by Terri Rose
The Pokemon games have always both appealed to me and been curiously underwhelming. They are, of course, fantastic games, taking JRPG elements and emphasizing the highly addictive collectible facet, all while having an expanded “rock-paper-system” style strength and weakness system that even the youngest players can pick up on.
My problem with the Pokemon games has always lied more in its…well, lack of difficulty. It’s a game designed primarily for children, sure, but with only limited superficial ability to change any rules (switching from switch mode to set mode being an example), the game does lack some punch — especially if you’re not interested in the painful, tedious grind of EV training perfect Pokémon specimen.
And it’s not that I require games to be fiendishly, terribly difficult! But Pokemon’s relative lack of difficulty lowers the stakes to a degree where the narrative tension is diminished. I’m battling Team Rocket’s big scary boss to save the world? No problem. It’s never been a problem.
And I’m not alone in feeling this way. From early on in the game’s lifespan, players have been adding self-imposed rules, mechanics, and regulations to their playthroughs to increase the game’s difficulty, but also to better experience the intended narrative tension.
The most famous of these new rulesets is the Nuzlocke Challenge. The challenge originated in a comic strip of a Pokémon Ruby run, and quickly spread through the internet through Pokemon and video gaming forums, as well as communities like Something Awful. While there are many, many variants, the basic structure of the Nuzlocke Challenge is as follows:
If a Pokémon faints, it is considered dead. It must be released and cannot be used anymore.
The player may only catch the first Pokémon they encounter in any region, and it is the player’s choice whether this applies to duplicate types and the like.
All Pokémon must be given a nickname to strengthen your bond with them.
If all your Pokémon die in battle, your game is over.
This radically ups the difficulty of the games, and the countless variants and subgenres of the challenge up the ante even more.
But as I’ve alluded to before, more happens to Pokémon when you play it in this extreme fashion. There is a mechanical-textual connection that occurs, with the increased difficulty and reliance on your Pokémon causing you to form genuine emotional connection and bonds with them. The narrative tension increases, and the game takes on a dramatic new form.
It’s nothing new to play a game with a new set of rules — what’s truly remarkable is when these new rulesets redefine what the entire game can mean. What was a very simple RPG becomes something dramatic, exciting, and emotional.