Pokémon is the only video game franchise I break out a pen and paper for before even booting up a new save file, the reason being that I outline my team of six. The Pokémon games are famous for having literally hundreds of birds, sea serpents, and rocks with faces you can catch and make part of your party. It’s not like the typical JRPG where every player uses whatever six or seven characters the story throws their way. You’ve got to figure out who’s making the cut or else you’ll have a tough end-game with an incomplete team. But I’ve found that who earns a permanent slot hinges on how a particular title doles out experience points.
Up to the fifth generation, Black & White, there’s a soft cap on the amount of experience points you can win. Technically, experience is infinite, because you can grind off wild Pokémon, but beating up wildlife doesn’t net you the same quantity of experience points that beating up trainers’ pets does. Some titles allow you to rematch trainers, but generally, once you get experience from a trainer battle, it’s out of stock and non-refundable. Because of this limit, it’s helpful to plot out your permanent party members so that you’re not rewarding experience to a Pokémon you’ll dump in the PC before the next gym. Compare this to Tales of Berseria, which also gives you six party members, but you’re able to take four into battle at once and swap in the other two as needed. Everybody gets experience, so it’s not the balancing act that it is in Pokémon, where I sometimes choose who battles based not on who’s the best match-up, but who’s behind in the levels.
But then along came X & Y, which made a minor modification to a series staple, the Exp. Share. Before, 300 experience points earned in battle was a pie that would be cut up between the battler(s) and the item’s holder, without the need for the holder to come out of their Poké Ball. But the Exp. Share in X & Y, which I’ll from henceforth refer to as the Exp. All, not to be confused with the Exp. All from Red & Blue, which sliced up half the 300 among non-battling party members, giving five each a pittance of 30, is an on-off switch. When flipped on, it gives every battler 300 experience and every non-battler 150, and when turned off, experience distribution is the classic method, wherein only those who show up and survive a battle get a slice of the exp. pie. The overall total experience per battle is multiplied by 3.5. Catching Pokémon awards experience points, too, which it previously didn’t.
With such an abundance of experience, there’s less consequence to including temporary members to your party or even starting an adventure with nary a clue of who you’ll use. In one playthrough of Sun, I had a Cutiefly, which eventually evolved into a Ribombee, and a Wishiwashi as unofficial party members, and they were good stand-ins for when a battle was rough or I needed to exploit a certain weakness. Even if they claimed the lion’s share of the experience from a Trial boss, it wasn’t a huge loss, because I made up that experience by playing the game normally.
Sword & Shield and Legends: Arceus (the latter of which, as an aside, grants Pokémon a tiny bit of experience for gathering crafting materials) let me get away with more. I wanted a Dragon-type for my Sword team but was struggling to catch a Dreepy, which only has a 2% chance at best of spawning under certain weather conditions. So, as a begrudged substitute, I caught an Applin, evolved it into Flapple, and stuffed it full of Exp. Candies, consumables which bestow a set amount of experience, anywhere from 100 a pop up to 30,000, to even its levels with my party, around 40//. Then in the very next Max Raid Battle, I caught a Deino. So I kicked Flapple to the curb and gave the Dragon slot to Deino, which I had wanted to use for forever but passed because “Holy Arceus in the Hall of Origin, level 64 to evolve, are you kidding me?!” Hydreigon was one of the star members of my party for that title. A similar story occurred in Legends: Arceus, when I had what I thought was my final party for the game, which is usually the case once everybody’s in the 60s. But a late-game side quest awarded me with an Alolan Vulpix, a Pokémon I’d wanted for my Sun or Ultra Sun team but that got pushed out for other options. So, much like with Flapple before, I kicked out one of my party members and shoved every Exp. Candy I had down that pretty fox’s throat. And none of this is to mention that the Exp. All isn’t optional from Gen VIII onward.
Those were moves that in any Exp. Share generation would have been completely insane and impossible to pull off without venturing into the wilderness for extensive training. Yet in those titles, I made those choices without a second thought. Throughout Legends: Arceus I wasn’t that hesitant about swapping party members out. For a good minute, I had an Espeon, as well as a Kadabra, and I debated which I would keep before canning them both for a Ghastly, which I eventually replaced with my aforementioned Vulpix. For a spell, I also carried the Shinx line around. A Scyther, too. I swapped out Pokémon like they were car part upgrades and could get away scot-free because experience points were no longer a premium commodity. I was much less deliberate than I was in White or Emerald or Blue.
This accessibility comes with a side effect, which is that because I was treating Pokémon as exchangeable tools, that’s how I viewed them, more or less. I’m not saying I was a soulless trainer who used Pokémon like politicians march soldiers into gunfire. I did aggravate over expelling Espeon from my team, since it was one of the first Pokémon I caught, and it also atomized everything it looked at, but I developed the tendency to hand party members a pink slip if I grew tired of them, and I very quickly drafted their potential replacements.
That was a mindset I never had before. When I planned a party, I stuck with its members. No doubts or second guesses. They were my Pokémon, my team, and we got through thick and thin together. I can share stories about individual members from my favorite mainline games, White and Black 2. Darmanitan was an absolute powerhouse that would flatten anything and everything in its way. Even as a Darumaka, it launched opponents into the troposphere. But it also had the most Arceus-awful defenses, which bit it in the arse in the League battle against Alder’s Volcarona, which outsped it and wiped it out with a single Overheat. Cofragrigus had a one-two-three combo whereby it would inflict an opponent with Toxic, Protect for one or two turns to whittle down damage, and then use the double damage of Hex’s effect to finish them off. In Black 2, I combined abilities with items for my Galvantula and Ferrothorn. Anything that touched Ferrothorn got hurt bad, because they suffered the dual effects of its Iron Barbs and Rocky Helmet. I could spam Iron Defense to the point where the opponent could say, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” My li’l electric spider had Compound Eyes and a Wide Lens that together raised the accuracy of Thunder from 70% to—It might as well be 1000%, because it never missed. No Rain Dance needed. The weather effect I did prioritize was Sunny Day, because that made my Volcarona’s SolarBeam come out in an instant. I don’t have an exact figure on how many Pokémon it one-shotted, but I think the ball-park number is a lot. My one regret with Volcarona is that I had such a hell of a time catching it that when I finally did, I immediately saved the game post-battle and only afterwards checked its summary and saw that it had a Jolly nature, which hindered the growth of its special attack, also known as its best stat. Still whooped ass, though.
I can’t speak for you, but for me, there was an attachment I developed with my Pokémon in the Exp. Share era. Whether it was ruffling through grass in search of an illusive rare catch, snagging multiples in search of one with a good nature, grinding out the tedium of raising up a baby, teaching and executing move combos that swept teams, or wailing over strokes of bad luck, we endured highs and lows, and I watched as they grew into the perfect party members, and at the end of our journey, when all the gym badges are won and the title of Champion was ours, I could look back and recount stories like those above. I don’t subscribe to the messages of the games, that the reason I defeat rivals is because of the bond with my Pokémon, because my quip in those moments is, “No, I just don’t suck,” but sarcasm aside, the memories of those times are still there. They were my Pokémon. I chose them. And we had one heck of a time together.
Of course, the Exp. All doesn’t automatically transform how the player assembles their team. Someone who plans their team in advance and sticks to it can still do so. They just have more wiggle room for if they change their mind or suffer from an under-performing party member. And only having the Exp. Share doesn’t prevent the dynamic player from switching up their team. That’s the entire concept behind the Nuzlocke challenge. Even if a Pokémon carried you through six gyms, the second they faint, you have to ditch them and replace them with something certainly inferior.
On the Pokémon subreddit, I posited the question of what other players do, plan out a party or shift teammates around, and even though I brought up the mechanics in my original post, none of the answers mentioned them as the cause for a playstyle. What held more sway was a player’s personality. One mentioned they get bored easily, so they rotate party members out to freshen things up. A few said something in particular nabbed their eye in the middle of a playthrough, altering their plan. Mechanics can make certain playstyles easier or harder, but so long as something is possible, people will play how they want to play.