A rambling chat about game balance

In lieu of a Pokémon review (because what even is my life right now, arghghghl; next weekend my students are handing in essays and I have to write an exam for the week after that), here is a message log with a conversation between me and Jim the Editor about game balance in Pokémon (and elsewhere).  This is the kind of thing I might post regularly to a Patreon page, if I ever actually create one?  So, comments would be useful.

Screenshot 2018-10-21 at 6.41.51 PM.png Continue reading “A rambling chat about game balance”

A Paean to an Obsolete and Underloved Game

I wish to ramble, at length and for no reason in particular, about something of absolutely no importance.

More specifically, I wish to ramble about an interesting but obscure and not particularly successful 1997 real-time strategy game that is wildly unbalanced, has clunky and unintuitive controls, is frankly kinda glitchy, and was created by a studio that went under more than 15 years ago.

You have been duly warned. Continue reading “A Paean to an Obsolete and Underloved Game”

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  I’m going to be dealing primarily with battle mechanics here, so odds are good everything I say here is going to be superseded completely the moment X and Y are released in a couple of weeks (hell, for all I know, some of it has been already, since I deliberately pay very little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.

If I Were In Charge: A heart so true, our courage will pull us through

Damn, this one was hard to write…

Who among us has never once felt a little cheated by our inability to respond “yes” to the Team Rocket recruiter’s offer in Cerulean City on Red and Blue?  One of the more persistent demands fans make of Pokémon is the possibility of being able to ‘swap sides’ as it were – play for the bad guys once in a while.  Many RPGs allow this; some even focus on it, so it’s hardly without precedent, but Pokémon games do not do this.  Even outside the core series, there are (to my knowledge) no games where playing as a villain is an option.  Surely this is somewhere that offers a lot of potential for future developments?

Well, yes and no.  The fact is, I think that Game Freak’s reticence to explore those paths is, in many ways, entirely justified.  So before talking about how I’d do this, let’s first think about whether I even would.

The difficulty with working with ideas like this is that Pokémon is, at its heart, an incredibly optimistic world.  This is not to say that it doesn’t have its fair share of darkness, or that its darkest places are not at times the most interesting – a glance at Yamask, at the Marowak of Pokémon Tower, or at N’s backstory will immediately dispel any such illusion.  In the end, though, N is freed from Ghetsis’ cynical manipulation to become a hero in fact as well as in name, the mother Marowak is laid to rest with her killers punished and her home saved, and even the tortured Yamask can find happiness in their new existence with kind trainers.  Optimism doesn’t mean that the world is happy and shiny and nothing bad or painful ever happens; it means that there’s always a way out, and that being traditionally ‘good’ is often the path of least resistance.  In part this is because so much of the Pokémon universe is fuelled, implicitly or explicitly, by ‘the power of friendship.’  This is particularly obvious, of course, with Pokémon like Chansey and Golbat who actually achieve their final forms by bonding with trainers (and exactly what that means depends on how you view evolution, but many characters seem to regard it as a realisation of potential), but it’s also worth bearing in mind the games’ persistence in attributing your success to love of your Pokémon.  It’s perhaps even implied that your triumphs over the series’ villains are as much a matter of moral superiority as of tactical skill, although the same probably cannot be said of your Pokémon League victories (with the exception of Red and Blue, where Professor Oak explicitly calls out his grandson on this).  The option of an ‘evil playthrough’ turns all of this on its head – the virtuous, noble trainers of the world are unable to stand against your corruption, as it turns out that callous cruelty is actually just as powerful a tool for raising Pokémon as friendship, a realisation which has the potential to damage some of the fundamental assumptions the world is built on.  Pokémon are power.  Strong trainers have a far greater capacity to effect change than ordinary people.  As long as the majority of strong trainers are good, decent people who particularly value friendship, the result is a stable, orderly society.  In the end, this is why the Champion is so important; as the greatest trainer, he or she symbolises the qualities that make trainers great.  Allowing players a path to power through deceit, selfishness and callousness, one which culminates in the Championship, the position of ‘greatest trainer,’ isn’t just about giving players more choice; it shakes the setting’s morality, and even its implicit sociopolitical structure, to their core.

It’s kind of a big deal.

So, given all of this, where do we take the game’s basic structure?  If we’re talking about a more morally ambiguous organisation like Team Plasma, there’s an easy way out – your quest is to take control of your Team and turn it into a force for good by eradicating its more objectionable factions – but I suspect that this would not satisfy the players who want the option in the first place, and would be seen as something of a cop-out.  If we’re going to do this seriously, we need to be joining a thoroughly nasty group like Team Rocket.  Why, under these circumstances, do we keep working on the Pokédex?  Why, assuming Professor Tree knows of our new allegiance, does he or she continue to help us?  I’ve assumed so far that we would still be taking the Gym challenge and working towards the Championship, but wouldn’t it make more sense just to try to sabotage and take down the Pokémon League?  Most importantly, how do we get around the inescapable fact that, since the beginning of the series, the greatest trainers have drawn their strength from friendship and kindness?  I think it might be worth looking here at Silver (the character, not the game), because he has an interesting position in the games’ moral structure.  First of all, he opposes Team Rocket in spite of being portrayed in a very clearly negative light – just because you’re a douchebag doesn’t mean you’re automatically on their side.  Could there be any truth to the reverse?  Second, even after his ‘redemption’ towards the end of the game, and his gradual realisation that working together with his Pokémon (as opposed to just abusing them and complaining about how pathetic they are) is a much surer way to strength, he’s still a dick.  He’s a lot nicer to his Pokémon, sure, but he’s still not really a model human being.  Even his obsession with power hasn’t changed; it’s just that it’s now a joint obsession built on a foundation of mutual trust (something you can also see in a number of minor characters from the anime – AJ, for instance, from the Path to the Pokémon League).  Can we go somewhere with this?  Emphasise the idea that, no matter who you are and whose side you’re on, the greatest possible source of strength is ultimately a good relationship with your Pokémon?

If I were writing a Pokémon game, starting from the position that I wanted players to be able to join an ‘evil’ side… well, for starters, it would be quite different from what I’ve been working towards so far in this series.  I would probably offer not two options but three, and make it clear that each one has its problems.  Joining a side doesn’t just mean taking on its enemies and advancing its goals to the detriment of its two rivals; it also means dealing with the internal problems of your group, and doing the ‘right’ thing on each of the three paths.  As an example, let’s say that the factions on offer are the regional Pokémon League, the Professors, and Team Evil.  The Pokémon League in this region is weak, ineffectual and corrupt – perhaps in the wake of a major natural disaster.  A succession of introspective, hands-off Champions has caused public support for the League and interest in training to wane, fewer talented trainers rise through the ranks every year, and layers of bureaucracy stifle all decisive action.  With no Pokémon League agenda or oversight to guide their actions, the Professors are absorbed in research for its own sake.  While all of them are theoretically in it for the noble end of increasing human knowledge, some steal and hoard data, and a couple have taken an ‘ends justify the means’ stance to certain forms of experimentation; few remain interested in sharing their advances through education, and most have retreated to their ‘ivory towers,’ as it were.  Team Evil is split by a schism between trainers who regard Pokémon as tools (in the traditional manner of Pokémon villains) and trainers who see their Pokémon as junior members of the organisation, deserving of certain rights, privileges and rewards.  The former despise the Pokémon League and are glad that it’s fading; the latter have a slightly more ambivalent view.  Initially, there are jobs you can do for all three, to get a sense of the sort of thing that’s going on here – a League inspector needs someone relatively unknown to check out a local Gym, and give them a swift kick in the pants if they aren’t doing their job; Professor Tree asks you to capture a certain Pokémon for a colleague’s unspecified ‘experiments’ (and perhaps to steal it back later on, once the nature of those experiments becomes clear!); a Team Evil agent wants to free his partner Pokémon who was confiscated by police on a job that went wrong.  The choice comes when all three want the same thing, and all three approach several trainers, including you, to get it for them – let’s say a fossil of a rare Pokémon, which is believed to possess some kind of unique power.  Professor Tree wants it for the Pokédex project, and to understand its abilities.  Team Evil wants to resurrect it with the help of one of the more morally bankrupt Professors and make use of its powers in their future plans.  Your contact in the Pokémon League just wants to keep it away from the other two.

If you join the Pokémon League, the story follows a perfectly straightforward path – you need to bring the wayward Professors back into the fold and make the results of their research accessible to everyone (starting with the Pokédex project), put down Team Evil’s operations, and grow powerful enough to become the strong, new Champion your region needs to turn itself around.  If you want to stick with Professor Tree, the plot centres on creating a united syndicate of Pokémon researchers with common goals and ethical standards, a group with the necessary organisation and leverage to lead the region forward in place of the decaying Pokémon League.  Professor Tree needs all of his or her colleagues on side (or at least most of them), so this can’t be about completely putting an end to their operations, but clearly they need to be shown the error of their ways before progress can be made.  They want a Champion who is prepared to fundamentally change the way the league functions, giving a far greater role to science and technology – for the demands of the story, then, the current Champion probably has to be distrustful of scientists, perhaps with a philosophical or spiritual inclination to view science and nature as opposed (compare, for instance, the contrast Colress draws in Black and White 2 between Ghetsis’ technological approach and the player character’s emotional bond with Pokémon).  Siding with Team Evil means that you’ll first have to resolve their internal disputes – they may all be criminals, but while some of them are brutes and vandals, others have the foresight to understand that their Pokémon make better partners than servants.  The latter group don’t want the Pokémon League to fail – they like the free Pokémon Centres, cheap mass-produced Pokéballs, and access to technology like Pokédexes that can only be guaranteed by a thriving trainer organisation.  If anything, they want to prop the League up; they just want to make sure there’s some profit in it for them.  That means getting in on the ground floor of any restoration that happens – Gym Leader positions for some of their agents and executives, plenty of space to run operations like Team Rocket’s game corner without too much oversight, freedom to travel to areas where rare Pokémon are found, control over new Pokémon research, and, if at all possible, a friendly Champion.

Basically, the choice of Team Evil, in this situation, represents despair over a Pokémon League that is, itself, an organisation mostly made up of layabouts and crooks, held together by the actions of a few genuinely good trainers.  On its own, the Pokémon League will continue to slide towards its eventual collapse, and all three choices are potential improvements, simply because the only way to go is up.  Whichever way you go, you’re working towards order – the big question is whose order, and for what purposes.  The way the different sides are portrayed has to be something of a mixture for this to work – there need to be villains within the Pokémon League and ‘heroes’ of a sort within our Team Evil, but the latter do need to be obviously villains, all things considered, otherwise we’re defeating the purpose of the exercise.  A pair of rival characters could further this portrayal by taking the other two sides in the conflict (obviously their decisions would have to be revealed some time after you make yours).  The first is an ‘impulsive’ character, who either joins the League out of a desire to fight for justice, or opposes them because of their corruption and winds up as a member of Team Evil, since it’s ‘better’ for everyone just to wipe away the mess and start anew.  Breaking into the labs of a company that produces medical supplies in order to set up a new Pokémon Centre in an outlying village (one that charges a fee) might be robbing from Peter to buy Paul’s soul, but at least something’s getting done, where the League would take a year just to evaluate budget constraints.  The other rival is essentially ‘rational,’ and will join the Professors by default or Team Evil as a second choice, either way because logic dictates the need for a change of leadership, and decisive action.

Rather than having legendary version mascots, as has become the tradition, each of the three paths ends in partnership with a different legendary Pokémon, representing a particular characteristic that the player – or rival – will need to cultivate: justice, intellect, and ambition (I’m currently imagining these Pokémon as a trio of mythical beasts; a centaur for justice, an empousa shapeshifter for intellect, and a chimera for ambition).  Intellect opposes justice because it does things for reasons beyond the purely logical, and ambition because it can blind your objectivity; the opposition between justice and ambition should be obvious.  If you choose the Pokémon League, you can defeat Team Evil and bring your ‘impulsive’ rival back on side, along with his legendary Pokémon, before claiming your own legendary Pokémon and becoming Champion; both of you then have a final showdown with the ‘rational’ rival, who is angling for a shift to a very strict, ordered way of living with Pokémon (along the lines of what my Team Eden wanted), overseen by researchers and Professors.  If you choose the Professors, factions within the Pokémon League will prevent you from completing the necessary technology you need to enter your legendary Pokémon’s hidden realm and partner with it, forcing you to work with Team Evil and the ‘rational’ rival to steal the artefacts and information you need.  They, naturally, go behind your back and use the same technology to find their own legendary Pokémon and then stab you in the back, working against you until you defeat them and force your rival to admit that the logical thing to do now is side with you.  Then you can go on to the Pokémon League and defeat the ‘impulsive’ rival, who is now Champion, to start setting up your new order.  Finally, if you choose Team Evil – and I vaguely recall that this was the original point of this article – your two rivals and their legendary Pokémon partners wind up at each other’s throats and you, the new leader of Team Evil, of all people, have to play the…  let’s say ‘peacemaker’… by manoeuvring both factions into positions where they each have to admit that they can’t beat the other, then claiming your partner and defeating both rivals to become both the Champion and the de facto leader of the research syndicate.  Naturally, this path is the most ‘ambitious’ one, that being the associated virtue of your legendary partner.  It’s also the only one that leaves you in a position of more or less absolute power.  You can, at this point, give your rivals a ‘join me and we’ll rule the galaxy together’ speech, which they will accept, in whatever positions you choose to give them – they are still your friends, sort of, and they’ve been fighting each other directly a lot more than they’ve been fighting you.  Meanwhile, Team Evil have learnt from you that, in the world of Pokémon, a little kindness in the right place can actually be the route to incredible power, and that grand ambitions are always easier to achieve when you share them.  The result is a tightly-knit aristocracy that guards its own supremacy fiercely, has a finger in every pie, and watches everything… but manages to do an okay job in the end.

This is totally not what I set out to write, but I am so done with this article.

If I Were In Charge: Arm in arm, we’ll win the fight; it’s always been our dream

Right.  I’m in America.  I have an apartment.  With a bed.   And food.  Good.  I have just over a month until X and Y are released, promptly making this entire series quite obsolete, and three planned articles left.  That seems like a perfectly reasonable timeline.  On with the show!

Now, where was I?

Red and Blue.  Gold and Silver.  Ruby and Sapphire.  Diamond and Pearl.  Black and White.  Pokémon games, as a matter of tradition, come in pairs.  The games’ storylines are broadly very similar; the essential difference is in the Pokémon that are available in each one – generally, each game will have perhaps five or six Pokémon of the current generation that are missing from the other.  The obvious purpose is to encourage trading; it’s impossible to complete the Pokédex on a single game, so one must enlist the help of friends (this is, of course, the intention; for the purposes of this discussion we will leave firmly aside the stereotype of the lonely Pokémon trainer who buys two consoles and both versions to trade with him or herself).  These days, with so many legacy Pokémon scattered across so many different games, one questions whether this is actually necessary; it is almost impossible by this point to complete the entire national Pokédex even with three or four different games at one’s disposal (the handful of deliberately omitted Pokémon seeming but a minor speed bump in comparison) completing the regional Pokédex only requires one to see all of the local species anyway, plenty of Pokémon still need to be traded to evolve, and there are no shortage of other multiplayer functions to reward playing with friends, which will doubtless continue to proliferate.  I would go so far as to suggest that the concept of paired games, as originally intended, is obsolete.  However, the games have been evolving.  Pairs of Pokémon games aren’t just about trading so you can get a Bellsprout anymore – the tradition of pairing has almost become a part of the medium, something that later games have been using to make a point.  Can this concept continue to be relevant and beneficial even when its original purpose has become almost meaningless?

Ruby and Sapphire were the first pair of games to attempt to use the ‘pairing’ concept for something beyond its basic gameplay function, with two enemy factions – Team Aqua and Team Magma – each game featuring one of the two as its primary antagonist, while the other takes a very minor role, acting primarily as an ally, but perhaps with a slight implication that the only reason they aren’t just as dangerous is because they’re losing the war.  Arguably Emerald alone, by featuring both groups as antagonists, is equally effective in conveying the essential message – that, in spite of their conflict, both teams have effectively the same ideology, and that both are dangerous because what’s important is not the primacy of either land or sea but the balance between the two.  However, the pairing of Ruby and Sapphire is an interesting way of doing the same thing, since it lets two players see the same events taking place while putting two different sets of characters in different roles.  Of course, this only works because the whole point is that the conflict is unnecessary and both parties misguided.  Black and White actually use a similar idea, although they’re a bit more subtle about it; as Drayden points out in the sequels, Reshiram’s truth and Zekrom’s ideals aren’t even opposed at all, really, and of course the player and N can each be partnered with either dragon, interchangeably.  This isn’t the only way Black and White reference and exploit the twin game structure, though; those games love duality, the big one being nature/civilisation, which is in a sense the whole point of the story, by way of N’s desire to separate people from Pokémon, dividing the world into black and white.  Tradition/progress is another important one, remarked on by a number of townspeople when spoken to, particularly in Opelucid City – itself an interesting idea, a town which is radically different on each of the two games – and in the version-specific towns of Black City and White Forest.

Black here stands as a cipher for science, innovation and sophistication, while White stands likewise for simplicity, harmony and naturalism.  The pairing is more than a gameplay obstacle; the games advocate for two contrasting philosophies or ways of life, which – and this is important – are envisioned as being equally valid (perhaps one could draw a similar contrast between the reverence for nature espoused by traditional Japanese Shinto faith and the focus on technology that has made modern Japan an economic powerhouse).  One presumes that X and Y will do something similar – there seem to be hints that ‘X’ and ‘Y’ stand for the X and Y chromosomes and therefore, symbolically, for masculinity and femininity.  Exactly how Game Freak would use something like that is quite beyond me.  If it really is what ‘X’ and ‘Y’ mean it could be very interesting, although also potentially dangerous, since it is physically impossible to discuss gender without offending someone (heck, we’re already upsetting a lot of people just by considering masculine and feminine as a duality).  This isn’t about Game Freak, though, or X and Y – this is about me, and appreciating how much better I am at every conceivable aspect of existence.  With that in mind, let’s talk about what else we could do with the concept of paired Pokémon games, and with Pokémon’s multiplayer facilities in general.

While I like the idea of having two opposed teams of villains, it’s been done before with Aqua and Magma (although it could admittedly be done better) and I’ve already said my piece on villains in Pokémon, so let’s put that aside this time.  I’m tempted to look at something really esoteric, like a Pokémon that changes its form and powers on the different games (the way Deoxys did when it was first introduced in the third generation), but I’m not sure how that could be done effectively.  No, I think the first thing I’d like to build on is the idea of version-exclusive areas, as used in Black and White – but not quite.  Let’s have different starting locations.  The two games begin in two different towns.  These towns could be nearby and have a traditional but friendly rivalry, or they could be at opposite ends of the region, with cultural differences as stark as Black City and White Forest.  Perhaps they are both known for different aspects of raising Pokémon – one for breeding, the other for contests or some other artistic pursuit, which could perhaps be used to set up a contrast between two different areas of civilised life, namely labour and culture.  Different starting areas would also make for an interesting variation on the traditional idea of version-exclusive Pokémon: players would navigate the region’s routes and areas in a different order, encountering different species of Pokémon in the early parts of the game (this would, of course, necessitate that the levels of wild Pokémon in certain areas be different from one game to the other).  Doing things like this would also provide a good excuse to make the home town actually important, rather than just a random backwater that you leave at the beginning of the game and then never return to except after defeating the Elite Four.  If you find ways to build up your own home town and make it more prosperous – attracting a tournament organiser to set up a new Pokémon battling event there, establishing a nearby area as a safari zone-style Pokémon preserve with rare species, for example – those same changes will appear on a friend’s opposite version game if you link up, and vice versa (there’s some overlap, obviously, with some of the ideas I brought up when I talked about being the Champion).  The nature preserve could also provide an extension of the old idea of version-exclusive Pokémon – earlier in the game, you can add your own games’ exclusive Pokémon to each other’s safari zones to be captured, while later on, after the end of the primary storylines, you can each add different Pokémon that don’t appear on either game (that is, ones from earlier generations).  The culmination of the ‘build up the hometown’ sequences could be larger expansions that also add something to the game’s multiplayer functions: for the ‘worker’ town, a huge ‘agricultural centre’ with an international day care, a place where you can leave several Pokémon and have them breed, at random, with Pokémon belonging to trainers you’ve met on the Global Link (or similar), as well as buy rare items for helping Pokémon grow; for the ‘artist’ town, a great amphitheatre where you can compete in Pokémon contests over Nintendo Wi-Fi, or have your Pokémon pose for paintings and sculptures that you can use to decorate your home and other areas (these same works of art could appear on the games of other players you connected with, carrying plaques to explain where they came from).

Part of the traditional two-game structure, of course, has always been a pair of version mascots: initially the fully-evolved starter Pokémon, Charizard and Blastoise, but since Gold and Silver, pairs of legendary Pokémon, who since Ruby and Sapphire have been directly relevant to the plot.  That means I need a link with my ‘Team Eden’ plot (assuming people still remember it), as well as, hopefully, with my putative labour/culture contrast.  In terms of an animal inspiration, the first thing that comes to mind for me, perhaps oddly, is a pair of legendary insects, of all things, drawing on Aesop’s story of the industrious ant and the musical grasshopper.  We need more legendary Bug-types, right?  The ant is a Ground-type who taught humans both farming and the basics of engineering in ancient times, as well as the virtue of simple hard work, which is what she values above all else.  She is willing to help Cassandra and Team Eden because she feels that humans have come to rely on Pokémon for everything, losing touch with what it’s like to have to work for themselves.  The grasshopper could be a Grass-, Psychic, or Fairy-type; he loves art in all of its forms – music most of all, but painting, sculpture, dance and poetry too, as well as all manifestations of natural beauty.  He joins the fight because, although human artistic endeavour pleases him, he feels that we suppress the ability of Pokémon to enjoy the freedom of creative expression.  Your version mascot, of course, appears at the culmination of the plot, as normal; the mascot of the other game will remain in its lair.  You can only find this place and fight the legendary Pokémon inside if the other game’s home town has been built up sufficiently – the Pokémon can be drawn out of seclusion if they are sufficiently impressed with humanity’s dedication to either hard work or artistic creativity (so, instead of trading to get the other legendary Pokémon directly, you link with someone who has the other version in order to gain access to the extra features of their home town, allowing you to fight the other version mascot yourself).

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try to say something about the Pokédex quest, so as long as I’m on the subject of how two games can work together, here’s an incredibly obvious idea that has somehow never been tried before: sharable Pokédex data.  It makes sense, doesn’t it, that two trainers working together to complete an encyclopaedia of all Pokémon would, y’know, compare notes once in a while?  The obvious danger here is that it could quickly trivialise the whole thing; completed Pokédexes would spread like wildfire until anyone could finish the game in about five minutes as easily as making a wi-fi trade.  There could be a simple solution, though – only allow players to share data they’ve obtained themselves, using something like the key system in Black and White 2 (I confess that typing the words “like the key system” sends a little of a shiver down my spine, but clearly some sort of limit is necessary, and this method is demonstrably possible).  Alternatively, only allow a limited number of entries per day to be obtained by sharing (say, ten – chosen at random from those your partner has but you don’t).  If the two games get different flavour text for each Pokémon, as has always been standard, sharing Pokédex data could also be another way to collect more information even on Pokémon you’ve caught already.

This is one entry that I didn’t really approach with any grand plans in mind.  Still, after Black and White, it seemed important to think about further possible ways of using the traditional two-game structure.  At the moment, my thinking is basically ‘pick an interesting duality and run with it.’  There are, of course, other directions you could take this – you could get rid of the concept of paired versions entirely, finally ending the criticism of ‘one game for the price of two,’ but although possibly a more pragmatic option, that’s not really interesting.  You could switch to a three-game structure, to match the traditional three starters, and other significant trios, both in the games and in mythology (of legendary Pokémon, for instance – every generation has had at least one trio of those) – but that’s getting a little bit ridiculous.  You could even make the differences between the two games something radically more pronounced – like having a ‘good’ game and an ‘evil’ one.  But would that actually work?  Hmm.  Might be something worth talking about next time…

If I Were In Charge: Come with me; the time is right – there’s no better team

When you jump into a new Pokémon game, your first point of contact is invariably your starter Pokémon – often, in fact, before you even play the game; the starters always get a lot of publicity before the games themselves are released, and plenty of people choose their starters well in advance of the release date (as for me, my permanent love affair with the Grass type makes Chespin pretty much non-negotiable for when I first play X or Y).  For many of us, the starters are what defines a game’s character; on-and-off fans may decide whether or not to buy a game based on the designs of the starters, some players go so far as to use only their starters for battle with a couple of utility Pokémon on the side, and Charizard’s flame still sparks nostalgia in people who last played Pokémon in the 1990’s.  This makes them very powerful ideas, and Game Freak, bless their little hearts, know that, which is why the starters have for a long time now been some of the most intensely scrutinised Pokémon of the lot during the pre-release design process, second only to plot-relevant legendary Pokémon.  I spent a great deal of time early last year discussing the starter Pokémon of the past and present; I will refer you in particular to the last entry in that series, which discussed many of the concepts I’ll continue to play with now, though hopefully I’ll pin down something a bit more concrete today, given the nature of this series.  Now, without further ado – how would I handle starter Pokémon in this hypothetical game I imagine myself directing?

Before we go anywhere else, we really have to talk about Grass/Water/Fire, since that’s the traditional model.  Game Freak’s designers have reportedly considered and rejected the possibility of changing this system.  It works.  You have three rare Pokémon with three completely different sets of usually dramatic elemental powers.  Chances are everyone is going to like at least one of them.  More to the point, it’s a new player’s first introduction to the type system.  Ordinarily, the rival character has the starter Pokémon with an advantage over the player’s, and this is something you need to get to grips with fairly quickly if you’re new to the game – theoretically, by choosing teammates that cover this weakness, which is ultimately what playing Pokémon is all about.  The way this trio works is also very intuitive, and I think that if you have first-time players in mind, it’s important not to underestimate the advantage here.  Fire burns grass.  Water puts out fire.  Grass thrives on water.  People don’t need to be told these things, and this is what makes it a good first step to understanding one of Pokémon’s most central game mechanics.  That’s all I really want to say about Grass/Water/Fire, though.  Honestly, I think people get hung up on type far too much when thinking about starters.  Everyone loves to suggest different trios to replace Grass/Water/Fire; Dark/Psychic/Fighting is one of the more popular choices, but I have come to wonder, would this really make anyone happy?  It’s actually not that much of a break from formula.  Sure, it’d give different types a bit more exposure, but the underlying scheme is unaltered: three Pokémon, each with a three-stage evolutionary path, forming a rock-paper-scissors style circle, with one going to the player and another going to the rival.  It’s change for the sake of change, not change because something can actually be done with it.  I’m entirely happy to keep Grass/Water/Fire – or ditch it, whatever.  I am entirely apathetic on this point.  Just as long as we take a break from Fire/Fighting; I think we can all agree on that.  I’m sure there are some much more interesting things we can change.

As I’ve said, I believe that starter Pokémon are, for many people, the heart of the game.  Why not embrace that?  Yellow version made Pikachu and your relationship with him paramount amongst all of your Pokémon with features that, at the time, no other Pokémon shared – he followed you around in the overworld, would occasionally pass comment on people, Pokémon and events around you if you spoke to him, and was the only Pokémon in the game to use the fledgling happiness mechanics (though these had extremely limited effects beyond changing Pikachu’s reactions to being addressed).  While games such as the Pokémon Ranger and (after a fashion) Mystery Dungeon series have attempted to build on this basic idea, the franchise’s flagship games have never again tried anything similar.  The ‘walking Pokémon’ of Heart Gold and Soul Silver seem to be a sort of homage to Yellow version’s Pikachu, but they are largely a cosmetic addition, and do not prioritise the starter either.  This is a shame, because a deeper, more complex relationship like this, even with only a single Pokémon, would go a long way towards healing one of the big rifts between Pokémon’s gameplay and message – the relatively impersonal way players relate to their individual Pokémon.  The flip side is that a lot of players might not necessarily want to prioritise the starter in this way.  Some might just not like the ones on offer; others might get bored of their starters after multiple playthroughs.  What I suggested when I first discussed starter Pokémon was making it possible to keep the starter with you even when you have six other Pokémon, in a sort of inactive seventh slot, but I confess I don’t really like this idea very much.  I’m now more inclined to suggest giving the starter Pokémon a special role not only while it’s with you but also while it’s in storage – this, of course, naturally works well with my wish to turn the Pokémon storage system into something more interactive and dynamic, with habitats that have to be managed and expanded.  More on that later, though.  Let’s get to the details.

Yellow version, of course, had only one starter Pokémon, no choice.  I believe that this was actually a bad idea, but worked anyway purely because of Pikachu’s massive popularity.  There’s only one other existing Pokémon I’d be comfortable using as a sole starter: Eevee, who boasts a similar degree of widespread appeal, largely thanks to her smorgasbord of possible evolutions which give Eevee-trainers all the choice they could want in just one Pokémon.  If I were going to give a game with just one starter Pokémon, I would probably take a leaf from Eevee’s book and split its evolution, though not to the somewhat ridiculous extent of Eevee’s; three is probably still a good number, though I’d be just as happy with two or four.  This could result in a Grass/Water/Fire trio, or any number of other combinations.  The interesting part is how we evolve them.  What I’d really want to do is have the starter’s evolution be determined by how the player acts around it.  This could be tied to my new happiness/respect mechanics, with the split in the Pokémon’s evolution being determined by the ratio of the two when it reaches a certain level: if its happiness is much higher than its respect, it evolves into a gentle support Pokémon; if its respect is much higher than its happiness, it evolves into a battle-hardened attacker; if the two are the same, or quite close, it evolves into an even-tempered tank.  Each, presumably, would belong to a different type, and each would evolve once more at a later point.  As an alternative basis, I’ve been thinking about these games as being divided into three major spheres: the Pokédex quest, the badge quest, and fighting the regional Team Evil.  The starter could be influenced by your relative devotion to each one, evolving in one way because you chose to work closely with Professor Tree and catch a lot of different Pokémon without ever setting foot in a Gym, another way because you chose to collect two or three badges before ever looking into the supposed criminal activity in the game corner.  Bringing back contests, perhaps integrating them with the filming activities of Pokéstar Studios, could add a fourth area for a fourth branch to focus on.  If I were allowed to indulge my personal whims and include a long storyline about exploring the ruins of an ancient civilisation of Pokémon Masters, that could provide a fifth.  As for what this hypothetical starter could actually be… I would like, as I mentioned in my older article on starter Pokémon, to pick an animal which already has strong connotations of partnership with humans.  The obvious choice is a dog, but dogs are overdone and Eevee is already quite doglike.  Cats could work, but there are, again, quite a few catlike Pokémon already, and cats have a bucketload of other symbolism that gets in the way.  You know what works?  Horses.

Assuming the use of all five ‘spheres’ of the game I suggested above, I think I’d have the evolutions be as follows.  For the quest to defeat Team Evil and restore justice to the region, we can have a bulky, six-legged, armoured charger, on the model of Sleipnir, the legendary mount of the Norse god Odin (probably a Steel-type, but I’d be extremely tempted to play with the six-legged thing and create a really offbeat Bug-type horse).  For exploring the ruins and solving the mysteries of the Pokémon world’s past, you are rewarded when your little horse evolves into a Pokémon based on the Kelpie, a shapeshifting water spirit from Celtic myth – yes, Keldeo’s name already references the Kelpie, but he doesn’t really embrace what the Kelpie is all about, namely deception and cunning, which this Pokémon could do with an array of support moves and perhaps even the Illusion ability or something similar (possible type combinations include Water/Dark, Water/Fairy, or even Dark/Fairy with some Water traits).  Focusing on Pokémon contests results in a winged horse based, obviously enough, on Pegasus from Greek mythology, with additional powers related to being generally flashy and ostentatious (a Flying-type, obviously, though the secondary type is up for debate).  Exploring the world and catching a lot of Pokémon species in an effort to improve your Pokédex leads to a unicorn, reclusive and wise, with powers related to learning and knowledge (probably Psychic or Psychic/Grass).  Finally, for the badge quest, what I’m very tempted to have, though it would need a very clever name to make it work, is a horse with the head of an ox, in reference to the horse of Alexander the Great, Bucephalus, whose name means “ox-head” in ancient Greek – a fast, brutal glass cannon (most likely a Fighting-type, although alternatively this might be one of the better options for including a Fire-type without too obviously ruining Rapidash’s life).

Similar ideas could be used with a more traditional three-starter set up: each starter will push you in a particular direction, appropriate to its personality.  You might have, for instance, a curious, analytical Grass-type starter, who will express a preference for helping with Professor Tree’s research, and whose evolution is tied to meeting certain benchmarks in Pokédex completion – say, first evolution at 15 Pokémon caught, second evolution at 25, and a powerful signature move at 35.  The enthusiastic, dynamic Fire starter might encourage you to travel and challenge Gyms, evolving once after earning your second badge, again after earning your fifth, and learning its signature move after the eighth.  Finally, we could balance them with a calm, determined Water starter Pokémon, which would motivate its trainer to investigate reports of crimes and root out members of Team Evil, evolving after (or during!) major confrontations with said team, and learning its signature move after their final defeat.  These evolutions could possibly have minimum levels attached as well, but quite low ones – their real purpose would be to keep other starters obtained in trades from evolving at absurdly low levels after the game is already finished.  If we take this route for the starters – having the Pokémon encourage certain paths through the game rather than vice versa – there are ways in which your choice of starter could affect and assist your playthrough still further.  The starters might, for instance, provide some constant bonus to your entire team as you play through the game (this more or less requires that the starter Pokémon you receive at the beginning of the game be untradeable, and have some special marker like the ‘Fateful Encounter’ tag to distinguish it from Pokémon you obtained through breeding or trades).  Give them three traits: for the Grass-type ‘scientist,’ Rapid Insight, which gives the player bonuses towards learning new moves from time to time; for the Fire-type ‘warrior,’ Intense Training, which causes all defeated Pokémon that grant at least two effort points (before any modifiers) to grant one more; for the Water-type ‘hero,’ Glorious Evolution, which causes all Pokémon with level- or happiness-based evolutions to evolve sooner.  These traits could all potentially improve as the Pokémon evolves (speeding the acquisition of moves even more, granting more effort points, or allowing even earlier evolutions), and could persist whether the Pokémon is with you or not – or, potentially, be replaced by other benefits if the Pokémon is in storage.  All three starters, provided they are happy themselves, could increase the resting point for the happiness of other Pokémon in the same area.  In addition, the Grass-type can improve the yield of any berry trees being cultivated in the area, the Fire-type can allow eggs to make slow progress towards hatching (though they will not actually hatch unless in your party), and the Water-type can cause the respect of stored Pokémon to increase gradually.

Ash’s Pikachu isn’t just another one of his Pokémon – he’s a leader among Ash’s Pokémon, invariably taking command whenever they are separated from their trainer, defines Ash’s own fighting style, with his preference for speed and power, and is the Pokémon whose happiness and wellbeing Ash watches out for above all others.  Our partner Pokémon have the potential to be the same.  Exploring that can only help the feel of the games – and that’s what I would most want to do with my starter Pokémon If I Were In Charge, far more than just picking a new trio of types.

If I Were In Charge: I will battle every day to claim my rightful place

The strange thing about Pokémon is that not all of us are playing the same game.

There’s the game put in front of us by Game Freak and Nintendo, where we accumulate a team of six Pokémon and wander around a region fighting AI trainers, getting stronger, gaining levels, learning more powerful moves and evolving our partners… and then there’s the game of our own making, the world of competitive Pokémon, where the only worthwhile opponents are other players, all Pokémon are assumed to be at their maximum level with their optimum movesets before you ever use them, and effort training is considered essential, breeding to get good genes highly advisable, and using a poor nature suicidal.  Moderately interesting, you might think, but what makes this a problem that needs to be addressed by an ‘If I Were In Charge’ rant?  Well, call me crazy, but I actually believe that a lot of arguments and misplaced vitriol in the Pokémon community stem from the fact that the people on opposite sides of those arguments are playing two different games, and that one or both parties are unwilling or unable to recognise that.  Possibly the greatest part of these problems relate to which Pokémon are ‘good’ or ‘usable’ and which ones are not, which is not what I plan to address today – that gets another rant all of its own – what I want to address now is what defines these ‘two games,’ what makes them so different, why I feel the gap should be narrowed, and how that can best be done.

When Pokémon is played by those most expert in its secrets, competing in tournaments or preparing for Battle Tower runs or similar, all manner of factors come into effect that are neither necessary for casual play nor explained (or even hinted at, in some cases) in the games themselves.  Probably the most egregious of these, which I shall therefore discuss in detail, is the effort system.  When one Pokémon defeats another, in addition to experience points it gains another, invisible, type of points, which have no official name as far as I am aware, though they are referred to by the community as ‘effort points,’ and their accumulated totals as a Pokémon’s ‘effort values,’ or EVs.  Rather than increasing a Pokémon’s overall fighting ability, effort points instead increase its aptitude with just one of the six primary stats: HP, attack, defence, special attack, special defence, and speed.  Pokémon tend to yield effort points for the stat or stats in which they themselves are strongest (Zubat grant speed points, Geodude defence points, and so on), with a few exceptions, the same number of points are gained regardless of the opponent’s level, there is a hard limit on the number of points that can be earned in an individual stat, and there is a further limit on the total number that can be earned across all six stats.  In competitive circles, exploiting this system to help Pokémon specialise in their two or three most important stats is considered critical to effective planning.  Game Freak, as far as I can tell, regard all of these principles as cloistered secrets.  The games themselves make only the vaguest and most oblique references to this system.  I feel it is worth mentioning, again, that there is no official terminology for any of it.  There are certain NPCs within the game who can check whether your Pokémon have reached the overall limit for gaining effort points, but they will only mention that your Pokémon are “working hard,” and offer you “effort ribbons” to commemorate this hard work.  Using items or services that increase or decrease a Pokémon’s effort values (such as vitamins, certain berries, or some of the food, fitness regimes and beauty treatments of Join Avenue) tells you only that the Pokémon’s “base attack increased,” for instance.  Items like the Macho Brace, which accelerate effort training, only “promote strong growth” or “promote HP gain on levelling” or similar – a casual player attempting to try out these items without already understanding the system could be forgiven for thinking that they don’t actually do anything, especially if he or she made the mistake of trying them on a Pokémon that had already hit its cap.  Even the Pokédex 3D app gives no hint of what kind of effort points you can expect to obtain from a given species – information which, extracted directly from the game’s coding by those among us with the appropriate skills, is readily available from even the most miserly fan-made Pokédex.

What seems to me the biggest question is why?  Why include in the game such a complicated system for raising Pokémon more effectively and then go to such lengths to hide it?  The effort system as it currently stands was not a part of the original games – Red and Blue used much simplified version which had no great impact on strategy since Pokémon could reach their maximum in all five stats (rather than only two, as now), requiring no actual decision-making on the part of the players.  The system that now exists was created in Ruby and Sapphire.  Clearly someone, at some point, felt that a more complicated version with greater strategic ramifications was the way to go; there must have been a deliberate decision that this would make things more interesting – but actually telling the players how it worked would have given the game away.  One could argue that talking about this stuff directly would be immersion-breaking.  One could not argue that this actually matters.  It certainly doesn’t stop terms like “level” and “experience points” from being flung around with abandon, and those are no less abstract.  Even if we concede that point, it’s not exactly difficult to articulate the basic principle of the system in terms that make sense in-universe: Pokémon who fight a lot of fast Pokémon get faster, those who fight a lot of tough ones get tougher, and so on.  The main reason, I think, has to be that you don’t need to know this stuff to finish the game.  Your AI opponents always have EVs of 0 in everything until you reach the Battle Subway, so anything on your side is a bonus.  This is most noticeable in the case of speed, since speed is the only all-or-nothing stat – Pokémon on a playthrough team will almost always pick up effort points in speed somewhere, so even ‘slow’ Pokémon like Vaporeon can often outrun higher-level AI opponents.  The same goes for egg moves (most of your opponents aren’t exactly going to have optimum movesets either), natures (nature boosts become most important when you’re really trying to push a particular stat to its maximum – which, as we’ve established, you’re probably not doing) and just forget about breeding for perfect or near-perfect stats (hell, in Black and White 2 you can’t even access the day care until after defeating the Champion).  Why dump it all on new players when they don’t need to know it?  These things might give you an edge, but the work you have to put into them is often disproportionate to the benefits… as long as you’re keeping to yourself, fighting AI trainers, and mostly staying away from the Battle Subway.

Here’s the other big disconnect: it is natural, once you reach the end of the game, to want to continue using the Pokémon who have got you this far when you take on the Battle Subway or enter a tournament.  They’re your friends, right?  Your partners?  Isn’t that the whole point?  Well, yes, but unfortunately it is in many cases (okay, probably most cases) a bad idea.  In fact it’s often regarded as nothing more or less than a typical rookie mistake.  Your in game team will almost certainly not have ideal EVs, they are unlikely to have egg moves, they may have natures which are neutral or even detrimental to their chosen combat roles, and some of them could have HM moves that you want to keep shackled to them for convenience’s sake (probably the most important one here is Fly – it’s incredibly useful to have, and against an AI trainer it’s decent enough, but using it against another person is practically handing your opponent a free switch and possibly a very dangerous set-up turn).  You could keep using your story team, but starting fresh is much better.  Reminiscent, perhaps, of Ash setting off for Hoenn and leaving all his Pokémon behind – but, then, he did keep Pikachu (another move which would be suicide for all but the most skilled players).  Part of the difficulty is that, although EVs can be reset using Pomeg, Kelpsey, Qualot, Hondew, Grepa and Tamato berries (we just need to make them a bit more widely available in the game, and make their importance clearer), and dependency on HMs can be played with using ideas I’ve discussed already, there’s no way to change a Pokémon’s nature, or make it learn an egg move in retrospect – and it’s hard to argue that there should be.  What is to be done?

I have no intention of suggesting we get rid of all this complexity.  On the contrary, I think a major contributing factor to Pokémon’s enduring success is that it is easy to learn, but difficult to master.  What I do suggest is trying to ease people into it.  Shouldn’t the games at least acknowledge all of this, and provide challenges that test those skills?  To start with, it’s easy enough to add basic tips in dialogue with townspeople, exactly the way Pokémon does all the time.  “Did you know that fighting a lot of fast Pokémon will make your Pokémon faster?  And I think fighting Pokémon with a high defence will strengthen your Pokémon’s defence too.  I wonder why…?”  “My Machoke has a Modest nature, which means its special attack is higher than normal, but its attack is lower than normal… only… what special attacks can a Machoke use?”  “Sometimes Pokémon hatch from their eggs knowing moves they wouldn’t normally be able to learn!  Is it because one of the parents was a different species…?”  Further on in the game, players could start receiving tasks that require them to raise a Pokémon’s EVs, or breed Pokémon for a specific result.  A trainer might lend you a Pokémon, asking you to raise (for instance) its base special defence so it can win a Gym battle against a leader with powerful special attacks. “I’ve heard that you can raise a Pokémon’s base special defence by giving it Zinc… or by fighting a lot of other Pokémon with high special defence, like Ledian and Gothorita.”  Ideally, the Pokémon named will be ones that are common nearby.  Successfully increasing the borrowed Pokémon’s special defence EV to (let’s say) 40 will be rewarded with a fistful of Grepa berries (and possibly some other item or technique as well), and the explanation “Grepa berries reduce a Pokémon’s base special defence.  Sounds crazy, right?  But if you lower its special defence, you’ll be able to raise its other base stats more!  For some Pokémon, speed or attack might be more important!”  Another time, Professor Tree might ask you to help explain a curious problem.  “The other day, I met a trainer whose Zigzagoon knew the move Pursuit.  There are a lot of Pokémon similar to Zigzagoon who can learn that move, like Rattata, Buizel and Purrloin, but I don’t think Zigzagoon can.  Do you think you could try to bring me a Zigzagoon that knows Pursuit so I can understand how this happens?  I’ve heard that the old woman who runs the day care with her husband knows something about Pokémon that know unusual moves.”  Success will earn you, for the umpteenth time, the Professor’s gratitude.  Completing two or three more assignments like this, perhaps, could unlock the ability to view a Pokémon’s breeding group and the egg moves it can learn on your Pokédex.

Another step forward could be to make EV training a less mechanical process.  If you have the appropriate resources (namely, a complete set of Power Weight, Bracer, Belt, Lens, Band and Anklet, a Pokémon with an active strain of Pokérus – something else that could stand to be explained more clearly – and money to blow on vitamin drinks) it can be done pretty quickly, but if it happens that you don’t, fighting two hundred and fifty Zubat because you want to be a sweeper can be a pretty sad process.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have something in the middle?  A training method which is still a fair bit slower than fighting wild Pokémon with the full kit, but less monotonous?  I suggest, therefore, EV training mini-games.  Six of them, each in a different city, adapting common arcade-style game archetypes to the task at hand.  A ‘match three’ game, for instance, has your Pokémon use its special attacks to destroy groups of matching blocks, earning effort points in special attack, while a ‘block breaker’ game has your Pokémon practice its physical defence by knocking back the heavy iron ball.  Your Pokémon gains a fixed quantity of effort points for every ‘stage’ or ‘level’ you complete, and you can switch Pokémon at the end of any stage.  You can also win prizes, like rare berries, for high scores, and different Pokémon with different moves will be able to affect the games in different ways (a Pokémon with a water attack, for instance, might get a higher score for destroying red fire-patterned blocks in a match three game, for instance).  These games could easily be introduced as tests of skill, run (possibly for a fee) by trainers who pride themselves on their ability to help Pokémon improve in one particular stat.

Finally, let’s play around with egg moves a bit.  I am very hesitant to allow Pokémon to obtain egg moves after hatching, since it not only risks undermining the whole point but also opens up the possibility of combinations of egg moves that would not normally be possible (to pick a random example, you can’t breed a Venomoth with both Morning Sun and Agility, because there is no Pokémon in the Bug group that can learn both), which is not something I feel comfortable doing.  However, I do want it to be possible to, say, teach your starter a move which is normally only available as an egg move… so I’m going to have to make it very difficult, and place enough restrictions on the process that most of the time it will be just as easy to breed for the move.  I am going to do this with a highly specialised and slightly insane move tutor: the regressor.  The regressor is a rather unhinged old man who lives alone in a hut on a mountain somewhere, and has discovered how to teach Pokémon what he calls their ‘secret techniques’ – that is, their egg moves.  He claims that he can do this by ‘regressing’ Pokémon, so that they remember what it was like to be an egg, on three conditions.  First, the Pokémon must be perfectly in synch with its trainer (its happiness and respect must both be at maximum).  Second, the Pokémon must not already know one of the ‘secret techniques’ (if it does, he’ll scream at you and tell you which move is the problem).  Third, (he does a little dance and makes a ‘whoop’ noise as he explains this part) the Pokémon has to make a teensy, tiny sacrifice: 400,000 experience points.  Exactly what this means in terms of level varies from Pokémon to Pokémon, since there are six different experience tracks, but for most it will knock them from about level 74 back down to level 1 (or from level 100 to about level 84).  Regardless of what happens to their levels, they also revert to their youngest evolutionary forms (even if they don’t evolve by level) and lose any moves that are incompatible with their youngest forms.  That should be enough of a sacrifice to be worth thinking twice.

My aim here has been to reduce the distance of the jump you have to make between playing Pokémon on your own and playing Pokémon competitively.  The difference between an AI opponent and a human one is still going to be a big hurdle, and I’m not sure there’s anything I can do to fix that beyond vague exhortations to Game Freak to make their AI ‘better.’  Hopefully, though, actually being able to produce expert Pokémon off the bat will soften the blow a little – and maybe make the game itself more interesting at the same time.