Have you ever met a competitive Pokémon player? I have, they keep them locked up in a back room in my university as part of one of those experiments that slipped past the ethics committee. People who play a fairly basic collect-’em-up RPG but have become obsessed with random number generator manipulation and the building of stats the game doesn’t even want you to know about come pretty near the top of the list of “people who like ruining fun things” alongside Linux users and people who use valuable internet for Snapchat.
Instead of the random variation and natural breeding system Nintendo intended with it’s Individual Values (stat-determining and unchangeable values unique to each Pokémon, which can gradually be passed on through generations of breeding), a freakish Poké-farming mentality has taken hold. Instead of the feeling of achievement and gradual stat growth gained through raising Effort Values (invisible points gained in certain stats by defeating different Pokémon, which affect how much a stat rises on levelling up), a soul crushing, deterministic grind takes place.
If you’ve never heard of these values before, do yourself a favour and don’t look them up. It’s a bit like being told all the secrets of the cosmos. Once you’ve got the manual and know how it all works, suddenly it’s not fun any more.
It was around the time I played Pokémon: Alpha Sapphire that I stopped finding it entertaining. I realised that I was no longer forging my own journey through a colourful world of discovery and adventure. I was cycling up and down endlessly in order to hatch eggs, checking their IVs and then discarding them.
I wasn’t scraping together a team of six nicknamed little buddies to take me through eight gyms and the Elite Four. I was working my Gardevoir like a North Korean gymnast against endless Oddish and Spinda to try and get her Special Attack stat up to 232 EV points.
To be constantly training for what’s basically a metagame concept – competitive play – means discarding all emotion and all charm from what are very charming games. You gain the small burst of excitement of stomping all over your opponents, but at the cost of getting immersed in the world.
And after all that, the optimum strategies and movesets are all listed online, with only three or four variants at most on most monsters. The effect is that you don’t even get the excitement of victory, because like scissors, paper, stone, everyone already knows which Pokémon setups beat which others and have adjusted their teams accordingly.
With no creativity in victory, there is no point in competing. Ironically, it actually becomes more fun to just play with whatever Pokémon you like best, play through the game with them normally and not stress too much about what the pros say you should do. It adds variety and interest to the game – and if you somehow do manage to take down your friend’s Tyranitar with a Beedrill, the victory is all the sweeter as a result.
Nintendo have tried to remedy the problem by adding more and more Pokémon, but with only a handful of changeable stats, there is only so much that approach can add. It also may have caused inadvertent harm, by making the list of creatures so long that few of them are memorable for reasons other than their use in battle. A real overhaul of the way Pokémon grow and develop is needed.
Some element of randomness – a property to be sprinkled very sparingly on most games – may be necessary, simply because the consistency of knowing which EVs will be awarded from which Pokémon makes it far too easy to game the system.
Movepools would become a factor, too. At present, all Pokémon in a species can learn the same moves, which makes planning movesets too by-the-numbers. It also doesn’t reflect real life. Not all of us are capable of all the things humans can do, so why should Pokémon be? Instead, when generated, a Pokémon could be able to learn 75% of moves its species can learn, chosen at random. Then, another layer of stats could determine hidden abilities on top of the one overt ability each Pokémon possesses – for example, a predilection for high accuracy, or increased physical damage.
It would be an enforced variety, but it would introduce an element of tension and reactive skill into competition between players, not just the ability to memorise movesets and EV training spots.
Pokémon offers huge potential for storytelling, player interaction and exploration. With online connectivity that potential climbs even higher. But for that to be used to the greatest extent possible, the narrow band of acceptable competition needs to be widened or done away with.