Gyms are gone, battles are different, and more. A Q&A with the creative team behind the upcoming Pokémon Sun and Moon
You still haven’t caught them all: Fresh off Pokémon Go‘s massive franchise recalibration that’s prompted an unexpected celebration of all things Pokémon, longtime developer Game Freak’s newest core series roleplaying game is nearly upon us. Pokémon Sun and Moon arrives for the Nintendo 3DS on Nov. 18.
TIME spoke with Pokémon Sun and Moon producer (and composer) Junichi Masuda alongside director Shigeru Ohmori about the game’s inception and tonally distinct titles. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of the interview.
TIME: Did Pokémon Go‘s meteoric success alter the development of the game or the pressure you felt given the resurgence of interest in the Pokémon franchise and presumptively higher powered microscope that maybe puts Pokémon Sun and Moon under?
Masuda: We began Pokémon Go‘s development as a project that would be different from the main series roleplaying games we create at Game Freak. Pokémon Go uses location-based information where you walk around in the real world to find Pokémon and catch Pokémon. Our goal with Pokémon Go was to put the focus on the catching Pokémon element. We wanted people to just enjoy going out and catching Pokémon.
With the main series games, we instead focus on catching Pokémon but also on raising them and adventuring with them and having a lot of strategically deep battles, where players can then use the Pokémon they caught in those battles. It’s the same with Pokémon Sun and Moon. So Pokémon Go didn’t really affect any of the development decisions, though I do think that thanks to Pokémon Go there’s an increased awareness of Pokémon in general. That’s great for us, and I hope people will be interested in giving Pokémon Sun and Moon a go if they’re looking for a more in-depth experience.
Mr. Masuda, you’re the producer again this time. Do you enjoy the higher-level view after directing so many of the earlier games?
Masuda: Recently I really have come to feel that both roles, producer and director, are a lot of fun in their own rights. When I was directing the games, I was directly involved in the creative aspects and really in the trenches with everyone else. That’s a lot of fun as someone who likes to create things. When you work as a producer, you have more influence over the big picture, and the Pokémon brand as a whole. Making decisions about when to release for example the virtual console versions, or the Red and Green or Red and Blue original Pokémon games and how those would interact with the brand as a whole.
I think both roles are a lot of fun, and they both offer unique ways to make your mark on Pokémon. At the same time I’m a producer now. I wouldn’t want to just give up creating things. I think right now I’m able to scratch that itch by working on some of the music in the games.
You’re anticipating my next question! As the game’s composer, what styles and motifs were you going for this time?
Masuda: We took inspiration from Hawaii specifically, but we wanted to do more than just copy the sort of music you’d hear there. The Alola region in Pokémon Sun and Moon is definitely its own thing, but also obviously inspired by traditional Hawaiian music styles.
So for example, we wanted to use the core rhythms that you would find in a lot of traditional Hawaiian music. But in order to make it unique, we went with completely different melodies over the top of those. In general, I think you’ll find that it invokes feelings of a tropical island environment, so a lot of really warm tones.
Mr. Ohmori, your first directorial outing was with Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, which were remakes. What was it like shifting from a directorial vantage that was partly looking backward, to creating completely new installments?
Ohmori: Right after Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, we wrapped up development and I immediately began working as the director on Pokémon Sun and Moon with no break. I quickly realized that being the director of a remake of a game that had come out over a decade ago, and working on a completely new one, was obviously very different. With Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, I had a really strong base from which to work, but with Sun and Moon, we of course had to create everything from scratch. So things like the sheer amount of elements that you need to consider in creating a brand new setting, and the game in general, since it’s on a completely different scale from Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire.
One of the things that I think really helped me when I was first beginning Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire‘s development, was that I went and talked with Mr. Masuda, because he was the director on the original Ruby and Sapphire games. I learned his approach and way of thinking when he first came up with the Hoenn region, the setting of the Ruby and Sapphire game. I used that to change some things in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, but I was also able to take those lessons and directly apply them to creating Sun and Moon from scratch.
Another thing, with Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire being remakes, is that it was more difficult to make some of the more radical changes I was interested in. So one of those examples is trials. We don’t have gyms in the game this time. It’s the first time a Pokémon game’s done that. Instead we have what we call “trials” as a way for players to work through the game and progress. I knew I wanted to put in something, this being a 20th anniversary of the franchise game, that would make the games feel fresh both for the veterans of the series and new players alike.
The Pokémon games are viewed as, I don’t want to say simplistic, but definitely a bit easier because they’ve traditionally been aimed at younger players. Assuming the franchise’s audience has expanded demographically, as players who grew up with those earlier games are now in their twenties and thirties, have you done anything with Sun and Moon that caters at all to players looking for more challenging gameplay?
Ohmori: First and foremost, as you pointed out, with the Pokémon games we always want to focus on newcomers. So making sure that the games are always easy to pick up and play, and that it’s easy for people to understand what to do. At the start, we teach players how to throw Pokeballs and catch Pokémon. That’s something we never want to change, because if we simply made it more difficult for veterans, we’d simultaneously make it less approachable for newcomers.
That said, for all of the people who’ve been fans of the games over the years and continue to play it, we’ve kept them in mind. Rather than merely raise the difficulty or add other complexities, we’ve tried to keep things fresh by adding new game systems or changing the game systems and certain gameplay elements. Like changing the battle system, for example. A couple of the things we did this time around were, from the battle perspective we introduced these things called Z moves, which are super powerful moves you can use only once in battle. That’s going to dramatically change the battle environment for those players. Also, we have in the Alola region these specific regional variances of existing Pokémon. A lot of players from the original games will see their old favorites, but with new takes.
Hawaii seems in hindsight like a no-brainer as a conceptual inspiration for the setting because of all its unique, proximal biomes. Are there other ways beyond the music or the biomes that the game references Hawaiian culture?
Ohmori: I can say personally that I wanted to go with Hawaii as the inspiration for the region the whole time. I go to Hawaii in my personal time, and I really like it. I feel that it’s a place that’s so full of life and really close to nature as a region. Also, just like you said, we wanted to have these really cool, unique biomes. With Hawaii being a region split up into these islands that have all these unique biomes, it really made sense. We wanted to express concepts like the Alola regional variance. When you go to look at the Galapagos Islands, for instance, you see these unique animals that don’t exist elsewhere. That was one of the things we wanted to express, and Hawaii made sense in that respect.
Also when we were coming up with names for the games, the lighting you see in Hawaii, the warm sunlight and how the moon can light up the ocean at nighttime, it’s something you really don’t see elsewhere. Or at least I haven’t seen elsewhere. I knew immediately that I wanted to use those kinds of concepts, and to convey them in the names for the game.
Most of the prior games have these materialistic titles, rubies and sapphires or diamonds and pearls. With Sun and Moon, to me the titles suggest you’re reaching for something less tangible. Can you talk a little bit about that switch to celestial objects, and if it’s indicative of a tonal shift for the series?
Ohmori: Quite a lot of thought went into the titles of Pokémon Sun and Moon, actually. I think when we first set out on this project, we knew it was going to be released on the 20th anniversary of Pokémon. I knew as the director, I really wanted to focus on Pokémon as these living creatures, so really focusing on them being alive. I kind of wanted this project to be a celebration of that life, and to really express this respect for life. When thinking of life in general, how does life come about on our planet, for example. One of the most influential objects on life here is the sun. The light and everything we get from the sun allows life here to happen in the first place.
At the same time, the moon also dramatically affects our lives here. Gravity and the tides turn. It affects when certain species will mate and have offspring and whatnot. The moon and the sun both dramatically affect life here on earth, and I thought that would be a cool way to express that, in the titles, since I wanted to focus on this concept of expressing Pokémon as living creatures, celebrating life.
At the same time, you see the earth, the sun and the moon. They have this relationship where the earth revolves around the sun and in turn the moon revolves around the earth. When you look at the sun and the moon from earth, they both appear like these stars in the sky. They may have similar orbits but by changing your perspective, you realize that their orbit is actually completely different. The earth and the sun and moon are all tied together, the earth revolving around the sun, and the moon around the earth. They all work with each other to influence each other, and life as a result grows and flourishes based on that relationship.
I thought that was an interesting metaphor for human relationships. How we interact with other people in our lives and we revolve around certain people, and certain other people depend on us. They revolve around us. I felt that that relationship with the earth, the sun and moon was a cool metaphor for how humans influence each other in our lives here. All of that went into the idea of Sun and Moon as the titles of our 20th anniversary Pokémon game.