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[Keywords] Pokémon Scarlet & Violet and Lineups

Pokémon Scarlet & Violet are available on Nintendo Switch.

I adore Pokémon, full stop.

Pokémon is also decidedly not built for me, and hasn't been for half my life now.

It's well-complained that the story campaign of any main-series Pokémon game will roll over and let you win if you approach it even half as seriously as you would a Final Fantasy.

Now, I'm certainly not opposed to a cozy, easygoing game. It's kind of my main squeeze, really. But playing another thirty hours of a game you mechanically “solved” in middle school can be less than thrilling.

What Pokémon needs, for some of us, is un-solving.

Thank goodness it's one of the most flexible blockbuster games still going.

Harder, not Harsher

Now, Pokémon is also famously lousy with “challenge runs”. No surprise there; it's a natural fit given the functionally-infinite number of teams you can form. And that can force you into some awfully colorful self-imposed niches.

Use only one elemental type of monster – an often-fun little puzzle consistent with the games' own Gym Leaders. Use only monsters other people suggest for you – a great way to find a new favorite, and why I personally adore Spinda.

But the one that people seem to love talking about most is the Nuzlocke Challenge. It's a set of restraints where your pointedly-limited roster of party members can all “die” at any moment, and so one where you can ultimately fail due to a streak of bad luck.

In short, it swings Pokémon from “fun” straight to “stressful” for most people.

Pokémon tcg promo art - centiskorch

For some, it hits just the right spot, for sure. But challenge runs as a general rule are designed to sit somewhere in the venn diagram of “novelty” and “grueling”. Some require you to already know the game quite well; many overshoot the original problem and write you into a corner.

Those won't help so much with the fresh-faced Scarlet and Violet. And they haven't been much help the last four or five times a new Pokémon title has come knocking, either. It just feels off to deliberately distort your first play through a game.

So the key, I've found, is to play with constraints that make sense within the game.

You know, role-playing. That thing we don't always necessarily do in our role-playing video games.

A Pokémon Trainer, First and Foremost

Pokémon‘s greatest imagination-spurring prompt is also a bit of a contradiction:

You're a decidedly unique trainer, but just one among oh-so-many.

From that, you get a fantastic blank palette to build from; I defy you to find an non-tabletop RPG responsible for more – and more varied – original chracters. But it also puts you in a rich context, where every person on the street can be a source of inspiration.

Which is where I start drawing my own boundaries. It's astoundingly easy when the game itself has uspoken “rules” you can clearly see and internalize:

Other trainers don't get to switch out for free when they score a K.O.? Neither will I, then, easy-peasy. Most NPCs aren't juggling more than four Pokémon at once? Maybe it's fairer to leave half my team on the bench at a time, then. Small fry never seem to use items? I'll start waiting to heal up until a rest stop and shift change.

Or you can look toward other branches of the series, like how the anime‘s protagonists favor Pokémon who just made their debut, and hold off on evolving them for quite some time. It's absolutely a “buy-the-newest-game” move by marketing, sure. But that works out great for me; I already want to test-drive as many new monsters as possible, especially those with a unique flair. And a good excuse not to evolve underpowered team members – like making it a “reward” for a milestone Gym Badge – gives me more time to get to know and love the cuter adolescent Pokémon.

With all these little nudges, you can end up with teams that have sensible boundaries, but won't tie your shoelaces together – the “sweet spot”:

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My Journey is Not Yours

Of course, all of this is like trying to push back the tide. The games have increasingly been designed to lower their hurdles in ways that conflate accessability with difficulty, and Scarlet and Violet will no doubt follow the trend.

That's not always a wrong assumption, to be fair. Just look at action games, with their silent “age limit” where your thumbs just can't keep up. But a turn-based rock-paper-scissor RPG isn't looking at that same barrier to entry.

So the games have gone toward the overly-obvious, sticking a big-ol “RECOMMENDED” sticker on certain moves. Or ways to ram straight through the type-advantage system – X & Y codified the “steamroll the entire game by over-investing in a single Charizard” into a recommended strategy. And, for some, that's just fine – or even a fun challenge in its own right if you pick a dumpy little Raticate. But it's not really engaging with the game for what it is.

I could always turn my brain off in response, let these games fade into a no-pressure zone-out experience where easy wins are all but assured. But that wouldn't be engaging with it on equal footing, either, and frankly doesn't sound fun. Just like I know I wouldn't enjoy some set of hardcore rules that try to retrofit Scarlet & Violet into some permadeath roguelike game. It's an approach that just doesn't suit my impression of this quaint, colorful little world.

So rather than jamming a square peg into a round hole, I just try to make the peg a littler rounder where I can.

This constraint, that rule, the other boundary – I'm just looking forward to seeing these cool kids grow up.

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