Pokémon , as a series, has thrived on repetition. For over ten years, Game Freak has managed to ensure that the Pokémon franchise is one of Nintendo’s most successful without making any drastic changes to the way Pokémon is played.
Even after ten years, the series has consistently sold hundreds of thousands of copies, even though Magikarp still stinks, and a level 7 Zubat will still manage to attack you every 2 steps in any dungeon in the game. Yet the Pokémon community is alive and well. Competitive Pokémon battling has been thriving since the games first debuted. Those who participate take Pokémon out of the casual arena and unexpectedly transform the experience into the hard-core.
Competitive battling takes the game beyond merely pitting elemental weaknesses against each other, narrowing the focus of duels into a precise science. Players manipulate the game’s mechanics to create the most powerful team possible, sometimes spending countless hours to do so.
Team building is a surprisingly intricate process. Your favorite team that you used to beat the Elite Four will be massacred no matter how carefully and tenderly you raised them and built their move sets. Competitive Pokémon have something your average Pokémon team lacks – selective genetics.
Many players create trainer cards to show off their teams and connect with others.
In order to create a team that can handle the intensity of the competitive scene, players have to take advantage of the game mechanics to selectively breed a set of perfect Pokémon. Each creature comes with a Nature, a set of Effort Values, and Individual Values which determine the attributes of the Pokémon, in addition to how well it can perform certain abilities.
Different natures suit different Pokémon’s unique abilities, and their Individual Attributes are randomly assigned when a Pokémon is caught or hatched. The only way to create a perfect Pokémon, then, is to keep meticulously breeding your chosen monster until it has the desired nature and perfect IVs. As if this process wasn’t convoluted enough, the IVs of your Pokémon are invisible. There is no tangible means of knowing a Pokémon’s individual values.How can you know if your hours and hours of breeding Pokémon with your Ditto love-slave (a Pokémon that can breed with any other species of Pokémon) paid off? Amazingly enough, gamers have devised a math equation based on your Pokémon’s base number of a particular stat to estimate the corresponding IV number.
Once you’ve somehow managed to produce a set of statistically perfect Pokémon, you then must max out their Effort Values, or EVs. In order to do this, you are required to fight against specific types of Pokémon in different areas of the map until you’ve obtained 252 EV points in each stat category (defense, special defense, etc).
Looking from the outside in, it’s hard to see why people bother with this at all. It takes a huge amount of effort to breed a suitable Pokémon for your team, and that is just one out of six! Still, thousands of people are competitive trainers. Perhaps the most popular (and elite) competitive community is Smogon University. I was able to ask one of the site’s contributors and administrators, Aeolus, as he is known around Smogon, a few questions about the appeal of competitive battling to gain further understanding.
I found that people really do put the time into raising a team on the cartridge games to take advantage of the WiFi capabilities of the DS. Yet the hand-held versions of the games make for incredibly long, slow paced battles, on top of the many hours spent on building a team. This is remedied by Pokémon trading; allowing players to obtain pre-trained Pokémon with ideal natures and the works. Yet Smogon avoids these hassles altogether, utilizing the battle simulator Shoddy Battle.
Simulators like Shoddy Battle offer the bare bones required for competitive battles. The client’s logging capabilities also helps log major fights in championships for analysis and study.
Shoddy Battle allows competitors to create a team on the spot, offering full customization and the ability to set your own desired Natures, IVs and EVs. What would once have taken days of play time is completed in a matter of minutes. From there you are encouraged to select a server and start duking it out. Battles are also greatly sped up, with the elimination of unnecessary pauses that were found in the cartridge versions of the game.
While battling simulators like Shoddy Battle create a purified competitive experience, there is one element missing. Raising Pokémon via a cartridge engages you with the actual raising of your own Pokémon. Building a team from scratch creates a sort of emotional investment that a team on the simulator is lacking, regardless of the tiresome process involved. How do battle simulators make up for this?
Battle Simulators allow you to skip the arduous breeding and leveling process, creating ideal Pokémon in a matter of minutes.
Aeolus explains that the cartridge games and simulation fights are totally separate from one another, almost as if they are different games entirely.“For most people on Smogon, playing the cartridge games and being a competitive battler are completely disconnect. The cartridge games are fun because they represent many of the best qualities of an RPG game. You do not have to be a great strategist to be successful on your DS. On the other hand, the internet battling sims offer a purified version of the game that boils it down to pure strategy (with something of a luck component!). While that concept may not appeal to every Pokémon fan, Smogon has found a niche in pure competition that has hooked quite a few players.”
This clear cut spin on the Pokémon battle system does offer opportunity for creativity and fun outside of the battle arena. With the inclusion of Pearl, Diamond and Platinum into the Pokémon universe there are now 493 Pokémon to choose from. This allows for a level of versatility not found in earlier Pokémon entries. As a result, gamers are challenged to create unique teams capable of eliminating a broader range of enemies they may face in a tournament.
Aeolus considers this one of the main draws to the competitive sphere, stating that “In the current incarnation of the game there are many, many more options for players to choose from. To be successful you really just have to find what works for you. There are obviously the “standard sets” that Smogon publishes on its site. Those are a great starting point for new players, but the best players are always finding new innovations and special twists on old ideas. The dynamic nature of the game is what keeps you coming back!”
Fun and games aside, competitive Pokémon fights are not for those who have their sights set on the more relaxed side of Pokémon game play. Further research into the technical aspect, VERY briefly detailed earlier, shows just how difficult it can be to become a worthy competitor. Knowledgeable members of the community have done their reading, and have had years of practice constructing teams and rating the sets of others. Despite all of this, competitive communities are continuously expanding, welcoming newcomers into the fold.
Smogon University boasts a unique feature that Aeolus set up in 2006 to help new members while maintaining the elite standard of battling the community works to uphold. The program works to quickly set newbies up within the community. Aeolus was able to describe the apprenticeship in more detail: “In the program, new players are individually matched with a veteran who will teach the intricacies of team building and battling tactics. The tutor/apprentice relationship is also a great channel to bring new users into the social fold of the community.”
Seasoned tutors and their students plan meeting times to spend some one on one time with the battle simulator to work on team building techniques and how different types of teams work in battle. Apprentices can even choose which generation of Pokémon they wish to work with. After the three-week course, apprentices should be capable of building their own successful teams, with the ability to hold their own in competitive battles. The combination of work with Shoddy Battle, as well as developing social connections through instant messaging programs truly offers an all-inclusive experience. “It is really the personal nature of the program that makes it so unique and effective,” Aeolus said.
There’s no doubting that, upon delving a little deeper into the vast number of Pokémon communities that have sprouted all over the internet, that this little portable number can be serious business. It may not be for everyone, but the ever increasing popularity of competitive Pokémon breeding and tournaments shows that this tried but true RPG classic can be pushed so much further, into the realm of hardcore players.
Sources: Smogon University; Many thanks to Aeolus for answering my slew of questions!