Like a low-level Magikarp, the Pokémon series evolves very, very slowly. Over two decades, the core concept has remained almost entirely unchanged: you run around collecting cute monsters and pitting them against each other in battle. Huge changes are rare, and common features like 3D graphics and online play weren’t even introduced until 2011. Sometimes you have to really look closely to see what’s different about a new Pokémon game.
This incremental progress isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s helped keep the series accessible for new players. While most ongoing game franchises pile on new features with each new release in ways that can be intimidating for newcomers, Pokémon has moved in the opposite direction. With the upcoming Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon — enhanced versions of last year’s excellent Hawaiian-themed adventures — Nintendo has crafted the most welcoming Pokémon yet.
It helps that the original Sun and Moon were already very approachable games. They supported nine languages, including both simplified and traditional Chinese, and introduced a character creator where you could customize everything from skin color to hairstyles. But beyond that, the games were also tuned in a way that made them both easier to play and more fun than their predecessors.
This wasn’t the result of any big, single feature. Instead, it was a series of smaller quality-of-life tweaks that all added up to a more streamlined experience. For instance, after fighting a creature once, you’d then have a robust list of all of the attacks they’re weak against, which made subsequent bouts much easier. You also received the “experience share” — an item that makes it much easier to raise weak pokémon — right at the beginning of the game. Similarly, while many Pokémon games force you through a slog of fighting pigeons and rats early on, in Sun and Moon you were able to capture strong and recognizable monsters from the outset. Even your ever-present pokédex was more useful: this time around it was sentient, and would provide tips in case you got stuck.
These kinds of changes are especially apparent if you go back and play one of the older releases. In games like Pokémon Red or Blue on the original Game Boy, even just managing your pokémon was a chore. Sun and Moon cut out most of the tedium without getting away from the core sense of adventure that’s so intrinsic to the series.
The Ultra games build off of this. In a lot of ways, they’re very similar to their predecessors. They still take place in the new Alola region, a series of connected tropical islands with an incredibly chill vibe. Unlike most Pokémon games, your goal isn’t to collect a series of gym badges to earn entry to the Pokémon League. Instead, you need to complete a range of often strange island trials, like finding creatures hidden in burrows, or searching for ingredients by smell. It’s a less rigid structure that means you rarely know what to expect when you take on a new challenge.
Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon add a number of new features, and for the most part you can access them both quickly and easily. For instance, you can collect new, very powerful totem pokémon, but doing so simply requires you to find stickers hidden around the islands. This gives players access to some high level content without necessitating the grind found in most role-playing games. There’s also a new surfing mini-game that’s available to play just a few hours into the game, and the pokédex has been updated with a feature that doles out useful items like a slot machine. The interface, meanwhile, has been tweaked ever so slightly, and it now works great whether you’re using buttons or the touchscreen for navigation.
These additions don’t come at the expense of veteran players. The games may be easier to get into, but there’s still plenty of depth. Much of the focus in the Ultra games is on legendary pokémon, tough-to-beat creatures typically found toward the end of the game. In the new games, there are more to find, and existing ones are given a larger slate of moves to utilize in battle. (There is also an unsettling new move for the creepily cute Pikachu imitator Mimikyu.) And for those who want to dig into the game’s story, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon introduce a new high-tech group called the Ultra Recon Squad that provides an interesting twist on the Pokémon mythos.
This shift toward accessibility isn’t necessarily new for the franchise, but it has become more pronounced of late, as the blockbuster success of Pokémon Go on mobile introduced millions of new people to the series. Last month, Sun and Moon director Shigeru Ohmori told me that, following the success of Pokémon Go, he wanted to make sure the new games were “something that players can pick up if they’ve never played a main series title before.” There could very well be some big changes in store for the series, as it moves over to Nintendo’s portable / console hybrid the Switch. But for Pokémon to stay Pokémon, that welcoming spirit needs to remain in tact.
Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are launching on the Nintendo 3DS on November 17th.