Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are probably the Pokémon games I’ve looked least forward to, given least thought about and been least bothered about playing since the very beginning of the series’ history here in the West. I didn’t even pick up the games when they came out last year and even after receiving Ultra Moon for Christmas, it took until after the New Year for me to bother putting it into the 3DS.
It’d be wrong to not state that part of that is because I’m just ready to move on from the 3DS following 10 months of life with its successor, the Nintendo Switch. Had I been able to choose to play Pokémon Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon on my TV or to play it in my hands in bed as it suited me, I’d probably have played it before now – but the rest of my reservations would have remained the same.
It’s more fair to compare these games to Pokémon Platinum than the pair of games they superficially appear more similar to: Pokémon Black 2 and White 2. They don’t fundamentally change the game that Sun and Moon initially delivered, but they do round off the remaining rough edges and generally polish the elements most lustrous in the original. Is there much reason in playing these games if you played Sun or Moon? Not really – the experiences are largely the same and while there are a small handful of new features and even Pokémon introduced, very little of it is worth £39.99 to anyone other than those keen to give Alola another go.
Part of the problem with Ultra Sun and Moon as a concept is that, actually, Sun and Moon largely perfected what it means to make a Pokémon game. The games made an effort to break somewhat with tradition by making your journey into an ‘Island Trial’, delineated by collecting Z Crystals rather than badges and by undergoing a more abstract concept of ‘trials’ than simply defeating 8 Gym Leaders. In doing so, the differences between the Alolan quest and the Gym challenges of previous games actually highlight the overall similarities that remain all the same. The hero’s journey through the game and the overall main plot doesn’t significantly change despite the dramatic change in window dressing. It proves that the specific format of that journey can vary without changing the core of what makes a Pokémon game and frees future games to explore other options in depicting that main journey without messing with the DNA that’s kept the series successful for 20 years.
The rest of the game completes the work on the game’s mechanics that’s been ongoing since the first follow-up to runaway success in Gold and Silver. New types have been introduced to balance out power imbalances; attacks are more obviously connected to their stats by marking them as ‘Physical’ or ‘Special’, methods to manipulate the ‘hidden’ numbers that make up the ‘perfect’ Pokémon for competitive use have been largely made openly accessible and in Sun and Moon, ruining your teams with HM moves to get around the game’s world was finally binned in favour of Ride Pokémon . Meanwhile, now that everything, from characters, to the world, to Pokémon battles are rendered in the same three dimensional engine, making a living and engaging game world with Pokémon visibly living out and about in it is technically feasible without endless hours of making specific sprite objects and devoting resources away from making the rest of the game.
Ultra Sun and Moon build upon this somewhat – there are more Pokémon out and about in the world and there are even more ‘quality of life’ improvements for those building competitive Pokémon teams in-game such as effectively being handed various ‘perfect’ breeding stock Ditto – but there isn’t really much more that the games could actually do at this point. It’s taken 20 years, but the mechanical formula for a Pokémon game is now functionally complete. We will likely see more gimmicks like Mega Evolution, Z-Moves or special regional variants of popular Pokémon , but gimmicks is what they will be. The games are now effectively in the same position as the Pokémon Trading Card Game has been in for some time. The core mechanics of the TCG haven’t really changed since the introduction of ‘EX’ Pokémon and while there have been fleeting gimmicks introduced with certain sets of cards, the gimmicks eventually rotate out of play along with those sets and gameplay carries on without them and onto the next.
The fact that Ultra Sun and Moon sit atop this solid bedrock is what makes the games’ biggest crime even worse. The mechanics are sound and in general don’t really require much introduction at this point for even the newest player to understand. They’re far less opaque than they used to be and the NPCs in game almost exclusively exist now to explain the full detail of the game’s overall mechanical deepness in a way that’s difficult to miss even if you rush through the game. So why does the game spend so much time holding your hand and ushering you through a single, specific path?
It’s exemplified by continuing the tiresome charade of pretending like anyone needs to be taught how to catch a Pokémon any more. After 20 years of existing pretty close to the center of gravity of pop culture’s black hole, even a five year old being sat down to play the game for the very first time will know the deal through pure cultural osmosis. If Pokémon Go can get celebrities, world leaders and other similarly mentally challenged idiots to be capable of catching a Pokémon without 15 minutes of painfully long conversations and demonstrations, perhaps it’s time Game Freak finally took the training wheels off?
The worst thing about Pokémon games are that they give off the illusion of being about choice. You arguably have a lot of choice in what kind of team you build, the kind of attacks they’ll learn and thus how you’ll play the game. That setup has always been a ‘fact’ that’s teetered along the line of being total rubbish – as any look at the teams that make up the top-level of competition at the Pokémon World Championships each year will easily demonstrate, by being almost identical across the board – but it does create the illusion of free-choice all the same.
There’s been a similar level of illusion of choice in how to navigate and play the games throughout most of the regions the games are set across. Sometimes you can choose to go one way rather than the other, or skip entire sections altogether. As soon as you get the ability to fly around the region it even feels like the entire world has opened up to become your oyster – even if you can only go back to places you’ve already been. The truth is, of course, that the feeling of choice is a lie. One that Alola lays bare by both literally and figuratively barricading your access to the next path until you complete the given task (or more specifically, trial) at hand. This railroading only ever dissipates at the end of the game, after there’s not much left to stop you exploring at your own will anyway.
Like I say, this has been a long-standing illusion of choice – it’s as fundamentally true of Red and Blue as it is of Ultra Sun and Moon – so why does it seem to be so much more frustrating in the current game? The answer, as I see it, is that the bedrock of the games, mechanically speaking, is so solid now that the rest of the framing of the game is actually now holding it back.
As The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild aptly demonstrated, the core of any great, large, open world game is a solid base of game mechanics. A stripping back of previous 3D Zelda games, Breath of the Wild gives you a handful of gameplay tools up front – a sword, shield, paraglider and some physics manipulation via the Shieka Slate – and simply cuts you free to make your way through the game’s world by combining your tools with the world’s own mechanics. Ultra Sun and Moon give you the same kind of tools – albeit not up front. 7 Generations of perfecting how to develop your Pokémon teams are your sword and shield. Ride Pokémon are your paraglider. The world’s mechanics operate through Pokémon battles – a system that’s robust enough to base huge cash prizes upon in the real world, so surely robust enough to rely on for your game’s progression naturally.
The best open world games don’t spend hours slowly introducing you to everything that makes up the game, they let you work it out yourself by playing the game. They don’t wall off parts of the world that are too difficult or nanny you through the path they want you to take, they let you learn from the mistake of going the wrong way by being wrecked by enemies far more powerful than you are. The world becomes yours to explore at your leisure and the game’s primary story is told the same way. Everywhere in the game’s world matters because everywhere is on equal footing in terms of the player’s path through the game. There’s still some level of illusion to your choices, but enough of it is genuine to at least match against the freedom of building and training your own Pokémon team. A dynamic that’s very one sided towards the team building, and away from the world building, in Ultra Sun and Moon.
Pokémon has the mechanics to deliver a fully realised and open Pokémon world to explore, battle through and ultimately conquer. Pokémon Sun and Moon already saw to that in 2016. Ultra Sun and Moon were never going to be the games to deliver on marrying those mechanics to a more open playstyle, but they could have at least tried loosening up on the journey through each of Alola’s 4 self-contained islands. To drop the pretense that we need endless tutorials to the game’s mechanics. To redress the balance of gameplay freedom towards the bulk of the gameplay. It’s perhaps unfair to lay Sun and Moon’s failures there at Ultra Sun and Moon’s doors, but it’s a missed opportunity to have given the games something more worth another £39.99 on top of their predecessors and it’s really hard to forgive making the same mistakes twice and charging full price again for it.
Perhaps the bigger question now, though, is what comes next? There’s a new Pokémon game – most likely an entirely new Generation of Pokémon – coming on the Switch, possibly this year. Given the obvious future-forward design of the Sun/Moon game engine (so much so that it can barely run on the 3DS), it’s obvious that it, and thus the overall base of Sun/Moon’s mechanics will be the game’s bedrock. Ultra Sun/Moon’s increased presence of Pokémon out and about in the world can only be further improved upon with the Switch’s increased grunt and the natural direction from there is to focus on developing an even greater and more engaging living game world. But, if the next Pokémon game forces the same linearity onto that world, it might as well be a bunch of blocky pixels in green and and white for all the improvement it’d be over Red and Blue’s Kanto region.
It’s time to stop holding our hands, Game Freak. Create a fantastic Pokémon world to explore and then let us do it. The Pokémon part of the game is as solid as it’s ever going to get – now’s the time to build a world around it that compliments it – not one that holds it – and us – back.