Jay-Z once famously wrote that you often remember where you were when you first heard your favorite songs. The same is also true for video games. I’ll never forget the first time my dad ever let me play one. I was three years old, and it was the first level of Star Wars Shadows of the Empire. I remember playing what would become my favorite game of all time, Spyro Year of the Dragon, for the first time at my friend Kade Spier’s house like it was yesterday. The first time I played Fallout 3, it was just to kill some time before my mom took me to my grandparents’ house. And right along with these memories, is the first time I ever played a Pokemon game. I was at a high school football game with my family, when I ran into one of my friends from church. He was wielding a Game Boy Pocket, utilizing only the stadium lights to illuminate his faint screen. And he was raising a Geodude on Pokemon Gold. Generously, he allowed me to play for a while, probably understanding full well that all I was going to do, if anything, was raise his team a few levels. As I played that game that night, I experienced a gaming sensation that was unlike any I had ever experienced. And that was the last time I felt that way about a Pokemon game. Or it was, until five days ago when I began Pokemon Sun.
I went into Pokemon Sun expecting a good game, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be blown away. I’ve played just about every Pokemon game there is to play (except Black 2 and White 2), and though I’ve enjoyed them all, the original Black and White and maybe HeartGold and SoulSilver are the only games I had undertaken in the series that I considered to be must-play experiences. And, though I enjoyed Pokemon’s most recent entries, X and Y, I was far from blown away by them. In fact, I considered them to be among the weakest entries in the franchise. The game was mind-numbingly easy, the characters were mostly half-baked, and the gym leaders were far from the fleshed out characters that the leaders were in Black and White. I thought Sun and Moon would continue this trend of style over substance. I was dead wrong.
Sun and Moon are the greatest Pokemon titles in history not because they completely change the game or because they have the best Pokemon, it’s because they have by far the greatest character development in the history of the series’ 20-year lineage. And it really isn’t even close. N from Black and White was a great antagonist, but it was clear that you’d overcome and defeat him in the end. But when I encountered characters like Lusamine, the leader of a suspiciously shiny organization of Pokemon conservationists, I wasn’t exactly sure in which directions the character arcs would progress, and I was struck with an intense desire to keep playing in order to find out. Team Skull, the band of ruffians your character is tasked with combating are far from a threat until late in the game, but they stole the show in every scene in which they appeared. Though your “rival” Hau isn’t much of a challenge, I found him to be more of a companion than a foil and welcomed his presence along my journey. In contrast, Gladion the Emo Kid, and his one-of-a-kind Type: Null was a much bigger obstacle, and the narrative’s twists and turns added to the dynamic nature of his place within the story making him easily my Number One pick as the greatest rival in Pokemon history. Hell, even the Pokedex becomes a character that quips in and provides advice (in addition to a much-appreciated map featuring markers that tell you where you need to go next). But nothing in Pokemon history could prepare me for Lillie, the Platinum Blonde damsel in distress that you save early in the game. As the story progresses she becomes the most dynamic, interesting, lovable, and overall important companion character in Pokemon history, making the bumbling idiots that traveled with you around Kalos in X and Y seem like directionless drones. Though there are, I suppose, a number of factors that are supposed to motivate your character as he progresses through his Island Challenge in Sun and Moon, what kept me going was the interest in my character’s relationship with Lillie; I’d put it in the league of Cloud and Aeris or Sora and Kairi any day.
Of course, a Pokemon game wouldn’t be one if it didn’t include countless battles of glorified rock, paper, scissors combat featuring a cast of colorful Pokemon to capture and train. But there are also key differences between Sun and Moon and other games in the series. The gym battles, a long-held staple of the series since inception, have been completely scrapped in favor of the more personalized Alola Island Challenge. Instead of gym leaders, your character is tasked with taking on Trial Challenges featuring supersized “Totem Pokemon” and the four Island Kahunas pf the region. This major adjustment in progression keep the games from feeling formulaic (which is a problem for every other Pokemon game before it) and opens up the opportunity for the player to focus more on the characters and their Pokemon that accompany them on their journey, rather than checking off a list of things to do before inevitably conquering The Elite Four. In the place of Mega Evolution from X and Y, Sun and Moon mark the debut of Z Moves, which function like Limit Breaks in the Final Fantasy series and are the single biggest fundamental change to the battle system. As you progress through the islands, your character obtains different Z crystals, which he or she can utilize to deploy a massive, Dragonball Z-esque display of power once per battle. The great thing about Z moves as compared to Mega Evolution: every Pokemon in your team has the ability to learn them, instead of just a select few. I found them to be fun rewards for continuing the challenge, and enjoyed experimenting with the different types much more than Mega Evolution, which I rarely used. Another less-important-but-still-relevant change to the core of the game involves the ability of wild Pokemon to call for help during a battle, which can result in your single Pokemon having to face off against two. This can be frustrating early in the game, as wild Pokemon can call for help seemingly indefinitely (though it doesn’t always work), but late-game, these encounters can also lead to rarer catches. I even had a Pokemon call for a shiny version of itself for help as I neared the end of my journey.
Overall, Pokemon Sun and Moon offer such monumental improvements over all of their predecessors, they add up to be not only my favorite Pokemon games, but also some of my favorite games of all time. The characters are excellent, the Pokemon are diverse and memorable, and the island setting is as much a part of the experience as Skyrim was in 2011. I found myself itching to explore every inch of the game’s four islands, and with isometric movement completely gone and a beautiful world to explore that is full of varied terrain and accompanied by one of the greatest soundtracks in the history of the series, I’ll likely continue to do so for weeks to come.