Pokémon Go ushered in a new era for the long-running franchise. The augmented reality mobile game became one of the most popular video games of all time, with more than 750 million downloads, and its global success helped bring the Pokémon name back into prominence. One of the main beneficiaries of its success was the dual release of Pokémon Sun and Moon, which went on to become some of the fastest-selling titles in Nintendo’s history. Now, the team is back with an enhanced version of those 3DS games — called Ultra Sun and Moon — and the goal is to further build off of the momentum created by Niantic’s mobile game.
“We knew we had a good fanbase, but of course we were surprised by the sheer number of users who came out as big Pokémon fans when Pokémon Go was released,” says Shigeru Ohmori, director on the first Sun and Moon. “We want to draw on that excitement that’s been built up over the past year.”
The idea for the Ultra games started to form late in development on Sun and Moon, when those titles were still in a beta phase. The goal for the new releases, according to Ohmori, was to offer more to do for existing fans, but also create an easier entry point for newcomers — especially those who were drawn to the series by Pokémon Go. Eventually he recruited Kazumasa Iwao, who was in charge of the battle systems in Sun and Moon, to direct the game.
The team has been fairly secretive about the Ultra games, but they look to be in-keeping with the series’ history of refined updates, as seen with games like Pokémon Emerald or Platinum. The games are set on the same Hawaiian-themed island as Sun and Moon (albeit a slightly darker version), but offer a new storyline, more pokémon to catch, and some new features, like a mini-game that lets you surf while riding on the back of a Mantine. These updates were added largely to create something new for players who already spent a lot of time with the games last year.
But some of the most important changes were actually designed for the new audience the series has cultivated. For instance, Ohmori says that players will be able to capture some of the game’s stronger pokémon much earlier in the game, in order to help ease them into the experience by helping them get to the good stuff right away. Meanwhile, Iwao — who is making his directorial debut with Ultra Sun and Moon — says that the team paid particular attention to some of the finer details that might be a sticking point for new players. “One feature that we’ve put a lot of effort into is the [user interface], in order to make sure it’s something that players can pick up if they’ve never played a main series title before,” he says, “so they can really get into the game and experience things at a deeper level.”
One of the big challenges with games like Ultra Sun and Moon is time: the new games come out exactly a year after their predecessors, which doesn’t leave much space to craft new features. This also contributes to the fact that, since players still have these games so fresh in their minds, they’ll notice even the most minute changes. That said, even with such a limited timeframe, one of the main goals the team had was to create something that would surprise fans of the originals, and for that they mostly looked at ideas that came from within developer Game Freak.
“As developers we do really want to see fans’ responses to the game, and we do pay attention to that,” Iwao explains. “But we don’t just look at those and try to implement exactly what fans say they’d like to be added to the game. Instead, we focus on improving what we can improve, but also creating something new and interesting whenever we create a new game. We really want to add things that people haven’t thought of and things people will be surprised by.”
In the age of games-as-service, when titles are constantly updated with new content, a release like Ultra Sun and Moon can seem a bit dated. Pokémon Go came out more than a year ago, for instance, and it has new creatures and features added on a semi-regular basis. Even more traditional Nintendo titles like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Splatoon 2 have embraced the idea of extending a game’s life through downloadable content. And while Ultra Sun and Moon may come in the form of a traditional packaged release, Iwao believes that future Pokémon titles could easily take on a more modern form, with regular updates in place of full-fledged new games.
“We are always thinking of what would be the most appropriate method every time we create a new game,” he says.
Pokémon Ultra Sun and Moon will be out on November 17th on the Nintendo 3DS.