One of the seemingly immutable fixtures of the Pokémon games is the system of gyms and badges. In each game (barring the Alola generation) the main challenge set before you, as a young trainer, is to visit eight Pokémon gyms, battle and defeat their leaders, and earn their badges – little bits of metal and brightly-coloured enamel that you pin to the inside of your coat, so you can flash them at people to get into clubs and impress boys. I assume. Today, in this article brought to you by the Dark Council of my Patreon supporters, we’re going to talk about badges and their history and meaning. I honestly don’t know how that’s going to go, but that’s what’s happening, so let’s get to it!
There is a venerable video game trope of “Travel the World, Raid the Dungeons, Defeat the Bosses, Collect the Things” that provides a useful structure to hang your story on. There’s multiple Things of a single class that you’re trying to collect, or perhaps multiple pieces of a single Thing, and they’re in different places being guarded by different enemies. This means developers can do things like, say, create a series of thematic dungeons with thematic boss fights, without having to come up with a unique story rationale for why you’re going to each one – it’s more gameplay mileage out of a single story element. That sounds lazy, but creating a video game is essentially about training players to do something, then presenting them with more and more variations and twists on that thing, so some amount of repetition can be part of good game design. Arguably the most straightforward and best-known examples are from Japanese games – Pokémon Red and Blue are themselves classic examples by now, but there’s also things like the elemental crystals of early Final Fantasy, or pieces of the Triforce in the Legend of Zelda series, as well as plenty from western games.
But why badges?
Why… little decorative metal pins that you attach to your clothes? Well… they might not always have been pins. Bulbapedia has a montage of several pieces of official character art from the old Red and Blue days that… appear to show badges as fabric patches sewn onto clothing. That might have been a relic from an early stage of the original game’s concept that envisioned “badges” as patches rather than pins – and, in fact, the games don’t really clarify what a badge actually is, although when you review your collected badges on your trainer card they look like they could be pin badges. The pins make sense because they’re more easily transferrable; a gym leader can hand one over, and you can just attach it to your clothes or put it in a case. A patch has to be sewn onto your clothes, and then that’s a whole thing; it’s just not worth the effort. But patches have some history that I think has some nice resonance with the Pokémon games’ other themes. I’ve never seen anyone explicitly make this comparison; I don’t know whether that’s because it’s so obvious that no one’s ever bothered to say it, or because there’s something I’m missing that makes it obviously wrong, or because I’m genuinely the first English-speaker to point it out… but for me, it’s difficult to escape the resemblance between Pokémon’s “badges” and scouts’ merit badges. Scout “badges” are embroidered patches, earned by either completing specific skill-based challenges or assignments, or by attaining a higher rank. And, well, there is a Japanese Scout Association, the Bōi Sukauto Nippon Renmei, which goes back to the 1920s, is affiliated with the same international movement as the UK Scout Association and the Boy Scouts of America, has a pretty robust membership, and – just like its counterpart organisations in other countries – awards Japanese scouts with “badges” as signifiers of their achievements. They’re even called バッジ (bajji, transliteration of the English “badge,”) just like Pokémon’s gym badges. I don’t… know that the original Game Freak crew who worked on Pokémon: Red and Green back in the early 90s were thinking of scouts’ merit badges when they decided that a young trainer’s progress and growth would be marked by things called “badges” that they illustrated (at least some of the time) as embroidered patches, but I think it’s plausible.
And frankly it makes sense!
Young Pokémon trainers are kind of like boy scouts, learning wilderness and survival skills so they can explore on their own. The Pokédex quest – the mission of being sent out into the world to catch and study Pokémon of many different species – seems like the kind of thing you might do to earn a merit badge with a title like “wildlife” or “nature protection” or “nature watcher” (all badges awarded by the Scout Association of Japan). The characters are portrayed in about the right age group, with the protagonist of the original games being 11 years old and several NPC trainers being apparently a couple of years younger, while many gym leaders are teenagers. In the same way as merit badges are typically awarded for specific skills, gym badges are awarded for learning how to overcome Pokémon of a specific type. You achieve higher ranks and recognition of your proficiency by being awarded a certain number of them. Hell, even the vaguely-defined and often ambiguous positions and jobs of gym leaders make a lot of intuitive sense if you imagine them as volunteer troupe leaders or Akelas. It even makes it more understandable that we never had a badge-granting gym specialising in the Dark (or “Evil”) type until Sword and Shield – you can hardly have a merit badge for “evil” (well, you can, it’s just that a lot of the scouts go insane and start summoning primordial monsters from beyond the stars; it’s not worth the hassle). Honestly, I could really get behind the idea of a game that leans into this angle, focusing heavily on mastering wilderness skills and learning to use the abilities of Pokémon for specific tasks and challenges. Battle is important as a display of bonds with your Pokémon, but as a “Pokémon scout” you are judged first and foremost on your knowledge and service to your community.
The main thing badges practically do in the games is allow you to control more powerful Pokémon. Pokémon you caught yourself will always obey you without question, but ones that you receive in trades (“outsiders,” as some NPC dialogue dubs them) will be prone to skipping turns or acting randomly in battle if they exceed the level you can safely command (the scaling of this limit varies slightly between generations, but in general starts at about level 20 when you have a single badge and gradually rises to level 100 when you have all eight). Part of my prompt for this article was to talk about how this works, and what it is about badges that makes stronger Pokémon obey you, and… well, look, to be honest, I dunno if it’s worth reading too much into this. I know that the Pokémon Adventures manga (which I have not read and do not know in detail) treats badges as actually having mystical qualities, but I don’t think the games or anime ever suggest anything like that, and the idea of badges magically compelling Pokémon to obey… does not sit super well with me? I think it’s less of a stretch to imagine that obedience is based on a Pokémon’s respect for a more skilled trainer; I’m more or less willing to sign on to some kind of interpretation where Pokémon (even wild Pokémon) understand what a trainer is and does, and are even capable of judging whether their own trainer is a good one. I am a little more sceptical that they understand the literal function of badges in human society and care about precisely how many of them a trainer has, but personally I’m happy to write off some of the details as gameplay abstractions – that is, earning badges represents a trainer’s growing skill and authority, but we aren’t supposed to imagine that the Pokémon literally obey you because they see your badges. The concept of badges unlocking new level thresholds for obedience is simple, easy to understand and adds a sense of progression to the main objectives of the game’s story. Building a more “realistic” system for managing how individual Pokémon feel about you and whether they’re willing to obey would be a lot more design work for something that I’m not sure players would even want. This is one of those places where I think taking the games too literally just leads to nonsense.
Badges used to do other things too, but these have been eroded over the course of many generations of games. In generations I-III, several of them increase the stats of all your Pokémon – for instance, the Boulder Badge in Red and Blue permanently gives everything a 12.5% bonus to physical attacks, giving you a little edge over AI opponents for the rest of the game (the bonus doesn’t apply in multiplayer). The game does tell you this, although it’s a little vague about exactly how the effect works. What it doesn’t tell you – heck, I literally only learned this while writing this article – is that, in generation II only (not including the remakes, Heart Gold and Soul Silver), each badge also confers a secret type damage bonus. Get the Zephyr Badge, and all your Flying attacks will permanently be 12.5% stronger; likewise for Bug attacks with the Hive Badge, Normal attacks with the Plain Badge and so on. Gold and Silver have 16 gyms in all, across Johto and Kanto, so by the end of the game the only type that doesn’t receive this bonus is Dark (again, though, this doesn’t apply to multiplayer battles). This is another phenomenon you could interpret as anything from “the badges are literally magic and empower your Pokémon” to “the badges just kinda represent the skills you’ve learned as a trainer over the course of your journey” and again I lean toward the latter. I can’t say I’m all that cut up about these effects being removed from later versions of the game; there are plenty of other ways AI trainers are at a disadvantage in the early generations without the player being given direct bonuses like this, and later generations have added even more. On the other hand, the idea of badges representing your character’s accumulated knowledge, skills and experiences, as well as the memory of the battles in which you won them, is something I can get behind – I like the idea of having some mechanical representation of that.
In generations I-IV and VI, badges unlock the HM moves like Cut, Surf and Fly that you use to navigate the overworld. In terms of the structure of the game, you can compare what these badges are doing to picking up a new utility item like the flippers or hookshot in Legend of Zelda, or getting your airship in Final Fantasy (or, in particular, the range of vehicles and chocobo mounts unlocked over the course of FF VII) – as you progress through the game, you not only open up new routes and areas, but also gain access to hidden parts of earlier areas. Generation V has HMs, but unlike in the previous games they aren’t required for any critical routes and are completely optional for finishing the story, so there isn’t any gameplay reason to have them locked behind badges; generations VII and VIII, of course, have done away with the blasted things entirely, which is a topic for another day. The last thing badges do – starting in generation IV – is determine which items are available for purchase at PokéMarts. The more badges you have, the better stuff you’re sold. As one of Pokémon’s game designers, you don’t want all purchasable items to be available in every shop, but it also seems weird that shops in the early games have better inventories as you move along the particular route the player character happens to take through a region. Violet City is a pretty major city near the heart of Johto; why are its PokéMart’s offerings so much more meagre than those of a remote mountain settlement like Blackthorn City? Tie it all to badges, and there’s some internal logic to it – it doesn’t make sense to let newbie trainers spend huge amounts of money on consumable items they probably can’t use to their full potential yet. These changes in what badges do are another reason I think it’s best not to try to read too much into how badges work or take the games’ testimony too literally. In 2005, we could have tied ourselves in knots discussing what special property of badges allows them to unlock HM moves and how that relates to whatever the difference is between using an HM move in battle and in the field… and then a few years later, it’d just turn out that it was fine, there’s nothing special about badges and HM moves, but just wait ‘til you hear about badges and PokéMarts! Sometimes, it’s possible to get interesting worldbuilding out of abstract mechanical choices (and I’ve played some great games that deliberately cultivate this), but sometimes… a game mechanic is just a game mechanic.
Finally, let’s talk a bit about badge designs.
The Japanese names of badges are always transliterations of English words, and starting with generation III in Hoenn, the English and Japanese names usually match. The major exception is generation VIII, where all of Galar’s badges are simply named after the Pokémon types they represent – “Grass Badge,” “Water Badge” and so on. Some types, like Ghost, Fairy and Dragon, actually have transliterated English names as well (like ドラゴン/doragon), but most of them have proper Japanese words as their names, so the Grass Badge is くさバッジ (kusa bajji), the Water Badge is みずバッジ (mizu bajji), etc. Kanto’s badges all have colour names that match the colours of their cities: grey, blue, orange, pink, gold, crimson, green (but the cities are named with Japanese colour words like nibi and hanada, while the badges use English words like gurē for “grey” and burū for “blue”). Celadon’s Rainbow Badge is the only one that has the same name in both languages, because in Japanese the city itself is tamamushi, referring to the shimmering rainbow colours of iridescent jewel beetles – the multicoloured heart of Kanto (whereas English “celadon” is a sort of jade green). The Kanto badges are, appropriately, quite colourful and don’t always seem to have much to do with their associated types – the Electric-type Thunder Badge looks like a sunburst, the Poison-type Soul Badge looks like a heart, the Ground-type Earth Badge looks like part of a plant. That lack of clear type theming might be behind apparent mixing-up of the names “Marsh Badge” and “Soul Badge” during the production of the English release (the round “Gold Badge” of Saffron City was probably supposed to be called the “Soul Badge” in English, reflecting the Saffron Gym’s Psychic specialisation, but that name became attached to the heart-shaped “Pink Badge” of Fuchsia City instead because the name matches the badge’s design better). The way this comes across to me is that the badges were originally thought of as emblems of the cities, whose colourful names they reference, and only secondarily as emblems of the gyms or their Pokémon. I think this also feeds back into my “Pokémon trainers as scouts” interpretation, because it emphasises that powerful trainers are, first and foremost, servants of their communities. If that’s the case, though, this aspect is obviously lost very quickly in subsequent games, in favour of having badges that symbolise each gym’s type specialisation – with the possible exception, oddly, of the Sinnoh badges in Diamond and Pearl, which mostly seem to be named after features of their respective cities that also match their gyms’ types, like Oreburgh’s coal mines, Sunyshore City’s lighthouse or Pastoria City’s swamps.
Starting in Johto, the Japanese games follow the precedent set by the international releases of generation I, using badge names that refer obliquely to the Pokémon type of the relevant gym – Wing/Zephyr Badge, Insect/Hive Badge, etc. Johto’s gym badges are less brightly coloured and all have designs that reference their gym’s type in some way; the Hive Badge is a stylised ladybird, the Glacier Badge is a snowflake, that sort of thing. They no longer have any connection to their respective cities (the cities of Johto, in Japanese, mostly have double-meaning names that refer to both colours and plants; the English names seem to try, where possible, to incorporate both themes). This is more or less the pattern followed by the designs and names of gym badges in Hoenn, Sinnoh, Unova and Kalos, although each region’s badges have their own distinctive style – Sinnoh’s have blocks of colour set into silvery frames, and can be polished using the DS’s touch screen to make them sparkle; Unova’s are all long and thin so they can slot neatly into a case, lined up like sardines in a can. The anime-exclusive Orange Islands region has four badges that are all made of decorated seashells, in keeping with that season’s maritime theme. After doing this for 15 years, I get the impression the team may have started to run out of thematic names, eventually just naming Galar’s badges after their respective types (“$#!t, what do we call the ice badge? We’ve used Glacier Badge, Icicle Badge, Freeze Badge, Iceberg Badge…” “For Arceus’ sake, man, there’s no time; just call it the Ice Badge!”). Understandably, Sun and Moon tried to change things up a little bit.
Alola rather dramatically cast aside both badges and the gyms whose authority they represent, but Sun and Moon still have formulaic challenges that grant the player tokens of progression: the Alolan Trials and the assorted elemental Z-Crystals you receive for completing them. In the story, Alola doesn’t have a Pokémon League – there’s a little side plot of Professor Kukui setting one up, with the player eventually becoming its first ever Champion. Alola doesn’t have gyms because it’s culturally very distinct from every other region we’ve visited in the core games; it’s deliberately supposed to feel exotic, and it’s supposed to care deeply about tradition. Unlike badges, the crystals are explicitly mystical – there are a few people, like PokéMart cashiers, who will react to the number of crystals you have as a mark of your achievements, but their main function is to empower your Pokémon with… some kind of freaky magic (probably something to do with Necrozma’s light). The Z-Crystals themselves are arguably less important than the trials in which you earn them – challenges that give wild Pokémon some say in the education and certification of young trainers, emphasising Alola’s closeness to, and dependence on, nature and the four guardian deities of the islands, as well as unusual capacity for teamwork of the region’s Pokémon. The actual process of completing Alola’s Island Challenge is in practice not that different from another region’s gym challenge – you go to a bunch of special places, fight some difficult battles, collect tokens with an elemental theme, and are thus certified as a proficient Pokémon trainer. The differences are all in the lore and worldbuilding stuff, and stress that Alola is exotic, different and mystical. I’ve said before that I love the idea of different regions having alternatives to gyms and badges – because why would every region of the Pokémon world use the same system? – and I love that Alola’s alternative is part of developing a regional identity. I’d like to see more departures from the plot and gameplay structure of the badge quest as well, but I hope future regions continue to explore other possible badges-that-aren’t-badges – or, in a region where badges and gyms are thematically appropriate, like Galar, try to explore how they work and what their purpose is.
Galar returns to “badges” – but they’re no longer badges as we’ve become used to them. Instead, each badge is a fragment of a single large medallion, complete once you’ve earned all eight. The form of the badges stresses the fact that Galar’s gym challenge is more structured than those of previous regions. Trainers in previous regions work through gyms at their own pace, perhaps eventually challenging the Elite Four if they become strong enough; Galar, on the other hand, has a whole crop of new trainers begin simultaneously, tackle the eight gyms in a prescribed order, and race to complete the circuit before the final tournament, which sees them battle not only gym leaders but each other. Each gym is very explicitly part of a larger challenge, with the final goal much more clearly emphasised than it has been in previous Pokémon games, so the badges too are pieces of a greater whole. I have to assume that each region’s Pokémon League gets all its badges designed together, so they can have a matching regional style, but this has to be even more true of the Galar League. Since Galar explicitly has more gyms than we see in the games, which can be promoted and demoted between the region’s major and minor leagues, the medallion (and at least some of the badges that make it up) must need to be redesigned each year, as different combinations of gyms see inclusion in the major league. Every year’s medallion would look slightly different – I can imagine complete ones would make neat collectors’ items, which would fit nicely into Galar’s emphasis on Pokémon battles as a mass spectator sport.
So… what have we learned?
Badges are, ultimately, symbols. They’re symbols of a whole bunch of different things: the gyms and leaders that grant them, the cities those institutions represent, the Pokémon that fight for the leaders, the achievements of the trainers who win them, the knowledge , the memories of the battles themselves. It’s hard to divorce badges from the gym challenge, which feels like one of those things Pokémon just can’t ever bear to part with, so there isn’t really any point in asking a question like “should Pokémon get rid of badges?” The answer might well be “yes,” but if we still have gyms anyway, it’s sort of irrelevant. More productively, we might ask “given that this is a fixture of Pokémon’s world, what could badges actually do?” Are badges just a quantity that communicates a particular level of ability, or could characters see different badges in different ways – as certificates of proficiency in a specific skill or in training specific kinds of Pokémon, as marks of the personal approval of a leader or of service to their community, as symbols of knowledge and allegiance to a culture? What would it mean to have a region where wild Pokémon actually do recognise and distinguish different badges? All these questions and more will not be answered in the next Pokémon game – stay tuned!
This article was brought to you by my Dark Council, the secret society of my highest-tier supporters on Patreon, who get to vote each month on a topic for me to write about. This particular one was suggested by Miame Irohara, the Council’s esteemed Chancellor of Fate. Thanks as always to everyone who supports my writing https://pokemaniacal.com/acknowledgements/, and if you enjoy my work and have a little to spare, please consider a small monthly donation https://www.patreon.com/pokemaniacal – but either way, thanks for reading!