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Generation VII has perfected Pokémon’s formula - it’s time to take the training wheels off

Doctor Oak

Staff member
This article was originally posted on GameCrash - you can read it and more at https://gamecrash.co.uk
Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are probably the Pokémon games I’ve looked least forward to, given least thought about and been least bothered about playing since the very beginning of the series’ history here in the West. I didn’t even pick up the games when they came out last year and even after receiving Ultra Moon for Christmas, it took until after the New Year for me to bother putting it into the 3DS.

It’d be wrong to not state that part of that is because I’m just ready to move on from the 3DS following 10 months of life with its successor, the Nintendo Switch. Had I been able to choose to play Pokémon Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon on my TV or to play it in my hands in bed as it suited me, I’d probably have played it before now - but the rest of my reservations would have remained the same.

It’s more fair to compare these games to Pokémon Platinum than the pair of games they superficially appear more similar to: Pokémon Black 2 and White 2. They don’t fundamentally change the game that Sun and Moon initially delivered, but they do round off the remaining rough edges and generally polish the elements most lustrous in the original. Is there much reason in playing these games if you played Sun or Moon? Not really - the experiences are largely the same and while there are a small handful of new features and even Pokémon introduced, very little of it is worth £39.99 to anyone other than those keen to give Alola another go.

Part of the problem with Ultra Sun and Moon as a concept is that, actually, Sun and Moon largely perfected what it means to make a Pokémon game. The games made an effort to break somewhat with tradition by making your journey into an ‘Island Trial’, delineated by collecting Z Crystals rather than badges and by undergoing a more abstract concept of ‘trials’ than simply defeating 8 Gym Leaders. In doing so, the differences between the Alolan quest and the Gym challenges of previous games actually highlight the overall similarities that remain all the same. The hero’s journey through the game and the overall main plot doesn’t significantly change despite the dramatic change in window dressing. It proves that the specific format of that journey can vary without changing the core of what makes a Pokémon game and frees future games to explore other options in depicting that main journey without messing with the DNA that’s kept the series successful for 20 years.

The rest of the game completes the work on the game’s mechanics that’s been ongoing since the first follow-up to runaway success in Gold and Silver. New types have been introduced to balance out power imbalances; attacks are more obviously connected to their stats by marking them as ‘Physical’ or ‘Special’, methods to manipulate the ‘hidden’ numbers that make up the ‘perfect’ Pokémon for competitive use have been largely made openly accessible and in Sun and Moon, ruining your teams with HM moves to get around the game’s world was finally binned in favour of Ride Pokémon . Meanwhile, now that everything, from characters, to the world, to Pokémon battles are rendered in the same three dimensional engine, making a living and engaging game world with Pokémon visibly living out and about in it is technically feasible without endless hours of making specific sprite objects and devoting resources away from making the rest of the game.​


The more secretive mechanics of training a “perfect” Pokémon are now relatively open and malleable.
Ultra Sun and Moon build upon this somewhat - there are more Pokémon out and about in the world and there are even more ‘quality of life’ improvements for those building competitive Pokémon teams in-game such as effectively being handed various ‘perfect’ breeding stock Ditto - but there isn’t really much more that the games could actually do at this point. It’s taken 20 years, but the mechanical formula for a Pokémon game is now functionally complete. We will likely see more gimmicks like Mega Evolution, Z-Moves or special regional variants of popular Pokémon , but gimmicks is what they will be. The games are now effectively in the same position as the Pokémon Trading Card Game has been in for some time. The core mechanics of the TCG haven’t really changed since the introduction of ‘EX’ Pokémon and while there have been fleeting gimmicks introduced with certain sets of cards, the gimmicks eventually rotate out of play along with those sets and gameplay carries on without them and onto the next.

The fact that Ultra Sun and Moon sit atop this solid bedrock is what makes the games’ biggest crime even worse. The mechanics are sound and in general don’t really require much introduction at this point for even the newest player to understand. They’re far less opaque than they used to be and the NPCs in game almost exclusively exist now to explain the full detail of the game’s overall mechanical deepness in a way that’s difficult to miss even if you rush through the game. So why does the game spend so much time holding your hand and ushering you through a single, specific path?

It’s exemplified by continuing the tiresome charade of pretending like anyone needs to be taught how to catch a Pokémon any more. After 20 years of existing pretty close to the center of gravity of pop culture’s black hole, even a five year old being sat down to play the game for the very first time will know the deal through pure cultural osmosis. If Pokémon Go can get celebrities, world leaders and other similarly mentally challenged idiots to be capable of catching a Pokémon without 15 minutes of painfully long conversations and demonstrations, perhaps it’s time Game Freak finally took the training wheels off?

The worst thing about Pokémon games are that they give off the illusion of being about choice. You arguably have a lot of choice in what kind of team you build, the kind of attacks they’ll learn and thus how you’ll play the game. That setup has always been a ‘fact’ that’s teetered along the line of being total rubbish - as any look at the teams that make up the top-level of competition at the Pokémon World Championships each year will easily demonstrate, by being almost identical across the board - but it does create the illusion of free-choice all the same.

There’s been a similar level of illusion of choice in how to navigate and play the games throughout most of the regions the games are set across. Sometimes you can choose to go one way rather than the other, or skip entire sections altogether. As soon as you get the ability to fly around the region it even feels like the entire world has opened up to become your oyster - even if you can only go back to places you’ve already been. The truth is, of course, that the feeling of choice is a lie. One that Alola lays bare by both literally and figuratively barricading your access to the next path until you complete the given task (or more specifically, trial) at hand. This railroading only ever dissipates at the end of the game, after there’s not much left to stop you exploring at your own will anyway.

Like I say, this has been a long-standing illusion of choice - it’s as fundamentally true of Red and Blue as it is of Ultra Sun and Moon - so why does it seem to be so much more frustrating in the current game? The answer, as I see it, is that the bedrock of the games, mechanically speaking, is so solid now that the rest of the framing of the game is actually now holding it back.​


As The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild aptly demonstrated, the core of any great, large, open world game is a solid base of game mechanics. A stripping back of previous 3D Zelda games, Breath of the Wild gives you a handful of gameplay tools up front - a sword, shield, paraglider and some physics manipulation via the Shieka Slate - and simply cuts you free to make your way through the game’s world by combining your tools with the world’s own mechanics. Ultra Sun and Moon give you the same kind of tools - albeit not up front. 7 Generations of perfecting how to develop your Pokémon teams are your sword and shield. Ride Pokémon are your paraglider. The world’s mechanics operate through Pokémon battles - a system that’s robust enough to base huge cash prizes upon in the real world, so surely robust enough to rely on for your game’s progression naturally.

The best open world games don’t spend hours slowly introducing you to everything that makes up the game, they let you work it out yourself by playing the game. They don’t wall off parts of the world that are too difficult or nanny you through the path they want you to take, they let you learn from the mistake of going the wrong way by being wrecked by enemies far more powerful than you are. The world becomes yours to explore at your leisure and the game’s primary story is told the same way. Everywhere in the game’s world matters because everywhere is on equal footing in terms of the player’s path through the game. There’s still some level of illusion to your choices, but enough of it is genuine to at least match against the freedom of building and training your own Pokémon team. A dynamic that’s very one sided towards the team building, and away from the world building, in Ultra Sun and Moon.

Pokémon has the mechanics to deliver a fully realised and open Pokémon world to explore, battle through and ultimately conquer. Pokémon Sun and Moon already saw to that in 2016. Ultra Sun and Moon were never going to be the games to deliver on marrying those mechanics to a more open playstyle, but they could have at least tried loosening up on the journey through each of Alola’s 4 self-contained islands. To drop the pretense that we need endless tutorials to the game’s mechanics. To redress the balance of gameplay freedom towards the bulk of the gameplay. It’s perhaps unfair to lay Sun and Moon’s failures there at Ultra Sun and Moon’s doors, but it’s a missed opportunity to have given the games something more worth another £39.99 on top of their predecessors and it’s really hard to forgive making the same mistakes twice and charging full price again for it.

Perhaps the bigger question now, though, is what comes next? There’s a new Pokémon game - most likely an entirely new Generation of Pokémon - coming on the Switch, possibly this year. Given the obvious future-forward design of the Sun/Moon game engine (so much so that it can barely run on the 3DS), it’s obvious that it, and thus the overall base of Sun/Moon’s mechanics will be the game’s bedrock. Ultra Sun/Moon’s increased presence of Pokémon out and about in the world can only be further improved upon with the Switch’s increased grunt and the natural direction from there is to focus on developing an even greater and more engaging living game world. But, if the next Pokémon game forces the same linearity onto that world, it might as well be a bunch of blocky pixels in green and and white for all the improvement it’d be over Red and Blue’s Kanto region.

It’s time to stop holding our hands, Game Freak. Create a fantastic Pokémon world to explore and then let us do it. The Pokémon part of the game is as solid as it’s ever going to get - now’s the time to build a world around it that compliments it - not one that holds it - and us - back.
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Previously 5DigitNeb
Oh my god. Finally! I completely agree. It's been two decades gamefreak, let us play in a less limited way! We all nearly NEED an openworld pokemon game at this time. we've done a lot in the past two decades, but we've been set back! we didn't get to do it in EXACTLY how we wanted to. we mostly just followed your instructions, and tried to get strong our own ways. but THIS! we have a lot more choice
Well said, Doctor. There's something to be said for games not assuming a new player's gaming literacy, but Pokemon has taken the concept way too far. Difficulty modes and level scaling are sorely needed. Give me a Switch game with BOTW's massive world and the collectability factor of Pokemon and I might not leave my house for a while. following pokemon pls gamefreak
I'll have to agree. It's (in my opinion) annoying playing the same game series then being told to do the EXACT SAME thing every time. Although it's nice for the new players, it'd be a much interesting experience for Game Freak to let their consumers learn the ropes of the game on their own. I'd happen to think that be a great idea. Maybe take their ideas from Pokken to the Main Series games and make battles a bit more intriguing? I understand some players happen to like the current set-up for the games, though you'd have to think. More strategies and such... That'd be pretty fun~


Formerly Stewie
Good points raised here. I didn't buy US/UM mainly because of how much I hated how linear their predecessors were, and how it felt like I had an unavoidable two minute runthrough of dialogue at every corner. I didn't even get past the third trial in Moon because of how tedious it became. Yes, the games do feature a very A, B, and C progression of events, but with the older games, it felt like I could explore around on my own, and have to deal less with characters holding my hand, and locking me down to talk.
Totally agree hands down. Reason why I stopped playing the games was because it was mostly the same thing and the newer editions had way too much hand holding that even my two year old cousin could play with no problem. I wouldn't be too surprised if they gave an item to the player right at the start of the game that basically acted as a portable Pokémon Center in the next generation.

Game Freak, I think it's time to step it up with my Pokémortal difficulty and new mechanics because I'm not going to have a level 32 Froakie beat a highly leveled Mega Gardevoir.

Additional modifications were made in the Pokémortal difficulty to make the game, Pokéventure: Global Warriors even harder:
  • Enemies are higher leveled.
  • Enemies have 25% more HP.
  • Enemies inflict 50% more damage.
  • Enemies move 30% more faster.
  • Enemies are immune to one hit KO moves.
  • All enemies have new movement patterns and will not telegraph imminent, powerful attacks.
  • The player starts off with no money and items.
  • Blacking out results in the player losing 75% of their money and having all friendships of their Pokémon dropped by 150.
  • Wounded Pokémon act slower overall depending on the amount of max HP intact and can only be treated with healing items.
  • Revives only revives a Pokémon from fainting with 1 HP.
  • Pokémon will go into comatose if they lose more than their current HP and max HP together at once, making them unable to be revived fron fainting at all.
  • Enemies have 25% resistance to neutrally effective moves.
  • Enemies have 95% resistance to not very effective moves.
  • Super effective moves used by the enemy deal 200% more damage.
  • Status conditions and stat decreases carry over into the Overworld after combat.
  • Items are significantly harder to find and do not spawn as frequently.
  • Obstacles take more to surpass and traps have dangerous consequences when triggered.
  • Chiral Pokémon are less affected after using Chiral moves and are immune to the effects of all healing items.
  • X-Moves are used more frequently by the enemy.
  • The AI of enemies are highly intelligent and will use moves accordingly.
  • The time limit for a turn is twenty seconds.
  • Running away from a wild battle will make the player drop a small amount of money and/or a random item.
  • The secret ending is unveiled if the player beats the game on this difficulty.
  • A secret item is given to the player if the player beats the game on this difficulty.
Oh my god, this so needed to be said. How has it been twenty years, and we haven't had ONE Pokémon game that doesn't force the player to follow the same formulaic plot that's been recycled since red and blue? C'mon, Gamefreak, give us something new already! Or at the very least, give us the option to skip all the damn tutorials!
I wouldn't like a Pokemon game where you walk into an area and suddenly BAM, there's a level 40 Pokemon you were not expecting to run into. While it sounds good on paper, Pokemon as an RPG is much different that BoTW or HZD as they are Action/Adventure games: while in those games, with enough tenacity and gumption, you can eventually win against something, in an RPG, those become a meat wall- just completely impossible unless you cheese it with items that you over grinded for. If you go into an area your not intended to be in at that point, suddenly the game becomes damn near impossible.

I would, however, like a Pokemon game where you get the choice to go where you want while collecting Gym Badges/Macguffins in whatever order you'd like. The games routes and gyms become incrementally harder with each new badge you obtain- which encourages backtracking other than "Oh, I don't have the move cut on me right now, I suppose I'll just have to come back later" with the prospect of a fresher place to gain some nice Pokemon.

One last thing- PLEASE GameFreak, do the B2W2 way of post game. I don't mind a post game narrative, but when it constitutes everything...Really, B2W2 is the pinnacle of the series for me thanks to a post game that wasn't a total afterthought- I've wasted far too much time doing the Pokestar Studio missions and PWT challenges. The Legendaries aren't just plopped in a random dimensional hole to make them be there- they actually feel like they had been placed wisely with encounters with Heatran and Cresselia that makes you hunt for them more than just riding a title box Pokemon into portals. Oh, and these actually encourage exploration by taking you places you wouldn't go otherwise. So if I can get the game system above with the post game of b2w2 again would be great, and I'd probably keep playing it thanks to addictive postgame shenanigans compared to the Subway/Maison/Tree we got in everything else...
i would love an open world, discover-for-yourself, go wherever you like pokemon game ! the only question is how would that be executed well ? it sounds easy, but for example, there's the level problem, (in my opinion the biggest one, i think anything else getting in the way could easily be altered, apart from maybe hms/ride pokemon/whatever), mentioned in the comment above - pokemon of certain level are in certain areas. level 30 pokemon are in the place where you'd get to a bit later in the game, while lower levelled pokemon are in areas closer to the beginning of the game, for obvious reasons. you have to train your pokemon on the ones closer to their level, so you actually have a shot against them. transforming pokemon into a non linear game would mean having to change that, but i can't think of a way how. it's not that i don't want a botw version of pokemon, it would be a perfect next step, i'm just not sure how the developers could make it work with the formula we have now. so, they'd have to change it, but into what ? maybe they'd even have to get rid of levels altogether ? i dunno. i'm actually very curious about this and would love to hear some examples, solutions, etc. since i can't think of any myself (then again i AM unimaginative but...)

and yes, gamefreak, please remove hour-long tutorials/intros. we can figure it out ourselves, it's not rocket science
While I like the idea of a open world pokémon game, I'm not entirely sure how it would work. Granted, I never played Breath of the Wild because I don't own a Switch (and partly because I never got into the Zelda franchise), but I'm not sure how they could adjust the pokémon formula and have the open world mechanic fit with stuff like the gym/trial boss battles & the evil team.

If anything, I think the closest we ever had to an open world pokémon game is Red & Blue & the post-game for Gold & Silver. Granted, there were some restrictions like the first 2 gyms for Gen 1 & Viridian City for both gens, but for the most part you could be able to travel all around the Kanto region and battle whatever gym leaders you want, whenever you want (provided you had the necessary tools like an HM or the pokéflute). When I replayed pokémon blue on the 3DS, I loved breaking away from the roster and going out of order when collecting all of my gym badges.