At one point in my life — several points, actually — there was little I loved more than Pokémon. Sure I obsessed over it as a kid in the late ‘90s, but the real love affair came in my early twenties. But as time passed and game after game was released, that love began to wane. I found myself still loving the Pokémon phenomenon, but finding myself increasingly unenthused with the stagnant gameplay, which had remained virtually unchanged since the series’ beginning.
Then I discovered the Nuzlocke Challenge. This fan-made invention adds two genius rules to the tired Poke-formula: 1) You can only catch one Pokémon per area; and 2) If a Pokémon faints, it is considered dead and may not be used again.
I know, I know. This goes against everything you’ve ever learned about “catching ‘em all.” But trust me — you’ll never want to play Pokémon the same way once you’ve done a Nuzlocke run. And here’s why:
Sure, fighting the Elite Four was no doubt the greatest struggle of your ten-year-old life. And today’s Pokémon online metagame is as robust as ever (if you’re up to doing your research). But Pokémon’s main draw, to me at least, has always been about assembling a team of quirky creatures and the journey to becoming the Champion. The only problem is Pokémon’s main story mode may as well be for babies. Predictable AI and the lack of an in-game difficulty setting makes approaching Pokémon as an adult a little disappointing. There’s a rich, turn-based strategy game at the series’ core, but the stagnant single-player experience makes revisiting the series a lukewarm prospect.
A Nuzlocke run turns the Pokémon games upside down. Suddenly, the predictability of your enemies instills you with a sense of fear; you know the powerful moves they have but are powerless to stop them. The inability to catch new Pokémon at your leisure makes every member of your team valuable. And when those teammates die — and believe me, they will — you’ll wonder how you can possibly go on. I experienced this firsthand in my very first Nuzlocke, a playthrough of Pokémon Sapphire, where a mini boss wiped my entire team, save for my starter. Rebuilding my team was a struggle, but the victories were all the sweeter.
So you could waste time at the endgame Battle Tower (or whatever type of building currently serves as Pokémon Master HQ). Or you can experience the formidable, heart-wrenching journey that is a Nuzlocke.
Discover a love for new ‘mons
It’s fun to grab a team full of your favorites and steamroll your way to the top. Been there, done that. But for a game that features over 700 pocket monsters, you’re missing out. Why sweep the game with Gyarados, Alakazam, and other bruisers when you can experience the game with fresh, new faces?
A Nuzlocke forces you to not only consider using dudes you don’t want to use, would never want to use, but makes you see the best in them. You might think you’re merely settling on less versions of the ‘mons you’ve always loved, but then you might never know just how adequate — or dare I say cool — they are. I know I wasn’t jazzed about catching a boring-ass Zubat in my Sapphire Nuzlocke, but once it evolved into Golbat and later Crobat and began outrunning everything in the game, well — it’s now a Nuzlocke MVP for me. The beauty of the Nuzlocke is that it champions the ignored, the boring, or the plain old uninspired.
If getting hands-on with these outliers wasn’t enough, the constant threat of permadeath hanging over each encounter makes you care about them. So go ahead and laugh at a creature who is actually garbage. Their movesets, and the emergent events centered around them, may prove you wrong.
You can play it your way
Don’t be daunted by those two rules. They seem pretty overbearing, but they are in fact the bare minimum of challenges you can add. There is a degree of flexibility to be had in any Nuzlocke because no one’s forcing you to play it the “right” way. Yes, you should police yourself and play by the rules for a good challenge, but by no means should you feel pressured to adhere to a false sense of “correctness.” You can choose whatever additional rules sounds interesting to you.
After my first successful Nuzlocke, I decided to put myself through an even greater set of challenges for my second game:
- – No Pokémon Center healing, so my party was constantly on the edge of death
– No doubles, so I’d get to maximize the number of new ‘mons to play with
– Change the battle type to Set, so the game doesn’t announce which Pokemon your opponent will send in next
– If my party is full, I can’t catch any new Pokémon
Even the “One Pokémon per area” rule can really be flexible, whether that applies every time a new screen loads or whenever a proper zone indicator pops up. It’s up to you to interpret the wording. Remember, you’re starting a Nuzlocke for a twist on a game you know and love. Identify what it is you’re most excited about, whether that’s trying new ‘mons or or creating the grossest challenge possible for yourself, and then stick to your rules.
Find a use for those old cartridges
If you’ve been hanging onto all the Pokémon games of your childhood, then I’ve got great news for you. No more are they only good for an occasional shot of nostalgia — by taking on the Nuzlocke Challenge, it’s like you’re getting a bunch of brand new games for free. Each game from every Generation has its own personality, its own quirks that can make choosing the game a challenge in and of itself. Certain tweaks in gameplay can give you and your team an edge just as easily as make you fearful.
For example, Hypnosis has a higher accuracy rating in Gen IV games. This makes the move more reliable at incapacitating enemy Pokémon. But in other games where it’s significantly less accurate, you are faced with using the move and missing, which could be risky, or using far inferior moves.
Learn the power of love through loss
The best video game story you experience this year may not be the narrative from the next big budget triple-A game — it could be your story. If you have any degree of imagination, and you’d have to in order to convince yourself you’re making Pokémon challenging, the monsters you catch — no, befriend — will help you create a legend worth telling.
Yes, I know they’re just pixels. But games like Fire Emblem made their mark by mixing vibrant characters with unforgiving strategic gameplay. Many of the characters in Fire Emblem are tropes bundled within a player’s emotional attachment to them due to permadeath. The investment of building up a character and watching them grow, only to lose them in a critical moment is a hallmark of the Nuzlocke Challenge.
The emotional attachment I felt for my first Nuzlocke team was heightened by the realization that they could be taken from me at any time. And I mean any time. In my Sapphire Nuzlocke, one minute I was cruising and headbutting my way up Mt. Ash, the next I was burying my Linoone, the first Pokémon I caught, because I didn’t switch her out when I should have (rest in peace, Shirley). The true appeal of a Nuzlocke is experiencing Pokémon like a completely different game — a game where you forge strong bonds with your Pokémon, and the game does everything in its power to sever them.
When you start a Nuzlocke run, you’ll feel like it’s the game you’ve been waiting for your entire life. For me, it took a classic game from my childhood and translated it to meet my present-day desire for games that have challenge and emotional impact. A large part of the appeal lies in the incongruous merging of kid-friendly aesthetic and brutal gameplay, but it’s the stories that will keep me coming back to Nuzlocke. I’ll never play Pokémon the same way again.
Are you up to the challenge?