The Nuzlocke Challenge Is The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Classic Pokemon

I’m not sure about you, but I’ve played through most of the mainline Pokemon games enough times to justify feeling embarrassed about it. I blitz through Kanto at least once a year and I know the layout of Hoenn like the back of my hand. I couldn’t give a bollocks about Kalos, so that one’s a bit less familiar to me. But everything else is like second nature – at least until you learn about the brilliantly bitter agony of subjecting yourself to a brutal Nuzlocke.

Like the games I mentioned above, I also know pretty much everything about Pokemon Sword & Shield, despite Gen 8 being my second-least-favourite generation after the practical joke known as Gen 6 (sorry X & Y’ers, I’m just not that into you). I know how to catch myself a nice Morgrem, and where to go once I leave Circhester. I can make an estimate as to how long it will take me to get from the outskirts of Spikemuth to Piers’ gym with a margin of error of just 30 seconds either side. Basically, I know my shit, alright?

But the caveat of knowing your shit is that things sometimes start to become a bit boring, even if you love them. For example, I’m a big Water-head on account of Blastoise being the best Pokemon ever designed (honestly, get that electric mouse off the cover of everything and stick Squirtle front and centre). Anyway, once I’ve completed a Pokemon game like, 151 times, I tend to go through with a Water team just to spice things up. It makes Grass and Electric Gym Leaders a pain in the arse, but I can just get a Toxapex to Gunk Shot them or a sig ol’ Bwampert to hit them with a crack of a high-octane Earthquake, respectively.

Once I’ve become the best Water trainer on planet Earth, though, I’ve run out of options. I’ve tried a few Dark and Ghost teams, and I like Rock and Steel Pokemon as well. But ultimately I always just end up with the best and most versatile ‘mons of each respective type and it becomes easy mode all over again. That’s where Nuzlockes come in to save the day.

For those unacquainted with the now infamous Nuzlocke run, here are some of the most prominent rules. Fair warning: once you commit to the Nuzlocke lifestyle, there’s no going back. If you want to read about something else, I suggest you check out the recently unveiled opportunity for Pokemon fans to ram their heads in Gengar’s mouth for 250 quid.

Still here? Brave. Here are the rules for a Nuzlocke:

  • If a Pokemon faints, it’s dead. You need to release it, store it in a box for the rest of the run, or transfer it to another game. You can’t use it until you’ve successfully become the Pokemon League Champion and completed the Nuzlocke.
  • You can only catch the first Pokemon you encounter in each location. This includes caves, towns, routes, and so on – if the area has an official title, it counts as an independent location where you can capture one single Pokemon, provided it’s the first one you come across. If you make it faint or it flees, you can’t catch a new one – no second chances. This doesn’t apply to static encounters, although using Legendary Pokemon is frowned upon. You can catch Shiny Pokemon regardless of the rules, although the consensus on whether or not they’re allowed to be used is widely disputed.

While these are the only two officially recognized rules, the vast majority of Nuzlockes also include the following:

  • You must nickname every Pokemon you catch. This rule is designed to make their survival more significant and adds a lot of depth to streamed Nuzlockes.
  • You can only use Pokemon you catch yourself, meaning trades are off the cards. However, you can use gift Pokemon from NPCs, like the Arcanine in Pokemon Let’s Go, or Riolu in Pokemon Diamond & Pearl.
  • You can’t reload old saves when you make a mistake. What’s the point in rules if you have unlimited tries anyway?
  • You can avail of the species clause, which prevents you from being forced to catch duplicates. Already caught a Rattata? Any future encounter with Rattata or Raticate doesn’t count towards the rule of needing to capture the first Pokemon you see in each location.

There are also loads of other optional adjustments, like choosing your starter randomly based on the last digit of your trainer ID or not being able to heal in battle (that second rule is a popular one, although it’s not mandatory). Conversely, there are amendments that make it slightly less difficult, like using gyms as checkpoints instead of rendering a blackout as a game over – although generally speaking, losing a battle counts as a fail state. Either way, Nuzlockes are hard – and that’s what makes them good.

You see, once you develop the kind of know-how I was banging on about at the start of this piece, Pokemon becomes a breeze. You know which ones are good, how to get them, when to use them, what to do in each and every battle – it’s all premeditated and easily executed to perfection. Nuzlockes take all of that and throw it in the bin. You could have a team stacked with Normal-types boasting a base stats average of 300. You could lose your overpowered starter before the first gym. You could find a shite Zigzagoon outside Petalburg City and run into a Ralts exactly four seconds after, which you are absolutely not allowed to even entertain the idea of catching.

But it goes so much further than this. For example, the first gym in Gen 5 is pretty unforgiving – you might have two or three Pokemon heading in, but only one coming out. Then you’ve got to make your way to the next gym with a single, likely average-leveled Pokemon. The game over screen is just sitting there, taunting you with its annoying tongue out, laughing at the fact that yeah, you might make it out, but it’s going to be really fucking hard to make it any further. I reckon the feeling of winning a tough battle, but losing your best ‘mons to the stupidly brutal and unfortunately rigid ruleset of a Nuzlocke is best described by Jason Isaacs in The Death of Stalin.

Anyway, despite being immensely difficult, Niuzlockes have a way of making Pokemon infinitely replayable. It essentially turns it into a roguelike – first encounters are the equivalent of randomized abilities, while losing brings you right back to the start like permadeath. Gyms are static, sure, but the conditions are changed based on the Pokemon you have, meaning it’s not quite procedurally-generated, but there’s a lot of arbitrariness in terms of how key moments shape up. I mean, Hades has the same set of bosses every time – albeit with minor alterations in appearance and abilities – so I think the Gym Leader comparison has legs.

Nuzlockes aren’t for everyone, but they’re an intriguing way of playing Pokemon in a way it’s not necessarily supposed to be played, which drastically alters the entire experience. As mentioned above, it basically instigates a total genre shift, too. If you love some of the classic Pokemon games but reckon you’ve played them too many times to enjoy going back for a full playthrough, you should consider giving a Nuzlocke a go. All of the stuff you remember fondly will be there, but you’ll engage with it in a completely new way.

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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.

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