I’ve thought deeply for awhile of how to approach this article. So it’ll be a bit long, but hopefully you’ll find it interesting. I’ll be going forward with the assumption that everyone knows the basic core concepts behind the pokemon franchise. And hey, even if you, specifically, don’t, I know the audience is out there.
You see, I’m a HUGE Pokémon fan. I grew up with the series but I like to think I’m pretty good at separating my opinions from nostalgia goggles. The games are just GOOD. The core concept behind the games is good. And Game Freak, whatever you might think of them, clearly puts a lot of care into the series. These games are more than cash grabs, there’s clear passion, and a willingness to listen to fan complaints.
I’m serious. A common complaint about the Pokémon games is that they are stagnant. They don’t try new things, they don’t innovate, they’re basically the same game. But look at the reviews of each game when it comes out. EVERY SINGLE ONE – literally – is complimented specifically for the different things it brings to the table.
Complaining that every Pokemon game is too similar is like complaining that My Hero Academia “just follows the standard Shonen formula”. Of course it does! The Shonen formula is REALLY GOOD when executed properly, and broad enough that you can get a lot of variety out of it. Ditto Pokémon.
Lately I’ve been going through a lot of Pokémon fan games. Pokémon Glazed, Prism, and Light Platinum are all good, especially Glazed. I recommend them all. But the king, by far the best Pokémon fan game I’ve played – maybe just the best Pokémon game ever made (we’ll get to that) – is Pokémon Uranium.
And it is this game, along with Pokémon Ultra Sun, a gen 7 mainline series Pokémon game, that I will be discussing here.
Uranium is the game made by people like me, for people like me: Millennials who grew up with the series who wanted to see a game that was more difficult without getting absurd, with a story that was more adult without getting grimdark just for the sake of it, and with a more serious tone that nevertheless kept underneath it all that same goofy Pokémon spirit. Things in Uranium get dark – REALLY dark. I won’t go into detail because I don’t want to spoil the entire story, but there is one particularly eerie moment maybe halfway or so through the game where you and your rival fly through the air on the back of a Pokémon Ranger’s Staraptor (the Rangers are in this game, and we’ll get to that). In a very brief cutscene we see in the background nuclear fallout spread over the recently evacuated city while an otherworldly version of the classic Pallet Town theme plays in the background. It’s shocking to see, it’s creepy, it recognizes that the player is going to be someone familiar with the series’ history, and I absolutely loved the game for having it.
And yet, despite all of that, never in the game did I feel things get depressing, or needlessly cruel, or lose their sense of fun and adventure.
The story goes that ten years before the plot proper starts your mother disappeared after a nuclear reactor meltdown, presumed dead. The ensuing fallout caused the pokemon in the immediate area to mutate into nuclear pokemon, hyper aggressive glowing green versions of normal pokemon with a brand new typing, the nuclear type, strong against everything but nuclear and steel but weak against everything but nuclear. At the time the game starts you are living in Moki Town with your aunt. After your mother’s disappearance your father buried himself in work and is now living in the region’s capital city as Chief of the Pokémon Rangers. At the age of (I believe) 12 you join your younger and brattier neighbor Theo, pick out your starter, and go off on your Pokémon adventure. What follows are trips into massive underground tunnels ruled by man-eating ants, a mysterious villain who seems to be intentionally causing nuclear meltdowns around the region, becoming the hokage of a clan of ninja, and more…a lot, lot more.
This project was a labor of love in every way and it shows. Your father being the chief of the Pokémon Rangers is a stroke of genius, connecting side games that are technically canonical yet all but ignored in mainline Pokémon releases and integrating them into the plot in a meaningful way that actually has an impact besides “Look, it’s there!” The pacing of the story is seamless, inserting major plot events at the proper places in the narrative without feeling like a reason to artificially jack up the story.
The world is huge, with a full 13 towns and 16 routes, plus a huge roster of original pokemon. And not only is it huge, it feels connected. An example:
At one point in the game you need to surf across a large stretch of water to get to a city on the opposite edge of the map. The game could just let you swim right across, dodging around and battling trainers moving in set patterns. Instead, you get periodically ambushed by a group of ninjas, eventually culminating in a fight with the hokage. After you win, congrats, you’re hokage now!
This comes back into play later when you have to travel to the ninja hometown and are ambushed by pirates. Sure enough who rescues you but, yes, your now-loyal ninja clan from earlier. It’s great tiny details like this that make the game shine. This doesn’t even really connect with the main story, but it fleshes out your character’s role in this world in a way that’s amusing, visceral, and memorable: You did a thing, other people remember you did a thing, because you did a thing the way people react to you changes. Pokémon really shines in terms of immersion when it can pull off these sorts of touches, and Uranium gets it.
Uranium is, as you might expect, also REALLY hard in ways a mainline game can’t be. Here you’re expected to know how to play. Nothing is easy, but it’s all *possible* to do without insane grinding. I picked a grass type starter and had a devil of a time with the fire type gym leader because I expected to take him down with a ground type…except his Pokémon were FLYING-fire types. Luckily, the game gives you the ability to counter this; early on you see at least three different types of electric pokemon you can catch and train relatively quickly, and with some work it’s possible to get past the gym without insane overleveling. Pokémon Uranium absolutely demands you strategize. At one point I was forced to catch and use pokemon I’d never need again specifically to, not take down one pokemon, but get one large HIT off so they’d be softened up for later. And it was a blast.
There’s a ton of variety in the route designs, and oftentimes getting from one town to another feels like an achievement. Again, the game expects you to know how to play. If you depend too much on one Pokémon, or one type, or one strategy, you will be punished for it. Uranium is clearly attempting to recreate that same feeling that a kid got when he made it through Viridian Forest or Victory Road for the first time for adults, and it succeeds.
Now obviously the game is not perfect. The multiplayer is glitchy, and I think some of the route and gym design choices are puzzling, to say the least. But as a whole it is a love letter to the franchise and the players who grew up with it, and I can’t commend it enough.
All right. That’s Uranium. This is probably the part of the review where you expect me to go on about all of the places Pokémon Ultra Sun fails in contrast, how Nintendo is losing touch with its core audience, how Pokémon has lost the magic, yada yada yada.
I’m not going to do that. The truth is, Pokémon Ultra Sun is REALLY good. Sometimes it’s even great. However, for a few reasons I’d probably consider it the weakest of the mainline games I’ve played. It has flaws, and I’ll discuss those first before getting into what it gets right and how it compares with Uranium.
Sun and Moon starts off really, really, really slow and easy. It remains that way for far too long as well. It’s like the first hour and a half or more of the game is basically a tutorial. I don’t need one! Game Freak should know by now that a lot of its players are 20 year vets. Slap on an optional tutorial and be done with it.
I hear so many people rave over Alola and I don’t get it at all. Alola is – and this will sound pretty harsh, but there you go – boring. Most of the routes look really similar (partially hurt by the loss of the traditional bird’s eye view – routes with the potential to look cool you can only see from a relatively limited angle, so it looks like Yet Another Road), and only a couple of the town designs can be called anything close to memorable. One of those memorable towns – a town made up of all docks connected to each other – is even just a stolen design from generation 3 (Pacifidalog Town). Making the games set on a tropical island was a mistake, as there is much less opportunity to create varied weather and landscapes. The fact that this game has the fewest routes and towns of any generation is absolutely shameful. There is no excuse for this on the most technologically advanced game engine used to date (well, until the Let’s Go games, but they’re generation 1 remakes).
The game is also badly railroaded. Now technically every pokemon game is pretty railroaded – you are supposed to do certain things in a certain order and can’t continue if you don’t. But you feel it this time. In previous games, and, yes, in Uranium – you would be traveling and doing things for yourself, because you wanted to, that weren’t necessarily connected with the overarching structure. In one example from above, you become Hokage of a ninja clan. In the generation 2 mainline games there is a short sidequest about getting a pokemon to move out of the way of the route you want to take, which involves you searching through houses in a town to find the proper tools to do it. You’re not doing this to save the world or stop the evil team, but because you want to get to the next gym and continue your adventure. Nobody from the overarching narrative is forcing this on you. In another section you go to catch a red Gyrados terrorizing a lake. While this technically connects to the larger narrative that isn’t WHY you’re doing it. You’re doing it because you want that pokemon and the gym leader asked for help. These small details are almost absent from generation 7.
And this really messes with immersion. The sense of impact to what you’re doing, its impressiveness, seems forced. Early games set you up as a prodigy – in gen 2 you even face the protagonist of the previous game again, who has apparently hidden high up in the mountains to learn the ways of battling like some sort of warrior monk. You’re supposed to be a prodigy here too, but battles are too easy. It’s more like everyone else just sucks, a lot. Luckily, this changes in a big way for the better, and we’ll get to that when it comes to the pros of the game (there are many!).
The Exp. All device, which when on gives the battling pokemon full exp. and half exp. to every other non-fainted pokemon, is also a huge mistake. The common criticism is that it’s like taking an easy game and playing it on easy mode. This criticism is correct, but there is another problem. The original item, the Exp. Share, which split exp in half between the battling pokemon and the pokemon holding the device, was a great idea. If you wanted to bring a new pokemon into your party you can bring it up to the level of the rest of your party quickly without messing up your battles or constant grinding. By splitting the exp with the entire party it misses the point of the original Exp share, and for your pokemon to catch up you need to go back to sticking the pokemon you want to train in front and swapping it out – meaning that you lose the advantage of having an Exp. Share in the first place!
So while good for younger players who have trouble raising a balanced team it’s a mess for players who are more interested in spending time training and getting to know the world.
Now for the good. I’ll first point out that I looked up the differences between Sun and Moon and Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. The best I can say about it is that if my understanding of the original two games is correct…I probably would have hated the original games. Because they don’t get that much harder. The rival isn’t as big a part of the game. And the postgame is weak.
Happily, Ultra Sun gets MUCH, MUCH harder, your rival has a full character arc integrated seamlessly into the story, and the postgame is unbelievably good.
The postgame of Ultra Sun, at least as of right now, since Uranium is technically still updating – is better than Uranium’s by a VERY wide margin. An addition to Ultra Sun, that was NOT in the original Sun and Moon, is the Rainbow Rocket episode. Fruity name aside, this is a fantastic addition, designed specifically with long time players in mind. It brings back the major villains of almost every previous pokemon game and gets really, REALLY hard. Seeing all of the uniforms and people you recognize, complete with remixed versions of their classic soundtracks and smart callbacks, makes the purchase of Ultra Sun worth it almost by itself. In addition to this the series of boss battles that takes place starting near the end of the game jumps in difficulty dramatically. For the first time – and to my relief – I was required to really strategize in battles, coming up with different plans and ideas each time I lost as potential counters to my in-game opponents.
A new mechanic known as “Ultra Wormholes” is also a blast. By traveling through these interdimensional portals it is possible with some work to capture almost every single legendary pokemon in the franchise thus far – which is, needless to say, pretty freaking cool.
And…to my surprise…the story is actually pretty good? It’s probably the best story the games have ever had. The character development of Lillie is by far the best part of the game, and her family drama is actually, legitimately compelling. Your rival has a real character arc and the pacing is seamlessly integrated throughout the story. There is a tradeoff here, because by getting so story heavy you lose that sense that it’s a story YOU’RE creating, but the flip side of this is that by making the characters feel more real and the narrative more compelling you’re further sucked into the world in that sense. It’s no masterpiece by any means, but it’s easily the best story in a pokemon game and perfectly good on its own merits as well. This helps make up for a lot of the game’s other flaws with respect to immersion.
While this is not a new addition, the nifty mechanic where you get to groom, feed, and play with your pokemon is a nice touch, and it’s especially fun to see the relationships you build actually bear fruit in battle.
Ultimately, despite flaws, I had a blast with Pokémon Ultra Sun. For the hardcore pokemon fans like me, the Ultra versions are definitely the definitive gen 7 games. For more casual fans, you’ll definitely enjoy it as well.
Still, Uranium is a great example of a time where fans of a franchise were able to produce a product that the original company really couldn’t make. The difficulty curve of the game and more serious story were exactly what long time fans of the franchise were waiting for and what Game Freak really couldn’t provide even if they wanted to. While neither game is perfect, if I was to recommend one game over the other I’d recommend Uranium over Ultra Sun. It is a more classic Pokémon experience updated for an older generation, and I believe it has fewer big flaws than Ultra Sun, whatever its many benefits.
In any case, both games are definitely highly recommended.