowth, Yungoos, and everybody’s favourite electric mouse Pikachu, and, seeing them out in the open, the world of Pokémon feels all the more alive than ever before. Game Freak’s passion shines from every pixel, and, while the 3DS hardware is starting to show its age, the developer has made many daring decisions to ensure that these iterations look destined to be the most kaleidoscopic and memorable adventures yet.
That can be seen in the incredibly cinematic story sequences, an early example being an encounter with Melemele Island’s guardian deity Tapu Koko – not to spoil it any further. It’s even apparent when you choose your partner Pokémon, which still isn’t a simple choice thanks to three more adorable designs in Rowlet, Litten, and Popplio. I’m #TeamRowlet all the way, and, once you have made your selection, a rather touching scene takes place.
Stood opposite Rowlet, Hala’s voice booms: “Only when you have both chosen each other can you truly call each other partners.” The Grass Quill Pokémon curiously stared at my character, an in-game message indicating that its gaze was fixed on me. Then, in a sudden movement, it rather heartwarmingly fluttered across the stage, and my character lifted it up gently for an intense hug. Whether it’s odd to admit or not, I haven’t felt such an immediate connection with a character since Lionhead introduced their canine companion in Fable 2.
That embodies Sun and Moon‘s often compassionate and adventurous spirit, the player having more chance to interact with their Pokémon than ever before through features such as Pokémon Refresh. After scraps with wild Pokémon or rival Trainers, you can tap the Y button to enter this straight away. As a method of strengthening the bond that you share with your Pokémon, this lets you care for them by petting them, feeding them Poké Beans, or grooming them to heal status conditions. It won’t appeal to everyone, but, for a series that has long appealed to newcomers and veterans alike, the experience has never felt as successfully diverse.
The early events in Sun and Moon take place over several days, with the player returning home as night transitions to day. It’s surprising how much this simple time progression gently improves the game’s pacing and narrative structure, waking to a new day and a renewed promise of adventure.
Kukui returns on the second day, guiding players through the process of capturing Pokémon. It’s at this point that players have their first chance to gain experience and build their team, aside from an earlier battle with Hala’s headstrong grandson Hau. There’s a heavy Pikipek presence in the first area, but you can expect to encounter new and previous generation Pokémon even early on in your travels. At the end of my two-hour playtime, my five-strong team was Rowlett, Grubbin, Wingull, Alolan Rattata, and Pikipek.
As before, once you encounter a Pokémon for the first time it is automatically registered in your Pokédex. However, the next time that you face the same Pokémon in battle instances, the high-tech tool will show which of your available moves are either not very effective, effective, or super effective. Proficient players will shrug at this tweak, but it is an important addition for newcomers by helping them to grasp mechanics such as type-weaknesses.
If you need to switch your active Pokémon, you can more easily preview others in your team and their moves before making your choice. And, while the menu screen packs more vibrant colour, it is far cleaner and improved with button shortcuts to Poké Balls.
Your early days largely look to introduce you to the Alola region and the adventure that you will set out on, and this centres around the Island Challenge. Trainers must work their way across the four islands, clearing several trials before they are deemed worthy enough to face each island’s Kahuna on their quest to become the Island Challenge Champion.
My session with Sun and Moon proved to be enough time to riddle my mind with intrigue, whether that be the mystery that surrounds the Z-Ring armband that can draw out the power that lies deep within Pokémon, how tricky the Island Challenge will ultimately be, or how long I will spend messing around with more playful elements such as the Poké Finder.
For 20 years, Pokémon has been remembered for a theme that advocated always striving to be the very best. Echoing that sentiment, Game Freak has truly outdone themselves in what we have seen so far with Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon, an experience that celebrates everything that we have come to love about the series while demonstrating that there is still plentiful room for meaningful innovation.
The Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon Special Demo Version will be available to download from Nintendo eShop on Tuesday 18th October, and you can use the QR Code to access it directly. The Special Demo Version introduces players to the Alola region and stars Ash-Greninja, which appears alongside Ash in the animated TV series Pokémon the Series: XYZ. Players will be able to transfer their Ash-Greninja from the Special Demo Version to their full version once the game launches.
Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon will release exclusively for Nintendo 3DS in North America, Australia and New Zealand on November 18th, and in Europe on November 23rd.