The number of changes inherent to Pokémon Sun and Moon, the most recent iteration of the storied franchise, are nearly too many to list. The new region, Alola, brings with it a brand new take on what it means to be a Pokémon game from the ground up. Old monsters have new forms, how battles play out has been changed in certain ways, and the way in which the game has traditionally progressed — gym battles — is entirely gone. And the changes have been a refreshing change of pace.
From the release of Pokémon Red and Blue in 1996 all the way through Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire in 2014, the outline of every game included going from one gym to the next in order to then move on to the Elite Four and the Champion — the best Pokémon trainers in the land. Every time you picked up a new copy, you knew exactly what you were getting yourself into. It makes it into an almost like a paint-by-numbers game, and it provides an easy baseline for common experiences across generations.
Pokémon Sun and Moon instead trades this for something that’s both familiar and completely different. “Trials” replace gyms, and they range from catching Rattata escaping through tunnels to scattering fish to finding bits and pieces to do a ritual. There’s still battles with trainers that run the trials, and each island requires players beat a leader, a kahuna, in order to move on. It’s not gyms, but it’s a version of that.
And that more or less describes the entirety of Pokémon Sun and Moon. The traditional elements are there, it’s just a different take on all of them. It took 20 years, but the franchise has finally branched out to at least play with attempting something new. It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s good. It’s refreshing. It’s different — enough.
It’s not like the removal of gyms was the only factor here, of course, but it’s representative of the direction of the whole. For those not familiar with the games, imagine stripping the skeleton out of any other franchise, replacing it with a new, different skeleton, and expecting similar or better results.
And while that’s gambling with the franchise, it’s one that’s seemingly paid off. We’re still in early days, but the new games already set a new record for best-selling Nintendo 3DS titles with “more than 10 million units” sold on the day of release. To give some context, that’s 150% of the amount sold in the same time period for the previous generation, Pokémon X and Y, according to the Pokémon Company International and Nintendo.
Here’s to hoping the trend continues and Game Freak is allowed to play a little more fast and loose with what they’re cooking up. If the rumored Stars version for the Nintendo Switch comes to pass, that’ll be yet another step out into the unknown for the developers. It’ll be long due and will almost certainly pay dividends.