Featuring Nick Franco from the Pokemon: Hard Mode series
[Header Herabuff by @WaddleDurrr]
Nick Franco’s Pokémon: Hard Mode comics popularized the concept of the Nuzlocke, one of the most well-known self-imposed challenges among electric mouse enthusiasts. Its two simple rules — you can only attempt to catch the first Pokémon you see in each area, and all KO’d party members are considered dead and cannot be used for the rest of your playthrough — have created countless personal stories of triumph, defeat, friendship, and tragedy. I’ve never played a Nuzlocke challenge myself, but it’s been on my bucket list because I’ve gained so much respect for these house rules and how they change everything about a typical Pokémon playthrough.
And yet, as of X and Y and onward, I’ve had the impression that newer Pokémon games are becoming increasingly less compatible with the tradition. Last month, our own Communicord members discussed how Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee are seemingly impossible to play as Nuzlocke challenges, and how that single fact dampens their interest in the Let’s Go titles.
It had me pondering about the future of this passionate niche of the Pokémon fandom, so I got in touch with Nick Franco himself to get his thoughts on how his creation is able to withstand the various changes the Pokémon franchise has gone through.
“Ignoring more drastic shifts like Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee, the biggest change to attempting a Nuzlocke challenge in newer Pokémon games is the lower difficulty,’ he explained. “For me, it was always more important that the challenge made playing the game interesting rather than challenging (after all, there are many ways you could make the experience harder,) and I think it still accomplishes that for the player. Still, it’s undeniable that the added difficulty is important to many players, and some of that is noticeably diminished in the newer games.”
In its efforts to introduce players from the hugely popular Pokémon Go to the mainline series, the Let’s Go titles changed many things that happened to make Nuzlocking possible and appealing with earlier games. As part of those changes, they streamlined the process of catching wild Pokémon by replacing traditional wild battles with Pokéball throwing segments.
“I think the experience Let’s Go offers is not especially conducive to being Nuzlocke’d,” Franco said, “but if the player wanted they could accomplish something functionally similar. Because catching Pokémon is so important to Let’s Go, you have to do away with the ‘only catch the first Pokémon in each area’ rule.”
This isn’t the first time the Nuzlocke challenge was rewritten, even if only penned by the unspoken public consensus. Any self-imposed challenge needs to adapt to both its medium and goals, and Franco pointed out that entries prior to the Let’s Go games had people ignoring player-friendly features in search of a difficulty on par with the original Nuzlocke.
“I haven’t played Let’s Go yet, but in Generation VII one feature I’ve mostly ignored is Pokémon Refresh,” he said. “I messed with it initially in my run because, well, it was fun to pet the Pokémon. But as soon as I realized the benefits of the feature were making an already fairly easy run even easier, I decided to abandon it.”
Franco also said that while many Nuzlocke players ignore using the Experience Share from Generation VI onwards, he doesn’t believe it makes the game easier, only that it speeds up the grind. His complaints about difficulty are more focused on the team and move set compositions of NPC trainers, saying, “Having to grind more won’t change the fact that the Kalos Elite 4 can be battled in any order and only have four Pokémon each.”
I recently shared an extremely similar concern, but I’ve always had the impression that grinding and being under-leveled was a part of the risk and thrill of the Nuzlocke challenge. Overextending one’s party can lead to a party member getting knocked out. I wanted to compare the challenge creator’s thoughts with those of the community he indirectly fostered. For that, I turned to the r/Nuzlocke Discord community for their thoughts on the matter.
“The newer games require less grinding, and in turn, effort,” a Discord user going by the name of National wrote. “It’s fair to say that overall, the new games are easier by incorporating new mechanics/buffing established ones.”
Like Franco, the Nuzlocke Discord community avoids using Pokémon Refresh during Nuzlocke runs. Originally introduced in Pokémon X & Y as Pokémon-Amie, the system lets players play with and care for their Pokémon on the 3DS touchscreen. I’ll gladly spend all day petting my favorite Bug Types, but continued use will give Pokémon unremovable passive buffs in battle, or as user Aku explained, “Pokémon-Amie just gives you free advantages for doing absolutely nothing.”
“I think the highest affection level serves as a free Focus Sash (a held item that lets its user survive a one-hit KO),” National added, “which is something that is completely broken.” I fact-checked this just to be sure. This affection effect actually seems to activate more frequently than a Focus Sash, and it’s unlocked way before the highest affection level. So… yeah, that’s a little broken in a ruleset that hinges around KOs being permanent.
Despite that most recent entries make the challenge more cumbersome to follow, most players in the Nuzlocke Discord actually praised them as entry points to the challenge. “The newer gens are probably the best way to start,” wrote community member James. “Once you get into it, you might want to try out the older gens.” Another user, going by Eternal X, agreed, saying the games were a “Hell of a lot easier to get into.”
“It’s tough to give a concrete preference,” National added, “since newer gens add mechanics that just make sense and improve gameplay (phys/spec split in Gen 4 for example). Even Gen 7 games with the buffed EXP share were difficult games.”
I had first (wrongly) assumed that this community would view the newer Pokémon games in a negative light, so I was happy to hear that this community instead viewed the newer games as an opportunity to get more people passionate about Nuzlockes! But that still didn’t address my doubts about how this tradition could be applied to Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee.
Most of us don’t expect a majority of the changes found in the games will apply to future, mainline Pokémon entries, especially not the replacement of random battles with Go-based catching encounters or removing mechanics like abilities. But it’s still a big, new, and quite well-received release that iterates on existing systems and it’s only rational to expect something from it will carry over into Generation VIII. The “something” we most expect is the use of overworld monsters instead of random ambushes. This is easily one of the greatest conveniences to the average user, and 99% of all RPG critics have already agreed it’s objectively better than random encounters. For the record, I am a part of that 99%.
However, putting encounters almost entirely into the user’s control throws one of the Nuzlocke’s main conventions out the window. As Franco explained, “Not know who’d going your team was a big part of the Nuzlocke experience, and there’s no elegant way to do it with new overworld Pokémon.”
This is what I meant when our Communicord members discussed Let’s Go being ‘impossible’ to play as a Nuzlocke challenge. But Franco did have an idea on how to get around it. “My best suggestion is to simply treat the first Pokémon you see or the one that spawns nearest to you as your catch (though I’ve seen some amusing suggestions of blindfolding yourself and stumbling into the route until you bump into something.) This is probably the feature that’s most likely to carry over from Let’s Go to future mainline games, and I think that my system will continue to be the easiest fix.”
Meanwhile, the Nuzlocke Discord community is also developing their own solution. User Anderood10 told me one of their community’s moderators is developing a solution that uses the randomized movement patterns of overworld encounters, explaining, “You don’t go an encounter, but wait for the first thing to go for you.” Several of them are enthusiastic about this rule-crafting process, and they may adopt this idea as a standard for their own playthroughs.
I’m looking forward to seeing which of these solutions Nuzlocke creators prefer for Let’s Go down the line, but they may need to address still more soon. A new main series Pokémon RPG to the Switch in 2019 and even more could change come then. While Franco hopes for more difficulty, he’s also willing to embrace the changes that inconvenience Nulockes as they also create more nuance in growing attached to your Pokémon.
“I’m hopeful that Gen VIII will deliver a more traditional/challenging experience,” he said, “but enhanced by the power and possibilities provided by the Switch hardware and a longer development cycle. I believe as long as there are Pokémon to catch and battle in the games, the Nuzlocke challenge will always provide a compelling experience for the player. But if I’m wrong, and there are new features added that make the challenge less appealing or feasible, then I hope Game Freak takes advantage of the opportunity to create a truly new and immersive Pokémon experience for consoles. The most important part of the Nuzlocke challenge is that it gets you attached to your Pokémon — that kind of immersion is the real magic of it. If Game Freak can create an immersive experience where you really feel like you’re there in the Pokémon world, then maybe we don’t need the Nuzlocke challenge.”
As for the Nuzlocke Discord community’s answer to what Gen VIII might hold, everyone had their own ideas. National mostly spoke on the difficulty curve. “I think they’re going to take a page out of Gen VII’s book and make it a little more difficult than generations past, while still keeping the buffed mechanics. In fact, I believe it will be quite similar to what Ultra Sun looked like.” Aku surprised me by emphasizing her interest in a good plotline. “Half the fun in Nuzlockes, for me at least, is taking the wacky stories the games provide and adding my own on top of them.”
To wrap it all up, I asked the Discord thread and Franco if there is anything Game Freak should do to accommodate the Nuzlocke community — something I wanted to ask because, despite all of my thoughts here, I wouldn’t expect Nuzlocke-specific catering to go over well with the larger Pokémon fan base. Most agreed with Aku when she said, “I don’t think Game Freak should cater to us,” though they also liked Eternal X’s suggestion to bring back Challenge Mode, which would be more of a gesture to veteran Pokémon players everywhere rather than just the Nuzlocke base. Franco said he wouldn’t say no to a Nuzlocke specific mode, but more realistically reiterated his belief that future games should include multiple difficulty options. “Players that choose the harder difficulty would encounter trainers with more Pokémon and better move sets, while players playing on easy could enjoy their fun, casual experience. Everyone would win.”
The people of the Nuzlocke community don’t just enjoy challenging gameplay, they go out of their way to make their own challenges regardless of the games themselves. Even if Generation VIII is easier than the previous one or further less compatible with the traditional Nuzlocke rules, my discussions reassured me that the challenge will go on. As Anderood10 put it, “Nuzlocking is, at its very core, a self-imposed ruleset.” While Pokémon games have become increasingly incompatible with these guidelines, that does not hurt to a tradition-driven purely by an honor system upheld by people who seek a challenge for its own sake. The Discord guys have no worry about whether the games will fit the Nuzlocke mold because Nuzlockes are always molded to fit the games. Franco emphasizes less interest in the difficulty and more interest in finding new ways to bond with the friends he meets on his journey. And their confident outlooks embody why I have so much fascination for this scene.
If you’re curious why the header is a buff Heracross, it’s related to one of the dozens of tangents my discussion with the r/Nuzlocke Discord went on. I’ve archived that entire chat log here for your reading pleasure, though do be aware it’s over 30 pages of Discord copypasta lightly edited for readability.