Pokémon has long gotten away with something inconceivable with other franchises: encouraging fans to pick up multiple versions of what is, on a fundamental level, the same exact game.
There are numerous defenses for this practice, and they’ve evolved only slightly since Pokémon Red and Green launched in 1996: Each version of a Pokémon game has exclusive monsters, a few unique characters and some subtle aesthetic differences. But at the end of the day, the stories and gameplay are virtually identical. This is often hammered home with the the ritual “third version” release, which serves as every Pokémon generation’s definitive, upgraded edition, often tweaking things in a few key ways while leaving everything else again untouched.
Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are the latest games to fill that role. While they’re perfectly serviceable both as the newest Pokémon RPGs and as superior versions of last year’s Sun and Moon, they’re also ... perfectly serviceable. In other words: The games are neither terribly exciting, nor essential for anyone who played their predecessors all the way through.
The changes are good, but the good stuff hasn’t changed
Much like Sun and Moon, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon take players to the tropical Alola region. And much like Sun and Moon, both games feature a quartet of islands where trainers must prove their Pokémon mastery through a gauntlet of special trials. These have some slight tweaks, but for the most part, the trials and their bosses are the same.
One major difference with this mission-based part of the games is the island trials feel even more like padding compared to the bigger story. Sun and Moon told the most linear and original narrative to date in the Pokémon series, and Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon refine it. Bopping around Alola to complete challenges is just one part of the storyline; the real star is Lillie, a shy, aspiring Pokémon trainer who ropes the player into some serious and supernatural business.
Lillie’s coming-of-age story remains the strongest part of the games, and this year’s upgrade refines it. The latter part of Ultra Sun and Moon allows us to see Lillie truly come into her own, staying by the player as they learn more about, and venture into, Alola’s bizarre connection with parallel universes. It’s a satisfying change from the original telling of this story, where things stopped short before we got to see Lillie really bloom.
As for those parallel universes: They may have been oversold by the games’ marketing. It’s kind of exciting to leap through wormholes populated by random legendary Pokémon, but they’re otherwise barren. A new area accessible on the other side of these wormholes also feels lacking, mostly serving the purpose of giving the big climactic boss battle an appropriate stage.
I will concede that the new place to discover and wacky method of getting there do make the games feel grander — and stranger — than the initial Alolan adventures, helping to set up a nice, big finale appropriate for the story Ultra Sun and Moon tell. These set pieces also work to introduce new Pokémon forms in a way that feels organic and exciting. It’s always a good time discovering something new in a Pokémon game, whether that’s a location or a Pokémon.
Too little, too late
But the problem is that these deviations occur at the very end of the games. Until the last handful of hours, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon aren’t all that different from Sun and Moon. There are some noticeable tweaks beyond Lillie’s expanded role and the more cohesive narrative, like collectible stickers, more Pokédex features and some surprising extra difficulty. (Seriously: This game gets hard.) There’s also a new enemy squad that hints at bigger things to come. But rarely did these amount to much that made my second trip to Alola feel worthwhile. For the bulk of the adventure, it’s still the same islands with the same people and the same Pokémon to defeat.
None of this is to say that the games aren’t fun. Sun and Moon were a welcome refresh of the classic Pokémon formula, feeling more like meaty RPGs than almost any previous entry in the franchise. Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are certainly the editions of the seventh-gen games I’d recommend to a newcomer. But I’d have trouble convincing a returning player to stop back into Alola to check out this year’s upgrades. None of them provide for a unique experience that will erase our memories of Sun and Moon. The expanded story is a nice treat, but its length and late-breaking changes aren’t enough to make the Ultra pair easy sells.
As Pokémon fans, we’ve come to accept that iteration and reiteration is the series’ standard formula. These seventh-gen do-overs are a fantastic last act for the Nintendo 3DS as Pokémon preps for its Nintendo Switch debut, as well as successful revisions of two games that didn’t need a lot of fixing. But there’s nothing quite so exciting about Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon as to warrant the return trip.