2016 has been the biggest year for Pokémon since the fabled 1997. Which is the year that the television anime started airing in the west!
Everywhere you look right now the ‘mons have flooded popular culture. McDonald’s has just signed a sponsoring agreement with Niantic to turn every restaurant into a Pokéstop for their mobile app game… which has now become so popular it’s trumped ‘Porn’ on google search (I’m dead serious).
Hype is also boiling for the upcoming ‘Sun and Moon’ games for 3DS which are breathing strange new life into the videogames and has the fanbase chattering like its recess at school. Not to mention the anime, where the latest Kalos season has been touted as the best to air yet. Could it be called a second Goldén Age?
This year Pokémon celebrates its 20th anniversary. But something else has risen the top of the Monster food chain, something that old Nintendo never had a hand in to begin with.
I’m here today to talk about something special to me- and to many who walked away from Pokémon before. Something that brought us back during our adult years in large numbers.
I’m here to talk about the Nuzlocke.
It’s no secret that the handheld games are made with younger generations in mind. Flexible RPG titles featuring colourful creatures in creative landscapes… beating the crap out of each other. The usual Japanese offering that this franchise helped to flourish. Now something with a little more bite has come into play, just imagine for a moment, if your Pokémon could DIE?
Let’s step back a bit. Some years ago now after the release of Diamond & Pearl for the Nintendo DS I hit a point of Pokémon saturation. I no longer had that drive to play anymore and resigned my collection into storage. The release of Black & White was hyped and then passed without my knowledge, I had moved away to other things (the great garage break-in of 2011 probably didn’t help either) but I’ll tell you something I did do a lot in those days, and that’s read web comics.
One such sample landed in my lap one day, the tail-end of a series of posts on a board called /v/ denoting one bored man’s journey into making his old favourite Gameboy game a little more adventurous; That comic was called ‘Ruby: Hard Mode.’
Poor oblivious me had no idea I’d just walked into the birth of the biggest fan-driven trend in Pokémon history. Maybe even video game history of the last decade.
Pokémon Hard Mode would eventually become known casually as the Nuzlocke Challenge and its rules are very simple, and often flexible. There are two tenants however that must always be obeyed:
1) If a Pokémon faints it is considered dead and must be released.
2) You can only catch the first Pokémon encountered on each route and nothing else.
Thus began the legend of Ruby and his journey across the Hoenn region. These comics are still being updated today, now having moved on to the Black/White generation, and were the genesis for a huge trend that would follow… other people taking the Challenge!
The idea of the Nuzlocke is that every monster you catch should have attachment and personality, which is why one of the unspoken rules is that every creature captured must be named. The rules also ensure that you don’t get much choice in the allies you end up having available… so yes, that Psyduck you named ‘Dopey’ may well end up on your team- and that’s the joy of it! Using Pokémon you typically overlook and learning their strengths, using them against tough challenges and being amazed when they pull through… or feeling the sting when the HP bar hits 0 and you realise that ally is gone. Forever.
Not long into the Ruby comic the artist comes into possession of a Pokémon called Nuzleaf- who for whatever reason is given the face and personality of John Locke from the once popular television series LOST. Why is this important? Because this Pokémon’s death marks the beginning of things to come with his final words, “I think all this is all happening for a reason”. That brave grass Pokémon couldn’t have been more right, as fans quickly adapted the combination of Nuzleaf and Locke into the titular game mode: Nuzlocke. Marking the start of numerous comic imitators across the web, soon gathering on the official Nuzlocke website and are still widely popular today with new comics and stories added every week!
I personally recommend a line of comics called ‘Petty’s Nuzlocke Challenge’ which starts with Leaf Green before moving on to Heart Gold. Like most of the comics this one begins with comedic lineart, but quickly adapts into a full-colour spread with some of the most gorgeous stylised illustrations on the site. The sheer amount of effort and love people put into these works is an indication of how much impact playing the Challenge can have, especially on long-time fans of the series. These comics steadily grew in popularity until the typical fans became familiar with the term, though they might not have experienced the genre until what came next.
Enter; the YouTube revolution!
Which isn’t to say people hadn’t used forms other than comics to share their tales. Many written accounts and even podcasts existed, but it was the TV personality of the web that brought the Locke to a wider audience.
What started as a novelty for hardcore Pokémon channels quickly spread across all manner of gaming shows. Even channels that dedicated themselves to other platforms or entire mediums began recording their Ironman Pokémon adventures for the world to see, such as League of Legends icon ‘SivHD’ or the ever-popular creators of Dragon Ball Z: Abridged ‘Team Four Star’. There are so many playlists online now of entire gameplay runs that it becomes a little overbearing, especially when such tubers begin searching for new novelties to keep things fresh. It didn’t take long before ‘Versus’ games had two players running parallel Nuzlockes at the SAME TIME in a race to the finish! Absolute madness, but entertaining madness.
Though they lack the artistic delights of the comic books the ease of making a record like this means they have become the most prolific way of sharing a Challenge. It’s actually uncommon to see a playthrough of a handheld Pokemon game now in 2016 that doesn’t use the Nuzlocke rules!
So wide spread the trend became that even the long awaited ‘Pokémon Uranium’ project by Director J Reis included a Nuzlocke option in the game itself! This same phenomenon can also be seen in the Pixelmon Minecraft platform, an online tool for bringing pocket monsters to the world of Minecraft, which also attached an option in the menus for turning games into a life-or-death situation. Sadly, Uranium was quickly shut down by Nintendo after nine years of loving fan development, so it may be some time before we see that level of dedication again.
A talk about fan-phenomena wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Twitch Plays Pokémon. This occurred a few years ago on the game video streaming service Twitch, and consisted of a computer running a retro copy of Pokémon Red with a twist… all inputs were made by the chat window. So if people watching typed Up, the game would go up. Now expand this experiment to involve no less than 80,000 people watching and controlling at the SAME TIME.
While this wasn’t an example of Nuzlocke the fan reaction was very similar, and drew a lot of attention back to the scene right when the Challenge was beginning to pick up pace. There is no doubt the two hype trains supported one another, though exploring just what affect TPP had is a topic worthy of a different talk…
If you’re at least curious about this bizarre rabbit-hole of gaming lore I highly recommend watching the Nuzlocke breakdown video by jwittz, long-time Nintendo editorial writer, who also did a summary on the best parts of Twitch Plays Pokémon on his channel:
One of the strangest parts of its evolution? The original rules in the comic were only a seed. Almost every gamer now who attempts a run uses some variation on the rules, but rarely strictly follow the Hard Mode comic. The original two rules are notably loose and sometimes you’ll have to make judgement calls. Are static encounters allowed? What if you run into multiples of the same Pokemon? These rules can be expanded to also include not using healing items in battle, skipping over duplicate Pokémon, and the ever popular ‘Wobbuffet Clause’. If you don’t know what that is- thank your lucky stars. Everyone has their own variation, and sub-types involving randomized Pokémon, hacked games and even entirely egg-based runs have spawned all over YouTube.
Which leaves an important question yet to be answered…
Why would people want to make the game more challenging, even when they have to enforce the rules themselves? The answer is evident in the dozens of lovingly crafted comics you can find on the official forums or the several hundred videos showing peoples recorded runs of the game, sharing stories and experiences- both tragic and heroic. Because the point isn’t just to make the game harder, it’s to make you feel invested in what you’re playing. The concept, and largely the marketing force, behind Pokémon is the idea of finding magical creatures to build friendships with and face great perils. For the first time in decades we’re seeing real examples of that.
With that in mind, I dedicate this article to Harley the Scrafty and Cabbage the Lilligant. Without them I never would have finished my first successful run.
Try the Nuzlocke for yourself and remember, sometimes you don’t need to catch them all.