Pokémon games have been kicking around for a good long time now. And to be frank, the gotta-catch-’em-all-and-evolve-’em-all vibe had gotten a little predictable, even for those who have mostly enjoyed the little pocket monsters’ two-decade journey.
Then in July 2016, Nintendo released something very different: Pokémon Go. And as quickly as you could toss a little red and white ball, things suddenly changed. I’m sure even Pikachu was left scratching his furry head and wondering what just happened. The spot-a-poké-on-your-front-yard augmented-reality smartphone app wasn’t exactly a “game” in the traditional sense, but it certainly became a frenzied obsession for millions of people.
For Nintendo, the biggest upside of that augmented reboot was the fact that a whole new generation—and more specifically a whole new flock of non-gamers—were introduced to these magical little critters for the first time. And, of course, they’re left with a strong desire to, uh, catch even more of the fun.
That’s where the new Nintendo 3DS games Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon tag in.
Sun and Moon are essentially the same game, featuring different creatures that players can use for trading. The storyline of both games takes us to the Hawaiian-like Alola islands, a sunbaked paradise of sandy beaches, Mahalo greetings, fiery volcanoes, waving grass skirts … and Pokémon, of course.
Players begin as a young Poké trainer who wants to work his (or her) way up to the coveted title of Pokémaster. As has been true in the past, the path to that goal includes searching out and capturing a variety of wild, elemental Pokémon scattered about the islands, hiding out in tall grasses and deep burbling waters.
Once you’ve caught a few of Alola’s hundreds of different Pokémon, you’ll choose a team of six to compete with. Being a trainer requires helping those lil’ monsters grow stronger and evolving them into even more potent critters through battles with other teams doing the same thing.
That process involves strategy and planning. Fire-type Pokémon, for instance, have a serious advantage over grassy beasts. But throw a water monster into the mix, and your fire guys will find their heated passions cooled quickly. So players must maintain and grow the most balanced team possible to meet any challenge, mastering each different type’s strengths and weaknesses.
What makes this new game any different from those of the past then? Well, I guess it’s the kinder, friendlier approach of it all.
To help the players migrating from the simple stuff of the Pokémon Go app, Sun and Moon work extra hard to focus on friendship rather than just the fiery gauntlets of some of the past titles. There’s still plenty of team battles to face—in island challenges instead of Pokégym do-or-die bouts—but the residents of Alola are much more cheerful and easygoing about it all. They generally give players plenty of time to heal up their monster force between contests.
The game also encourages players to build closer relationships with their Pokémon charges. Your role shifts from monster taskmaster to something closer to a loving caregiver. To help your creatures improve, there’s a virtual pet-like feature where you take time to clean, feed, heal and digitally brush your little friends.
As you do, they express their growing affection for you and even become incrementally more effective when led into battle. When a particularly emotive pet gets pounded in a conflict, for instance, you might see him worry over disappointing you. And when he’s really delivering the monster mash you expect, he could even give you a nod as if to say, “See, boss? I got it in gear now.”
As far as negatives are concerned, there’s not a lot to worry about here. Instantaneous evolution of the fantastic creatures happens from time to time. But even though that word may trigger alarm bells for some, it’s pretty much detached from any scientific theories or religious statements. When a player earns enough resources to evolve a particular Pokémon, that creature simply becomes a bigger, “badder” version of itself.
Beasty battles aren’t too problematic either. Monsters attack each other with sharp claws or blasts of fire, spurts of poison, razor-edged leaves and the like. But there is never any blood or mess. A defeated creature simply faints from the cartoonish exertion and retires from that melee to go rest up. Nothing ever dies here, making these face-offs more akin to a something like a boxing match than a fight to the death.
There’s also a gang of not-so-nice trainers who move around in recognizable team outfits, mouthing off and trying to steal other folks Pokémon pets. But these clownish hoodlums are always presented in a negative light, and they’re far too cartoonish to be considered threatening in any way. The only other minor concern in the game involves some of the locals’ fashion choices, which can include bikinis and one male character’s tendency to never wear a shirt. Then again, none of those characters’ wardrobe choices are anything but what you might encounter on any beach in the world.
All in all, then, Pokémon Sun and Moon could be said to be something of an, uh, evolution of the gameplay that longtime Pokémon players know so well. After all, the gamemakers at Nintendo had to satisfy all the seasoned Pokéfolks who grew up with the series, without overwhelming that crowd of new youngsters eagerly stepping from the phone to the 3DS fray. And they walk that Poké tightrope pretty well.
Note: Be sure to check out our other Pokémon reviews, including Plugged In’s review of Pokémon Go, our vodcast “What Parents Need to Know About Pokémon Go,” and our downloadable “Pokémon Go Guide for Parents.” These resources delve deeper into the overall Pokémon worldview for parents who want to know more about this cultural phenomenon.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.