‘Pokémon Sun & Moon’ review: Better plot, smoother play

After 20 years, Pokemon remains one of the video game industry’s most beloved contributions to pop culture.

Based on the newest release, “Pokemon Sun and Moon”, the games themselves still are pretty darn good, too.

Each of these two versions, which differ minimally from one another, bring the same level of all-ages charm as any of the previous six generations of the core series. As usual, you’ll guide a young boy or girl on a journey to catch, train and care for the eponymous creatures.

But this story is just different enough from the norm to feel fresh. Yes, your avatar still yearns to become a Pokemon master, this time in the Hawaii-inspired Alola region.

But gym battles are gone, replaced here with trials and challenges that aren’t limited to battling a few trainers and then a gym leader for a badge. Completing these varied trials grant powerful Z-Crystals that can be used in battle to power up specific move types.

There’s a deeper plot in “Sun and Moon” than usual, driven by an incorrigible little Pokemon called Cosmog (and nicknamed Nebby) who just won’t stay hidden safely in your friend’s bag. As you progress through the four Alolan islands over the course of 30 hours or so, the plot thickens with sinister forces out to use Nebby for selfish means.

If that was all that was different — in addition to the 80 new monsters to add to your Pokedex — it wouldn’t be all that bad. But “Sun and Moon” makes tons of other, lesser modifications to streamline the experience.

My favorite was the long-overdue removal of hidden machines, or HMs. These used to be moves taught to a Pokemon to help traverse the world, but they could not be easily unlearned. Instead, players use the Ride Pager, to call upon a Charizard to fly directly to hot spots or a Lapras to set sail on the water. One doesn’t need to own these Pokemon to summon them.

Battles are improved with notes to indicate how effective a move is against a rival Pokemon as long as it has been encountered before. No more need to Google battle charts — or print one out and keep it handy, as I used to do as a kid.

Aside from some slowdown when four Pokemon are on the battlefield, “Sun and Moon” represents a high point in the decades-old series.

Available now

“Pokemon Sun & Moon”, from developer Game Freak and publisher The Pokemon Company, is out now for Nintendo 3DS, $39.99