Pokémon Ultra Sun and Moon are curious entries into this long-running franchise. They aren’t quite sequels to last year’s excellent Pokémon Sun and Moon the way Pokémon Black and White 2 were. They aren’t just incremental upgrades like Pokémon Emerald or Pokémon Platinum either. They sit somewhere in-between, expanding upon the new gameplay considerably while retaining the entirety of the original games as the meat of the experience. But are these additions enough to warrant buying an Ultra upgrade?
At its core, the game is still the same. The player starts as an 11-year-old who just moved to Alola – the Pokémon equivalent of Hawaii. Instead of facing Gym Leaders, there is an “Island Challenge” rather than fight through eight gym leaders prior to taking on the region’s Elite Four. A collection of trials such simple puzzles, boss battles against super-powered Totem Pokemon, and major battles against the Kahuna of each of the four islands that make up the region.
Though this campaign structure is the same as it was a year ago in Sun and Moon, there are small, subtle changes to the whole affair. Some dialogue and cutscenes are shortened, the game automatically takes players where they need to go in some instances when in the original games they would have had to backtrack, and more useful Pokémon have been included earlier on in the games so the player can fill up their final roster more quickly.
Like in every Pokémon game, there’s a group of bad guys and an evil plot that threatens the world. The original Pokémon Sun and Moon changed things up with Team Skull: a bumbling group of disenfranchised hoodlums that listen to bad hip-hop and dress like they’re in a 90’s music video – and they’re just as endearing in Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon as they ever were. The Aether Foundation is a shady, faceless organization that allows beings from other dimensions to enter the player’s world, and things fall apart for the good people of Alola quickly. There are, however, some crucial new additions that transform the story a bit.
One of the first noticeably fresh parts of Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon is the addition of the Ultra Recon Squad. They show up as a couple of futuristic travelers from another universe, and they’ve come to warn the player of Necrozma – an evil being that engulfed their world in darkness. It soon becomes clear that the player must defeat this monster before Alola meets the same fate.
Though the campaign largely follows the same beats as Sun and Moon, there are plenty of new additions that fill the games out. There’s a surfing mini-game that can take players from island to island, plenty of Pokémon from older games that weren’t available for players to catch in the original Sun and Moon are now in the wild, and 100 Totem Stickers scattered around Alola for the player to peel off and collect. These Totem Stickers are a particularly pleasant addition, as handing them in to Samson Oak (the classic Professor Oak’s tan cousin) nets the player some of the extra large Totem Pokémon that they face during the Island Challenge. There’s a Festival Plaza that lets players fight with random Pokémon in the new Battle Agency, a building that mimics one of the original gyms from Pokémon Red and Blue, and a few new Ultra Beasts to fight and catch.
The majority of the roughly 35-hour campaign plays out just like the originals, but the major changes to Pokemon Ultra Sun and Moon fit squarely at the end of the story, and in the game’s considerable post-game. Once the player reaches the Aether Foundation, it’s revealed that Ultra Wormholes are spewing new Ultra Beasts into the wilds of Alola, and Necrozma is to blame. The player can travel through these Ultra Wormholes to reach the (hilariously named) Ultra Megalopolis – the world where the Ultra Recon squad and Necrozma hail from. These Ultra Wormholes can also lead players to legendary Pokémon from all seven generations. Half of these creatures are delegated to Ultra Sun, the other half to Ultra Moon, so players who want to catch ’em all will either need to do some extensive trading, or buy both versions.
The best (and most advertised) addition to Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon is Episode RR. Short for Rainbow Rocket, this post-game waltz down memory lane pits the player against a revitalized version of the iconic Team Rocket. What makes this three-hour mini-campaign work so well is its absolute dedication to nostalgia. When fighting Rainbow Rocket members, the music begins with the low-quality, eight-bit Team Rocket theme from the first Pokémon games, then ramps it into a modern, much more intricate version of the theme throughout the rest of the battle. These enemies also use the exact same Pokémon Team Rocket use to use, like Muk, Persian, Raticate, etc. Episode RR also pits the player against the evil leaders from each of the past games, and they fight with Pokémon from their eras. All-in-all, it’s a challenging and highly entertaining distraction, and it’s a great treat for those who get through the campaign.
But that’s what almost all of the additions to Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon amount to: entertaining distractions. The story is largely the same, the Island Challenges have only slight changes, and there aren’t any new Alolan variants to spice things up. In fact, some technical issues that plagued the original Sun and Moon remain. Whenever there are more than two Pokémon battling on screen, the frame rate plummets, and even the user interface on the bottom screen starts to chug – at least on older 3DS systems. Game Freak has been developing Pokémon games on the 3DS for over six years now, and these sorts of technical shortcomings have become harder to forgive.
Players will only get out of Pokémon Ultra Sun and Moon whatever they expect out of it. If they’re expecting a full sequel to Sun and Moon, with a whole new story and adventure to experience, they’ll be sorely disappointed. But if they look at the Ultra games as the third entry that the first four generations of Pokémon games received, it’s perhaps the best of the bunch. The amount of added side content is considerable, and the core experience is just as fantastic as it was a year ago.
For newcomers or long-time Pokémon fans that didn’t pick up the first outing to Alola, these are absolutely the versions to play. For those who made it through their Island Challenge last year, it’s hard to recommend these games for their side-content alone. It’s the definitive versions of the seventh generation Pokémon games, but not a whole lot more.