For the past twenty years, the Pokémon franchise has been one of the most consistently popular series in all of gaming. Though it easily could’ve been what killed the series, the familiarity of narrative and structure from generation to generation has become a key part of the games and fans have come to expect certain things from ecah new game. The evil team bent on dominating the world of Pokémon in one way or another, the series of Gym Leaders and other accomplished trainers you must defeat to earn your status as a Pokémon Master and the rival that challenges you every step of the way all make the Pokémon games the beloved series they are.
The latest generation, though, has caused something of a stir by promising to mix up the age-old formula by introducing an all new format in the latest games. Though part of the hype right now could be contributed to the success of Pokémon Go earlier on in the year, the reasons that Pokémon Sun and Moon are in such high demand could be because they’re finally breaking the mould.
There is plenty about these games that long term players – or even players of the original Pokémon Game Boy games returning to see what all the fuss is about – will recognise. You still have a rival, the laid-back Hau. You are still given your first ever Pokémon, of which you have the same choice of three types, by a professor, the equally chilled out Kukui. You still have a team of villains terrorising the region that you will inevitably take it upon yourself to quash. Again, these are some really relaxed guys – Team Skull have a far more casual attitude to villainy than the fiercely organised Team Rocket from the early games or the deviously ambitious Teams that followed.
There are a lot of people who have already leapt right into the new games, excited by the thrill of all the new features. But anyone more cautious, or who just hasn’t had a chance to get their hands on a copy yet, will still be wondering what’s so different about the new games.
One of the defining features of the Alola region is that it doesn’t just have the usual hundred odd unique Pokémon, but it also has all new forms of Pokémon we already know and love. The ones most prominently broadcast so far are the newly Ice type Vulpix, Ninetales, Sandshrew and Sandslash, the tall Dragon type Exeggutor, the derp-faced Persian and the Ground/Steel version of Diglett and Dugtrio that come complete with flowing sandy locks. Players can also expect to find funky new Grimer and Muk, as well as a punked up new Geodude, Graveller and Golem, which are now Rock/Electric type.
Regional variants aren’t an entirely new thing. After all, Arbok is known to have different markings in different regions and generation four saw Shellos and Gastrodon with different colouring populating different areas within the Sinnoh region.
But this is the first time that well known Pokémon have changed so significantly – not just in terms of appearance, but also ability and typing and everything that follows on from those differences. These new forms offer a glimpse at how Pokémon exist in the wild, how they change outside of their immediate evolutionary families and how the different regions interact both now and throughtout history. Theorists on YouTube and other fan platforms have already discussed why and how these changes could’ve occured and it adds layers to the lore of the Pokémon world.
The Alolan forms aren’t the only new versions of old Pokémon that the new games have to offer. Zygarde has a range of new forms and anyone who downloaded the demo already has an Ash-Greninja, the alternate form of Greninja that isn’t quite a mega-evolution that fans were first introduced to in the anime.
The new Pokémon games have shattered the uniformity of the series so far by doing away with one of the most fundamental ingredients of the franchise: Pokémon Gym Battles.
Instead of battling eight gym leaders to earn badges that give you passage to the Pokémon League, you have four island trials – one for each of the islands in the Alola region. New Pokémon trainers take on these challenges when they turn eleven years old as a rite of passage for young people out to begin their adventures in the Pokémon world. Each trial is set by an Island Kahuna and requires you to do various tasks, during the course of which you will explore the islands. If this sounds familiar to you, you likely wouldn’t be the first person to draw parallels between these challenges and Ash’s adventures in the Orange Islands.
The trial in the Sun and Moon demo had the player taking a number of photos of various Pokémon – a feature which you’ll be able to utilise in the new game as one of the features of the Rotom Pokédex, and which will be recognisable to the hardcore fans who remember Pokémon Snap. The trials in the full version of the games require you to show off your knowledge of Pokémon and collect things from around the islands.
Each trial is concluded with a battle with a Totem Pokémon. Totem Pokémon are much larger and more powerful than regular Pokémon of the same species and have the ability to summon other Pokémon to battle alongside them, to add that extra element of challenge. Once you’ve defeated the Totem Pokémon, you then face the Island Kahuna themselves for the Grand Trial.
As if Pokémon weren’t powerful enough already, the new games have introduced a number of all new attacks called Z-moves, which are so strong that they can only be used once per battle. There are two kinds of Z-moves: one that can be used by any Pokémon based on their type and one that can only be used by a single specific Pokémon. The final evolutions of all three Alolan starter Pokémon have their own Z-move. So do the Guardian deities as well as a number of other familiar faces including Raichu, Snorlax, Eevee, Mew and Pikachu, who has two.
To perform a Z-move, a Pokémon must be holding a Z-Crystal and the trainer must be wearing a Z-ring.
These new moves add another layer to battling in the same way that the introdoction of abilities and mega-evolution has in previous generations. While it may seem like it’s going to make your Pokémon stupidly overpowered – like it certainly was in the demo – the way this kind of thing has been implemented in the past suggests that it’s going to encourage players to strategise more in the game as a whole as well as when battling competitively.
In both the games and anime, Pokémon trainers have always been restricted to carrying a limited number of Pokémon around with them. But when the aim of the game is “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, you need to have somewhere else to keep the hundreds of other Pokémon you collect on your travels. In the anime, Professor Oak is kind enough to look after Ash’s Pokémon and in the games, they just get dumped in the PC in Bill’s and, briefly, Lanette’s Pokémon storage systems. Somehow.
Now, those Pokémon aren’t just sitting around idle. With Poké Pelago, you can put those Pokémon to work.
The Poké Pelago is made up of four islands, each of which has a unique purpose. As a player, the islands act a little like minigames separate from the narrative that you can use to boost some of the aspects of your main game.
Isle Abeens is frequented by wild Pokémon, which may decide to join your party if it takes a liking to you as a trainer. Isle Aphun gives your Pokémon the opportunity to forage in the wilds for rare items for you, including evolution stones, type-enhancing items and in-battle effect items. Isle Evelup has a bar where you can create drinks which enhance your Pokémon’s stats and experience. Isle Aplenny revisits the berry planting aspect of previous games, but in one secluded location.
This one is for the more competitive Pokémon trainers. As with every generation, there will be players who are happy Z-move their way through the more challenging battles without putting too much thought into strategy or statistics.
But if you’re the kind of trainer who really cares about having a Pokémon in perfect statistical condition, once you have trained a Pokémon until it has reached level 100, you can take it to a mysterious old man called Mr Hyper who will help train it further until you have crafted it into the ultimate fighting machine with his intensive Hyper Training techniques. In exchange for a Bottle Cap, he will maximise one or more of the Pokémon’s IVs – a single IV for a Silver Cap and all six for a Gold Cap.
To stop people spamming this service and getting massively overpowered right away, Bottle Caps are – understandably – not that easy to come by. They cannot be bought. Some have been released as events or with event Pokémon. To get them in game, the easiest way to get hold of them is to collect Shards, which can found on one of the Poké Pelago islands, and exchange them for Bottle Caps.
Adding a whole new level to the social aspects of Pokémon games, the Festival Plaza gathers together all the features used to communicate with other players in the real world in one location within the game. It can also be selected from the menu the same way that interactive aspects of the games have been in previous generations, with notifications that let you know when there are people nearby who you can engage with.
But there are more features than there have been in past games and there are benefits to making the effort of going to the in-game location.
You earn Festival Coins from engaging with other visitors and undertaking missions, which you can use to rise in Festival Plaza Rank. With each new rank, you get a reward. The higher your rank, the more facilities become available to you: lottery shops, bouncy houses, haunted houses, food stalls, goody shops, fortune-teller tents, and dye houses, each of which you can visit once per day. They each have their own purpose, some of which may seem more obvious than others. Many generate items for you to use in your main game, while others help you to level up your Pokémon and others allow you to customise your character.
One of Pokémon‘s most defining features is battling. Even though Sun and Moon introduce new tasks and trials for trainers to undertake when earning their reputation, it doesn’t forgo battling altogether. As well as updating it with the introduction of Totem Pokémon and their ability to summon other Pokémon into battle at will, it also offers an all new form of competitive battling: the Battle Royal.
The Battle Royal is a four way free-for-all that pits four Pokémon trainers against each other simultaneously. The battles ends when one player is completely out of usable Pokémon. Scores are determined by the number of Pokémon each player knocked out and the number they have remaining. The player in the best shape is declared the winner.
This kind of battle promises to be exciting for all involved – and it has a stage to match the grandeur. The entrance to each corner is framed by a a mighty Pokémon head, with a roaring Gyrados, Charizard, Tyranitar and Haxorus the emblem of its own corner. It brings together the earliest functionality of a Pokémon game and the most recent advances in not only the individual games, but also in the graphics and capabilities that game developers have available to them today.
As a game, this is the kind of thing that can be enjoyed equally by casual players just throwing around their most powerful moves and serious competitive battlers who relish the chance to hone their strategies to be the very best, like no one ever was.