Reworking Sword & Shield’s Gym Challenge

For the most part, my main topic of discussion on this blog is light novels, with a foray into the occasional video game, but those are just booty calls. My one true passion in life is Pokémon, and aside from a falling out during the Sixth Generation, the series has always had a place in my heart, ever since that day my eight-year-old self plucked a used copy of Blue from a bazaar table. So to my glee, Generation VIII hit store shelves, making me forget about all my other responsibilities in life.

I intended to post this article right after the Christmas season wrapped up, when, y’know, Sword and Shield released, but other articles took priority, and now, many months out, the Isle of Armor DLC has finally released, so might as well finally release this post I’ve kept packed away in a box in the corner.

There’s a lot I can gush about in Sword & Shield, like the Wild Area being a Safari Zone that doesn’t kick you out after 500 steps, Technical Records working supremely well as prizes for completing Den Raids, the conveniences of swapping Pokémon in and out with the Box Link, the bopping battle themes, the characters speaking with British dialects, or Indeedee having the greatest name ever.

Indeedee

But for everything I love about these games, I can’t help but feel that something’s missing, and I’m not talking about the National Dex.

Your endgoal in every game has been to conquer the Pokémon League and become the Champion, and barring Generation VII, you did this by taking down the eight gym leaders populating the region. Things work no differently in that regard this regional stroll, but the regard in which they differ is the setup. In previous installments, your journey to become Pokémon Master has been a personal one. You set out from your hometown when the mood strikes, whup the gym leaders when it fits your schedule, and head straight to the League after dealing with Team [Insert Random English Word Here]. Things are laid out for trainers to try 365 days of the year, but Sword & Shield tweak this a tad.

The Pokémon League is now known as the Gym Challenge, a sporting event where endorsed participants register to take on the gyms, each other, and eventually the champion. Gym Leader battles, rather than taking place in the back corner of the gym, are done in stadiums, sold out and with Rotom cameras whizzing by to capture every angle of the match for telly viewing. Whereas past journeys were personal, in these games, the whole region is watching.

Mechanically speaking, there’s next to nothing differentiating it from past iterations, being just a new coat of paint, but it’s this new coat of paint I think the games should’ve made a Mona Lisa of, because as it is the games don’t truly sell that illusion that you’re part of a wider competition.

Guy in Crowd I

One of the good touches of the games is having spectators cheer for you as you’re leaving and entering the Motostoke and Hammerlocke Stadiums, as well as comment on your advancement through the tournament as you filch the badges from the gym leaders. But this is restricted to the stadium lobbies and front doors, so the googly-eyed police officers patrolling routes are more wont to tell you about their porcelain doll collection than tell you how incredible your last gym match was. I don’t need every Tom, Jade, and Adonis referencing the tournament, but for what’s supposedly such a huge event in the Galar region, hardly anybody talks about it. Just having a few of the trainers you battle along the way brag about how they’re training for the competition does wonders to convince you that there are other people participating in this than you and your gaggle of rivals.

Another thing the games do right is the multitude of rivals you have going through this. It’s not just you and your boy Hop. Along the way, you pick up Marnie, distant cousin of Gladion at a glance, but three seconds after talking to her you find out she’s actually a cinnamon roll the internet just can’t eat up fast enough, and Bede, the bargain bin Gary Oak who likes nothing more than to talk smack but you won’t pay attention to because your thoughts will be preoccupied the entire time with figuring out if they’re a boy or a girl.

While rivals for you, the player, are the people inspiring you to get better and better so you can smack the smack talk right back at them, for the games, they’re nothing more than a means to an end. Marnie only shows up during certain storybeats, and Mr./Ms. Dude Looks Like a Lady gets ejected halfway through the tournament. Hop I’ll get to in more detail in 14 paragraphs, but the games give us good or great rivals only to flubber with them, leaving us feeling like there’s hardly anybody we’re competing against.

Something severely absent from the games are the other competitors. The Gym Challenge staff love telling you how many competitors have joined or how many are left by Xth gym, but those numbers are just there to boost your confidence. I don’t need some no-name schmuck telling me there’s twelve people left to make me feel like an asskicker. Just give me a queue of NPCs and I’ll Meowth o’ Ninetails ’em into next Tuesday.

We don’t need a rollcall for everybody participating or an anime bio box that floats beside them as they make their on-screen debut. As I mentioned a minute ago, just swapping out a few route trainers’ dialogue to them mentioning how they’re part of the tournament will make it feel like there’re more entrants than just you, your childhood friend, your future waifu, and the boy-girl child.

Gym Challenger

If we went one step further, we could have random trainers come up to us as we’re exploring routes, challenging us to battles. You’d want to have it so that you can heal up your Pokémon before picking up the glove they throw on the ground so we can slap them with it, though, and their numbers could dwindle as you add more badges to your collection, selling the illusion that only a handful of trainers have the chops to make it to Raihan’s gym to get Dual Chopped (Note: None of Raihan’s Pokémon know Dual Chop).

Swinging to the opposite side of the relationship spectrum are your fans. Sword & Shield do this right, but like everything else they do right, they don’t do enough of it. The League Cards you receive mention fans for a number of the gym leaders, and Marnie’s got Team Yell’s full support, but do you know who doesn’t have fans? You.

People cheer for you going in and out of stadiums, but they never faint when they see you on the street or come up to you to shake your hand, and this in and of itself could be its own full-blown mechanic.

Back when I read Bakuman, a minor detail that struck a chord that made me go “Ooo” was how the deutagonists receive fanmail, which usually has to be heaved to them in a sack. Imagine having a dancing Windwaker mailbox in Sword & Shield that when you open it spits out letters from adoring fans who couldn’t keep their feelings of admiration bottled up, so they splattered them on paper. And the more Gyms you conquer, the more fanmail you receive. So that you’re not reading 3,000 word essays in batches of twelve, your fanmail can be short, sweet, and to the point, and some fans will want to help you out so much that they send you Potions and Pokéballs and whatnot. Mechanically speaking, this is for selling the idea that you’re a rising star than giving you anything that would help you out. Things can be spiced up by throwing in the tiny chance that a fan will send you evolution stones for certain Pokémon you’re raising or offer advice on how the hell you’re supposed to evolve Yamask into Runerigus.

Since your fans would look up to you so much, some of them might come up to you in person to do the usual fan stuff of giving you stuff and shaking your hand and stuff, but a few might ask you for advice on the Pokémon they’re raising or which attacks they should teach them. Then you can invite them as NPCs to help you out with Max Raid Battles so that you can have reasonably competent NPCs assisting you instead of getting stuck with Togepi, Wobbuffet, and a Solrock that likes spamming Cosmic Power and Rock Polish only to get one-shotted the very next turn.

Fainting Solrock

Finally, the rare fan might take obsession a little too far. Rather than asking you for your advice on their own team, they just copy and paste your exact team and start bragging to all their buds about how they’re strong as you. Hell, they might even start dressing like you, which’ll really confuse the hell outta everybody. It doesn’t have to be anything major, but this could be a sidequest where you track this trainer down, beat them, and then tell them they can keep copying you or help them build their own team or whatever.

I’m sure there’re a million more ideas you could implement when one of your mechanics is simply described as “fans,” but I think it’s about time I wrap this thing up by talking about the biggest overhaul I would make to these games, which is arguably also the most controversial. Because the final change I would make to Sword & Shield, rather than adding new mechanics, would be to erase the entire Eternatus plotline.

PC Box I

Since the days when Maxie and Archie couldn’t see eye-to-eye on the land-water ratio, Pokémon stories have crescendoed at the moment of the awakening of the legendary on the cover art, and it’s nothing I’ve ever complained about. They’ve added sugar to otherwise dry stories, and without some band of goons trying to muck up the world in some fashion, you’re just a kid going from point A to point B without anything else to distract you from mowing down the gym leaders. But starting in Black & White, the games started putting more stock into their character writing, and while you don’t get characters as complex or well written as Lelouch or Light, it’s lovely to see the gym leaders have lives, jobs, and hobbies so that they do more than stand around their gyms all day.

I bring up the character writing because Sword & Shield, having the Gym Challenge as the sporting event it is, automatically tilts its favor toward character writing. The three sports fans I’ve been acquainted with in my life complain about or revere the athletes in a league, but something they don’t seem to consider is how they’re real people who’ve had dreams of being on the field and have achieved those dreams but that there’s as well the ocean of people who’ve had that same dream but have given up on it at some point. Sword & Shield takes a step in the right direction by giving its cast wants and desires, and I know I’m sounding like a broken record for saying this, but it doesn’t step far enough.

Let’s start with Boy-Girl him/herself. Of your three rivals, s/he is the most abused. From the moment you meet, s/he’s talking trash to you and continues conversing landfills even when you’ve mopped up his/her team. Since Ruby & Sapphire, your rivals have been the friendly type, which isn’t bad, but none of them can hold a candle to the pompous Gary, who was always one step ahead of you. I thought the androgynous asshat might be a trip down nostalgia lane, but then s/he gets the Alisha treatment.

Bede’s ejection from the Challenge at an arbitrary point made me realize that the only reason s/he was written in in the first place was so that s/he could mention that Chairman Rose was seeking Wishing Stars, which tied into the Eternatus plotline, and once s/he had served that purpose, the story killed him/her off. S/He eventually resurrects as the Ballonea Gym Leader, but the Gym Challenge got that much emptier when s/he got the boot. But for the bloodthirsty me who doesn’t appreciate having to put up arrogant snobs, that’s not a satisfactory ending. I would kill off some random NPC to receive the sadistic gratification of putting down his/her team on live telly and becoming the cleanup crew for his/her garbage discussions.

Guy in Crowd II

Of the three rivals, Hop has the most complete character arc, so there isn’t much to say or do with him. But complete stories have never stopped my inner editor from bursting out my chest, and my inner editor, just so you know, is no less sadistic than I am.

Somewhere at the halfway point in the story, Bede’s filthy mouth goes running, and Hop, apparently a germophobe, checks himself into the ICU. He doubts himself, what he’s doing, and how it affects his older brother. He gets better, but it’s at this checkpoint where we cast off into an alternate timeline under the iron-fisted rule of my inner editor.

I mentioned people giving up their dreams on making it big in sports (or any area of life, really), and this is where that seed germinates. Something which is easy to overlook when the game’s giving you lip service on your progress in the Gym Challenge is that even though you’re being painted as a winner, there’re dozens if not hundreds of losers left on the wayside, and losers, just like winners, have their own stories.

There’re plenty and loads of losers in the Gym Challenge, and to save time on getting to know all their stories, we can collapse them down into a generalized one and view it through the eyeballs of one specific character, that character for this imaginary arc being Hop.

Hop’s particularly vulnerable when he’s at his low point, his mind constantly assaulting him and the world seemingly tagteaming with it. Aside from maybe cheating or destroying national landmarks, there’re no disqualifications from the Gym Challenge. If you lose to a Gym Leader, you pick yourself back up by your bootstraps and try, try again. The only thing that’ll kick you out of the tournament is you.

The eyes of Galar are on you, the rising star of the region. You go from a backwater town nobody to the first person to ever give Leon a run for his money. To your fans and your supporters, you’re a hero, a celebrity, a star.

But you’re also a dream crusher.

So many trainers chug full-steam ahead toward becoming the next Champion, and then you come along and derail that dream, whether through battling them directly or showcasing such skill on the telly that they think to themselves, I don’t stand a chance against them…

And so, Challengers give up. Hop might as well. When someone as unstoppable as the player character comes along, it seems like the commonsense option. After calling it quits in the tournament, Hop would go back to the drawing board on what he wants in life, so whenever you run into him, he’s trying out something new. Pokémon breeding, berry farming, you name it. Knowing Hop’s character, he’ll still support you in your Challenge, but suppose he didn’t. Suppose after meandering through his days and finding no new meaning in his life, he grows bitter and frustrated, as anyone would, and tired of blaming himself, he looks for a new source to pin his misery on, and the source he finds is none other than that one person he couldn’t defeat..

Hop’s character arc concludes rather nicely, with him becoming Sonia’s new assistant after her previous new assistant decided she’d rather play henchwoman for two goons in desperate need of a new salon. But before then would be episodes of strife and conflict between you and him as you make your way to the top, and he does what he can to talk you down and undermine the achievements he wanted more than anything in the world. Depending on how much his rage consumes him, he might even sabotage your matches. A prank I like to play is swapping out a mate’s party with a buncha Cutiefly, which garners hilarious reactions, but if it’s the finals and the prankster is your ex-rival who’s grown hateful toward you, suddenly it’s not so funny.

Cutiefly

As dark as this has been, it’s covering territory the Pokémon games tend to pretend doesn’t exist. There’s this unwritten rule of sportsmanship in the games where trainers accept the outcome of a battle, win or lose. The only exceptions are your crime syndicate mobs. I’m not asking for a Korean drama, though I do like my drama, but seeing a teensy-weeny more of how the losers react bitterly to your success, painting you as the antagonist in their lives, would add a dab of gray to otherwise colorful worlds.

Let’s get cheery again by enjoying us some warm, chewy buns. Sword & Shield need more Marnie. I don’t have much more to say beyond that. Marnie’s presence throughout the games is sparse, popping up only for certain storybeats, and, just as I’ve advocated countless times before, if you’re gonna add something to a story, wring it dry until there’s nothing left to get outta it.

Marnie

Soooo, all that being said on rivals, what does any of it have to do with the Eternatus climax? Well, nothing, because in my rework, your rivals’ character arcs and an emphasis on the human side of the tournament would replace Eternatus’s awakening. I’m not completely against it being in the game, but as it is, it distracts from what could be a more personal story and doesn’t make sense in its own context. I appreciate Rose’s enthusiasm for trying to save the day—getting a jump-start on an issue before it actually is an issue should be a mandatory high school course and a constitutional requirement for an incumbent politician—but the man interrupts the Champion match, for crying out loud. The deadline’s a thousand years from now. Can’t his world-shattering apocalypse wait until the day after?

But wiping out the Eternatus arc is the easy fix. As I said a spell ago, I’ve got no beef with the world cataclysms the games feature in their third acts, but my main problem with Rose reviving Eternatus is that it drops in out of nowhere. There’re hints to it beforehand, sure, but it’s squeezed into the main plot like the games forgot to include it and rushed at the last hour to fit it in somehow. If they were able to smoothly slide it in rather than jamming it in with a sledgehammer, I probably would’ve been all right with it. It could’ve also taken a page outta Fairy Tail’s book. Fairy Tail’s Grand Magic Games arc is split into two halves: the tournament itself and the apocalypse where somehow nobody in town sees the giant dragons battling in the air. It’s clean, it’s efficient, and while the tournament half does slowly build up to the apocalypse portion, it doesn’t let it overshadow or interrupt its matches until it’s complete. Then the massive flying lizards come out to play.

One final detail I wasn’t able to squeeze in anywhere is how before you enter the Motostoke Stadium you have to rest up at the nearby inn. It’s an extremely minor thing, but it put me under the impression that the Opening Ceremony and battle against Kabu are timed events, so spectators know when to show up to watch the matches. This made my entry into the Motostoke Stadium feel more like an authentic sporting event than literally all the other Gyms, where you just waltzed in when it suited your schedule, which has me wondering if the spectators aren’t just sitting in the stands all day and all night in hopes that somebody’ll come along for a match.

Guy in Crowd III

That’s some dedication, but for their sake, it might be easier if we had the protagonist rest at the local inn beforehand and show up at a designated time. But if it’s too hard to give more than two towns inns to sleep in or the one or two moments it’ll take to walk in and out of an inn is too much to suffer through, Sword & Shield could just rip off games like Fallout, Skyrim, and Xenoblade Chronicles and have you fast-forward the clock at the touch of a button.

So that’s it, that’s everything I would change in my imaginary rework themed with the Gym Challenge. There’re a few other items I would switch around or add to mold the games to my preference (i.g., bringing back Mega Evolutions rather than having functionally the same thing in the form of Gigatamaxing), but it’s all pittance. I would like to think what I have here is reminiscent of the Orre games, which were tugged along solely by their narratives, but since Pokémon is famous at this point for not returning to old ideas, there’s not much point in having this comparison (or this entire essay). All that delay for nothing, huh?

PC Box II

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