Pokémon Sun and Moon: Finally, A Story Worth Telling

If you’re reading this, and have ever read many of the other posts I’ve made about games on this blog, you’re probably aware that I spend more time than is physically or mentally healthy playing, thinking about, and writing about videogames. But all obsessions start somewhere, and for me, my love affair with games began Christmas Day, 2004, when my parents got me a Game Boy Advance SP (the compact, flip-phone-y kind) and Pokémon LeafGreen.

Excluding some learning games and the legendary Harry Potter PC adaptations, LeafGreen was the first real videogame I’d ever played. And although it was later eclipsed by Pokémon Emerald, which I got five months later and have continued playing until this day (720 hours on one save file—I know, obsessed), it introduced me to all the things the Pokémon games do well: atmosphere, world-building, addictive, surprisingly deep gameplay mechanics, and a sense of size, exploration, and wonder. There’s no question in my mind that the series still survives today (as the second-best selling game franchise of all-time) because it perfectly captures that fleeting feeling of childhood wonder in a way few other pieces of fiction—games or otherwise—ever can.

Of course, Pokémon has always been a bit lacking in the writing department. Its plots are usually either so barebones they barely exist (Generations I and II), or so extravagant and focused on world-ending calamity that they lose all sense of scale (Generations III, IV, and VI). Generation V was, until now, the lone exception—over the course of two games, it told a complex, engaging story about a boy named N and his coming-of-age. But still, Black and White and their sequels suffer from a lack of motivation for certain characters. Moreover, there really was only one worth caring about. They were good, about as good as I thought these games would ever be, but compared to the rest of the series that’s not saying much.

Fast-forward to now—I didn’t know what to expect from Pokémon Moon when I picked it up from GameStop in mid-November. The new designs looked cool, and the reviews had all been positive, but most of the reviewers either skipped over the story entirely or said that it was lackluster at best. I resigned myself to the old routine—one of beautiful environments, fantastical monsters, and missed potential.

But as you can probably guess, that’s not what happened.

Pokémon Sun and Moon are, unquestionably in my mind, the best main series games Game Freak has ever made. Not only do they exemplify all the things the series does well, but they finally gave the Pokémon series a story worth telling.

And of course, who would I be if I didn’t talk about why?

(I’ll try to keep big spoilers to a minimum, but there will be mild ones.)

Sun and Moon begin much like the other main series games—with you, the main character (though, in this case, not really) moving to a new town in a new region and receiving your first Pokémon. But even from the start it’s clear that they’re trying to do something different; rather than the usual intro cinematic with the region’s starters and legendaries, we’re treated to a mysterious cutscene of a girl in a white dress and a mysterious, starlike Pokémon running through a sanctuary-like environment, chased by some people in white uniforms until the little creature teleports them away in a burst of blue-violet energy. It’s new, intriguing, and only a tiny inkling of what’s to come.

This girl, Lillie, becomes one of the first characters you meet in Sun and Moon’s Hawaii-based region (named, in one of these games’ few groan-inducing moments, Alola), as she takes her strange, unknown Pokémon toward a set of ruins outside your hometown. After a series of events, you meet, bond, and become—in a way—traveling companions. While not a trainer, she comes with you on your journey. And, eventually, your journeys start to intertwine.

Also, remember how I said you’re not really the main character of these games?

You’re not.

She is.

Pokémon Sun and Moon’s greatest strength is, without a doubt, its characters. Past games in the series have featured one—maybe two—interesting characters over the course of their entire plotlines. For most of them, that character is a rival, the trainer who presents the only real challenge over the course of your journey. Occasionally, it’s one of your friends.

Sun and Moon turn that trend on its head; almost every major character, from your friends Lillie and Hau to the island “kahunas” to the “evil” team and their bosses, is dynamic and complex. Lillie’s shyness and pathological fear of being noticed results in one of the most satisfying coming-of-age stories I’ve ever experienced, and it does so because it’s actually based on a real, tragic relationship. Hau’s easygoing attitude and happy-go-lucky nature isn’t just a cop-out or a genre trope; he’s like that because he thought he could never live up to his grandfather, and decided never to take everything seriously. Moreover, in a game about fighting, he embodies the ideal of friendly competition—always willing to battle and laugh about it afterwards. And unlike in previous games, where the “evil” team just seems to exist without motivation or reason, Team Skull is the direct product of the Alola region’s traditions—the coming-of-age journey called the Island Challenge.

You may have noticed I’m using the words “coming-of-age” a lot here, but that’s because Sun and Moon—with that aforementioned Island Challenge—play with the ideas and tropes of that story archetype beyond what I ever could have expected from a Pokémon game. The gist of their premise is this: when a child in Alola turns eleven, they take a journey across its four islands, assisted by their friends and Pokémon, to complete seven “trials” (which boil down to exploring areas, completing quests, and eventually battling a extra-powerful Pokémon). Moreover, they battle the four strongest trainers in Alola, the Island “kahunas,” who are chosen by the guardian deities of their Island to protect and serve the people there.

This framework is perfect for a Pokémon game because it justifies everything that once seemed out-of-place about the previous games’ “thrown into the wild without any kind of support” plotlines, and it gives the events of the games a feeling of importance and ceremony. Moreover, it raises a question—what happens to the children who aren’t strong enough to finish their challenges? Well, they become aimless, and eventually end up joining Team Skull—a group intentionally and sometimes-hilariously idle and inept. Their boss, Guzma, is the escalation of that idea; he’s strong, incredibly so, but was never recognized, and essentially became a bully in his need to prove his strength. Compared to the power-hungry clichés of previous games, that’s some incredible growth.

Of course, there’s a larger plot at hand too, but I’ll avoid talking about the Ultra Beasts and the Aether Foundation—that part of the game is really best experienced by playing. In fact, that’s really all I’m willing to say about the plot and characters; beyond saying that Sun and Moon make all their characters believable, flawed, and human, these are games that deserve to be played without spoilers, and I don’t want to give anything else away.

However, if only for a minute, I can talk about the atmosphere and region design, which is once again one of if not the best that the series has ever done. Alola looks amazing, sounds amazing (the music in these games is top-notch), and is incredibly vivid in every possible way. Moreover, these games finally seem to understand the idea of nuance; there’s a point late-game when, after passing through a difficult cave, you enter a trial site and all music disappears. You can only hear the sound of your footsteps. In context, it’s an incredible piece of storytelling—it delivers a sense of size and age and gravity far beyond anything any other parts of the series ever have. The graphics are the best the series has ever delivered, but beyond that the art and sound design of the region carries with it a true sense of space and exploration, lending a unique feel to every new area you encounter.

And finally, not only are these games well-plotted, but they’re actually funny. While self-awareness isn’t a quality most previous Pokémon games are known for, Sun and Moon have it in spades, and barely an hour passes without another character poking fun at something ridiculous, from the region’s eternally shirtless professor to the fact that he likes to barge into your house without waiting for you to answer the door.

Oh, and there’s innuendo. Loads of it. More than I ever imagined could be fit into a game that’s ostensibly for kids.

It’s hilarious.

But there you have it, my long and rambling but hopefully effective argument for why Pokémon Sun and Moon aren’t just worth playing—they surprised me every step of the way, and, after playing through them a second time, I can honestly say that they’re the best Pokémon games ever made. No question. Hands-down.

And for a 21 year-old franchise with seven generations and spin-offs of spin-offs of spin-offs (and believe me, I’ve played ’em all), that’s not something I say lightly.

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