Despite being over 20 years old, the Pokemon franchise is still as popular as ever – there’s more Pokemon-related internet content out there to enjoy than ever before!
From YouTube’s dedicated Poketubers and Twitch streamers, to the 3.2 million-strong r/pokemon subreddit, to the truly committed Poke-fans who expand the Pokémon universe with their own high-quality fan-made games, the Pokeverse keeps on evolving with no sign of reaching its final form any time soon.
But what kind or people make up Pokémon’s dedicated following? It’s certainly not the 7-13 year olds that the franchise is marketed towards. Even the most superficial paddle in the vast Poke-ocean would tell you that.
Pokémon, like Animal Crossing and Mario, belongs to a most curious collection of videogame franchises that are marketed towards children, but whose player-bases are dominated by adults – adults in their 20s and even 30s. In 2019, 82% of Pokémon Go players were over 20 years old. (Nintendo’s marketing department should probably have a word with themselves if less than 15% of their player base belongs to the age-group the game is actually marketed towards.)
It’s not hard to figure out why Pokémon has such a “mature” following. Pokémon’s gameplay is timeless and addictive; it’s likely that the majority of Pokémon fans picked up their first Pokémon game as a child (perhaps Pokémon Red and Blue in 1996 or Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire in 2002) and became hooked ever since, myself included. Pokémon has tonnes of nostalgic value, especially considering that Pokémon from the earliest generations are still available to catch and train in the newest games.
Pokémon’s biggest problem is that, at it’s core, it is still a game designed for children – that is to say Pokemon games are very easy. Pokémon’s gameplay can be far too predictable and repetitive to present a challenge for an adult player. Given that certain Pokémon are inherently better than others, you tend to end up using the same handful of Pokémon, learning the same moves and using the same strategies each and every time you play, causing the franchise to have very little replay value in my opinion.
It was this lack of variety and challenge that turned me off the franchise after bashing Pokemon games religiously since Generation IV. After more of the same in Generation VII, Pokemon fatigue set in and I all but gave up hope in the franchise. I wondered, is it even possible to remain engaged with a gameplay loop that hasn’t changed in over 20 years?
Enter the Nuzlocke Challenge
The Nuzlocke Challenge is a set of self-imposed rules designed to make Pokemon games more challenging and ultimately more fun. The idea was originally conceived from the “Pokemon: Hard Mode” comic series by Nick Franco, and has become a sensation across the Pokeverse ever since – there are now professional Nuzlockers that stream on sites like Twitch for a living. Nowadays, everybody who is anybody is Nuzlocking.
The core Nuzlocke rules are as follows:
- If a Pokemon faints, it dies, and must either be immediately released or stored in the PC for the rest of the play-through.
- Players can only catch the first Pokemon they encounter in each route or area.
- Every Pokemon must have a nickname in order for the player to grow more attached to them.
There are lots of more extreme variations of the Nuzlocke core rules you can choose to follow if you really want to prove that you’re the very best that no-one ever was, such as:
- No items
- No legendary Pokémon
- You may only use Pokémon belonging to a certain generation (otherwise known as a Genlocke run)
- You may only use Pokemon gotten from eggs (otherwise known as an Egglocke run)
Now, I’ll be frank. I was hugely sceptical. It sounded like just another dumb internet fad designed for youtubers who don’t even like Pokemon to milk click-bait reaction videos off of. Having seen so many internet influencers attempt the Nuzlocke challenge, I had to try it myself, just so I could prove how stupid and frustrating it was and that everyone who enjoyed it was an idiot. And you know what?
It was the greatest videogame experience I have had in a long time.
Pokemon, but it’s Muk-ing Hard.
My launched into first Nuzlocke attempt with one of my favourite Pokemon games on the DS, the edgy emo cousin of the Pokemon family, Pokemon Black and White.
I played this game on release at the ripe old age of 10 years old, and had I been frequenting the internet back then, I might have learned that Pokémon Black and White are considered the most difficult main series Pokémon games ever made. Sadly the only thing I was frequenting back then was the biscuit cupboard, so I’m left finding out this information out whilst attempting my first Nuzlocke…
Needless to say, I finished each of my five successive failed Nuzlockes stood atop a mountain of corpses.
But goddamn it if piling those corpses up wasn’t 100x more enjoyable than sweeping through yet another Pokemon League with my overlevelled, over-powered vanilla team. I had more fun losing five successive Pokémon Black Nuzlockes than I had in winning the last five main-series games. Let me explain how and why Nuzlocking is the best way to experience the Pokémon franchise.
- Reason 1# You are unable to rely on having a type advantage when challenging a gym or a trainer
After picking up a Patrat, Purrloin and a gifted Pansage, the first gym went down with zero hiccups, but I hit a huge wall when challenging the second gym. The first Pokemon I met in Pinwheel Forest was NOT a fighting type, and there was no way for me to advance to another route and catch one, so I had to face a Normal-type gym with no type advantage. I had NEVER experienced this before and I was shocked how much more threatening this made battling. You have to get creative if you’re entering a battle with no type advantage; forget gyms, even regular trainer battles will cause you serious problems if you don’t. I usually never bothered with status effects moves, but the only way I could get through some gyms was to confuse the enemy and wait until it beat itself to death, hoping I don’t get wiped out by a critical hit in the meantime.
- Reason 2# You can’t afford to make stupid mistakes
On my first ever Nuzlocke, I was left with only 2 Pokemon by the time I reached the fourth gym. Every single other Pokemon had been cut down one-by-one by gym leaders, critical hits or stupid mistakes I had made. Even though a Nuzlocke is only technically failed if every Pokemon in your party dies, my run was unofficially over – there was no way I could continue having lost so many Pokemon so early in the game with no way to get any more. Nuzlocking forces you to pay attention to your Pokemon’s stats, special abilities and type weaknesses, because each Pokemon loss is a minor catastrophe and permanently inhibits your chances of completing the run. If you lose a Pokemon by absent-mindedly switching it in and having it get one-hit-KO’d by a super-effective move, that Pokemon is gone forever and all the time, money, energy and TM’s you spent on it disappear into the Aether. No more spamming offensive moves until you win, my friends. Full revives won’t save you this time.
- Reason 3# You are forced to use Pokemon you would have otherwise ignored, and use them to the best of your abilities.
In a Nuzlocke challenge, you get what you’re given. You don’t get the luxury of carefully selecting the best Pokémon, you’re forced to work with whatever the RNG throws your way. I mean, what the hell even is a Chubchoo, anyway? Shrillish? Palpitoad? Is that some kind of heart condition? You never know what your team is going to end up looking like, but you’ve got to suck it up, buttercup, because this is the best your ass is getting. You’ve got to crank the dweeb-dial up to max and actually bother to learn your Pokémon’s types, stats and special abilities. You won’t believe how many hidden gems you’ll find during your adventure that you wouldn’t have given a second look in previous runs and the extent that “how” you play, instead of “what” you play, affects your ability to progress through the game.
Reason 4# Every Nuzlocke run is a unique adventure
Pokémon is a franchise in which RNG mechanics (random number generation) feature very heavily which can frustrate gamers who value predictability and efficiency in their games. Strangely though it is this prominent use of RNG that we’ve to thank for the Nuzlocke Challenge’s exciting, suspenseful gameplay and excellent replayability factor. Each run will deliver you an randomly generated team, and a near randomly generated experience, shaped in equal measure by both the choices you make as a player and the proverbial roll of the dice.
As strange as it sounds, watching a Pokemon battle play out when one bad dice roll can be the difference between a hefty EXP injection and permeant death, feels less akin to watching a computer simulation and more akin to watching live sports – with cries of despair and sighs of relief, the “Ooh” and “Aahs” and “Yes!” and “Noooo!!!”
It sounds hard to believe that you, as a real person, would ever give a damn about a string of 1s and 0s in a children’s game, but when your first beloved pocket monster lies dead in your arms, you will have very real, distinctly non-digital feelings about it, I can assure you.
- Reason 5# Nuzlocking is a very therapeutic experience because it truly is about the journey
Back when I was playing MMOs, I used to warn myself of the dangers of “optimising the fun out of the game” and unfortunately I think it’s very easy to do the same with Pokemon. If you’re a naturally analytical, competitive or perfectionist person, it’s tempting to get caught up in stats, IVs, EVs and percentages to the point where you’re spending so much time trying to play well that you forget to actually have fun.
I think that Nuzlocke is a fantastic remedy for this, as you’re forced to relinquish a lot of control to the RNG. This made my Nuzlocke runs very therapeutic experiences for me. I loved taking pressure off myself to always make the best choices and have the best, most perfect team – in a Nuzlocke run you simply don’t have the level of control you’d need to micro-manage in this way. It was freeing to just wing it and see where the game took me. Sometimes the RNG would fall in my favour and I would complete the run, sometimes the RNG would work against me and I would lose. And that’s OK. Other times I would get strokes of good luck and still lose, and other times the RNG would try it’s best to screw me over and I would still win. And that’s OK too.
It might seem ridiculous to call a videogame challenge “therapeutic” but it really did have that effect on me. Losing isn’t really losing on a Nuzlocke run, just the end of a unique experience and the start of a new one.
Videogames Make Me Happy concludes… that Nuzlocking brings out the best in Pokémon
If you’ve spent any time around the Internet, you’re probably familiar with hundreds of videogame “challenges” like these – hardcore runs, speedruns, no-hit runs, 0-death runs, and many more weird and wacky ways to transform reasonably hard videogames into stupidly difficult, near-impossible instruments of torture. However, if there’s one thing my Nuzlocke adventures taught me, it is that the point of the Nuzlocke challenge is not JUST to make Pokémon harder.
Nuzlocking is not about limiting you as a player, and it’s not about proving how “good” you are at the game. You really don’t have to be good at Pokémon to enjoy attempting a Nuzlocke run (and I should know, trust me – after 14 years of playing I still haven’t memorised the type matchups). Nuzlocking isn’t even about winning at all, in my opinion.
Nuzlocking is about encouraging the player to fully explore Pokémon: the mechanics, playstyles, the battles, even the Pokémon themselves, whilst becoming more emotionally invested in their playthroughs in the process. It’s about playing through your own unique adventure, and having the choices you make and the experiences you go through in-game really mean something.
I don’t think I could ever go back to playing Pokémon without Nuzlocke rules – it would be a soulless and unsatisfying experience compared to the soaring highs and crushing lows a Nuzlocke run can offer. Nuzlocke feels like how Pokémon was meant to be played.