I still enjoy Pokémon. I’m going to leave the e unaccented out of laziness, but if you read this column and see the acute é sprinkled throughout the name, just know that I have failed to control my conditioning and Nintendo’s Pavlovian whip cracking has won out against my feeble mind. But yes, I enjoy the franchise thoroughly and still count it high amongst my gaming interests, or even as one of my favourite activities in my spare time. It’s cute! It’s fun! I cackle every time I name my rival NUTSACK, capital letters uniformly enforced! Truly, joy untold.
But still, this is a game made with children in mind. Which, unlike many… troubled members of the fanbase, doesn’t bother me. It’s not our space and while there are many, many adults who partake in the games, I am in no way foolish enough to think that the base game itself is meant for people of my age range. With that in mind, it becomes somewhat of a chore to play the games normally—not for lack of interest, but because the simplicity does tire over time. I don’t give the tiniest fuck about competitive battling because I want to actually enjoy the things I play. That, and I feel like competitive battling has rules similar to the Jedi taking on Younglings: you gotta get in early, or fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, so on and so forth. But a few years ago, I stumbled upon one great idea which makes the experience much more interesting for anyone who may wish to try the games in a new light, rookie or veteran alike.
Enter the Nuzlocke.
It’s a simple self-enforced game mechanic which comes down to three main rules, further rules depending entirely on you and what Pokémon game you choose to play. You can only catch one per new area, you have to name your new catches and if they faint, they’re fucking dead. While you can certainly cheat and heal their fatal wounds, it’s not the same. Dumpling, your Jigglypuff? A walking corpse. Close her eyes, for she doesn’t see out of them anymore. The sights above are wasted on her decaying body. Depending on whether she lived a virtuous existence during her mortal lifetime, Dumpling could be entering the gates of Paradiso or suffering eternal torment in the flames of Inferno. It’s up to you, really.
Better not let her fucking die.
But the real joy of such a mechanic isn’t the crippling fear of losing a loved one, it’s the unparalleled blessing of gaining that loved one in the first place! What this mechanic does is simple—it demands that the player treat their team with care in order to keep them alive! It does away with the disposability inherent in Pokémon and gives you the opportunity to take these little pixels on an adventure, with all the realities of adventuring present within. You gain a sense of pride knowing that little Mudkip has outlived what the region has thrown at him, and undergone a horrific metamorphosis into the tank that he is today. But more than that, the Nuzlocke allows you to care for Pokémon that you never thought you would care for, because you are bound to whatever Pokémon you first come across. Who the fuck cares about Swalot? Do you even know what that is? But I learned to care for one. I learned all too well the beauty and the joy that a Swalot could bring into my world. She was so much more than a blob of deadly poisonous gelatinous tissue, she was a true friend. Tragically, Flan was struck down in her prime, frozen to death by a cruel trainer who would never know what purity he struck from the earth. It was said that Elton John regretted tying “Candle in the Wind” to Marilyn and Diana when the news reached his ears. There are many stories like this, many people who have come to know a pixel they never thought they would know, only to have their beating hearts torn from their chest by a simple critical hit. It’s a tough journey.
I have known great joys, but I have known more loss than any Lars von Trier movie. I’ve raised a child from nothing into a mighty beast, a seedling into a blossoming flower of unparalleled vibrancy. All to die from my own ignorance, or, as has been triumphantly declared in the halls of Hell, the chaotic explosion from a wandering Geodude. But the journey is worth it. Oh, it is always worth it. To see my Snorlax (ironically named Fun Size) trample the corpses of a thousand lesser beings is worth the potential horror of having to bury him under a lone tree on a desolate hill. Desolate because he killed everything there for EXP, but I digress. It is worth the sheer joy of finally making it through the Elite Four, having been with these friends since the beginning. No, having been with your family since the beginning.
The greatness of the Nuzlocke challenge is that it takes a franchise that has, until recently, defied the idea of updating the game mechanics beyond the simplest of aesthetic concerns—and gives it a heart. More specifically, it gives you YOUR heart. We may not all find a Flan in our respective playthroughs, but I encourage you to try. Their candle may not burn out long before their legend ever will.