“Strong Pokémon. Weak Pokémon. That is only the selfish perception of people. Truly skilled trainers should try to win with their favorites.” – Johto Elite 4 Karen
Before you ready your Flamethrowers, allow me to Skill Swap a Flash Fire. I’ve had my fair taste of competitive battling in Pokémon, and while I never got into it like some, I read the Nugget Bridge, I keep abreast of Smogon, I follow all sorts of skilled battlers on YouTube, and I enjoy watching the annual VGCs, if usually only from afar. I certainly understand the appeal of competitive battling. I am not saying it should be done away with, or that there’s anything wrong with the people who participate. However, the thought has been growing in my mind for a long while now, that competitive battling just seems to run totally counter to the spirit of Pokémon.
For clarity, I’m speaking almost entirely about the video games. The TCG is and always has been designed to be competitive, but the early video games were not. There’s a very good reason that for the first five years, the official Pokémon World Championships were for the TCG only; the first two generations of the game were not balanced for a competitive setting, as that was not what they were intended for. This is evidenced in the obscurity of factors like IVs and EVs, and the large effect the random number generator has on everything in battle (not just visible/known numbers like accuracy and status ailments, but even the fact that attacks do variable damage which you have no influence over).
There are other signs that the games were not designed for competitive play in the dialogue of the games and anime alike. Pokémon Red and Blue ended with Professor Oak admonishing his grandson for failing to treat his Pokémon with love and respect, and reminding the player that the victory belonged as much to their Pokémon as to themselves. Pokémon Silver and Gold featured a rival named Silver who treated his Pokémon as mere tools, and the story used that to frame him as a more detestable character. Similar sentiments are expressed throughout every game in the series, to the point of cliché, and that’s nothing compared to how hard the anime tries to bludgeon you with it. Clearly, the series’ creators did not want players to see their Pokémon as mere pixels and computer code to be played like a deck of cards for personal gain.
The competitive battling scene began to ramp up between generations 2 and 3 with the help of fan-made online applications like Pokémon NetBattle, and then leapt to new heights with the advent of WiFi connectivity in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, but the first official VGC would not happen until 2009 with Pokémon Platinum. The creative folks at The Pokémon Company no doubt used this time to gauge how players were battling and what could be done to further balance a game that had not originally been built for serious competitive play. They also used it for inspiration.
Enter, arguably the Pokémon anime’s most polarizing rival: Paul.
Loosely based on generation 2’s rival, Silver, Paul was a ruthless trainer who treated his Pokémon as tools to further his own agenda. Some found him a refreshingly competent character compared to Ash’s eternal noobishness. Others vehemently hated him for being haughty and cruel. He would capture multiple Pokémon and compare them, then release those he found to be “inferior,” keeping only the strongest. His goal was always – and only – winning, often subjecting his Pokémon to harsh abuse to strengthen them in a “trial by fire.” His utter lack of empathy resulted in at least one of his Pokémon developing symptoms of PTSD before being unceremoniously booted off his team. But while his methods got results fast, the anime’s creators declared that such cruelty would falter in the long run, and Paul was defeated in the end.
Picking out the strongest Pokémon from batches and discarding the rest? Treating Pokémon as tools, not bothering to form any bond with them? Battling with the sole purpose of winning at any cost? While Silver may have been mostly inspired by real-life exploiters of animals, Paul was clearly a sharp jab at the burgeoning competitive community.
So, since the creators of Pokémon so clearly dislike the methods a competitive system, by its very nature, requires, why have they then made such intense efforts to facilitate said play style? IV breeding and EV training became consistently easier with each generation, and then shot up to unprecedented levels of ease with Pokémon X and Y. In addition, game balance was greatly enhanced, which would only matter to competitive players. Why do this if such a play style is so obviously antithetical to the message of love and comradery pushed so emphatically in the games and anime? And while some would argue that it’s silly or impossible to have an emotional bond with a fictional character made of pixels and computer code, all I can say is, they haven’t played very many good games.
Well, let’s be honest: The competitive crew are a very sizable, and deafeningly vocal, minority of Pokémon players. They are largely, but not exclusively, comprised of Pokémon’s oldest, longest, and most ardent fans. On top of this, the annual VGCs give veterans more reasons to keep coming back and purchasing the latest games, and give The Pokémon Company no small amount of publicity and income. It would not be good business for Pokémon to ignore them, especially when such adjustments to game mechanics can be implemented with little or no cost to the more “casual” player.
So while I will watch with interest as The Pokémon Company continues to nurture the competitive scene in future games, I think I will prefer to be more of a Karen and less of a Paul.
The post Competitive Battling is the Antithesis of Pokémon (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Luvdisc) appeared first on The Pocket Players.
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