Pokémon is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and I’ve been following the franchise throughout much of its run here in North America. Although I haven’t kept up-to-date with the anime or trading card game since around 2002, I’ve played almost all of the games. As such, I have a great idea of just how much Pokémon has changed over the years. For the most part these changes have been incremental; even the leap to a fully 3D world with Pokémon X and Y was preceded by semi-3D environments during the DS era. I cannot honestly say that the Pokémon Sun and Moon Special Demo makes revolutionary changes to the franchise, but it is certainly a step in a (slightly) different direction.
At its heart, Pokémon is about collecting and battling. In those respects, the demo doesn’t suggest that Sun and Moon will be radically different from the rest of the franchise, nor do I think they need to be. By the second generation the core battle gameplay had been pretty much perfected, while everything added in subsequent generations simply shook up the formula to challenge players in new ways. These games introduce Z-moves, ultra-powerful attacks that can be used once per battle when your Z-Ring is equipped with a Z-Crystal. There is one Z-move for every type in the game (ie Water, Grass, Fire, Dragon…), and a few Pokémon even have their own exclusive Z-moves. While Z-moves will surely shake up the competitive side of Pokémon, what I enjoy most about them are the fun animations that play when you activate them (just look at Snorlax’s exclusive move). As well, the user interface seems to have been simplified in some pretty harmless ways. Your attack menu will now also say which moves will be more or less effective against the current opponent, and you can pull up a list of buffs and debuffs on your Pokémon. If you found your attention slipping during a round of combat (as I often have while trying to marathon The Office and train my Pokémon at the same time), it could be a handy way to let you know what you missed.
My gripes about the Pokémon games have always been related to exploration. If you read my review of Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, you’ll know that one of my biggest complaints revolved around the use of Hidden Machines (HMs). HMs are special attack moves that can also be used to manipulate elements of the environment outside of battle. For example, Rock Smash allows you to break fragile-looking boulders that obstruct the path ahead, Surf allows you to swim, and Fly lets you travel to any town or city you’ve visited. The problems with HMs are twofold: once they have been learned, you cannot forget them until you meet certain characters that usually appear late in the games (frustrating when each Pokémon can only learn four attack moves at a time), and not all of them are particularly useful (Rock Smash has a base damage of 40, which isn’t great). Fortunately, in Pokémon Sun and Moon it seems like HMs will finally be going away. The demo provides you with an item that allows you to call upon a special rideable Tauros that can charge through boulders obstructing your path, eliminating the need for Rock Smash. Trailers for the games also show off a Sharpedo that can take you across the water and a Charizard that flies you through the sky. HMs are an antiquated gameplay concept that has been around since Pokémon Red and Blue, so it’s nice to see that Game Freak seems to be providing a more polished alternative.
Gone are the days of grid-based exploration. In the Pokémon Sun and Moon Special Demo, your character is free to walk around in any direction without automatically snapping to the grid when you stop moving. This means that map designs are more realistic: beaches and ledges curve naturally around the environment, and parts of the demo are already showing unprecedented levels of verticality – at one point, the camera pans low enough to show you a large hill full of boulders that you will need Tauros to climb; the engine feels like it will be far more conducive to visually stunning setpieces. In previous games you would need to walk directly in front of a trainer to trigger a battle with them, but now some trainers seem to look left and right and will challenge you as you approach them from any angle within their periphery.
Do you remember Pokémon Snap, the photography-based Nintendo 64 game that everyone thought would see a new installment of on Wii U? It’s back, in a sense, in Pokémon Sun and Moon . At the start of the demo, Professor Kukui will challenge you to take pictures of four dragon-type Pokémon hiding in a cave. By walking up to special spots, you’ll be able to take out your Poké Finder and try to snap pictures of them. When the photos are taken, the Pokémon will become aware of your presence and attack. This seems to be the only part of the game that utilizes the 3DS’s stereoscopic 3D as well as its gyroscope, but you can turn those off and simply use the Circle Pad. While these encounters were all fairly simple, some earlier trailers for the game showcase more complex examples of the feature. It’s definitely something that I’m excited to see more of.
Of all the team-based antagonists we’ve seen in Pokémon games, I’ve only ever really liked Team Rocket and Team Plasma. Team Aqua and Team Magma were incredibly stupid (who in their right mind thinks that expanding the earth or sea is a good idea?), Team Galactic was even worse, and Team Flare didn’t have very strong motives outside of vanity. Team Skull, members of which appear a few times in the demo, are a nice return to the vicious gangsters of the first and second generations. These ones are perhaps a bit goofier in their demeanor, but I really like the aesthetic choices that were made for them. All I can do now is hope that they will have some meaningful (and interesting) inclusion in the story.
The demo introduces you to a special version of Greninja with an ability that allows it to transform into Ash-Greninja (straight out of the anime) after defeating a foe in battle. This Greninja will be transferable to the full games, but there are plenty of other goodies to find in the demo that will help you out on your journey through Alola starting on November 18th. Certain quests will net you special items, and I found a number of NPCs that asked me to return to them in a specific number of days – one asking me to go back tomorrow, another in five days, eighteen, and twenty-four. I’ll be sure to update this article if encounters with those characters yield anything especially interesting.
The Pokémon Sun and Moon Special Demo has certainly whetted my appetite for the full versions of the games. There are plenty of things not included in the demo that I can’t wait to see: Ultra Beasts, Mega Evolutions, the Island Challenges, all-new Pokémon, and even more Alolan Forms of classic Pokémon. I consider myself a bit biased in that I was already sold on the games before I tried the demo, but if you’re still on the fence you should definitely give it a shot. After all, it’s free!