The Old Dog’s Continuing Array of Tricks Award: Pokemon: Sun and Moon
God, but it has been a while, hasn’t it? When the monsters of a pocket variety first hit American shores I was at the tender, and highly targetable, age of seven. And being the target audience, I was snared immediately. I actually got into the franchise a little sooner than most, having been exposed in the form of imported trading cards at my local drug store. Couldn’t read them at all, but FUCK did I love the designs.
Then the anime came, and the original Red and Blue took over my existence, only to be supplanted by Gold and Silver a short while later. I watched the episodes, learned the Poke’rap, bought overpriced toys, saw the movies. I was a true, dyed-in-the-wool Pokemaniac. And then, something happened; I fell out during my early teen years, probably due to some misguided logic involving “mature games” and “Being too cool to play Pokemon!” and other such follies. I only missed Gen III, returning to the series with Diamond and Pearl, and I’ve been a stalwart fan ever since.
So why do I tell you all this? To qualify the following statement: Pokemon: Sun and Moon might be my favorite generation of the venerable anime cockfighting series since those halcyon days of Gold/Silver, a claim that I do not make lightly. Like an early sexual partner, Gen I will always hold a special place in my heart, and not just because there is currently a copy of Blue in my asshole.
Gen IV brought me back into the family, and had a distinct flair and wonderfully jazzy soundtrack. Gen V had a strong plot and characters, and Gen VI brought evolution, metaphorically speaking, to the aesthetics and gameplay systems. But even at its best, there has always been a…predictability to Pokemon. You’ll always start out as a small-town bumpkin inexplicably booted out the door to adventure at the ripe old age of 11. You’ll always battle gym leaders, and progress along mostly linear paths through the land until you become champion and finally enjoy the sweet succor of free exploration in the post-game. The villain teams will always be blankets of generic villainy, save for more interesting leader characters or wild card types. And there will always be vaguely defined “Legendary Pokemon” who may or may not appear at all in the story. There’s always changes, there’s always life and there’s always fun galore, but in the deepest recesses of our minds, there’s this feeling of stagnation that never effects the joys of a good journey, but is always nibbling away.
And here comes Sun and Moon, bursting at the seems with ambition. Not the kind of ambition that renders a game different or unrecognizable, mind you. You’ll still catch and raise, explore and battle as you always have. No, it’s the kind of ambition that breathes new life into the series, the setting, the mechanics and even the mood of the entire franchise.
Gone are gyms, replaced with the similarly-themed, yet more lighthearted and fun Island Trials, where captains and kahunas test your worthiness as a trainer through not just battle, but unique tasks with their own situational flavor. And thrown out with the rigid structuring of the previous games is the heretofore underdeveloped plots and characters. I genuinely enjoyed every character I came across in this game, from the kahunas and the captains to your allies and rivals. Lillie and Hau are probably the most fully realized and likable companions the series has ever seen, with honest-to-God character development and arcs that actually complete instead of just dangling after they lose one too many matches.
On a related note, with their endlessly amusing dialogue, animations and theme music, Team Skull IS in fact the best villain team in the whole series, with the concept behind them (being made up of those who just couldn’t hash it on their own journey since they were KIDS, and eventually turned to the thug life just to survive) making them sympathetic and a little depressing, but calling attention to such a brilliantly simple question about the setting that I’m flabbergasted it took them this long to address it. Guzma, their leader? Also awesome and hilariously memorable. Professor Kukui? A bit daft, but actually feels like an invested partner in your adventure. Gladion? A character with a good backstory and more personality beyond just “I’m arrogant”. Even the story-integral Pokemon like Nebby and the Tapus feel like there’s just more to them than their predecessors.
And of course, there’s the Pokemon themselves. The aesthetic design remains strong, even if there are occasional hiccups or stupid ideas (the anchor comes to mind), but for every underrealized concept, there’s two or three that I love. Litten, my starter who eventually turned into a fire tiger who was also a wrestler. Vikavolt, who is essentially a shmup ship with bug features. Bewear, essentially a giant mascot costume who loves people to death with his horrible bear strength. Drampa, an elderly child-loving dragon. Palossand, the ghost-possessed sand castle. There’s a dozen more, but the point is that the design fountain is far from dry. Beyond just the aesthetics, they all seem specifically designed to shake up traditional strategies, opening up a new world of type combinations, strange abilities and funky movesets. And lets not forget regional variants, where certain past-gen Pokemon get new designs and typing because the Alola region is so different in climate and general habitat structure. Yes, biodiversity has finally come to Pokemon and it’s fucking awesome.
Of course, loving something does not make you blind to its flaws, and there are some doozies in this one. The lack of proper grinding techniques makes raising your mons harder than it should be. The story, for as solid as it is, meanders for a fair middle chunk of the game. The S.O.S. mechanic, in which a wild Pokemon can call in help is great on paper, but more often than not merely made battles that should have been quick much, MUCH longer due to the AI getting in a loop of calling in help just before I was about to finish the fight, and considering you can’t catch your target while it has reinforcements, the whole thing just feels more like an impediment than it should. And certain dumbfounding mechanical decisions, such as the changes to fishing (you essentially can only find anything that is NOT a Magikarp in very specific times and places as opposed to just dropping your hook anywhere and seeing what comes), can fuck right the hell off.
But when those get me down, I think of Z-moves, super moves earned over the course of the game that involve your little monster performing landmass-ruining attacks while you do JoJo poses in the background. I think of the Pokepelago, which single-handedly streamlines and improves several subsystems of the game. I think of Kahuna battles and Ultra Beasts. I think of the crackling vitality that leaks off of every aspect of this game, as if the opportunity to do something completely new just shot pure adrenaline into every aspect of it’s construction. But most of all, I think of late nights and train rides with my 3DS, trying to get just a little closer to the next town or crossing my fingers for that rare wild encounter. Of the potent loop of addiction and satisfaction that only a Pokemon game can give. And thinking of all that, how can this NOT be one of the best things I played in 2016?
Music Choice: Jesus, this was a tough one. Did I mention how bomb this soundtrack was in the above sections? Cause it is. Holy Christ, this is one of the series’ strongest collections. For area motifs, we have Ten Carat Hill, Vast Poni Canyon, Hau ‘oli City and the Poni Wilds. For battle themes, we got Team Skull, the Totem Pokemon and the Ultra Beast battles. The choice was actually really hard, but when it came down to it, nothing matched the Kahuna Battle theme. The Kahunas act as the final tests of each island, coming after hours of trials and tribulations. So there needs to be a sense of scale to these fights, and the song does deliver. And yet, there’s a catchy, fun tone to the song as well, making it feel less like a struggle for your life or future and more just the joy of fierce competition. It’s a lively, endearing theme for an equally lively game, and is one of my favorite boss battle themes in recent memory.