The “third” version of Pokémon games is usually an inevitability by tradition. Like Yellow, Crystal, Emerald and Platinum before it, Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon acts as a sort of “remix” of last year’s Pokémon Sun and Moon. Touted as an “enhanced” version of those previous games, I found the term “definitive” to be more appropriate. While I found my time with the games to be satisfying, it was due more to some minor disappointments I harbored with the original Sun and Moon.
That’s not to say that the core Sun and Moon games were not enjoyable. The Generation VII games represented a landmark for the handheld series, featuring 3D movement in the environment and numerous quality-of-life changes and additions that made the entire “gotta catch ‘em all” experience easier and streamlined. For example, as in the original games, no longer are HM slaves required thanks to the handy new Poké Ride feature. And smaller changes are retained, like the feature to instantly add captured Pokémon to your already full party. The battle user interface still allows players to keep track of status effects to Pokémon on the field, and reminds players whether or not certain moves are effective against opponents. Of course, changes like the Exp. Share item applying to your entire party arguably made the game too easy in a way.
At first glance, all of Ultra’s additions and “enhancements” to the original game appear to be quite minor. Initially I had the sense that developer Game Freak was “filling in gaps” with content or ideas that may not have made the final cut with Sun and Moon. “Totem Stickers” provide the player with a scavenger hunt throughout the game, found in random spots all around the islands of Alola. Early on you are introduced to a new Ride Pokémon, Mantine, which allows you to surf through the water. Unlike the other surfing Pokémon, Lapras and Sharpedo, Mantine really lets the player surf and perform tricks on waves. Additionally, this has the practical use of surfing between islands, something that was just achieved through a less fun and short flying or boat animation in the original games.
Your adorable pal, the sentient Rotom Pokédex, has a neat little feature with the Roto Lotto, letting the player win certain abilities—the chance to use a Z-Power again, for example. I often forgot about this small new feature, though, and neglected to use these during battle. Similar to the Battle Tower, Battle Frontier and Battle Factory in previous “third versions,” the Battle Agency within the returning online Festival Plaza allows players to rent absurdly powerful Pokémon and do battle against opponents.
But the term “remix” kept popping into my head—some changes seemed to be for change’s sake, to showcase that this was indeed “different.” The game tries to convince the player of this from the very beginning, changing the scenario in which the protagonist meets the three main starter Pokémon (they spring into action to save poor, defenseless you in a wild Pokémon encounter). There are moments like this throughout the entire game—a change in the Elite Four roster for example, or alternative outcomes to essential story moments. Or maybe with small interactions, with the game now allowing the player to interact with cute little pocket monsters on the field and play a game of peek-a-boo with them. I remember being led to the area in which you first learn about Mantine Surf and going “huh, I don’t remember this in the old game,” but not so much “wow, this is all brand new and cool!” Much of the music in the game, most notably the trainer battle music, is literally remixed, and like previous “third” versions, some aesthetic changes to the game’s UI are included, in case it wasn’t obvious enough that this is a different game.
While I may seem a little hard on the smoke-and-mirror changes that Ultra brings, some significant additions truly did elevate the original games for me. While I loved my playthrough of Sun, I felt some of the bigger ideas and concepts never truly came to fruition, and actually felt quite unfinished. I loved the Hawaii-themed new region of Alola and the themes of tradition and spirituality that came with it—which is why I found the sci-fi feeling of the Ultra Beasts and the machinations of the mysterious Aether Foundation to be a fascinating juxtaposition that I hoped the games would explore.
Unfortunately, despite some interesting characters and memorable story moments surrounding them, the highly-advertised Ultra Beasts were nothing more than a post-story chore for the player to do in the original Sun and Moon. These undoubtedly cool Pokémon designs were ultimately wasted, and I couldn’t tell if Game Freak had no idea what to do with them or if they ran out of time to further develop them. The same feeling applied to the “third” Legendary of Necrozma, who was the player’s final “chore” in the original games and had no proper backstory or explanation attached to it, despite the Pokémon’s apparent importance.
I feared that Necrozma would have a fate similar to that of Zygarde, the “third” Legendary of X and Y—to the surprise of the fanbase, there was no such “Z” version to flesh the monster out. But Necrozma gets its due, even featuring on the covers of these Ultra games. To fill in these gaps that I witnessed in the original games, Ultra adds a whole lot of “Ultra” lore. If the Aether Foundation and the genuinely entertaining Team Skull dimwits weren’t enough, Ultra has yet another faction in the Ultra Recon Squad. The player will encounter a pair of squad members from this mysterious organization at various points in the game’s story (another case of, “hey look, something new or different!”), with the pair of characters differing based on the version you play. As I played Ultra Moon, I encountered characters Soliera and a literal mustache-twirler Phyco. Like Team Skull, these characters had their own silly and physical quirks that are sure to make the player laugh out loud.
And the theme of “Ultra” just keeps on going, with the Ultra Wormhole from the original games being expanded in its story and play functionality. The player can ride the cover Legendary Pokémon (Solgaleo or Lunala) through Ultra Space and travel through a variety of parallel dimensions to find Pokémon that otherwise would not be found in the Alola region. Eventually, players will find their way into the Ultra Megalopolis, host of the enigmatic Ultra Recon Squad and tied with Necrozma in the game’s story. Through these “Ultra” additions, the game expands on the original’s story in a way that adds new information and surprises, even to those who have played through Sun and Moon. Without spoiling anything key to the plot, I will say that this helped to mend the problems I had with the original games’ story shortcomings.
But much of the novelty comes in the back half of the game. While I appreciated Sun and Moon changing the formula by replacing Gym Leaders with Island Trials, the trials themselves felt as easy as they did in the originals, despite some small changes and additions. However the post-game is still quite impressive, allowing the players to catch essentially every Legendary (not Mythical, unfortunately) Pokémon in the franchise’s history—it is pure fan service that hearkens back to the post-game of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, and fan service that continues with the introduction of Team Rainbow Rocket. Led by Team Rocket leader Giovanni, this villainous organization is composed of characters from all of the “evil teams” of Pokémon past.
Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon sometimes feels like a stop gap to distract fans until the inevitable Nintendo Switch mainline Pokémon game. Still, as a “director’s cut” or a “take two” of the original games, these Ultra revisions really do hit the mark, and directly address some narrative and mechanical flaws that Sun and Moon had. For those that missed out on the original games, these definitive versions are essential. And for Pokémon fans who may have been disappointed by some of the original games’ shortcomings, they will certainly not mind playing through this memorable adventure once again, even just for a handful of new goodies.
Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon were developed by Game Freak and published by The Pokémon Company and Nintendo. The version played for this review was Ultra Moon. The games are available for the Nintendo 3DS family of systems.
Chris Compendio is a Paste intern who is beginning to run out of space for his many Pokémon game cartridges. Follow him on Twitter @Compenderizer.