As a long-time fan of the Pokemon series let me tell you, Pokemon Ultra Moon represents both the highs and lows of being a Poke-fan. The graphical leaps the series has made since Red and Blue in 1996 are impressive, but the 3DS’s limitations become ever more apparent as designers try to push beyond them. Graphically the game looks like a half-step between an N64 and Gamecube game, which sounds alright for a handheld series that began without the ability to display color. (The idea of playing a “black-and-white” game called Pokemon Blue seems a bit ridiculous now, doesn’t it?) The Pokemon are all beautifully rendered in three-dimensions. The environments look alright but somehow feel both confining and empty. You’re not wandering around a big open Pokemon world. You’re still sticking to paths and one-way ledges.
This again feels like a metaphor for the series. Two steps forward, one step back. I remember when Ruby & Sapphire introduced Pokemon Beauty Contests. That always struck me as unnecessarily creative for a series that has eighteen Pokemon types yet still makes you choose from fire, water, or grass types at the beginning every time. Some things are set in stone and some are up for grabs, and it’s never clear which is which or why. For example, the setting of Pokemon Ultra Moon is a surface level riff on Hawaii. This shakes things up on a cursory level, but also removes a diversity of environments from the level design. And in a move that feels like something a stoner might ponder on a pile of pillows at 3 AM- “What if there weren’t even gyms?”- this game does away with Pokemon Gyms in favor of new Island Trials. Ostensibly this was to make things less repetitive, but it ends up being a momentary distraction. The only thing that truly sticks here is the idea of Totem Pokemon, larger than usual boss Pokemon that your team has to take down. These boss battles felt worthy.
Inconsistency seems to be the general theme here. Even the name Pokemon Ultra Moon reveals the truth of the matter. There were two previous versions of this game, Pokemon Sun & Moon, that were considerably less good, and even so this new version isn’t perfect. So what you’re seeing in Ultra Moon is a course correction but not enough of one to really set things straight. It’s not uncommon for each generation of the Pokemon series to have two competing titles, both generally the same except for some version exclusive Pokemon, thus encouraging trading between versions. There is often a third version of the game that follows a year later, adding a few new features, exclusive Pokemon and a new mission or two. There have been variations on this formula, from the full-on story sequels of Black & White 2 to the remastered Alpha Sapphire which acted as a spiritual successor to the well-received X & Y. Ultra Moon is the first ‘third-version’ Pokemon game that I’ve played where it felt like a director’s cut. Plot events and situations are changed to make the story work slightly better. It still has its gaping obvious flaws, but now it feels a bit more polished.
If you were turned off by Sun & Moon their Ultra versions might smooth over some of your problems. Then again, there are plenty of reasons to scratch your head and say, “What?” at these versions too. At some point, the bottom half of your screen becomes dominated by tutorial tips from your talking Pokedex. This is the screen also used for your map and menu information. It is incredibly annoying to glance down at the map only to see the Pokedex rambling about a great place to take photos of your Pokemon. Oh, and by the way, you can only take photos of your Pokemon at the Photo Club, even though your Pokedex clearly has a camera on it for story reasons.
There’s lots of little barbs like this. Lillie and Hau, the game’s insufferable companions, have been toned down a bit but are still load-bearing. The game’s villains seem to be less brutal and are let off the hook a bit easier in this version. The one update the game didn’t get but sorely needed was a line-by-line revision of its dialogue. The awkward phrasing and weird non-sequiturs would be forgivable were any of it funny, but it constantly feels like the localization team is dancing around the idea of jokes without delivering any. The writing in this game makes the writing in Red & Blue sound like Shakespeare, and that includes the little kid who shouts about his love of shorts.
The biggest let down is how the game mishandles things that were done better in previous entries. The online system is worse than Alpha Sapphire‘s and while Super Training was dull, its replacement in Ultra Moon is a convoluted nightmare. Pokemon fans love to battle and some of them take it very seriously. The game acknowledges the existence of its adult fans. It just refuses to cater to them.
Deriders might say that I am putting too much stock in a children’s property, but Nintendo tentpoles like Mario and Zelda continue to deliver for all ages. Like the best Pixar and Ghibli movies there is a sweet spot where everyone can get a kick out of something, and for a while, Pokemon resided in this spot. To be frank, this sweet spot should be Nintendo’s wheelhouse.
I’ll refrain from my traditional rant in which I beg Nintendo to release a next-gen Pokemon MMO. “Do yourself a favor. It will be like printing money,” etc. Instead I will end this review with a reminder of the inconsistency of Ultra Moon, one that I think will speak to fans of the franchise or even ones that haven’t played it since the old Game Boy versions. What’s the catch phrase associated with Pokemon? “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” That signature slogan is the battle cry of the trainer. You’re supposed to fill up your Pokedex with all the Pokemon you’ve caught, hoping to one day “catch ’em all.” In Pokemon Ultra Moon there is no national Pokedex, meaning there is no complete list of Pokemon in the game. You literally can’t catch ’em all. “Catch some, why worry? Mahalo for buying this game twice, ya dummies!”