The strangest moment in Pokémon Sun and Moon was when I battled another trainer on my father's grave.
In case it isn't clear, this wasn't part of the game's story—the Hau'oli Cemetery of Sun and Moon represents the real-life Honolulu cemetery where my family is buried. This experience gave me a surreal, out-of-body feeling, as if the game was some kind of a mirror dimension transporting me outside my own life.
The feeling persisted as I wandered Alola, encountering familiar places and things that were just askew enough that I could recognize them, but couldn't relate to them. Here was the beach where I learned to snorkel, the place I had my first date, and, yes, even the graveyard where my family was buried. Game Freak had faithfully rendered my childhood in cartoon miniature, but also locked me on the outside—as if I were examining my hometown inside a snow globe.
That's when it hit me: this was not a game about being a local. In fact, Pokémon Sun and Moon is intentionally built from a visitor's perspective—a vision of Hawai'i at the height of the Japanese tourism boom.
When you're from the Alola (ahem, sorry, Aloha) State, you eventually get used to seeing the islands from an outside perspective. Whether it's Elvis strumming a uke in Blue Hawai'i, the pan-Pacific mishmash of Moana, or "mysterious island" stories like Jurassic Park and Lost, everyone from Jack London to Michael Bay has had a crack at interpreting the 50th State.
Considering the blitz of films about Hawai'i, it's shocking that only one— The Descendants, adapted from the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel—comes from a local author writing about local issues. We've become numb to seeing a Hawai'i on screen that looks picture-perfect, but isn't the place we know.
Usually, that reality gap is only a background hum, like tinnitus, but there's something about an interactive, explorable world that cranks up the volume.
It's the uncertainty that does it—the feeling that I know what should lie beyond the bend in the trail, but can't be sure it'll be there. Alola has an astonishing number of parallels to real locations—so many that there's a dedicated wiki page—and the geography has a certain veracity to it. The south coast of Melemele Island roughly mirrors that of O'ahu, for instance.
Starting on the southwest corner and moving east down the coast you have downtown Honolulu and Honolulu Harbor, the Ala Moana shopping district, Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head, and finally Hanauma Bay just around the point. The other islands similarly take cues from their real-world counterparts, with in-game locations like the Paniola Ranch paying homage to Maui's cattle country, and the Hokulani Observatory standing in for the increasingly controversial telescopes on Mauna Kea. I could continue, but frankly there are so many real-life analogues that this match game could go for hours.
What interests me is what didn't make the cut, or got changed, since that ultimately gives more insight into Game Freak's method.
The developers moved Volcanoes National Park (which includes the currently very explode-y Kilauea crater) from the Big Island to Maui to, I assume, differentiate the fire-themed island from the snow-themed one. Pearl Harbor was excised due to its obvious political baggage for Japanese audiences. But what's really missing are the residential areas—Alola constitutes of a "greatest hits" string of tourist sites, where the few houses resemble vacation rentals rather than lived-in homes.
That's not a criticism, but it's instructive. Clearly Sun and Moon shot for a tropical vacation tone, and largely nails it. Rather than trying to depict island life from a local perspective, Game Freak constructed what is, essentially, a classic Japanese tour of Hawai'i—an idea so embedded in their culture that, like the great American road trip or summer backpacking Europe, it has its own host of expectations and tropes.
If you're not from Hawai'i, that may seem like a stretch—but hang on a moment as I explain. Hawai'i remains one of the top destinations for Japanese tourists, but the mid-1990s were a particular boom time. The state's quick flight routes, year-round sunshine, package deals, and longstanding cultural links with Japan lured in 2.2 million visitors a year at its peak—and Hawai'i made the most of it. State authorities set up free help booths with Japanese-speaking staff—much like the Pokémon Centers in the game—and packed shops with omiyage, or small gifts to take back home.
Hawai'i's elementary schools instituted introductory Japanese classes, hoping they could nudge kids toward a tourism career (I can still sing Sukiyaki from memory). Stamp kiosks sprouted up at tourist sites, so tourists could mark their vacation notebooks or stamp collection booklets to remember where they'd been.
If that sounds familiar, it's because the Trainer Passport serves this role in Sun and Moon—westerners see mere stamps, but in Asia this is a clear signal that you're on holiday. It's Tokyo's version of shades, a beach towel, and a trashy paperback.
Game Freak constructed a classic Japanese tour of Hawai'i—an idea so embedded in their culture that, like the great American road trip or summer backpacking Europe, it has its own host of expectations and tropes.
This vacation narrative explains a great deal about the game's oversights. Because it's a game about visiting rather than living in the islands, it edits out the more local districts in favor of tourist sites. Inter-island travel happens via the catamarans that cruise Waikiki Beach at sunset.
Nearly everyone the player meets seems deeply invested in them having fun, and often serve as local tour guides. Indeed, even the shallow descriptions of Alolan culture resemble those offered to visitors in Hawai'i. Much like the tourists who queue up outside Leonard's Malasadas, the player enjoys the sugar pastries at face value, unaware that they carry a strong legacy—Portuguese immigrants brought the confection to Hawai'i when they came to work the sugar plantations.
Likewise, hula makes a regular appearance without much explanation of its cultural value, or how it was nearly driven extinct by New England missionaries. In fact, if Sun and Moon has a flaw, it's that the game resembles tourism too much—it delights in the uniqueness of an exotic place, without understanding how that uniqueness came to be.
And that missing layer of history contributed to my feeling of disconnection.
That being said, Sun and Moon does offer up unexpected surprises. The game's decision to trigger Z-Power attacks with hula-like moves, for instance, has a certain cultural basis. While visitors may think of hula as a seductive, feminine art, warriors in ancient Hawai'i also used it as a form of combat training. Practitioners of Lua, a Native Hawai'ian martial art that emphasized bone-breaking and joint manipulation, held daily hula drills similar to the kata routines of Karate. Therefore, hula's presence in a battle is at least somewhat justifiable.
Similarly, I enjoyed how the game emphasized the importance of cross-generational family relationships, which are a hallmark of the Pacific Islands. In a more western narrative, the relationship between Hau and his grandfather Hala might've been played for drama—the young man, under pressure to live up to his legacy, decides to become his own man—but Hau seems more inspired by his elder than in his shadow.
Even the use of Hawai'ian language, which I was initially skeptical about, proved mostly straightforward and uncontroversial. (One notable exception is the word Kahuna, which can have religious connotations. But since it can also mean a master of a profession, I'll give it a pass.) But by far my favorite inclusion were the nods to Hawai'ian Pidgin English—every time Hau dropped an "Auwe!" or Kukui ended a declarative sentence with "Yeah?" my sense of disconnection eased.
Alola might feel sterile, but at least the locals speak normal-kine English, yeah?
Unexpectedly, the element that fit into Hawai'i the most comfortably were the Pokémon themselves. While there are exceptions (Vulpix, really?) most of the Generation VII pokémon feel right at home, and that fits well with Hawai'i's recent popularity as an ecotourism destination. Game Freak took inspiration from Hawai'i's vast array of bird life to build out its roster of pocket monsters, and drew on Pacific legends of shape-shifting lizards ( mo'o) in creating Salazzle and Komo-o.
Of the three starting pokémon, two of them resemble endemic species. Rowlet stands in for the pueo or Hawai'ian owl, while dearest Popplio represents the Hawai'ian monk seal, an animal so adorable its Hawai'ian name translates to "dog that runs in rough water." (Disclosure: Waypoint maintains a pro-Popplio editorial stance.)
Even the obnoxious Yungoos has a real-world counterpart: the Asian mongoose, which plantation owners imported in the 19th century in hopes they'd kill rats in the cane fields. The pests drove native birds extinct instead.
Indeed, this undercurrent of environmental protection remains one of the most recognizable real-world aspects of Alola. In-game text constantly reinforces the islands as a hothouse for biological diversity, but also as a fragile environment under threat. As the player wanders around the islands, they frequently come in contact with researchers from the Aether Foundation that exists, at least nominally, as a conservation group similar to state wildlife officials and park rangers.
Conservation employees are increasingly interacting with visitors in Hawai'i, as the state tries to educate them about protecting coral reef and keeping their distance from endangered animals. Educational programs about native birds are on the rise, even as their populations go into free fall, making Hawai'i the extinction capital of the world.
Throughout the game, visual hints draw upon the heyday of Japanese tourism back in the '80s and '90s
Ironically, the other thing that's in free fall? Japanese visitor numbers. Japan's bubble economy burst in 1989, but it took a few years before Hawai'i's tourism felt the bottom drop out. Visitor numbers tanked in 1997, and by 2000, the state was welcoming 1.5 million Japanese tourists per year, down from a peak of 2.2 million. Visitors from China and South Korea have picked up the slack, but as the Japanese economy dragged through the 2000s, both visits and visitor spending flatlines. The general consensus among experts is that young people have less money to travel—making Hawai'i visits a childhood memory.
Which explains Sun and Moon's rather retro sensibility. Throughout the game, visual hints draw upon the heyday of Japanese tourism back in the '80s and '90s—the rainbow-colored REGISTERED! that pops up in your Pokédex recalls the text styles that were popular then, and their low-lying version of Honolulu recalls the city before the skyscraper boom. Professor Kukui, bless him, wears the same light green and white University of Hawai'i players did back in the 1980s, along with a ballcap reminiscent of the old Rainbow Warriors logo.
It seems then, that much like Yakuza 0, Pokémon Sun and Moon reaches back in spirit, if not in actual chronology, to a more financially comforting time. That's not surprising in itself—Pokémon games have always looked back on the summer days of youth, spent catching frogs and insects—but this game instead looks on a past that offers both innocence and exotic comfort. A vacation game meant as a portal to sunshine, the ambient strum of ukulele music, and sweet plumeria scents.
Which is why Alola feels strange to someone like me. It's a story told from a newcomer's eyes, a person who's looking for stamps, a malasada, and a good photo. And when I'm home, I'm not the tourist—I'm the guy tourists ask for directions.
Huh? The Pokémon Center? Just down the road. Avoid the guys in skull hats.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp