Fresh from finishing my playthrough of Pokémon Shield, I thought I’d do something different and try to write about it.
I loved my time with Shield and think that it managed to find a brilliant way of interweaving the streamlined gameplay and quality of life upgrades they introduced in Pokémon Let’s Go Eevee/Pikachu with the more traditional elements of the classic games.
But, as enjoyable as it was, it wasn’t the Breath of the Wild style overhaul the franchise is crying out for.
It’s tough: at their heart, these are children’s games, after all and each instalment is designed to be someone’s first Pokémon game. That makes sense from Game Freak’s perspective; it allows them to constantly expand their fan base by getting their hooks into the next generation early. By the same token though, they have almost 25 years worth of games now and there are a lot of longstanding fans of the series. Finding a way to cater to these people, beyond repackaging their nostalgia with re-releases, would be a smart move.
The introduction of the Wild Area is a nice idea but ultimately feels a little half-baked. The high level Pokémon roaming around the overworld instil a sense of peril in the player in the early-game — a new experience in a Pokémon game — but that sense soon passes as it becomes clear how easy they are to avoid. Beyond that, it’s difficult to see what purpose they serve — they’re good for grinding exp but the level-gating caused by the gym badges means that by the time you’re able to catch them, they’re either a bit underpowered or the game bumps their level higher so you’re still unable to catch them.
The environments of the Wild Area are diverse and pretty but there’s not enough thought put into how the Pokémon interact with those habitats and it would be nice if there were some sidequesty stuff to do in each region rather than simply having these connected but separate biospheres to explore. That freedom of exploration granted by the Wild Ara is a welcome addition but it loses a bit of lustre when contrasted with how on-rails the rest of the routes are.
So there is plenty of room for improvement on those aspects of the game. But that would require some radical deviation from the way these games have traditionally been structured. Something less radical and perhaps more palatable would be to alter the way the gyms work.
In fairness to the developers, they have attempted to tweak the gyms in recent games. In Sword/Shield they introduced gym challenges that have to be completed prior to facing the leader in a one-on-one battle. This is a nice shakeup that makes logical sense but it’s hardly a new innovation; there have been puzzle gyms as early as Vermilion City in Red/Blue.
(As an aside, the one gym challenge in Shield that I particularly liked was the Fairy-type gym in Ballonlea. The quiz gym has long been a staple of the series but having correct answers provide stat buffs before trainer battles was a smart twist that solved the issue of players intentionally getting questions wrong in order to get the exp from the battle. I was also a fan of the Fire-type gym challenge in Motostoke where you had to try to catch a wild Pokémon in a double battle that forced you to team with another trainer who was trying to sabotage you. It was a fun concept that utilised the standard format in a fresh way that challenged the player with something different to think about).
The idea of having the leader battles take place in full stadiums was a neat way of reframing these fights to make them feel like a big deal and to continue the thread of equating Pokémon battling to football matches/culture that’s running throughout the UK-inspired Galar setting. Similarly, having the Elite Four section be a knockout tournament was a cool idea that helps further the notion that in this world Pokémon battling is analogous to competitive sport in ours.
But these are all superficial differences, changing the presentation of Pokémon gyms while still adhering to the same format. Regardless of how you spin it, all of these games follow the same format: you beat a series of progressively higher level gym leaders who use only one type of Pokémon until you get to to best trainers in the land where you have to beat five (or so) in a row.
To try to rectify that, here’s my pitch to make these games more interesting/challenging without any drastic changes: move away from mono-type gym leaders.
Again, this is potentially a slightly tough sell, considering that the rock/paper/scissors rules of Pokémon typing are one of the core tenets of the franchise and that (relative) simplicity is part of what makes these compelling children’s games. But we’re now at a point where there have been so many instalments and so many Pokémon added to the Pokédex that you can begin to draw connections between them in ways that are more fun that simply grouping them by type.
So, here are some ideas for the sort of gyms you could create, along with a brief explanation of why and some example teams that the leaders/gym trainers could use:
Grouped by Occupation/Culture
The games have dabbled in this sort of thinking by associating certain types of Pokémon with certain industries/hobbies/activities they’d be useful for. We can go one step further and break them out of the monotype mould.
The Farm Gym
Sword/Shield actually did this by having Milo as the first gym leader in Galar. But despite him chasing a Wooloo around town and having the player herd Wooloo into pens as the gym challenge, Milo’s team was purely Grass-type. This tracks — agriculture is about the cultivation of plants so the appeal of Grass-type lads is clear — but I’d like the series to give us a more livestock-based farm.
Example Pokémon: Flaaffy/Dubwool/Tauros/Miltank/Gogoat/Grumpig/Emboar/Combusken
The Royal Gym
I’m actually staggered that Sword/Shield didn’t do this — it would have been so easy to have the Champion of the Galar region be the Queen. There’s enough Pokémon with regal elements to their name to build a squad fit for a King or Queen.
Example Pokémon: Nidoking/Nidoqueen/Seaking/Kingler/Kingdra/Slowking/Slaking/Vespiquen
The Vampire Gym
The Pokémon games love a cave and naturally those caves have to be filled with bats. Game Freak obviously got a bit bored of Zubat so they have diversified the number of bat-inspired Pokémon out there. If you ask me, this is begging for a vampire-themed gym. I want Dracula as a member of the elite four and I want it now.
Example Pokémon: Golbat/Crobat/Swoobat/Gliscor/Noivern/Cofragigus
The Sword Fighter Gym
Having the ability to shape the elements to their will and possessing powers tantamount to magic just isn’t enough for some Pokémon — some of them just want to stab you with something sharp or bash you over the head with a blunt object. There’s a whole subgenre of Pokémon wielding weapons. Wrap them up as part of a gym centred around samurais, knights, fencers, or anyone else who has studied the way of the blade.
Example Pokémon: Gallade/Marowak/Sirfetch’d/Bisharp/Aegislash/Rillaboom/Escavalier/Scyther
The Fashionista Gym
There are a disconcertingly and inexplicably large number of Pokémon who have clothes as part of their character design. This raises a lot of… troubling questions. Are they part of their flesh? What does the material feel like? Can they take any of it off or is it permanently attached? Best not to think about it too much and instead think about these guys teaming up to fight for bunch of tailors and fashion journos at PokéVogue.
Example Pokémon: Jynx/Gardevoir/Ludicolo/Poliwrath/Hitmonchan/Grapploct/Sawk/Throh/Hatterene/Honchkrow/Oranguru/Scrafty
The Facial Hair Gyms
Do you know what adds character? Facial Hair. Stick some hair on the chin of your design and you’ve got yourself a kooky look immediately. There’s enough of these to split them by beard and moustache. Have them as two separate and competing hair salon gyms in the same city that the player has to choose between.
Example Moustache Pokémon: Alakazam/Swalot/Probopass/Kricketune/Stoutland/Walrein/Whiscash/Galarian Weezing/Thievul/Centiskorch/Jellicent (male)
Example Beard Pokémon: Beartic/Corviknight/Perrserker/Jellicent (female)/Samurott/Emboar/Conkeldurr/Garbodor
Grouped by Character Design:
With so many games and a constant thirst from the fanbase for new Pokémon in every game, it’s only natural that certain ideas and designs are going to crop up multiple times. Now we’re in the 8th generation, you can create entire teams from these repeated ideas.
You could go down the crazy old cat lady route if you wanted to peddle harmful stereotypes or you could have some sort of Catwoman-esque cat burglar as your leader.
Example Pokémon: Delcatty/Pyroar/Shinx/Persian/Liepard/Meowstic/Incineroar
A professional dog walker, capable of simultaneously holding a thousand leads. Or maybe someone from a country estate who releases the hounds, Mr Burns style.
Example Pokémon: Granbull/Boltund/Arcanine/Mightyena/Houndoom/Lucario/Herdier/Rockruff
Perhaps a surfer who encounters these guys on the beach and in the waves? Or someone incredibly old and slow to reflect the grand age these creates typically live to:
Example Pokémon: Shuckle/Torkoal/Turtonator/Blastoise/Drednaw/Carracosta/Torterra
Sort of struggling with this one. Could possibly do a toddler who is obsessed with frogspawn in the way that kids sometimes are? Alternatively could have a leader who is intrigued by the concept of transformation? Idk, there’s quite a few frogs kicking around anyway.
Example Pokémon: Seismitoad/Toxicroak/Politoed/Poliwrath/Greninja
Maybe an explorer who has roamed the world’s forests to find these lads? Or a big game hunter? Or perhaps a survivalist who is at one with nature and happiest amidst the forests.
Example Pokémon: Ursaring/Beartic/Pangoro/Bewear/Snorlax/Spinda
The Ball Gym
Have the gym leader be obsessed with a sport that requires a round ball of some description: basketball/soccer/golf/snooker. There are an abundance of round boys in the Pokédex. Have a trainer who loves those spheres. Gimme a Poké Michael Jordan who is gonna dunk the fuck out of a Voltorb.
Example Pokémon: Electrode/Jumpluff/Jigglypuff/Poliwhirl/Tangela/Marill/Wailmer/Spheal/Glalie/Golem
The Multiples/Multi-headed Gym
With the increase in the number of Pokémon that resemble inanimate objects over the years, there’s been plenty of criticism of Game Freak for being a bit lazy but there’s plenty of Gen 1 Pokémon that are equally unimaginative — plenty of evolved forms are basically multiple versions of their unevolved forms. Likewise “stick more heads on it” is a tried and trusted Pokémon staple. Having a gym operated by twins or triplets who love these multi-faceted Pokémon could be a good theme.
Example Pokémon: Dugtrio/Magneton/Weezing/Exeggute/Exeggutor/Combee/Dodrio/KlinKlang/Hydreigon/Dragapult
The Puppet Master Gym
In a similar vein to the previous suggestion, there’s also a strain of Pokémon character design that revolves around false heads or tails that are secretly in control. Utilised these lads with a master puppeteer pulling the strings of the marionette could be a way to group these ‘mons together.
Example Pokémon: Girafarig/Mimikyu/Wobbuffet/Mawile
Grouped by Evolution Method
As well as grouping by design, grouping by evolution type seems an under-explored idea to me. On top of being a fun theme, it would be a good way to teach players about which mechanics of the game they need to use to acquire certain Pokémon.
The Trader Gym
A whole range of Pokémon evolve through straight-up trading or through trading while holding specific items. Have the leader of this gym be a market stall trader with an eye for a deal and the gift of the gab. Or a corrupt Wall Street-style stock broker who ruins the economy by making subprime Pokémon trades that devastate the working class. Or a merchant sailor who goes from port to port, trading goods and Pokémon in the process.
Example Pokémon: Machamp/Gengar/Golem/Alakazam/Steelix/Scizor/Electrivire/Magmortar/Gigalith/Trevenant/Rhyperior/Milotic/Dusknoir/Conkeldurr/Escavalier
The Evolutionary Stones Gym
Make the gym leader an archaeologist who excavates evolutionary stones during their field work. Or go for the new age spiritualism angle and have a trainer who is bang into crystals and their effects on humans as well as Pokémon. Doing an Eeveelution gym is obvious and something the games have half-heartedly thought about previously so let’s offer an alternative:
Example Pokémon: Cloyster/Ludicolo/Shiftry/Vileplume/Bellossom/Victreebel/Aegislash/Chandelure/Ninetales/Starmie/Frosslass/Mismagius/Heliolisk/Darmanitan
The Kindness Gym
Something that seems lifted straight from the anime is the idea that your Pokémon will evolve because they’re your mates and you’ve been nice to them. Incorporate this into the game by having the Daycare Centre double up as a gym that specialises in these Pokémon or have a gym of nurses or caregivers or even one filled with kindly old grandparents.
Example Pokémon: Marill/Snorlax/Clefairy/Lucario/Jigglypuff/Pikachu/Mr. Mime/Blissey/Sylveon/Umbreon/Espeon/Frosmoth/Lopunny/Alolan Persian/Togetic