Over Summer I made the, arguably bad, decision to play the fangame ‘Pokemon Uranium‘. This was, in part, due to me not having played a Pokemon game in about 10 years and being very interested in the slow reveal of info about Pokemon Sun and Moon. In many respects Pokemon Uranium was an impressive fanwork, though ultimately, it was a game that was messy at best. As Pokemon Sun and Moon has now come out, and I have finished the main story of Moon, I think it’s well worth me looking at how Pokemon Sun and Moon compares to Pokemon Uranium, as I believe there is some overlap in how both of them use the standard Pokemon formula (as I know it).
Sun and Moon (or SuMo for short) are the first generation of mainline Pokemon games to be directed by Shigeru Ohmori. With this change of director for the first time since Ruby and Sapphire, SuMo’s design philosophy differs from the previous games in the series. Biggest of which is how SuMo replaces the typical gyms with more indepth trials, where the player character solves a small puzzle and spends time with the respective trial leader. Gyms, if you haven’t played any Pokemon games, existed as eight buildings in the world where the player character would have to go to, solve some puzzles and fight some battles, before fighting the main boss of the gym for a badge. Collecting these badges was the primary goal of the player character in these games, even if these would then lead to a larger more world-impacting narrative, such as Ruby and Sapphire’s fights over an organisation reviving and manipulating effectively a God of creation.
Uranium follows this formula exactly. You go from gym to gym, collecting badge after badge, only to occasionally be interrupted for a plot section: explore this area, beat the Nuclear pokemon at the heart of it. Despite that Uranium also tries to make the characters in the world more memorable. You meet certain gym leaders outside of their gym, either in order to progress the plot, or as a side quest where you get to see them harassing a town with alien pokemon. There’s an attempt at creating the illusion that other people in this world are living their lives as well as you are. An attempt to maximise that passing of time that is integral to the experience of having a journey.
There are two main ways Uranium attempts this: The first is how your ‘rival’ (a character you meet early on who’s journey mirrors your own. As you proceed through the game you will battle your rival over and over, as their team develops similar to how your own does.) starts off as a whiny selfish kid and matures into the more responsible teen by the end of the game. The rival in Uranium also constantly fails to do things that the player character succeeds in, and is even taken hostage by the primary antagonist near the end of the game.
The second is by actively changing the world setting. Over the course of the game certain parts of the map will be accessible, and then inaccessible, based on various plot contrivances (Nuclear meltdowns <.<). When you revisits these areas they are substantially different to how you first experienced them. This even extends up to the Pokemon League (the final goal for the player in every Pokemon game. Once a player has obtained all the badges they must go through four gruelling fights with an ‘Elite Four’ the Four most powerful trainers in the games [at least up to that point]. After which they tend to have one more fight with the Champion, the strongest trainer in the region to claim their place as the best). Rather than having a fixed Elite Four and Champion, Uranium has a pool of characters it randomly pulls from to mirror how a 32 player tournament would run. This pool has many characters you would have met beforehand in the story, all the gym leaders for example.
The reason I bring up Uranium when this essay is supposed to be about SuMo is that they have surprisingly similar aims. Uranium, at least attempts, to bring the overarching narrative more in-line with the badge collecting journey of a Pokemon game. Whilst I feel it ultimately fails at that, the attempt is certainly respectable. A Pokemon game, at heart, is about the journey. It is why the first Pokemon game, even in the remakes, don’t really need an overarching plot. The plot is the journey your character goes on, which is reflected in the journey you ‘see’ your rival go on. SuMo even does certain things similar to the way Uranium does! The Elite Four in SuMo may not change but they are, for the most part, characters you met along the way. More than that, since there aren’t gyms any more, you spent more time with these characters as characters than a simple opening line, ending line and a battle. The ‘champion’ fights themselves have a fixed battle the first time you do it. But from that point onwards you can defend your title against a much larger pool of challengers. This pool of characters includes even more characters you met along the way: plot relevant ones, your rival, Trial Leaders, and even that one kid you fought in the first route of the game.
The main narrative of SuMo, alongside the not-badge collecting, is also somewhat similar to Uranium’s. Uranium’s story is effectively one of broken families. Again, I don’t believe they succeeded in the slightest with this, but they did at least attempt it. SuMo’s story is also that of broken families. Funnily enough both even end in a similar fashion: The ‘Evil’ Mother ends up in a coma as the game ends. But besides that surface level similarities SuMo manages a much more cohesive experience to Uranium.
Unlike Uranium, the player character is not the central part of SuMo’s narrative. The player character’s roles in SuMo are that of a vehicle for Lillie and Gladion, the children of the main antagonist, to learn from and eventually face up to their Mother with, as well as to become the Champion of the region and thus serve as an inspiration to other trainers. Effectively, the only real narrative role of the player character in SuMo is to inspire. The ‘real’ protagonists of the main story are Lillie and Gladion, of which it is really Lillie’s journey that takes central focus. What this means is that unlike Ruby and Sapphire, Diamond and Pearl, or Uranium, the story you’re experiencing doesn’t have world ending implications. You aren’t fighting for the sake of the world, you’re fighting for the sake of a family. The Ultra Beasts and Ultra-Dimension do on a surface level mirror that kind of grandiosity, but even throughout the main story you don’t really do anything to stop them. It’s questionable whether your existence in the plot would even matter on a larger level. It isn’t like the Ultra Beasts aren’t manageable by the world without you. All you accomplish is bringing Lillie and Gladion back together with their Mum.
I do not believe Pokemon games need or should aim for good traditional narratives. However, I do personally feel that Sun and Moon manages to create a far more lived in and fluid world setting than I’ve experienced in any other Pokemon game. There are limits to this, NPCs stuck in their plot advice speech even as others right next to them have moved beyond that, but for the most part Sun and Moon aim to emphasise the coming of age journey of Pokemon in a much more grounded manner than I am used to.