If I Were In Charge: You teach me and I’ll teach you

Last entry in this series, so let’s hope it’s a good one.  I’m going to be dealing primarily with battle mechanics here, so odds are good everything I say here is going to be superseded completely the moment X and Y are released in a couple of weeks (hell, for all I know, some of it has been already, since I deliberately pay very little attention to pre-release material), but that’s not going to stop me.  Here we go!

Earlier in this series I talked about my notion that Pokémon is actually two different games http://pokemaniacal.tumblr.com/post/56511544854/if-i-were-in-charge-i-will-battle-every-day-to-claim – a single-player one defined by the game developers, and a multiplayer one defined by the community.  Here I want to talk about one of the big differences between the two that has a nasty habit of bringing about all kinds of plainly unnecessary spite and ill feeling – whether or not Pokémon are any ‘good’ competitively.  Talking about game balance in Pokémon is unavoidably problematic because it seems likely that, early on, Game Freak never really cared whether the games were ‘balanced’ at all, and possible that they still don’t even now.  This then must lead us to question whether game balance is even inherently desirable.  My instinct is ‘obviously it is.’  It is a well-established point of the series’ philosophy, expressed consistently by a variety of positively-portrayed characters throughout its incarnations, that any Pokémon can shine and become a powerhouse with the right kind of love and dedication.  As a child, my favourite expression of the sentiment was always Karen’s: “Strong Pokémon. Weak Pokémon. That is only the selfish perception of people. Truly skilled trainers should try to win with their favourites.”  Read carefully into what she’s saying, though: she’s not denying that some Pokémon are strong and others weak; she’s saying that whether this actually matters is a question of perspective.  We only care about whether Pokémon are weak or strong because we use them to battle (unfortunately, battling is difficult to avoid).  Taken this way, her comment that “truly skilled trainers try to win with their favourites” could be seen as an exhortation to pick weak Pokémon on purpose for the challenge of it – and, indeed, in the single-player game this can be a worthwhile and fulfilling pursuit.  It’s only when we come up against the single-player/competitive dichotomy that Karen’s rhetoric starts to become painfully obstructive.  If your favourite Pokémon happens to be Ledian, Mawile, or Seaking, you should probably get used to ignoring her.  This doesn’t seem fair to me.  Why punish people for liking Ledian while rewarding people for liking Dragonite?

On the other hand, what could possibly create any semblance of balance among a pool which, in a few short weeks, may exceed eight hundred Pokémon?  Surely there are too many factors involved for such a thing ever to be achievable?  Each Pokémon’s strength is defined by the characteristics of its type combination (which is in turn influenced by the popularity of all the other Pokémon in the game), its movepool (even if we cut out the moves which are of no consequence to anyone, most Pokémon still have dozens of choices), its stats (six of them, which vary independently over a wide range), and its abilities (oh boy).  With all those things in play, you can’t necessarily make a theoretical prediction ahead of time as to what’s going to work and what isn’t.  It’s not intuitively obvious why, for instance, Skarmory should be considered so much better than Steelix – at least, not without playing the game for some time.  There are, however, a lot of no-brainers – anyone can see, for example, that Spinda and Delibird are vastly, hilariously inferior to, say, Porygon2 and Cloyster.  To their credit, Game Freak have produced steadily fewer of these with the passage of time, although sometimes they still manage to produce something that’s garbage no matter how you slice it.  Maractus, for example, is almost devoid of redeeming features, which really should have been readily apparent from the start.  The gradually increasing standard also, annoyingly, throws the older cases into sharp relief.  In a generation where Maractus and Emolga are the worst I can think of, where the hell does that leave Farfetch’d and Luvdisc?

Another frustration is that some Pokémon appear to be notionally balanced by their positions in the structure of the game – for example, it is universally agreed that Beedrill is absolutely worthless by the end of the game, but Weedle and Kakuna evolve so quickly, bringing Beedrill into play so early, that he does get a transient moment in the sun at the beginning of a playthrough.  By contrast, Salamence may be an unholy terror, but Bagon is so rare and so difficult to find (at least, on Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald, which I think, off the top of my head, are the only games where using him on a single-player run is realistic), and evolves so slowly that putting up with the comparative mediocrity of Shelgon is thought to be a reasonable counterweight.  This illustrates another important fundamental difference between the ‘two games’ of Pokémon – the single player game is essentially a type of RPG, insofar as it is a game of personal progress, growth, and the development of new skills, while the multiplayer game takes place only once all of that is finished, and is thus primarily a game of tactics.  It is unrealistic to imagine that the same qualities will necessarily be useful to both, yet this is precisely the fallacy one sees all over the internet when strategic analyses are read without being understood.  Anyway, to return to my point – there is a notion that certain Pokémon are fair because of factors which, in a multiplayer or competitive environment, are simply never relevant.  This doesn’t explain everything – having doggedly played through Silver version with a Ledian in the good old days, I can personally attest that some Pokémon are garbage from beginning to end, to a degree which is obvious even to a child – but it shows that at least part of the problem is in the conception of the process of training.  Some Pokémon achieve their potential early, and then can’t catch up later.

A closely related issue is the question of evolution.  Should an unevolved Pokémon be able to reach the same horizons of power as its evolved brethren?  Logic would appear to dictate that the answer is ‘no;’ intuition, particularly coupled with numerous portrayals of unevolved Pokémon in the anime, often prefers to answer ‘yes.’  I can’t help but reject this idea, though, because it would ultimately reduce evolution to a purely aesthetic change – whereas I like evolution the way it is, with all of its weird cultural and ethical implications.  Choosing not to evolve a Pokémon should have drawbacks, and those drawbacks should be significant, otherwise the choice itself has absolutely no gravity.  However, I don’t think that the consequences should necessarily consist of drawbacks alone.  At present, for most species, there are exactly two advantages to leaving a Pokémon unevolved: it will learn attacks marginally more quickly, and it can boost its defensive skills with an Eviolite.  Some Pokémon learn radically different sets of attacks in their juvenile forms, while Pokémon that use stones to evolve normally don’t learn any more attacks at all, but these are exceptions.  In any case, once you have the moves you want, that no longer matters – the implication is that evolution is only ever delayed, never forsworn.  The Eviolite appears to have been intended primarily to ease the path of the many Pokémon in Black and White who evolve at absurdly high levels, like Pawniard, Rufflet and Mienfoo, however it also had the (possibly accidental) effect of making certain unevolved Pokémon powerful enough to have their own interesting niche uses.  Most of these Pokémon differ from their evolved forms in some significant way – Scyther, for instance, is much faster than Scizor; Porygon2 is bulkier than Porygon-Z; Murkrow can’t compete with Honchkrow for power but can be a fantastic supporter with Prankster – and most are defence or support oriented, which is simply the nature of the boost.  There are also a couple of unevolved Pokémon who are unique – I’m thinking here mainly of the titanic offensive power available to Light Ball Pikachu and DeepSeaTooth Clamperl, which are incredibly difficult to use, but monumentally satisfying when it works.  That, I think, is a principle we can move forward with, coupled perhaps with a little thematic justification from the ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ mentality implicit in the accelerated move acquisition most unevolved Pokémon receive.  Come up with mechanisms to offer more varied options not to ‘unevolved’ Pokémon as a class, but rather to ‘weaker’ Pokémon, however that may be defined – lumping in Pokémon like Farfetch’d and Ledian, but leaving firmly out Pokémon like Porygon2 and Dusclops, who are quite happy enough with their Eviolites – and tie them in with Pokémon’s traditional ideals of partnership and growth.

First, let’s add some options specifically for the unevolved – I’m thinking probably more items here, since we don’t want these to add more power on top of an Eviolite, but rather to offer an alternative.  For that reason (as well as to avoid throwing in more things that need explanations), I’m inclined to make it explicit and simply use different coloured Eviolites: the ones we have now are purple, and increase both defence and special defence by 50%; we could add, for instance, a Red Eviolite that grants 50% extra attack, a Yellow Eviolite that does the same for special attack, and a Blue Eviolite that boosts both by 30%.  I’m also tempted to throw in even more powerful varieties usable only by Pokémon at the first stage of three – say, an Amethyst Eviolite that ramps up defence and special defence by as much as 70%, or a Pearly Eviolite that increases everything except HP by 30%.  To go even further, we could stick to basic possibilities like these that give a simple numerical bonus – which has the advantage of simplicity, and I think I prefer it for that reason – or also include a couple of weirder Eviolites that drastically change the options available to an unevolved Pokémon, like a Silver Eviolite that increases the accuracy of all moves by 20%, or a Prism Eviolite that halves damage from super-effective attacks.  Again, though, I would rather keep this part simple – this entry isn’t really about giving Dusclops even more ways to be better than Dusknoir.

What I really want to do is give something extra to the Pokémon who clearly need drastic assistance.  I don’t mean, for instance, Pokémon who would be great with a better movepool, like Flareon, or who are crippled by Stealth Rock, like Vespiquen, or who are in many respects solid but somehow just don’t quite come together, like Gardevoir.  These are things that can be at least partially fixed quite simply, in some cases by doing things that need to happen anyway, like figuring out a way to make Stealth Rock less central.  No, I mean Pokémon for whom all of that would be just a start.  I mean Dunsparce, who has fascinating powers but can’t actually do anything with them.  I mean Magcargo, whose abysmal speed and two prominent double-weaknesses make her a sitting duck in almost any iteration of the game you care to name.  I mean Pidgeot, beyond generic, who can at best hope to be a sub-par imitation of one of the other already sub-par bird Pokémon.  I mean Luvdisc, for goodness’ sake.  These are the Pokémon it would take an evolution to save (barring a shiny new ability that changes everything, like what Prankster did for Sableye or Drizzle for Politoed) – and this, I hope, makes clear my reasoning in my last couple of paragraphs; I really do consider these Pokémon ‘unevolved’ in a sort of honorary sense.  In an ideal world, I would talk about all of them and discuss exactly what I would do for each one, a tailor-made solution (hell, I actually did do that for a handful, early last year http://pokemaniacal.tumblr.com/tagged/toptenworstpokemonever), but this is not an ideal world and I need to come up with something quick, broadly applicable, and hopefully elegant.  This is, of course, impossible.

First: give every Pokémon in the game a sort of ‘star rating’ (you can visualise this in any way you want, but for now stars are a convenient abstraction for getting the point across) of between 0 and 3 stars.  Base stat totals could be a rough guide to assigning these ratings, but ultimately there would have to be a few judgement calls – Volbeat and Illumise have the same totals, but without the ability to pass Tail Glow, Illumise is a lot worse off.  Anything which can hold its own is 3 stars – and that includes anything unevolved which can be brought up to a reasonably impressive height with an Eviolite, like Rhydon or Chansey.  2 stars, depending on how generous we’re feeling, could go to Pokémon who are a little on the unfortunate side but far from irredeemable, like Camerupt (who has similar problems to Magcargo, but to a lesser extent) or Mantine (a notional special wall with a double-weakness to Thunderbolt), as well as to unevolved Pokémon who fall short of what an Eviolite can do to help them, like Ivysaur and Vibrava.  1 star is for anything truly depressing, like the Pokémon I mentioned in the paragraph above, as well as many Pokémon at the first of three evolutionary levels, and maybe some who just aren’t where it seems they should be, like Regigigas and Pikachu.  0 stars is for those few Pokémon upon whom it seems the universe has just given up, like Luvdisc, Dustox, and Corsola.   Having fewer stars isn’t a bad thing – actually, it means you have options, because any Pokémon in the game can attain three stars, becoming more powerful along the way.  Each star a Pokémon is missing can be earned by completing training sequences available from characters in the game.  Different people can offer different effects.  One might allow your Pokémon to benefit from all of its species’ abilities, instead of just one.  Another might allow it to use two items at once (if this is an unevolved Pokémon, though, I would add the stipulation: only one Eviolite).  A third might give it a second pool of effort points, allowing it to increase its stats twice as much (for perspective, this would be equivalent to an increase in its base stats of about 63 points, distributed as the trainer wishes, with no more than 31 going to any one stat).  Another could allow you to designate an attack, let’s say one with no more than 60 power, à la Technician, as the Pokémon’s signature move, increasing its power and accuracy.  The sky is the limit.

Here’s where today’s lyric comes in: completing these training regimes isn’t like teaching a Pokémon a move out of a TM, or even like EV-training where the Pokémon itself doesn’t necessarily have to do any of the fighting.  Trust between trainer and Pokémon is paramount here.  First of all, even to begin, your Pokémon has to have its friendship at maximum, and certain training programs may have other requirements – if this is a game that uses the Pokémon Contest system, for instance, choosing a signature move might require a Pokémon to have a high score in the contest stat associated with that move (toughness, coolness, etc).  Unlocking a second effort pool could demand that the Pokémon already have won fifty battles.  Second, there’s the program itself, involving a Battle Tower-style challenge – healing between battles, comparatively smart opponents with proper effort training and items – where you can only use the Pokémon you’re training.  Since this is aimed at weaker Pokémon in the first place, you aren’t going to be fighting monstrous opponents like Tyranitar and Salamence, but you and your Pokémon are still going to have to face some serious difficulties together in order to progress.  Ultimately, your Pokémon still might not be able to hold its own against rivals on the level of Starmie or Infernape, but it might at least be in a better position to exploit whatever unique powers it does have, so that it can at least call itself respectable, if not top-tier – a longer and more difficult path to power, but doubtless rewarding for those who choose to take it.

As an example of where this could put one of those sadly disadvantaged Pokémon I mentioned earlier: Corsola (this will, unavoidably, involve quite a few numbers, for which I apologise in advance).  Corsola has a fantastic movepool and two lovely abilities (Regenerator and Natural Cure) but is so slow, so weak and so frail that none of it helps, and can’t even use an Eviolite, as can many other Pokémon who are already better off than her, like Scyther and Porygon2.  As one of the game’s saddest Pokémon, I’ve provisionally assigned Corsola a 0-star rating, meaning she can take as many as three courses of special training.  First step, then: take Corsola through some endurance training in a Battle Pyramid type obstacle course to unlock a second pool of effort points.  If she puts everything in that second pool into HP and attack, it effectively ups her current abysmal 55/55/85/65/85/35 stats to a much more respectable 86/86/85/65/85/35 – for reference, this puts her somewhere near Eelektross, Stoutland and Golurk in terms of overall toughness, though her power and speed are still a let-down.  Step two: by using intense meditation with one of the region’s great Pokémon Masters to enter and train in the Dream World, allow Corsola to access her two latent abilities.  She can now access the formidable healing potential of Natural Cure and Regenerator while still having access to terrifying offensive potential of Hustle.  My reasons for emphasising her physical attack earlier are hopefully becoming apparent, as we move into the final stage of training: first get her some tattoos or something to make her look and feel tougher, then on to some specialised technical training to make Rock Blast her signature move.  The precise impact of this depends on exactly how much extra power and accuracy a signature move enjoys, but if we say 30% for each, this more than makes up for the accuracy drop of Hustle (levelling out at 93%) and lands on a rather frightening average power of 97, plus a Hustle bonus.  Corsola is still painfully slow, the fact that she has no physical Water attacks limits this interpretation of her quite severely (she’d have significantly better variety as a special attacker, but would miss out on the power of Hustle – but that would be up to her trainer), and Water/Rock as a type combination is still far from inspiring.  However, even middling numerical toughness will make her extremely difficult to squash when she can restore health and recover from status effects just by switching out (this, I think, is appropriate enough given the portrayal in the anime of Misty’s Corsola, whose strength is largely built on a spectacular Recover attack), and that Hustle-boosted Rock Blast will leave one hell of a sting.  Rather than ‘Corsola sucks’ we’re now looking at a pros-and-cons situation – one where the pros are founded solidly on the way Corsola’s trainer chooses to emphasise the unique combination of skills she already possessed.

This is a stop-gap solution.  Of course it is.  However, with the alternatives being ‘evolve EVERYTHING’ and ‘enslave a branch of Nintendo employees to institute regular balance patches,’ I honestly believe something along these lines may be the most viable option for attempting to give something more to the Pokémon that most need it.  Maybe X and Y will bring miraculous new goodies for every single one of them, dredging them from obscurity like Ninetales and Politoed, and this will all turn out to have been splendidly unnecessary, but for some reason I am inclined to doubt it.  As for me, I can only submit my thoughts to you, dear readers, for your amusement and, hopefully, interest.

That… seems to conclude my series on what I would do If I Were In Charge.  And just in time, too; we’ve got some new games coming out in a minute.  I’m not sure what I’ll do with those, or when.  Maybe share my thoughts on the new Pokémon as I meet them.  In the meantime, I believe the only thing to do is enter a period of solitary meditation.  With cake.  So until I think of something else to pester you with, adieu, sweet readers, adieu.

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