Video Game Review: Pokemon Ultra Sun (and a bit of a rant at Nintendo and Game Freak)

Details: Beat the main quest in about forty-two hours. I played for about another twenty hours going through post game content and catching Pokemon. Official site is https://www.pokemon-sunmoon.com/ultra/en-us/

Score: 7.3/10

While Pokemon Sword and Shield is slated to come out in the near future, the current most recent Pokemon game is Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. These two games are not full sequels, but upgraded remakes of the regular Sun and Moon games. I didn’t play the original Sun and Moon so I found this game a new, yet familiar experience that was really fun for a nostalgic old Pokemon player like myself.

All Pokemon games take place in a world where Pokemon, semi-sentient creatures each with their own special abilities live alongside mankind. You play an eleven-year-old child who just moved to the Alola region, a region very much like Hawaii in real life. You meet up with the local Pokemon professor who gives you your first Pokemon and so begins an adventure where we explore and learn about the world of Pokemon.

The story is pretty good. You have to keep in mind that Pokemon is a game that primarily targets children, while trying to  subtly include enough complexity to keep adults coming back. As a result, Pokemon games are generally jolly games. You’re not going to get anything too dramatic or serious or political. These are jolly, positive, simplistic narratives that encourage kindness and stuff like that.

And I like this aspect of this game. It’s escapism at it’s finest. A mostly positive world where we get to go on a grand adventure… what a nice thought. Pokemon has consistently been about delivering this experience. If only the gameplay wasn’t so repetitive and boring.

At its core, the gameplay in Pokemon games has remained the same over the last twenty years. This remains the case in Ultra Sun. You control a character who can wander around the world. In this world there are various areas where you will be randomly attacked by Pokemon who you can also catch and add to your team. There are also other characters in the world who you must do battle with if you enter their line of sight.

Battles are generally one Pokemon versus another, with a few lesser occurring variations such as two versus two or a battle royale between four Pokemon. Each Pokemon takes a turn choosing to use one of its four abilties. These abilities range from attacks, to defensive moves, to buffs and all sorts of different skills.

Most abilities and Pokemon belong to at least one of over a dozen types. Types matter because each type has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. For instance, water is strong against fire types and fire is strong against grass types. Part of the strategy is trying to counter different Pokemon in battle with an advantageous type match up.

And that’s the basic gist. This is a gameplay system that was developed twenty years ago and has mostly remained the same. Over the years, new features have been added to the core gameplay such as weather, breeding, mega evolution, etc. There are even a bunch of overly simplistic mini games and puzzles littered throughout the game. Improvements have been made like with experience share and how it affects the entire party now. Those are greatly appreciated and help improve the quality of life in the game. However, at its core, this is a game where you spend most of the time having your Pokemon take turns punching each other. That’s it.

As a returning Pokemon player who is now an adult, I find this extremely boring. I wish they would do something to make the core gameplay more complex, but I understand why they don’t. They got to keep attracting those kids and if the game gets too complicated, kids won’t want to play. Plus, there are plenty of adults who like the simplistic nature of Pokemon games. These games are generally pretty easy. That means accessible to more casual video game players. That in turn means a greater appeal to a wider audience and more money to be made. I get it. Still, after twenty years of the same crap, the gameplay in Pokemon games is really boring.

The visuals in this game are the best a Pokemon game has ever been… which isn’t saying a lot. If you watched the trailer above, you have an idea of just how crappy this thing looks.

The top screen of the 3DS has a resolution of 400×240 and the bottom one is 320×240. That means the resolution on these screens is just about as bad as the lowest levels of a YouTube video. It’s horrendous. Pokemon is a game that’s made hundreds of millions, both for Nintendo and Game Freak. You’d think that would equal better technical specifications so I don’t have to look at this pixel-y crap. Has no one in Nintendo ever heard of anti-aliasing? That means straighter lines and edges. It’s a massive disappointment that a game as successful as Pokemon still has to look this shit, at least on a technical level.

On an artistic level, the game is very interesting. You can clearly tell that the art department took a lot of the most interesting and memorable Hawaiian elements and transformed them into something that would make sense in the Pokemon world. It’s impressive. At least it would be if they weren’t limited to the technical limitations of the 3DS. Ultimately, the game looks decent and is certainly playable. It’s just unfortunate that it looks like I’m watching a YouTube video on the lowest settings… or playing a game on the Nintendo 64/Playstation 1.

The music in this game is unabashedly amazing. They have some seriously good tracks in this game. It’s a combination of sparingly used real instruments (and some real vocals) combined with synthesized instruments and sounds. The music did a fantastic job setting the mood and keeping my energy up during those repetitive Pokemon battles. There are also some great remixed tracks of old Pokemon songs that I enjoyed. I’d be willing to listen to some of these tracks in my own time away from the game. They’re that good.

Overall, Pokemon Ultra Sun is a fun game, but that comes with a caveat. The only reason I enjoyed this game as much as I did is because it is the first, new Pokemon game I’ve played in over a decade. It improved on almost every aspect of the game that I played all those years ago. However, if I was one of those fools who stupidly bought a copy of every single Pokemon game that has ever been released, I would likely find this game extremely insulting.

For instance, that there are still two versions of each Pokemon game released is an insult to consumers. This is merely a means to make money by trying to make money off two copies of the same game. If you don’t have friends who purchased the version of the Pokemon game paired with yours, you’re only left with a few options if you want to completely finish the game. You can either pressure your friends to purchase a game they might not otherwise want to play, you can try to make new friends who play the game, or (and this is what many kids do) you can buy both versions of the game. It’s an insult to parents to trick their kids into wanting two copies of what is basically the same game, all in an effort to become a “Pokemon Master,” the title one is conveyed in the game if you collect them all. It’s ridiculous.

And that’s just one issue. The lack of technological innovation and exclusivity on technologically inferior Nintendo devices is another. The formulaic and boring gameplay that is regurgitated in each Pokemon game is another.

More recently, it was announced that many Pokemon from prior games would not be transferable to the upcoming version of Pokemon (Pokemon Sword and Shield) because it was too arduous to create animations for all the hundreds of Pokemon that currently exist. This is causing massive fan outrage. One thing that the game pushes is that players should become attached to their Pokemon and many players are. Many players take the arduous process (arduous because each subsequent generation is not entirely compatible with prior generations or future generations of Pokemon games) of transferring Pokemon from old games to the subsequent game, and so on and so forth until they reach the current Pokemon game. It’s an annoying process that requires a lot of old hardware.

Recently, Nintendo announced Pokemon Bank, a system where you can store Pokemon and transfer between games. This is not a free service. This is a paid subscription. You have to pay about five dollars per year to use this. Moreover, with the information that even with Pokemon Bank, the news that you can’t transfer over many of your Pokemon over to the new game makes Pokemon Bank almost pointless. Why would I pay a yearly fee for something that won’t do what it was designed to do? What a stupid idea.

In any case, here’s my recommendations for who should play this game: if you haven’t played a Pokemon game in the last ten years, then play Ultra Sun or Ultra Moon. If you have, I suggest you skip it because it’s basically the same game with only slightly better visuals. If you played Pokemon Sun or Moon, definitely don’t buy this game because all the changes and additions are minor. This is more like a patch rather than a sequel. It’s pretty much the same story and gameplay. And if you want to play Pokemon Sword and Shield and are looking for something to tide you over, I’d suggest just waiting for the new version because many of the Pokemon you get in this version will not be transferable to Sword and Shield. It’s a waste of time trying to catch all the Pokemon you’ve already caught before.

Score: 7.3/10

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