Why Are Pokemon Gyms So Much Better In The Anime?
Gyms in Pokemon are somehow both my favourite thing about the series and my most hated thing about it. They’re my favourite thing because the gym leaders usually have big personalities and a sense of style, and when done right a gym can be Pokemon architectural and interior design at its best. But I hate them because they force every game into the same dull rhythm, they’re too predictable, and they rarely live up to my expectations.
I recently wrote about Misty’s gym being such a letdown when compared to the anime, but I only singled her about because I absolutely adore Misty in the TV show and it never feels like the games even come close to capturing how wonderful she is. Her anime gym has a full on aquarium with a mermaid extravaganza, and her game gym has slippery wet tiles. It’s a huge downgrade, but Misty’s not the only one. Very few of the gyms in the game come close to replicating the magic of their anime counterparts.
With Misty, her gym is just a better looking version of the same thing – both are open spaces with water in the middle, at the end of the day. But Sabrina’s – also a Gen 1 gym – couldn’t be more different. In the game you jump on teleporters, and it’s a top tier Kanto gym… if we’re just talking about the games. But in the anime, Sabrina’s gym is a psychological thriller, where she turns human beings into actual dolls and traps them in her living dollhouse. It’s more X-Files than Pokemon, and even with Sabrina’s game gym the best in the region, the anime version is head and shoulders above. In Gen 2, Morty’s Ghost preference essentially gives him two gyms; a real one and an illusion, with the out-of-battle ability of Ghost types being fully explored. Meanwhile, leaping forward to Gen 5, the gyms in the games had gotten more creative, but nothing on the level of Skyla’s completely imagined aerial battles.
People typically think of the amazing battles the anime has given us over the years, but there’s a lot more to the gyms. Sure, some contain fantastic fights in their own right if you just focus on the Pokemon v Pokemon moments of the episode, but the anime gyms are bigger than that. Many reimagine what a Pokemon battle means, and swing for the fences when it comes to establishing these gyms as the focal points of their city.
I’m aware this disparity between game and anime is down to technological restrictions, especially on the Game Boy titles, but some just aren’t trying. Brock’s gym is literally just a big, brown room. I love those early Pokemon games, and I respect the hell out of the gyms that pull out all of the stops. Blaine is a credit to Gen 1, as is Koga with his invisible walls. And again Sabrina’s teleportation gym is decent in isolation, but most are quite bland.
Honorable mentions for a couple though. Gen 2’s Clair asks you to solve puzzles while floating on lava. Tate and Liza in Gen 3 take the basic maze idea we’ve seen done to death and dial it up to 11. Some gyms give it their best shot, and play to them.
I’ve never felt this disconnect between the anime and the games in any other areas. The battles, for example, are so much more vibrant and action-oriented in the anime, but the methodical turn-based fights in the games – complete with blurry graphical sprites jumping up and down – don’t feel like a downgrade. They’re not bad, they’re just different. The same goes for our protagonists, who never have the charisma of Ash. They’re different people, and I can roll with the strong and silent type. That’s not the case with gyms though. Gyms are just worse in the games.
However, there is hope for the future. As I mentioned in my piece on Misty specifically, her gym remains boring and unsafe in Let’s Go, but others do get a tune up. Sabrina’s is no longer held back by technological limitations and actually feels magical, while the improved graphics help ‘sell’ Koga’s gym as a concept. Even Erika’s gym, while fairly boring, benefits from more colour in the interior design even as the concept remains basic. Misty just got screwed.
Beyond Let’s Go, Sword & Shield gave us easily the best gyms in Pokemon history – in the games at least. The anime is still numero uno. I know there’s no nostalgia goggles in Sword & Shield’s favour, and beyond the Wild Area it didn’t introduce enough new concepts for people to fall in love with it, but taking the gyms in isolation, it’s just no contest. Want to roll Wooloos into a pen? You can. Want to explore a labyrinth up in the clouds while the ground crumbles? You can. Want to jump in a big plastic tea cup and bumper your way through a pinball obstacle course? Believe it or not, you can.
I’ll grant you that some are basic, like Opal’s trivia questions at the Fairy gym, but these are fully integrated into the story with her looking to retire after finding a replacement. It’s duller than Galar’s other offerings, but Game Freak isn’t phoning it in. It’s a deliberate slowdown to introduce more narrative – much better than slippery tiles over some water for the sake of it.
This is part of a pattern too; prior to Sword & Shield, Sun & Moon replaced gyms with trials. These still followed the basic ‘win a battle to progress’ mode, but challenged you to complete specific goals – like rolling the Wooloos in Sword & Shield – before moving on. Gyms are still holding up the structure of the games (even if they’re called trials) but Game Freak is clearly trying to think of ways to improve upon walking into a building, going around a path, then fighting the gym leader.
Gyms have so much potential in Pokemon, both in terms of enriching the often bland narrative and just as a playground for the most eccentric, creative ideas. But Sword & Shield only scratched the surface, while the anime has been leading the way for over 20 years. I’d quite like gyms to just get the boot to make way for a different type of Pokemon game that doesn’t revolve around a literal ten year old wandering across the country to beat eight specific adults in order to earn the right to fight another four specific adults, but that isn’t going to happen. Gyms are here to stay, and I’m glad about that, but also sad. If they start taking after the anime, maybe I’ll decide once and for all that I actually like gyms in Pokemon.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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