I missed Pokémon. When the monochrome mischief of the Game Boy's "Red" and "Blue" versions were blowing up in the UK in the very late 1990s, I was elsewhere: pubs, clubs, student unions and halls, anywhere that I never took my own handheld Nintendo. Eventually I picked up "Blue", more by accident than design, but the hardware felt old by then and the game never grabbed me like Link's Awakening had, the only other RPG I owned for my Pocket-model Game Boy. And that was that: a few scraps with the Wii U fighter Pokkén Tournament aside, I've never played another Pokémon game.
Until the other week, anyway, when I sat down with Pokémon Sun for the 3DS – which releases the same day as Pokémon Moon, on November 23rd (in the UK) – and immediately felt better. Because, as you might have noticed, the world is essentially doing everything it can right now to go to absolute shit. The ice caps are melting and our atmosphere is choking. British politics is all over the place, leaving us neither able to afford to live here ethically nor leave the godforsaken place financially. There's hardly anything good on TV on a Friday night anymore. In the US, bloody hell, the soap opera that is the presidential race has already jumped the proverbial shark so often I'm waiting for the next televised debate to actually take place in a tank full of the swimming, biting things. All is not well.
But in here, on the starter island of Alola, one of several in the game, everything is peachy. The sun shines in a brilliant blue sky. The sand at the beach is golden, the grass impossibly green. All of the little houses are perfect. Nobody is obviously, outwardly depressed. The little monsters running or flapping or crawling around the place, waiting to be caught, are delightful. They faint when you beat them, but they just need a rest and they're fine again. Nobody and nothing dies, not here. I might call my character "Siiiiick" – I don't remember why, I just did, let's move on – but he's not going to suddenly fall unwell and need a few days off his Pokémon trainer, um, training to recuperate. His mother – who appears to be in a relationship with a Meowth (I looked it up, that's what it is), given she calls it "honey" and it follows her to the bedroom when she turns in – is always smiling. Nothing gets her down. Her son was saved from certain death by the island's cool, electric-bird-thing guardian deity? Not a bead of sweat on her brow, nor a panicked squawk. Everything here is rosy.
And I can't knock that, at all. I can look for semi-smutty innuendo because I'm British, and find it when Professor Kukui, who's always open-shirted, rolls around with a Rockruff shouting, "Give me all you've got, my body is ready" – I mean, come on – but everything in this game's opening couple of hours is so bloody nice. And that's so very refreshing after playing around with the likes of Gears of War 4, Dishonored 2 and the Modern Warfare remaster lately. For a short while, it's enough to just play in a video game, without the threat of seeing your digital self skewered. I think that's something Nintendo and its first-party partners have always understood better than most developers, but nevertheless, in 2016 it's completely clear to me that a Pokémon game has the potential to make me feel very happy indeed, while the world outside steadily disappears into a sinkhole of disaster.
As a total (well, near enough) Pokémon beginner, though, I'm unable to tell you anything about how Sun compares to what's recently come before it. I don't have that knowledge to lean on. I can only tell you that I loved cutting about with the Professor's assistant Lillie, who I'm legally obliged to not speculate about, and that the little sequence where the starter Pokémon I chose, the seal-like Popplio, had to accept me was a sweet touch. It surprisingly succeeded in making me feel that this was a meaningful relationship between stupidly named child and magically shrinking pet, not that I prioritised using said creature to the detriment of progressing other monsters caught in the wild. I managed to level up – sorry, evolve – a Caterpie to a Metapod, which I'm pretty certain makes me a natural at this training lark.
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I love how the first little kid who challenges you is happy when you beat his own Pokémon – and then later, when he comes back for more, he exclaims "that was a blast" when you send his pet scuttling back home with bleeding tail between battered legs. I love how "Preschooler Oliver" reckons he can give me a lesson in whup-ass, but doesn't run away crying when I turn the tables on his stupid face. I love the positivity that runs through the very veins of the game's basic but engaging narrative, the story distillable to simply Be The Best At Pokémon. "Having accepted one another, you'll be friends for life," Kukui tells Siiiiick when he seals the deal with Popplio – and isn't that just perfectly aww? And another message, "having Pokémon gives you a whole new way to communicate with other people," really resonates with me. I ducked the pocket monster craze when it began, but when I speak to some (younger) people in the VICE London office, who aggressively mock me for mispronouncing Pikachu, it's clear that this is something that many have bonded over, in and out of the games themselves.
I hope that I can spend some time communicating with people with either one of these new Pokémon titles – in a way that has nothing to do with cooperative murder, teamwork takedowns, or multiplayer map dominance. Some time to just be nice. Because Sun is just that, from the dipped toe of two hours with it: really, really nice. There's a lot more depth to it than I've let on here, extra modes that I never got around to exploring, but you can read about all that on a specialist site (I did, just this morning, and it looks good). I was just happy to play somewhere for a while that wasn't trying to kill me over and over again.