Pokémon returns for a 3DS victory lap in this generous, definitive retelling of the Alolan story.
Are new games better than old games? If you somehow released a contemporary game in, say, 1988, with all its enormity and complexity and detailed, ultra HD nasal hair, it would be almost impossible to comprehend. But then that would never really happen - and would the uncanny nasal hair game even exist without the innovations and inspirations of games gone by?
Honestly, I hate this debate. It is unique to games, in their ever closening relationship with technology and engineering, and it is uniquely boring - but I have to mention it here because how you approach that argument directly impacts your approach to, you guessed it, Pokémon.
Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are what's known as "enhanced" versions. If you know the series you'll know there's precedent; Red and Blue had Yellow, Gold and Silver had Crystal, and so on until Pokémon X and Y, the last generation before last year's delightful Sun and Moon. They seemed to have done away with the tradition - we never had Z, even if all signs (namely a Pokémon called Zygarde and its conspicuous absence from the side of Xerneas and Yveltal in X and Y) seemed to point towards it. Ultra Sun and Moon were a surprise, and with this return to enhanced form we have a return to that horrible debate: the Ultra versions are undoubtedly better than regular Sun and Moon, if you equate "better" solely with size, scope, and technical achievement. The innovation, the surprise, the feeling remains the work of the originals.
Structurally, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon remain almost identical to their base versions. You'll still be undergoing the Island Challenge, travelling the region's four islands to take on Trials - tropical Alola's answer to the ubiquitous Gyms of generations gone by. The routes, towns, and cities you pass through, and the vast majority of people, all remain mostly the same, but you might find some different items, battle a few new trainers, or find some interesting Pokémon from previous generations - Zoroark! Dragalge! Tyranitar! - as you do so.
Mostly the same is the most accurate way to describe Ultra Sun and Moon, at least during its first half. When I think about these games being made, I think of a developer admiring their work and going, "hang on, I reckon I can do this better". It's another stab, correcting little errors and tidying up open ends, tweaking little common-sense decisions, filling any area area that once felt sparse. The effect, as you discover the occasional path where a wall used to be, or a new expanse of trainer-ridden beach on the coast, is a lot like walking out of a room and returning to find someone's moved just enough furniture around to make you feel uneasy about it - only the furniture looks better this way, and they also bought you a nice new lamp. Once you discover the first discrepancy between the two you're enticed into finding more, scanning every room, the edge of every route and cave. It took all my strength not to linger for hours in every patch of long grass on the hunt for surprises - if I didn't have a review to write, I would have.
That urge to dawdle was also subdued by the fact that, in Ultra Sun and Moon, the most generous and notable changes come towards the end of the game - and indeed after it. I shan't give anything away of course, but the Ultra storyline deviates from the original rather late on, and despite that late revision if anything it works better than the original, tying in Ultra Beasts, Ultra Wormholes, and Alola's mystical history of the Tapu and kahunas into a wider narrative. The subtleties are where the Pokéfans will get their fix - personally, revisiting Team Skull's part in the story reminded me of those goofy, forgotten youths' surprisingly melancholic background - but imagining I approached this as, say, a newcomer or occasional visitor to the series, it's a notably more cohesive adventure on the whole. (That said, the previous generation's villain had a literal modus operandi of "I like beautiful things, so I'm going to blow up the world with this big cannon," so most stories would look good in comparison.)
If regular Sun and Moon had one weakness to their significant reworkings of the formula, however, it was their difficulty - or rather the lack thereof. Generation seven did away with much of the series' baggage, like the restrictive HMs and rigid Gym structure, but they also removed most, if not all, of the games' environmental puzzling and at the same time lightened the difficulty, with the help of a catch-all Exp. Share (an item that, when turned on, meant all of your party Pokémon earn XP from a battle rather than just the ones which fought directly) that left encounters, which hadn't really accounted for your higher level, feeling too easy a result.
It wasn't quite a baby-with-the-bathwater decision - the lighter difficulty suited the games' lighter tone and sense of adventure - but when Ultra Sun and Moon's notably tougher encounters hit (and they will hit - the new Totem Pokémon and certain Legendaries in particular), it's absolutely welcome. Enemies are largely the same level, but subtle tweaks to things like Totem Pokémon typing, the supplementary partners they summon to battle, and the type of boosts their Totem Auras grant, make a genuine difference.
The brain-wracking puzzles of old, however - looking at you Ruins of Alph, Rock Tunnel, and Ice Path - are sorely missed from modern Pokémon games still, and the halfway houses of nudging a few boulders into holes that you find in both regular and Ultra Sun and Moon feel like an inconvenience to your journey, like navigating dawdlers on a busy street, next to the Monster Sudokus of previous generations that you'd settle down to crack with relish. I longed for a good puzzle in Sun and Moon, and in a post-Breath of the Wild world of puzzle-dungeons in the literal hundreds, their absence in Ultra Sun and Moon was even more sorely missed.
Turning to Pokémon's ever present competitive scene, Ultra Sun and Moon will likely benefit greatly from the greater choice of Pokémon available. Restriction breeds creativity, or so it goes, but given most if not all of Alola's new Pokémon had remarkably low Speed stats when introduced with basic Sun and Moon, creativity only got us so far, and the scene, at least at the top, was at risk of growing stale. Likewise Hyper Training, a boon for the competitively inclined last year, and the new Rotom-powers which grant boosts to things like Egg-hatching times, will continue to keep that side of Pokémon accessible - as it should be, seeing as the layer of under-the-surface complexity has and will always be one of Pokémon's great successes, and it deserves discovering by the next generation of players.
Finally, there's the inclusion of not some but all of the previous generations' Legendary Pokémon, and their respective antagonists from each villainous 'Team'. With a new, mainline Pokémon game already in development for the Switch, it's not hard to see this for what it is - and in fact it puts Ultra Sun and Moon in even greater perspective. These two games are, surely, a last hurrah for the series on the 3DS system, if not Pokémon as we understand it. The ability to collect every Legendary between Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon - along with the now ready availability of every main Pokémon game so far on the 3DS - means it's arguably the easiest, or at least the least-painful, it's ever been to catch 'em all, and alongside the significant reworking of the story's second half, and it's bulked-out engame, it positions Ultra Sun and Moon as by far the most enhanced of any enhanced versions so far.
Handheld consoles have been the home of Pokémon since the series' wondrous inception with Red and Blue. The genius of the Switch, and even the resilience of Pokémon Go, means that the game's essence of discovery, adventure, and exploration that pairs so naturally with portable play isn't going anywhere. With Ultra Sun and Moon Pokémon has reached the pinnacle of what's possible on the console, and while this might not even be goodbye for Pokémon on the 3DS - no one would be surprised by a Diamond and Pearl remaster, after all - it does feel like a very fond farewell.