A total eclipse of the past

In its last main titles for the Nintendo 3DS, Pokémon has never been better than in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon.

The second pair of games in the seventh generation, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are set in the Alola region, a tropical archipelago based on Hawaii. The designers of these games do their research, and Hawaii’s traditions and culture are portrayed well.

An overarching theme in Generation Seven is conservation. Alola’s Pokémon are exotic and captivating, from the cute-but-deadly Bewear to the explosive Turtonator. Additionally, they are endemic – meaning they exist nowhere else in the world.

The thing is, Pokémon from other regions – namely the original Kanto region – have come in, becoming invasive species. Over the years, they’ve become naturalized into the ecosystem at the expense of others species, reflecting real-life issues.

However, this issue is exemplified by a new category of rare Pokémon – the Ultra Beasts, or UBs. These are strange, alien organisms from other dimensions, invading Alola through the meddling of the Aether Foundation.

The original Sun and Moon games introduced seven of these extraterrestrials, such as the bodybuilding Buzzwole and the truly gargantuan Celesteela.

Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon bring along four more: Stakataka, Blacephalon, Poipole, and its evolution Naganadel.

Poipole is the only UB that can evolve. Through this trait, essential to the series since the beginning, reinforces the fact that these creatures are Pokémon, just from another dimension.

Generation Seven’s motif could also be that of change.

Lillie, a recurring friend of the protagonist, begins as a shy, demure girl who is not fond of Pokémon battles. Over the course of the game, Lillie transitions from a retiring, dainty girl to a relatively-vivacious young woman who’s happy to join the hero on their adventure.

Her brother, Gladion, similarly transitions from an angry young man of few words to a calm, collected individual, while still retaining his convictions.

The main rival, the happy-go-lucky Hau, is desperate to prove himself. Certainly he does by the end of the game. He challenges the player once they become the champion of the Pokémon League, and can give a person a run for their money!

By the end, he’s still a dork, but he’s fairly competent and a worthy rival.

One of the biggest changes to the series’ format is Alola’s challenge.

In the previous six generations, the lead-up to the Pokémon League was a series of eight gyms, led by leaders who specialized in one of the 18 elemental types.

Alola has, instead, the Island Challenge, which features trials and grand trials.

Trial captains still specialize in a specific type much like gym leaders, but each island in the region is capped by a grand trial. In these, the player is pitted against an island kahuna – another tribute to Hawaiian culture.

A Fairy-type trial was introduced this time around, led by Captain Mina. In Sun and Moon, she was a minor character who only appeared in the post-game.

As a tribute to the past, however, a mock gym has set up shop in Malie City. It’s portrayed as a curiosity and, frankly, a total tourist trap. The commemorative badge is purely for show, but it’s a nice touch.

Instead of badges like that, trial winners get Z-Crystals, which are keyed to specific types. (Others are for specific Pokémon and moves, but these are far rarer.) These allow Pokémon to use special Z-Moves in battle; hyper-powerful attacks that devastate the opponent.

New Z-Crystals for specific Pokémon were introduced for Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon.

A good example of this is Mimikium Z. This Z-Crystal is specific to Mimikyu, a popular Pokémon that dresses up to appear like series mascot Pikachu. With it, Mimikyu can upgrade the move Play Rough into the devastating Z-Move Let’s Snuggle Forever.

Mimikyu using Let's Snuggle Forever, its new exclusive Z-Move.

The storyline is also more intricate than the prequels.

Sun and Moon were criticized for excessive hand-holding in the early game and not having enough in the post-game. Not enough was done with the potential of the Ultra Wormholes, either.

Additionally, some noted, that a subplot involving the Legendary Pokémon Zygarde – originally a member of a trio with Pokémon X and Y’s Xerneas and Yveltal – seemed to be tacked on in lieu of an actual third game for Generation Six. The much-anticipated yet ultimately-unmade “Pokémon Z”. The Z-Crystals’ name seems to also hint at this supposition.

In Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, the storyline seems far more rich with material and uses what it has more effectively. Traveling through the Ultra Wormhole isn’t just a trip to a cave-like dimension to fight the big bad, but instead a minigame controlled by the 3DS’s internal gyroscope, with additional dimensions available to the player.

Another new minigame involves surfing between the Alolan islands on the back of the Pokémon Mantine. Performing well at this will net the player Beach Points (similar to Battle Points from previous games) that allow them to purchase rare items and teach their Pokémon new moves.

Additionally, focus has shifted from the legendary Solgaleo and Lunala to the extradimensional light-eater Necrozma. Armed with three new forms, the highest base stat total in the game, and the devastating Photon Geyser attack, players should be prepared for the battle of their lives.

Overall, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon offer an improvement on their predecessors in almost every aspect.