To the most spoiler-sensitive Pokémon addicts, Nintendo’s marketing of the upcoming Nintendo 3DS games may be enraging. Since announcing Pokémon Sun and Moon in May, the company has released heaps of new monsters, trailers and details about the seventh generation of Pokémon adventures. (If you want to talk spoilers: A demo is now available on Nintendo eShop as well, and it's already been massively datamined.) But there’s still plenty we don’t yet know about the games, Polygon was told at a recent Nintendo event, and that includes just how the challenge will be tweaked, for better or worse.
We had the chance to go hands-on with a full, English-language build of the Pokémon Sun version ahead of the pair’s Nov. 18 launch. Our play session began shortly after its opening credits to the very first wild Pokémon encounter. While our time with the game was regrettably brief, we saw enough of the updated battle system to get excited about combat.
The key changes stem from Pokémon Sun and Moon’s goal of luring in brand new players to the 20-year-old series. Pokémon Go came up during our demo, led by the publisher, and it’s obvious that the 3DS titles were designed in part to attract the younger demographic that fell for the free-to-play game. People who began their master quests in 1998 may be aghast at the new move efficiency indicator feature, for example, which shows which moves are super effective or weak against a foe prior to trainers selecting them.
It’s not that this isn’t a welcome addition. In fact, it most certainly is; knowing how an attack will play against an opponent (which only works after the first time a trainer encounters it, by the way) is a huge convenience. But that convenience may eliminate some of the basic, strategic difficulty that Pokémon has slowly lost over the years.
Perhaps this is a skewed perspective from someone who’s played Pokémon since the Pokémon Red and Blue days. Back then, players were either forced to memorize the type match-up chart or buy a guide. Then came vast amounts of online walkthroughs, further easing up the workload of a dedicated Pokémon trainer. Yet now that this information is embedded directly into battles themselves, it looks like the youngest generation won’t have to put in much work at all.
Even more wild for someone whose fondest Pokémon memories date back to the turn of the century is a feature that lets you see just how much a monster’s stats have been affected during a fight. The lower screen on the 3DS features two-dimensional sprites of each fighter, and clicking on one shows how many times their attack, evasiveness, defense and other skills have been lowered or upped. Previous games kept this data behind the scenes, completely inscrutable to the stats-obsessed.
But that inscrutability has somehow become part of Pokémon’s charm. These aren’t perfect role-playing games, but they’ve become old, familiar friends by now, each one following a similar formula. We can play them with our eyes closed, and we don’t need to ask any questions.
One would think the obtuse interface of Pokémon Go would suggest that younger trainers would similarly be okay with Pokémon’s more obscure aspects, but Nintendo seems to believe otherwise. These updates to the traditional combat provide for wonderfully improved ease of use, but they do seem to be pitched toward the player who has not yet grown accustomed to the battle system.
In making Sun and Moon so newbie-friendly — the completely reinvented storyline also seems as geared toward new fans as it is old ones — Nintendo may find itself getting one big question from experts: Do these games ever get challenging? Pokémon games in the Nintendo 3DS era have progressively erred on the easier side, with additions like a party-wide Experience Share item making getting through the main campaign a breeze. As Sun and Moon eliminates the need for outside strategic efforts, we were curious about what advanced trainers could look forward to, beyond all the new Pokémon, beautiful graphics, an unknown region to explore and other effects.
A Nintendo rep hesitated before admitting that was a “tough question.” It’s not that the game is getting any easier, he explained, or that the developers at Game Freak are prioritizing the new over the old. In fact, there’s a lot of nostalgic pandering in Sun and Moon; just look at all those regional variant Pokémon.
But it sounds like if returning champions want to play Pokémon at a higher difficulty, they’ll have to turn to multiplayer or dip into the new one-on-three Battle Royal mode. Fighting against other, real players has always been the place where the toughest battles emerge anyway, so that's no surprise. Still, it's disappointing that players must be self-motivated and create their own hard modes, whether it's by going competitive or doing the tricky Nuzlocke route.
Again, we haven’t played much of the game yet — and what we have seen, we’re excited about. These changes for the sake of making the veteran franchise more approachable are a net gain for all of us. It’s just that, if the latest games are changing the series in some big ways in honor of its 20th birthday, we can’t help but hope that a truly trying challenge is one of them.