I’ve played the first three hours of Pokémon Sun and Moon, and the demo that’s out now on Nintendo’s 3DS eShop. On top of that, I’ve played every Pokémon RPG since the 1999 Game Boy originals for about 150 hours each, and here’s why I am crying uncontrollably as I write this. Crying internally I mean.
Imagine having a lovely family dog all throughout your life, but instead of it getting older and older and withering and eventually dying, either at the vet’s merciful hand or Mother Nature’s cruel fist, it’s a magic dog that gets stronger and healthier every time you see it. You come home and it greets you like in those ‘Dogs welcoming soldiers’ videos that get millions of views on YouTube, and now its coat is glossier, and it’s bigger, and it’s got a few extra features, like built-in Wi-Fi and a rich orchestral bark. The Pokémon series is that dog. A God-tier dog, if you will. This is the same animal that bounded up to me as a kid, tongue wagging, but Sun and Moon is the fattest and happiest I've ever seen it.
Did that dog analogy work? I hope so. Anyway, here’s what I think about the demo, and my first three hours in the full version. Sun takes place at whatever time it is where you are and Moon happens 12 hours later. While this sounds strange at first, it’s actually a smart way of making the day/night cycle more inclusive and letting you experience the tropical new islands of Alola at your preferred time. If, for instance, you have no job (lucky!) and intend to play in the afternoon, and want your in-game time to mirror outside, get Sun. It’s good to see a non-alienating difference between the two, rather than simply version-specific Pokémon.
Saying that, there are those too, such as fruit-loving lemur Passimian in Sun and shaman-ape Oranguru in Moon. Likewise, get Sun for the muscled mosquito man UB-02 Absorption, and Moon for UB-02 Beauty. These so-called Ultra Beasts look to reintroduce mystique and danger somewhat nullified by an over-abundance of Legendaries.
From your very first step in Alola it’s clear this is the fully 3D Pokémon game you’ve been waiting for. It’s closer to the GameCube’s Pokémon XD Gale Of Darkness than top-down handheld offerings that merely dabble in polygons. No more rigid grid-based navigation. No more snapping-to-items. This is full freedom of movement - you can run in a circle now! Also, everyone is given more time outside of their Pokéballs: your pet Meowth prowls around your house, a Poliwhirl hits a punching bag in the corner of Pokémon Research Lab, and two Machamp stare each other down in Ten Carat Hills.
That was all in the full version I played. The demo, on the other hand, is limited to a stretch of Hau’oli City, Pokémon’s largest single location yet. There’s a main street filled with chunky vehicles. A ferry terminal to visit other islands. A police station with an adorable Granbull doll wearing an officer’s hat, a shoreline where beached Pyukumuku wait to be chucked back into the sea, and even an apparel shop featuring luminous tees, bright cargo shorts, silly socks, bucket hats, and backpacks. Strike a pose in the dressing room and save a selfie to your trainer card. Geographically and content-wise, Sun and Moon feel massive.
I’m a bit disappointed by the Poké Finder later in the demo. It’s a camera device that lets you take pictures and save it to SD card, but you can only do it at set points - like a crack in a wall, say. There’s a bit set in Ten Carat Hills where Professor Kukui takes you to photograph Hakomo-o and Kommo-o, scary new dragons covered in scales like a pangolin (what could go wrong?). What might have played out like a new-gen Pokémon Snap instead has you walk up to cave crevices and look through as the creatures march back and forth. Doing so angers Kommo-o and a battle begins.
It turns out this is a new Totem Pokémon, which is basically a more massive version that can summon other monsters to help it. Scary stuff. Hope there’s no Totem Muk. While the Poké Finder isn’t as substantial as I hoped, Island Trials represent a massive structural shift. The time of earning badges in stuffy gyms is over, because now you’re seeking Trial Captains and completing tasks in the great outdoors. From what little Nintendo has revealed, they seem to revolve around item-hunting, destination-finding, and pattern recognition. Dialogue snippets suggest Trial Captain Kiawe asks you to judge traditional dances and spot differences, for example. This earns you the right to fight a Trial Captain.
Travelling to find them is cool as hell now too. Remember when you had to have a dedicated Pokémon - or ‘HM slave’ - to teach moves to so you could get around? And how it took up valuable space in your six-Poké squad? Now you have a separate tab of rideable Pokémon. As in, you can strap a saddle to a Charizard and fly off. Taurus charges through rocks, Lapras lets you lazily fish from its shell, and Sharpedo jets across bodies of waters. Yes, you can ride an actual shark. I like how, when you enter a battle from Poké-back, you’re still dressed in your lycra gear.
I can't wait to import the kindred Charizard I’ve had for a decade and hop on. Although, Nintendo hasn't really explained the extent of importing. Apparently you can transfer Pokémon from X, Y, Omega Ruby, Alpha Sapphire, Bank, and Virtual Console releases of Red, Blue, and Yellow, but that means they've got hundreds of fully animated 3D models ready to go. Huge if true.
In any case, battles are more accessible than ever. For those without the patience to learn the ins and outs of type damage (people unaware that psychics beat ghosts are forgiven), a dialogue box now tells you how effective a move is, and another pop-up details the current status effect, like, say, if Swords Dance lingers.
Oh, and Z-Moves are awesome. There’s one for all 18 elemental types, and a Pokémon can unleash it once per scrap. Just give it the relevant Z-Crystal to hold. Some Pokémon even get their own moves, like Eevee’s total stat-raising EvoBoost, or Pikachu’s Gigavolt Havoc. Whether Z-Moves completely neutralize any challenge remains to be seen - what stops me using it from the off every time and fainting opponents in one hit? - but damn does it feel good to see Snorlax temporarily become a lord of ruin.
Don’t let him fool you, however. Sun and Moon are more welcoming than ever. For starters your new Pokédex is inhabited by returning electric ghost Pokémon, Rotom, who guides you around Alola. You can even jab him in the eye via the touchscreen. And your rival, a tradition that dates back to the snot-nosed Gary Oak, is mercifully more of a best friend than dick, supplying gifts and motivational quotes in equal measure. And in Poké Centres, Nurse Joy’s formerly lengthy dialogue before she actually heals your team has been mercifully shortened.
And Pokémon themselves are better treated. First, Pokémon Restore, a minigame located in the menu, lets you stroke, and feed your crew berries, to top health. It also means you can cure a Popplio’s paralysis by petting him on the head. Even better, any Pokémon stored in a PC now gets access to a lovely virtual kennel called Poké Pelago, a series of islands they can explore independently in your absence. Those left on Isle Aphun may sniff out valuable items for you, while ones on Isle Evelup can train and improve. Hey, it beats solitary confinement in a desktop folder.
Onto multiplayer, and the Festival Plaza is where you go to meet and mingle with real players, trading, battling, chatting, and playing minigames. But I don’t really know how it works. A StreetPass system, I think? From my hands-on with the full version it seems to beam anyone in close proximity into your instance, but you can also link up with players globally by presumably swapping friend codes. The figures in my plaza were NPCs - presumably temporary stand-ins for the real thing - and I was told by the Festival Plaza owner, Sophocles, to speak to them for gold coins.
Coins let you access the Dye House (colour fashion items), Bouncy House (raise a Pokémon’s attributes), Lottery Shop (draw tickets to win items), and more. You can also embark on co-op missions, such as Pokémon-catching contests, to raise your festival rank and earn prizes. Inside the castle at the centre you can play new Battle Royales, which are essentially four-person free-for-alls decided by who scores the most knockouts. The battle is over when all three Pokemon of any competitor falls. As if Alola didn't have enough to do!
Sure, Pokémon Sun and Moon is exceedingly familiar. The cries of every critter bar Pikachu are still digitised like a malfunctioning DVD player, and there’s no voice acting. Moves in battle once again fail to connect, because the clipping would be a nightmare if they did. Citizens just stand in place waiting to talk to you like elaborate signposts, free of routines or lives of their own. And even the noise it makes when you bump into a wall is the same as in Red and Blue.
But I don’t mind all that, because Sun and Moon use this template as a springboard to greatness. There’s an elegant reassurance in an act that never changes. Do you want your dog to change into a cat? OR DIE? Didn’t think so.