Pokémon Sun and Moon
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS
Developer: Game Freak
Release Date: Out now
The release of Pokémon Sun and Moon crowns a significant year in the franchise's history, as Nintendo and The Pokémon Company celebrate the series' 20th Anniversary – and what a year it has been for the pocket monsters.
Even those who witnessed the height of Pikachu and pals' zeitgeist-busting dominance in the late 1990s couldn't have predicted quite how much of a mobile sensation Pokémon Go would become.
Tellingly, both Niantic's all-encompassing app and the re-release of Pokémon Red, Blue and Yellow on Virtual Console traded on fan nostalgia for the original cast of 151 pocket monsters. With a broad audience of wistful veterans and wide-eyed newcomers, longstanding developer Game Freak could almost have been forgiven if Sun and Moon honoured tradition and played it safe.
Instead it has taken a risk and set about reworking the established Pokémon structure from the ground up, streamlining obtuse options and jettisoning tired mechanics. To the naked eye, the shift from 2D to 3D sprites in Pokémon X and Y appears to be a much more cataclysmic shift in Game Freak's design ethos, but Sun and Moon, to borrow a Poké-term, is a true mega evolution.
Sun and Moon whisks trainers off to the prime vacation hotspot of the sun-drenched Alola region – a breezy, Hawaiian-themed archipelago littered with palm trees, idyllic beaches and a fresh roster of tropical beasts (and Alolan variants) to catch, train, trade and battle.
The trip has also presented Game Freak with the opportunity to leave a lot of the series' excess baggage at the airport, with arbitrary Hidden Machine (HMs) moves the most welcome casualty. Their replacement – rideable "Pager Pokémon" – is just one of many concessions to a generally more welcoming and colourful approach. So much so that even something as banal as registering a new creature in the Pokédex is accompanied by sweetly jubilant fanfare.
Seemingly every addition in Sun and Moon – be it the emoji-like waypoint markers on the new Rotom-powered Pokédex or the super-effective move glossary that appears once you encounter a Pokémon for a second time – removes a previously frustrating design choice, but it comes at a cost: freedom.
The most notable break with tradition in Sun and Moon comes in the main narrative thrust, with the hallowed halls of Pokémon Gyms replaced with "Trials". The journey from Trial to Trial isn't too dissimilar to the series' badge-collecting status quo, but the main plot sticks to a strict path and shepherds the player from one locale, objective or cutscene to the next, barraging them with hints, tips and reminders.
In spite of its geographical, island-hopping scope, the seventh generation of Pokémon games somehow feel smaller as a result of this hand-holding and strict linearity during the main quest. Alola's technicolor paradise begs to be explored at every turn, but the experience too often resembles a stringent package holiday where meals are catered and sightseeing tours adhere to the well-beaten track.
Each Trial ends with a Totem Pokémon encounter – super-sized, juiced-up variants of a regular native monster that have been watching far too much Dragon Ball – with a win earning the victorious trainer a Z-Crystal used to trigger flashy, once-per-battle Z-Moves.
Several of these Trials, such as the haunted shopping centre, are inspired, tasking players with snapping photos or playing spot the difference rather than running the same old gauntlet of Gym-dwelling trainers. What we are left with can sometimes lack the gravitas of staring down the region's champions in undiluted one-on-one duels, but it's undeniably refreshing and the quirky collection of tasks brings the experience much closer to the zany antics of the Pokemon animated series than ever before.
The tone of the story itself may wiggle around like a Wishiwashi on dry land, but for the most part it's passable, forgettable fare that ends with a dorky extended cutscene exemplifying how much the jaunty ukulele tunes and dynamic camera movements make Alola such a relaxing digital getaway.
It's the character work that really makes Sun and Moon tick, though. Whether it's Team Skull's faux hip-hop ridiculousness or the fact that Alola's shirtless professor says "yeah" every other sentence, the localisation team deserve a lot of praise for exorcising the po-faced "bond between trainer and creature" waffle we've seen before in favour of some light-hearted humour.
As with most Pokémon games, becoming the very best is only half of the journey and it's here where Sun and Moon really come to life, as you seek out all the Pokémon Snap-esque photo spots with the Poké Finder, scavenge for collectibles, breed competitive beasts and tackle series stalwarts in the Battle Tower.
Additions like the online, mini-game-filled Festival Plaza and Poké Pelago – a series of isles where berries can be grown and boxed Pokemon hoard items over time – also enhance the long-term appeal, while the superb four-player, free-for-all Battle Royal mode is an absolute blast.
At times, you can almost feel the Nintendo 3DS straining to contain all Sun and Moon have to offer, with everything from the vibrant visuals to the sheer mass of things to do and see pushing the hardware to its very limit – a situation that excuses the occasional frame-rate drops and complete lack of actual 3D functionality.
Despite the awkwardly linear path through Pokémon Sun and Moon's sumptuous tropical setting, the breadth of content, refreshed design and breezy humour make this sunny Alolan holiday one to remember. With the Nintendo Switch on the horizon, the latest set of Poké-adventures would make a tremendous swansong for Nintendo's dual-screened handheld, with Game Freak proving you can always teach an old Rockruff new tricks.