In a way, the main quest of Pokemon Sun/Moon feels like it exists less for the story being delivered, and more like it's just disguising the REAL reason you're there. Even now, 20 years later, with so many imitators that have fallen to the wayside (including, curiously, one published by Nintendo itself), there's still that same drive at the core of these games: to catch them all.
*Someone comes into the room and whispers to me* yo there's there's like 802 Pokemon now. *They leave silently*
Oh, uh, so I guess to catch as many as humanly possible unless you're actually insane.
The main quest and the wrapping of the island challenge just serve two purposes, then: to not overwhelm you at the start with a seemingly impossible quest to collect all of these things, and to also slowly reveal them to you in battle so you can go "what is THAT and where can I get it?!" Even through to the final battles of the games, you'll suddenly see someone send out a HAUNTED ANCHOR?!?!?!!? and immediately want to go get one for yourself.
Ok so like I know haunted anchor sounds dumb, but I really do wanna take a moment to stop and shout out the Pokemon designs this time around. Both totally new Pokemon and the Alolan forms of the old ones are a step up from some of the previous generations. Not all are winners of course, but there seems to be a much greater swath that are a higher tier than in previous years.
Alolan Dugtrio, you are everything that I always wanted my life to be. Did you know that its hair's made of metal? Talk about hair metal amirite?! By the way I'm going to also say that Darkstation is a pro-Popplio outlet and I will not have anyone disparage my precious good boy, my friendly sea lion who just wants to make people happy.
Getting into the nitty-gritty of Pokemon is always a little tough because, by now, most of their games are loaded down with a dozen new ideas that probably aren't even going to be around next time. I'm glad to see things like Pokemon Refresh return (more on it later), but S&M are definitely the games that have, on the surface, the most changes from previous entries.
For example, instead of gyms this time around, you're going through what are called "island challenges" which are basically gyms with no trainers; they're still themed around a specific element, but instead of JUST being a battle, almost all of them come with some sort of incredibly simple task latched on as well. A cousin of mine put it best when he described them as "all ages". Fire challenge is the best example: not only is it "choose what's different between these two pictures!", the differences are also insultingly obvious. Like "a dude pops into frame and it takes up 1/3 of the screen and is impossible to miss" obvious.
It's a move in the right direction though, managing to feel somehow more organic while being functionally the same. The gym system has needed a shot in the arm, and while I really like the idea of the trainers in charge of the challenges sending you on quests, I'd hope that if they continue this idea in the future, that they come up with some better ideas that are a little more interesting.
Special kudos to the dragon trial for apparently just being like "yo Game Freak is outta ideas for these so uh... here's 3 battles in a row."
After all of that, you go on to become Pokemon League Champion as per usual, but this one has a couple of little extra twists to it. You become the first EVER league champion here in a newly-minted league forming on top of the highest mountain in Alola, which is already kinda cool on its own. You even have a throne and the opportunity to defend it on subsequent visits – which is a cool idea, and makes it feel like you're really working to defend something instead of just letting it stay stagnant like in previous games.
But on top of that, people actually will start to recognize you as you go around the island. I actually got a better seat in a restaurant because I was champ, which was cool, but people will also challenge you to battles. I especially liked the principal of the trainer's school, who seemed to want to defeat you so that she could use that as a way to drum up extra enrollment. Even Guzma, the Team Skull leader, has an extra battle for you once you've beaten the league.
Ah, Team Skull. After multiple entries of far-too-serious enemy teams bent on world domination/destruction/death of all Pokemon, it was nice to get back to a team that was just a group of chucklehead rapscallions. It's never really delved in to, but it really comes clear that Team Skull is a group lost youths, disenfranchised and lost in what they want in the world and where they want their futures to be, but have been able to find a feeling of strength in each other. My favorite quote from one of them after you beat them is: "Sometimes I wanna smash the world, but I'm afraid of it." I hope that random goon finds something to make him happy.
But the Team Skull music is also just the best thing that's been composed for this series in YEARS and it definitely made ME happy! Every time they walked in and the music started its "UHH! UHH! TEAM SKULL!" I was cranking up the volume no matter where I was – airplanes, restaurants, the bathroom at work. I lived for it. It gave me power. I'm already at a thousand words here but I could do another thousand just on the ways Team Skull is the best.
What I do love aside from Team Skull (UHH! UHH!) is the return, and expansion, of what's frankly been the best mechanic to be added to Pokemon in the last decade: Pokemon Amie has been rebranded Pokemon Refresh, making it much easier to manage by ditching the weird furniture decoration aspect that had been in Amie and focusing on what we all wanted it to be, namely the petting of precious good-mons and the feeding of beans to said Pokemon.
Like in X/Y/OR/AS, going in and hanging out with your buddies and stuffing those fat cheeks of theirs makes them randomly perform better in battle, dodging attacks, enduring hits that would have knocked them out, and uh... sm... smelling you and enjoying your scent. But the other smart thing added to S&M is the aftercare, where you can go into the Refresh screen right after the battle and clean up or care for your Pokemon. If they have a status effect, you can fix it right then! If they're covered in dirt or fluff, you can scrub it right off! It's a really cool thing that makes it actually feel like these things are your companions. It's not just a sleepy koala. It's MY sleepy koala, and it's got dirt on its nose, so hold up, dramatic main story event, I gotta feed it beans too.
It all adds up to this being one of the more joyful, chill Pokemon games in a long time. There is no cataclysm waiting at the end of the game, no superweapon that kills all of the Pokemon in the world. Even the legendaries you find along the way aren't destructive, but guardian spirits of the islands. One of the final stretches of the main quest is about helping a character grow more confident and break out of their shell. It's a little rushed, sure, but it's upbeat, charming, and a nice change of pace from the escalating stakes that had been starting to plague the series.
Really the biggest problem I keep coming back to with S&M is that outside of the main quest, there isn't much on the periphery. There are very few extra areas to explore, and only a couple of side quests that open up. Even the hyped return of Pokemon power couple Red and Blue doesn't really play into more than just an intro, and then they're gone to the Battle Tree, this year's reskin of the Battle Subway/Battle Maison/Battle Tower, only to be rediscovered once you just beat enough ass to get to them again.
It's made so that the sense of discovery and adventure that I really love from these games just isn't there as much. Sure, the main story is an adventure, but there's nothing else to do – and in fact, I keep being really annoyed at some of the stuff that's not there. Like the part that really got my goat was when I discovered a power plant – aha, power plants, there's a rich history of adventure there in Pokemon games! And even though the building looms large in the background, the power plant can't be explored. It just sits back there and winks at you and reminds you of the days when you would go find Zapdos back in Kanto.
Discovering things like Articuno in the Seafoam Islands or checking out the abandoned wreck of Sea Mauville or seeing that whoa, the evil team has a base on the route literally right next to the city where you started, were super cool moments, and S&M doesn't have anything really comparable.
But still, the fact that I've only touched on maybe half of the actual new things and improvements in S&M just emphasizes how much they've added to this game. It's the entry with the longest list of improvements and interesting new ideas in a good long while, and hopefully the apparently massive success of these entries sends Game Freak the message that we want them to experiment more with the series.
A much more upbeat entry chock full of streamlining that lets its new ideas really shine, Pokemon Sun and Moon are the most friendly and modern-feeling games the series has put forth in a long time. Though it shifts away from the exploratory aspects I've loved in past games to focus more on a main quest, S&M have some of the most memorable parts I've seen in the series in a while. It feels like Game Freak finally took cruise control off and are willing to try something new, and I just hope they expand on some of the more offbeat ideas in the future.