Let’s talk, guys. Let’s talk about how you keep a long running franchise fresh for twenty years. Let’s talk, specifically, about Pokémon, and how even now in the seventh generation, Game Freak have managed to reinvent one of the world’s most popular and successful gaming brands, mostly with success. A warning, this article contains potential spoilers.
I’ve been playing Pokémon for 20 years. 20 years of experiencing that rush of receiving your starter, and embarking on an adventure to catch ’em all, become the strongest trainer in the region, dominate the online metagame, save the world from legendary Pokémon-fueled destruction, or any combination of the above and more. Over two decades, Game Freak have steadily modified what started as a video game adaptation of a trading card game, and given it a beautiful life of its own.
From its humble, admittedly buggy and broken beginnings with Red, Blue, Green and Yellow versions, we have seen the developers take pride in maintaining a balanced game with enhanced gameplay mechanics, and continually improving UI. This has equated to a more and more accessible product for new players as the series has progressed.
But enough about the past, as I’m sure most gamers are plenty familiar with the series and its evolution over the years. Let’s get down to brass tacks, and talk about generation seven; Sun and Moon. To start off with, I must qualify my position with a few things. Firstly, I avoided as many spoilers as possible, this includes the alolan dex, game mechanics, plot points etc. Secondly, the few new Pokémon I had seen prior to playing Sun didn’t really fill me with confidence. Thirdly, I’ve actually been on board with the Alolan forms from the start. And finally, generation six is my favourite, gen 2 remakes aside, so I’m far from a genwunner, or nostalgiaist when it comes to my enjoyment of my favourite gaming franchise. So with those few points in mind, you should pretty much be getting the idea that I was anticipating a pretty mixed bag. What I got was:
A pretty mixed bag.
I don’t want to say I was spot on, because I wasn’t. I actually enjoyed the game a damn sight more than I thought I would. Starting with the positives, the biggest one is easily the abolishment of HM moves. Everyone has had their own method of dealing with juggling HM’s, but the common approaches are a) running a HM slave or two, and b) balancing your HM’s amongst your normal team and utilising the move deleter with more frequency than you’d really like to. I’m firmly in camp b), but that sometimes led to some annoying forced team choices, depending on what version you were playing and what the catchable dex included. For example, I don’t really like Wailord at all, but in gen 3 I almost always run one in my team purely for its HM utility. I know a lot of people have always resented having to carry around a Flying type or similar, because life without Fly is painful, but I never really had that problem personally. This time around, the ride pager serves the purpose of all HM’s, so that has officially put paid to HM’s, seemingly for good. Or at least I hope so, because of all the improvements and mechanical changes, this is by FAR the best one. It is so liberating being able to run literally whatever team you so desire, and never having to wonder whether you’re going to be able to get through the next area.
Another great change is the battle UI. They seem to have really made a considered effort to make the battling interface more informative, concise, and optimised for touch control. In prior DS versions, although touch screen battling was a possibility, I’d say a large proportion of gamers would have opted to continue using the buttons, purely because it was more convenient. In Sun/Moon, the relevant touch areas are side aligned, which makes Pokémon changes and move selection perfectly accessible without really stretching your fingers. Added to that, the Pokéballs are now hotkeyed to the Y button, move information is viewable at the move selection side panel by either holding L and pressing A, or by touching the (i) on each move, and there’s even indicators on the lower screen for weather, and stat change diagnostics to boot. All of these extra features are viewable between turns, so gone are the days of running stat up calcs in your head, whilst trying to figure out whether that Stone Edge is going to OHKO or not. Another cool feature that has been included this generation, is type effectivity markers. These appear once you have battled the specific Pokémon in question, so say you have battled a Pikipek, then next time you battle one, your Pokémon’s moves will be rated as effective, not very effective, super effective, or no effect as is appropriate. This also takes into account abilities, for example Levitate, which renders Ground moves ineffective. This is another great feature that I feel really adds accessibility to new players, whilst still maintaining a nice little reminder for even experienced players like myself. Even 20 year veterans sometimes have a brainfart and try to Shadow Ball a Normal-type, y’know?
The art style is another really big plus for this generation. Pokémon has never looked so damn swell as it does in gen 7, and that is in every facet. The animations are excellent, the cut scenes are very well done, and the battle layouts themselves are fantastic, giving you the most authentic Pokémon experience to date. I’m no artist, but even someone as artistically challenged as myself can appreciate the amazing amount of work that has gone into Sun and Moon from an art design perspective. Similarly, the storyline is well developed, albeit with some pretty cringeworthy dialogue, and there are some well executed twists that I certainly didn’t see coming.
My favourite new addition this generation, HM abolishment aside of course, is easily the Alolan forms. My, oh my, do I ever love them! Even if some of them aren’t my cup of tea – I’m looking at you Golem and Persian – the idea of them is absolutely inspired. Given that there is precedent for this sort of things in the Pokémon anime, I’m actually somewhat surprised it has taken this long to come to fruition. The basic idea is that, due to diet and climate variations, the same species of Pokémon have gradually become different to their Kantonian brethren. In real life, we call this phenomenon evolution, so it stands to reason that Pokémon should experience the same sort of phenomenon. My only wish is that there were more Alolan forms, and that they weren’t limited to gen 1 Pokémon, but I can only hope that the warm reception of the idea will mean more to come in future games. Alolan Raichu, Ninetales, and Muk are all incredible additions to the existing dex, both on design and as competitive options.
Gen 7 is not without its flaws, however. For one, the Z-moves are a really poor gimmick, one that I can’t see lasting too long. In much the same way that Mega Evolutions cheapened the game, Z-moves are that thing that you use once or twice for novelty effect, and then quickly forget they ever existed. At the very least, Mega Evolutions actually had some balance, what with typing and ability changes to go with the stat buffs, but for me, the Z-moves are pointlessly overpowered, and therefore not much fun. I can’t see them having that much use in the meta, either, if they are even allowed, that is. Considering that most of competitive battling is running damage calcs to aim for OHKOs or 2HKOs, I think at best it will allow some Pokémon to pump some extra EV’s into Speed/Def/Sp. Def instead, knowing that the Z-move will pick up some of the slack. Personally, I hope they are forgotten about entirely.
Secondly, the trials are a bit hit or miss. Abolishing gyms in favour of trials was a huge risk, and I’m not going to say it went either way. The trials sit decidedly in the middle for me, as I was never really invested in them, and the only Totem Pokémon that caused me even the slightest trouble was the last one, and only because I was deliberately running a weak team to try and evolve some Pokémon at the time. This could have also been because I left the Experience Share on, whereas I would normally turn it off to preserve the challenge a bit, but either way, suffice to say the trials are a little bit meh in general.
The worst thing by far, however, is the Ultra Beasts. I hated them. I resented having to catch all of them. I especially despised how, in a generation with so few new Pokémon to start with, a whopping 14 of them are either Legendary, Mythical, or Ultra Beasts. It feels extremely bloated, and reeks of a design team starting to really plumb the depths when it comes to new Pokémon. I’m not going to say this generation was any stronger or weaker than any other when it comes to the dex, but when you are forcing that many erroneous Legendaries into the game, it’s going to feel gimmicky. As for the Ultra Beasts themselves, most of them are bloody terrible anyway. Unusable competitively, stat-weak for what’s supposed to be an extra-dimensional being, and just straight up shitty looking for the most part, the whole idea detracted from the overall experience of the game, for me. It’s actually quite a shame, because Solgaleo, Lunala, Necrozma, and Magearna are all actually brilliant additions.
So, all in all, generation 7 is successful, albeit not for some of the more vaunted reasons you might think it would be. It works because they have improved every game mechanic out of sight, not because of stupid gimmicks. It works because, despite 20 years of consistent output, Game Freak can still make a damn fine game, and Pokémon as a concept will always be a strong one. I can only hope, as a lifelong fan and Pokémon tragic, that they continue to embrass the little fixes, the cute little features like PokéPelago, Pokémon Refresh, and the Pokémon Snap-lite mini-game, and don’t try to fix what ain’t broke, which is one of the most consistent and balanced metas in all of the gamerverse. Although, if I’m being realistic, no matter what they do, I’ll still buy every damn game they release because of course I will. And long may it continue, mind!