In one of the more heartbreaking non-Cubone/Butterfreedom episodes of the Pokémon television series’, Ash and co. come across a weak Charmander which had been abandoned and left to die by a callous trainer. This asshole, named Damian, is the sort of kid who can be placed right at the centre of that venn diagram of spoiled little shit/rat-faced/literally Hitler (see fig. 2) and who is basically the antithesis of what the entire Pokémon TV show is all about, thematically-speaking: the idea that love and friendship can conquer any obstacle no matter how great, etc etc etc, which is a perfectly fine message for any kids’ TV show (or any TV show for that matter, though it depends on the viewer’s own levels of child-like naivety/optimism I guess). In one scene, Damian is showing off his huge collection of (Poké)balls to his similarly dick-headed little-shit friends, noting boastfully that he cares only about the strongest Pokémon - and that the weak ones can basically go take a running jump. Cue the oh-wouldn’t-ya-know-it-the-dying-Charmander-from-earlier-was-Damian’s-we-better-go-save-it plot (which I mean probably features some level of Team Rocket bs, I can’t really remember), which ends up with Damian remaining a complete dick and Ash resuming his adventure along with the Charmander, who has learned to kick ass thanks to the power of love. And this is of course the same Charmander that eventually becomes Charizard and the second-only-to-Pikachu most important and recognisable Pokémon in the TV series (probably?). The point is of course that while Charmander was weak, with Ash’s love and care and etc it would eventually become an incredibly powerful battler. I grew out of the show around mid-way through the Johto stuff but I can distinctly remember that about 75%+ of the episodes touched on this “love is more effective than being a total dick if you want to be a Pokémon master” theme (ignoring of course that dark and secret underlying “Pokémon are actually our slaves and we battle them for sport” theme that we all know and understand but choose to push way down there next to all the childhood memories involving public showers and/or that one weird uncle). So it’s strange that in the Pokémon games, the Ashes among us aren’t the Pokémon masters: the Damians are.

[Preface #1: The following appears to encroach dangerously on the tired “A was much better X years ago, before B ruined it” cliche but believe me I’m not even slightly going there, so you can rest easy.]

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I stopped playing the Pokémon games after Gold Version due to lack of interest, but during my formative adult years, I came to learn that things like girls and going outside ever are far less important than the great selection of pleasures that went AWOL during those hazy adolescent years. Pleasures like catching Pokémon, for example. I jumped back onto the train just in time for X and Y, and aside from that one Water-based Elite Four member (Stone Edge was my team’s absolute bane), I more-or-less ploughed through it. Same with the more recent Ruby/Sapphire remakes. But a few weeks back, the Poké-urge returned, though this time in a new and unexpected form. I had started to feel guilty about never having truly engaged with the multiplayer portion of the Pokémon titles - a portion which, thanks to wi-fi connectivity, is far more feature-packed and accessible than that of the link-cable/infrared days of old. I felt I owed it to myself to, well, attempt to become a Pokémon master fo’ real. So I grabbed Y, booted up my save, re-acquainted myself with my own Charizard, and asked myself, “How hard can it be?”

After a series of getting-ass-handed-to-mes and the intensive internet research that followed, the not-entirely-straightforward answer I eventually came to was: “sorta.”

[Preface #2: I’m just a standard human, so understand that my evaluation of the difficulty of a children’s video game is based on the result of analysis performed by a standard 24yo human brain fuelled mostly by cheap Cabernet and microwave meals. So take all of this with a grain of salt, and please, feel free to call me an idiot below if I have any of this wrong.]

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As it turns out, battling is only a teeny part of competitive Pokémon(ing). What consumes most of our time is team-building and breeding, because if we jump into battle with a team of random Pokémon we’ve happened upon in the wild, we’re probably going to lose, regardless of their level or move set. Most experienced battlers will of course already know this: the development of unseen stats, the maxing-out of necessary attributes, and the careful balancing of team composition are unbelievably significant parts of the competitive multiplayer portion of the game, and getting them right requires an approach that is loveless and mathematical as opposed to one that features something as trivial as human emotion. While none of this is super difficult on a mechanical or (at least most of the time) analytical level, it’s one that takes an absolute butt-ton of time (so in the same way that Diablo 3 or WoW are “difficult” in that time spent is generally proportionate to progression), and - and we’re slowly approaching the point here - a lot of wasted Pokémon.

Here’s how it all works (experienced trainers can go ahead and skip this part - or, if you’re a dick, you can scan it for inaccuracies and call me an idiot below as per our agreement in Preface #2). If you’re starting from scratch, you need the tools to make the breeding process as efficient as possible. That means collecting items and abilities that, first, (almost) ensure that wanted traits are passed on from parent Pokémon to newborns, and second, minimize egg-hatching times. Because lord knows, even with a coin wedging my 3DS’s circle pad in place for hours on end, I don’t want to wait all of a bajillion steps to just hatch stunted Squirtle after stunted Squirtle in the hopes of finding that one-in-a-thousand tortoise-thing that doesn’t have a foot growing out of its forehead or something. Once we have these items and abilities, we then have to acquire the Pokémon we want to breed, which requires any combination of a) patience and concentration with the Pokémon Radar in order to get chains (the more of the same Pokémon we encounter in a row, the more likely it is for that Pokémon to have good stats [but don’t forget those repels, because if you encounter a different Pokémon while doing this, your train is broken and you’ve just wasted an hour of your life]), b) access to the requisite friend safaris (Pokémon caught here will usually have good stats, but you need to hunt down the right friend codes to gain access to the monsters you want), or c) a literal smorgasbord of Ditto. That last one is a very popular choice, because once you’ve gone through the long and arduous process of a) finding a bunch of ditto with the right natures and b) breeding one with sublime stats, you only have to worry about catching half the number of Pokémon you want for future breeding sprees, because almost every Pokémon can make babies with a ditto (presumably because it can morph into any shape). From there, the actual process of breeding your inbred super-soldier alpha-Pokémon begins. And for the most serious of battlers, if the metagame doesn’t favour that perfect Blastoise you spent ten hours acquiring, that fat blue tortoise may end up spending the rest of its life in computer storage. Once you’ve finally got your hands on the Perfect 6 (as it were), you will have left scores of useless Pokemon in your wake. (You will have also visibly aged.)

Let’s get back to it, then: the core message of the Pokémon TV show is all about how love and compassion can somehow strengthen the resolve and resilience of our pocket monsters, and make moot points out of things like type and level advantage. In essence, strategy won’t matter so long as you’ve take good care of that Bidoof. But, aside from the small benefits derived from the Pokémon-Amie system, there is no true “Power of Love” stat in the games. No, Fire Spin is not going to kill that Barbaracle, no matter how many times you scream “I believe in you, Charizard!” into your 3DS mic. And look: this isn’t a criticism of the Pokémon games whatsoever. Could you imagine a new entry in the series which scrapped the type/attribute/level system in exchange for a peripheral which measured voice pitch and pulse-rate to determine our emotional state? If it senses “passion and/or desperation” it’ll grant a 1000x damage multiplier to our moves and prevent our own Pokémon from dropping below 1 HP. It’ll send 240 volts through our bodies when we throw ourselves between our Pikachu and an Oblivion Wing. It’ll analyse our muscle mass in order to determine just how strong our embrace is if we choose to give our Machamp a celebratory victory hug. Point is, the kind of themes that take precedence in the show simply don’t make a lick(itung) of sense in the games. Multiplayer battling is and will always be highly competitive, and it isn’t likely that breeding and the type-system- and metagame-influenced process of team selection will ever change to allow for the participation of every Pokémon out there. The fact is that not all pocket monsters are created equal.

So you see that Charmander over there, dying, frightened and alone? He’s there because he was born with a shitty speed stat, and he’s got five siblings in similar situations (some of which are probably dead by now). And as a result of this digital brutality, my Charizard is better than your Charizard. My name is Damian, and I am an asshole.

[Appendix: I referred to the Pokémon games as being the closest thing to the “real life” Pokémon experience, but come GO, this may not be the case at all. So I wonder - and this is certainly at least a half-decent talking point - what kind of approach GO is going to take re: love and whip-cracking and all that? Is the world going to be filled with Ash Ketchums, or Damians?]

I’m Scott. Like my things? Here is a Twitter.