(It is rapidly becoming clear to me that many entries in this series are going to be prohibitively long. You have been warned.)
As we travel across the land, searching far and wide, players of the Pokémon games have always had to deal with a set of annoying little restrictions – the need for ‘hidden’ moves that help us navigate through the overworld. These moves can be taught to compatible Pokémon using Hidden Machines, HMs, and once learned cannot be forgotten except with the aid of a specialist move deleter. They are also, for the most part, absolutely terrible. Let’s look at their history.
HM moves have always been a part of the game, since the original five from Red and Blue. There have been eleven in total – though, mercifully, never all at once – which serve a variety of uses in moving the player around the Pokémon world. Cut, Rock Smash and Whirlpool remove or bypass static obstacles – trees, rocks, and whirlpools respectively. Fly allows for instantaneous transport to any town previously visited. Surf permits the player to move on water. Strength can be used to shift large boulders. Flash lights up a dark cave, while Defog, similarly, clears thick fog banks. Waterfall and Rock Climb, finally, allow you to climb up and down waterfalls or cliffs. These are all perfectly sensible obstacles an adventuring Pokémon trainer might need to overcome, and I think it should be recognised, before saying anything else, that they are an important part of the games’ atmosphere. The idea that travelling with Pokémon allows you to do things and visit places that you couldn’t on your own seems to be central to the aesthetic aims of the game designers, and a key way of emphasising the way people depend on Pokémon in this world. In other games, the player character would probably overcome obstacles like these by collecting tools, learning and improving specialised skills, or enlisting the aid of NPCs. In this game, we overcome obstacles by obtaining Pokémon whose powers are appropriate to the situation at hand, and training them to use those powers in a helpful way. Pokémon Ranger is particularly good at using and developing this aesthetic angle, since all of your alliances with Pokémon in the Ranger games are temporary in nature – if you find some troublesome obstacle, you just grab one of the Pokémon floating around nearby and ask it to clear your path. It will then quite happily get back to its own business. Most Pokémon in the Ranger series have field abilities of varying strengths, which function analogously to HM techniques. Significant chunks of the game are about using Pokémon abilities to manipulate the environment. It really does make a lot of sense, and because of that, I’m glad that the core series has this system… it just gets infuriating sometimes.
There are two things about HM moves that make them painful. The first is that they are generally useless. How useless? Well. In earlier generations, Cut was useful in the early stages of the games before stronger Normal-type moves became available, but would quickly turn into more of a gallstone in your moveset. As of Black and White, it is strictly inferior to Tackle, the most basic of all Pokémon moves, having the same power and slightly lower accuracy. This is pretty much the standard we’re dealing with here – with notable exceptions. Fly received a power boost in Diamond and Pearl that actually made it useful (in-game, that is; competitively it’s still a big neon sign reading “PLEASE COUNTER ME”) as long as you don’t get too annoyed by the fact that it takes twice as long to kill anything, and as long as you’re not trying to use a special attacker Flying-type like Togetic or Xatu. Surf, for its part, has been a staple of Water-types since day 1, only recently beginning to share the limelight with Scald, while Waterfall was originally just an inferior version of Surf but eventually became very important in Diamond and Pearl when physical Water attacks became a thing. Trying to cram both onto a team can still get annoying if you only have one Water-type (especially if that Water-type prefers physical attacks, like Feraligatr), but at least they’re individually useful.
Of course, once you have shackled your Pokémon to one of these moves, it has to stay there. HM moves can never be overwritten by other attacks. In fact, in Red and Blue it was impossible to get rid of them at all, because those games lacked a Move Deleter. It seems at first as though this rule exists only to make them even more of a pain, but there actually was once a good reason for it: to avoid the possibility of a player wandering into an area and then losing access to the moves that would be necessary to get out. In Red and Blue this would have been much easier than you might think since, with no bag pockets and limited inventory space, you might not actually have your HMs with you all of the time. All it takes is for a slip of your finger to overwrite Surf by mistake while you’re mucking around the Seafoam Islands and you’re trapped there forever. From Gold and Silver onward, you always have your HMs with you, and from at least Ruby and Sapphire (not sure how far back this goes), it has been impossible to release Pokémon that know some HM moves like Surf and Fly. Hypothetically you could still overwrite your Pokémon’s moves and then release them, but surely by that point you must be doing it on purpose!? If nothing else, you have to admire the lengths they go to protect us from our own self-destructive stupidity.
As long as I’m on the subject, I may as well mention something else of relevance that has changed since Red and Blue – the size of Pokémon movepools. In the original games, there were quite a lot of Pokémon who simply didn’t learn four different worthwhile moves by levelling up, and most TM moves could only be taught once, since you couldn’t breed Pokémon to pass their moves along (well, yes, okay, you could always go to Cinnabar Island, lob your backpack into an L-shaped hole in reality, and never have to worry about running out of anything again, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t intended to be part of the game). Sure, it might be a pain having to teach an undeletable Cut to your Sandslash, but then again, what the hell else are you going to teach it? Bide and Mimic? Sandslash learns exactly one useful attack in Red and Blue anyway (Slash), so if you’ve already squandered your Earthquake and Rock Slide TMs on Charizard and Machoke, and you aren’t willing to fork out the Game Corner tokens for a Hyper Beam TM, you might as well just go with it. One moveslot in the first generation games is, strange as it may seem, not really a huge loss, even if there’s no way you can ever get it back. Today this is almost unthinkable. Very few Pokémon are in such dire straits that their level-up movepools do not contain four attacks better than Cut, and the proliferation of TMs and move tutors has only increased the availability of moves that are actually useful.
Anyway. This, then, is the nature of the HM system. I may not give Game Freak a whole lot of credit, but presumably they are aware that the need for HM moves forces players to load up their prized Pokémon with substandard attacks. One imagines that this is intended as a cost – trees and rocks and whirlpools wouldn’t really be huge obstacles if you could get past them without actually having to give anything up, right? As a result, they settled on a portion of your Pokémon’s effectiveness as the price you have to pay. It may be impossible to know, however, whether they anticipated the way players would respond to this cost: by the creation of an entire team role archetype, the HM Whore. The HM Whore is a Pokémon who does not battle at all and knows three or four of the less inspiring HM moves, such as a Tropius with Cut, Rock Smash, Flash and Fly – basically, dodging the whole issue by offloading the useless moves on a Pokémon you don’t intend to use anyway, whom you can stuff into your PC while you don’t need those techniques. The time of the HM Whore may be coming to an end, though. As I’ve mentioned, a lot about these games has been changing, including the reality of how HMs are actually used. The Move Deleters have been moving to progressively earlier points in the story – from remote Blackthorn City in Gold and Silver to as early as Driftveil City in Black and White 2. The other massive change is reusable TMs. Now we can teach Pokémon HM moves as often as we like; all we have to do is overwrite a TM move and relearn it at our leisure. Black and White, for that matter, even recognise how pointless and irritating the whole business is by making it unnecessary to ever actually use any HMs to complete the story – all the areas that require them are optional (though the sequels, sadly, do not share this virtue). What I’m saying, in short, is that the way the HM system works is already changing. The vestiges of the old system are nothing but a minor annoyance now (where they were in the past a major annoyance) – and why on earth would we want to keep something like that? I have a number of ideas for altering or replacing the system, so let’s talk about those.
The first, and most obvious, possible method is to replace the whole thing with a Ranger-style system in which all (or most) Pokémon have a ‘field move’ with a variety of possible uses. The original Pokémon Ranger had nine different field moves – Tackle (which is Strength), Gust (which is Defog), Flash and Cut (duh), Crush (which is Rock Smash), Cross (which uses Vine Whip or similar to cross a ravine), Recharge (which restores energy to your Ranger equipment), Soak (which puts out fires) and Burn (the most useful of all, which sets things on fire). All of these have three different power levels, with each successive level being effective against larger or more challenging obstacles. Later games in the Ranger series introduce a dizzying array of more specific field moves, as well as some obstacles that require the use of two at once, but for the purposes of translating the mechanic into the core games, I think it will be sufficient to stick with the basics. It would be very easy to assign each Pokémon one or two of perhaps nine field moves, each with applications in the game world, retaining the former HM moves as regular moves learnable by Pokémon as normal. You don’t need to teach your Sandslash Cut, because all Sandslash have automatic access to the Cut field ability, whatever their actual movesets are. If it were up to me, I would follow Black and White in making the use of these abilities largely optional – you can use them to discover secrets or extra rewards, but you’re not actually going to be prevented from continuing in the story if your team happens to be missing some of them (this also makes it much easier to avoid situations where players can potentially trap themselves, since you can’t release Pokémon while in the field). Moreover, some obstacles might be solvable by using any of two or three different field abilities (some rocks, for instance, can be crushed or moved). The three-tier system could also be put to good use: all Pokémon start with only the first level of their respective abilities, and require special training to unlock the higher levels. The ability to cross whirlpools or rapids and climb waterfalls, for instance, could be unlocked by the second and third levels of the swim ability – that way, there are still some obstacles that act as barriers in the early game but become trivial later on. Because the premise of the core games is so very different to that of the Ranger games, the tricky part would be to avoid getting carried away – the wide array of field moves usable in the later Ranger games is pretty awesome, but implementing too many different field abilities in the core games, requiring players to have Pokémon on hand for every conceivable situation, could become just as much of a drag as the HM system.
My next suggestion, which has the advantage of being somewhat simpler, is to leave the HM system largely untouched, but do more to make the moves themselves strong and useful choices. The trouble with making all HM moves as powerful as Surf is that many of them have to be available quite early in the game, and it would make things rather boring if all Pokémon just spammed various HM moves all the time. Solution? Make HM moves improve gradually over the course of the game. Probably the easiest way to do this is to make them function like Return, and have either their power or the secondary effects tied in some way to a Pokémon’s level of happiness, but I’m not totally sure of the balance on that particular power curve. I would prefer simply to have more powerful versions of each HM move unlocked by collecting badges, or reaching some similar milestone (you could potentially combine this with the old system of having an HM move’s field effect be unlocked by earning a badge). Cut, for example, could start out at 50 power, with no secondary effect, as it is now, then upgrade to 70 power with a high critical hit rate once you earn three badges, and finally upgrade to 90 power with an extremely high critical hit rate once you have six badges (if that seems excessive, then I will note that just being a Normal attack is enough to make Cut a fairly unappetising choice for most Pokémon). Rock Smash, by contrast, could keep its low starting power of 40 but improve in its ability to reduce the target’s defence – initially having a 50% chance to lower defence by one stage, increasing to 100% when you earn your fourth badge, and finally lowering defence by two stages once you earn your seventh badge. No-one, I suspect, would be particularly bothered by having to learn HM moves if they were actually worth using, even if they remained undeletable. Either of these first two systems can even be tied in with my plans to make the completion of the Pokédex a more important part of the game – instead of, say, collecting two badges to unlock the field effect of a move, you have to collect, say, five Pokémon who can learn it (or who possess the corresponding field ability, under the Ranger-style system). Unlocking the more powerful versions might require ten or fifteen. Hell, you could even have some field abilities that let you into whole new areas, not accessible until after defeating the Elite Four, which require twenty or thirty appropriate Pokédex entries.
The final possibility is my pet idea which I originally discussed early last year with a completely different purpose in mind: making Unown useful and relevant. The basic premise of the idea is that, by arranging a group of three to five Unown into a word and enticing them onto a specially prepared clay tablet, you can create a usable item that has a supernatural effect determined by the meaning of the word. A tablet reading CUT, for instance, can be used to remove trees and grass in place of a Pokémon that actually knows Cut, a tablet reading SWIM could be used to cross water, and so on. Potentially, other words could create effects that are nothing like HMs at all – a TRAP tablet, say, to be used in battle to prevent a wild Pokémon magically from escaping. There are a number of ways you could work this – have certain letters become available only at certain points in the game, thus limiting the words that can be formed, or have the tablets limited in size and number, so that players can only have a certain number of words at a time, and need to find larger tablets to make longer words. The latter could, potentially, be combined with the existing HM system – you still need to fit a bunch of field techniques into your party, but you can use tablets to substitute for a few of them at your discretion, giving yourself a little bit of leeway. If we stipulate that the Unown can only leave the tablet if you bring them back to the ruin where you found them, it’s also very difficult to put yourself in a situation where you don’t have the necessary abilities to escape an area. The principle difficulty of this system is that it’s rather out of step with the general atmosphere of the games, in that it’s very ‘high fantasy’ in its feel and seems to imply that a significant chunk of the game would revolve around the Unown and their ruins. It also loses that rather nice quality of the HM system I mentioned at the beginning – the feeling of reliance on one’s Pokémon – which is why I quite like the idea of meshing it with the existing HM system rather than making it an actual replacement.
On reflection, I think that if I were actually called upon to work on a Pokémon game, I would pick the first of those three options, partly because Pokémon Ranger has already done so much of the work for us, but also because it’s the only one that does away with all the aggravation of undeletable moves entirely. It also has the advantage of providing a lot of very easy lead-ins to quest-type episodes – someone might need the help of a Pokémon with a particular field ability (best to use this sparingly, though; we don’t actually want to turn the core games into Pokémon Ranger titles). I would retain my Unown idea, though, and try to convince the developers to use it for something else – maybe using tablets with primarily battle-related effects, like HEAL or STUN. In summary, then – the HM system is not without its merits, but there are plenty of ways it could be altered or even replaced completely while still retaining those benefits and vastly decreasing its potential for aggravation. Hopefully, I’ve shown that this is achievable. For now, then, that’s all from me!