New Pokemon Snap has really revitalised my love for the Pokemon franchise. I’m not sure why, it may be the nostalgia for the N64 game, or it might be that I have been having a bit of a rough time of it as of late. Either way, being able to dive into a safari park full of monsters from my childhood and seeing them coexist has been lovely, and not nearly as terrifying as I made it sound. Especially after a shoddy day in the “office”, by which I mean spare room, by the clothes airer.
This got me itching for a new mainline game, which are certainly on their way, but I fancied getting pen to paper, so to speak, and talking about one of my main gripes with the current structure – the gym leaders. Pokemon is in need of some revitalisation, just how Breath of the Wild threw typical Zelda conventions out the window, this franchise could do the same, but perhaps not so radically. Lets dive into why the current structure can be holding the games back, when it has been memorable and ways in which we could possibly fix this.
One Type Fits All
The problem with mono-type gyms is pretty simple – they’re easily steamrolled if you have the right Pokemon at your disposal. There is no strategy needed, per se. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Pokemon Sword and Shield, whilst I did really enjoy my time with it, none of the gym leaders really posed any sort of challenge, with one exception, the inspiration for this article.
These single-type gyms lead to a whole bunch of problems, aside from the lack of strategy I just mentioned. As a kid I remember being worried as I became too reliant on one Pokemon through a gym challenge. When fighting through the second bug-type gym in Johto for example, my Cyndaquil would gain so much XP and grow far beyond my beloved Wooper. This meant that I would actively have to fight the urge to fall back on my over levelled companion in subsequent routes.
Secondly, looking at Pokemon types in this way means that gyms all feel the same now, even in new regions. Sure, the specific challenges in them change, but the battles have remained the same since the series’ inception. It was fine back when we had 151 Pokemon to choose from, but now with over 900, there are far more interesting themes which can be used, but I’ll get to that.
The Goldenrod Age
There are cases where the mono-typing is done well however, and this leads to the most memorable challenges in the series, for me at least. These fights are so memorable because there is a clear strategy displayed by the leader, whether that is their approach to team building, or their reliance on a signature move. In Sword and Shield, this display comes from dragon trainer Raihan, who uses sandstorm to boost the special defence of his team. Whilst he doesn’t solely use dragon type Pokemon, I’m willing to let it slide, with this being a double-battle it also adds another layer of strategy into the mix.
The next example of a strong gym leader is Winona, the flying gym leader from the Hoenn region. Her challenge comes due to fantastic team-building and type coverage. Despite being shackled to flying type Pokemon only, Winona created a diverse and balanced team, allowing her to check weaknesses such as rock and ice with a defensive Skarmory and nullify those electric types with her dragon/flying type ace, Altaria. To make this coverage worse, Altaria has the ability to use Dragon Dance, a move which increases her speed and attack stats – if this gets set up, you’re done for. I had such a hard time with this. However, in order to beat her in the end I actually used a recently received Castform, combining it with hail for a devastating super-effective Weather Ball. Figuring that out and besting her with a bespoke strategy tailored specifically for that fluffy monster felt amazing, even in my 11-year-old brain.
Finally, I would be remised to not mention Whitney. Yes, Whitney and her dreaded Miltank have been the talk of many playgrounds across the world I am sure of it. This difficulty spike is gargantuan, and for that reason it is so memorable. Though she only has two Pokemon in her team, Whitney is able to decimate 6-Pokemon teams easily, her strategy revolves around one move – Rollout. Rollout, just saying it is triggering flashbacks, the taste of Frubes, spilled Sunny D, it is so clear to me. This is a move which gets stronger after multiple uses, allowing it to reach ridiculous power levels if you don’t put a stop to it. To beat Whitney, you will have to find a way to stop this attack, if you don’t, you lose. This again required some strategy, you can choose to paralyse her Miltank, maybe you would prefer to put it to sleep, or why don’t you use accuracy decreasing moves to make her attacks less reliable. All of these are viable options and once you work it out, you feel like a genius.
So, in these examples, why are they so memorable? Out of the tens of gym leaders that there have been, why can I only remember some of them as vividly as this? I believe that is because you can’t just head into these battles and spam a super-effective move. You have to plan around their plan and come up with something more devious of your own. This is engaging boss design, not all gyms have to be this way, but the most memorable ones always are.
Working Out the Gym Structure
So, I have gone over what is wrong with the current gym structure and which gym leaders forgo this formula and become better because of it. But, in my Pokemon game, how would I create gyms? Well, I’m glad you asked. I believe that given the vast range of moves, abilities, held items and weather conditions that more interesting themes can now be added to these challenges, rather than adhering to typing alone.
Lets start with moves and stats. Two ideas spring to mind here for me. Given the competitive viability of a Trick Room team which reverses the order in which turns are taking, why not create a whole gym around this? There are moves such as Gyro Ball which have power levels tied specifically to speed which could also be included. You could even give it a magician theme to fit with the Trick Room moniker.
Secondly, there are weight attributes to consider, with moves such as Low Kick or Heavy Slam having damage modifiers based on the weight of each Pokemon, there are teams which can be built around this principle. Not only would it be neat, it’d also be a great way to introduce players to more hidden attributes of Pokemon, rather than just attack, defense, etc. I would try to fit this around some kind of fitness theme, imagine Weight Watchers, but in the Pokemon universe.
Each Pokemon also have abilities which can be utilised as an additional variable too. Taking an ability such as “Guts”, which boosts attack when a status effect has been inflicted on the Pokemon, there are entire teams built around this competitively. Combining this with a flame orb can turn something as unintimidating as an Ursaring, into a destructive powerhouse. A gym leader could be focussed around this principle alone, and even combine it with the sister ability of “Quick Feet” which does the same for the speed stat. Other abilities can also be showcased, such as “No Guard” which ensures that every attack will land, and ignores accuracy entirely, leading to the use of moves like Focus Blast being far more viable.
Finally, you have held items which can be utilised, “choice” items are clearly an option for this, allowing your opponent to hit harder or faster, but also giving you insight into the move which they are forced to use until they switch out. This would be the perfect accompaniment to a narrow-minded leader. There are also items like Eviolite which boosts the defence of a Pokemon if it is not fully evolved yet, this causes Doublade to be favoured over Aegislash in the competitive space and would be a great way to introduce the power of such an item to players. Pairing it with a gym leader obsessed with cute things like baby Pokemon in this case makes sense to me, or perhaps a childminder.
The direction I would like to see gym leaders take is to focus less on typing, and more on themes. Whether that is something I mentioned above, or maybe something even more loose, like having a “snake” trainer, with a team of Arbok, Serperior, Sandaconda and Seviper. This gives a much more varied pool of Pokemon to choose from and will result in less likely steamrolling from exploiting one elemental weakness throughout the whole battle.
Overall, I love the Pokemon series, and it probably isn’t going to change, it is targeted primarily at children and makes a frankly ludicrous amount of money in it’s current state. Game Freak really has no reason to radically change the formula. Despite this, I hope that you found these ideas at least a little interesting.
Who is your most memorable gym leader, and why is it Whitney? What other ideas would you like to see utilised by gym leaders? Let me know!