Of the many great improvements that Pokémon Sun-and/or-Moon makes over its predecessors, my favourite is its more densely-populated, diverse, and personality-rich cast of characters. Gone for the most part is the standard herd of insufferable normal-and-smiling human children, the bad guys who are bad because they are bad guys who do bad things that are bad, and the crop of cookie-cutter gym leaders who are most definitely going to [Pokémon type reference] you with their [Pokémon type reference]. Instead, Alola gives us Professor Kukui, a midlife-crisis-in-progress man-child who longs for more battle-related excitement in his mostly battle-free career as Alola’s Chief of Professorness. There’s Lily, a Girl With A Mysterious Past and a clear mission whose surprising level of agency (welcomely) gets in the way of the main Pokémon-Champion-Related questline. There’s Unnamed-Character, a silent newcomer whose drive to become a Pokémon master is second only to his uncanny prowess in battle. And then there’s Hau, the main character, an Alolan native who isn’t quite sure of his future in the realm of Pokémon-training, but who nonetheless hopes to prove to his rival, Unnamed-Character, that fun is more important than victory.
You see where I’m going here.
Up until very recently the standard rival narrative of the mainline Pokémon games has operated on one of two levels. Early titles pit the greenhorn player-character up against an overconfident, asshole-ish, and at times brutal rival, a narrative which would later be supplanted by more friendly rivalries between friendly friend-friends who are friends. Both of these narrative tropes work well as ways of driving the main plot forward and fleshing out both the silent player-characters and their somewhat louder rivals. However, in its efforts to stamp out the Poke-conventions of old and establish itself as the start of a new frontier for the series, S&M has switched things up here. And while most of the other changes to the series are enjoyable-as-heck (something something Sharpedo-drifting) and highly welcome, the relationship between the player character and Hau is something else entirely.
In Alola, you don’t play the underdog to a more driven and/or privileged trainer, nor are you an equal half of a friendly rivalry – you’re simply the arbiter of the systematic and single-handed takedown of Hau’s hopes, dreams, and Pokémon teams. And in a game series which is (and has always been) about self-improvement, sportsmanship, and good-old vanilla human decency, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
By comparison, let’s take a look at the rival narrative in Red and Blue Version. How many of you experienced legitimate fear and horror when Blue first showed up at the end of the Pokémon League, fresh and ready to fight your battle-weary team, even though all your previous encounters revolved around him losing the fight?
It’s likely because even though you consistently pick up his ass, walk over to him, and hand it over, the game still has the tenacity to say: you are the underdog, you are at a disadvantage, he is still better than you. And you believe it. Why? Because Blue is a brilliantly-written character (I point to “smell you later” as evidence of this) whose overall attitude ties in perfectly with the actual game mechanics to make the guy seem like the (un)stoppable dick that he is. Firstly, the guy barely acknowledges any of his many losses: after beating him, you get the impression that his confidence completely outweighs his ability, and no matter how many times you win, he will never admit to either you, or himself, that you are the superior trainer. And for good reason, because secondly, he’s not an easy trainer to beat. He has that sweet type advantage, and unlike rivals of modern times, his team is stacked as heck. (In fact, he’s the sole reason why I’ve made sure to have an Exeggutor on me at all times in every subsequent game entry.) What these two things do is evoke a level of very real familiarity: because most of us know that kid. The kid with the rich parents and an overblown level of self-confidence. The kid who, to be fair, wins a lot, but who always has an excuse prepared for any loss. The kid who will use every advantage available to him and who will leverage every disadvantage against you. In the end, it isn’t enough just to beat Blue in a one-off fight (if it was, half the game would feel pointless) – no, the rivalry is written such that it’s only that final win that matters, wherein we beat him down to a point where he admits to us that which he’s kept hidden throughout each one of our encounters: “You beat my best!” Here, it isn’t the victory that matters (at least within the scope of the rival narrative) – no, it’s the simple evidence of growth and change in our long-time enemy.
Of all the Pokémon games, Red and Blue stick it to the player the hardest in this area, with things getting much easier in subsequent entries (though Silver sure isn’t a pushover). I’m all for the increased easiness of the modern titles (the main quest is for the kids, the endgame is for twenty-five year olds who are 100% comfortable whipping out their handheld Nintendo device on the bus), and I’m perfectly happy to argue that lower difficulty levels and decent rivalry narratives are not mutually exclusive. Even X and Y, which is easy as heck given the ability to just straight-up Digivolve your guy in the middle of battle into an unstoppable nightmare generator (say what you want about mega-evolutions, I’m glad they replaced it with Z-Moves for the duration of S&M’s campaign mode), features a perfectly acceptable sub-plot of mutual growth and friendship and all that other good stuff keeps the ‘friendly-rivalry’ narrative afloat. Serena and Calem display both frustration and disappointment with each loss, and vow to come back stronger – and they do. And even though we beat them in the end, they don’t display that same level of sadness after earlier defeats – instead, they vow to learn from the battle and improve further. Like Blue, they grow and change in light of their defeats, and that’s what’s important.
And so we come to Alola, where our rival is so one-dimensionally bright-eyed that he could provide a year’s worth of energy to a small solar-powered town simply by looking at it, and no, I couldn’t come up with a better metaphor than that. The level of naivety he displays in the face of overwhelming odds here is absurd. You thought the MC’s unblinking, smiling, nightmare-visage was weird? Hau, who is in fact a real boy and not an emotionless husk-robot, literally has a ball in the UltraBeast cancerverse. He’s visibly happy to be challenging you to another battle, he’s visibly happy to get his ass kicked, and he’s visibly happy to experience sentience. At every turn, he’s running up behind you, totally out of breath, smiling, and ready to challenge you with the newest iteration of his garbage-ass team. Then he’ll thank you for beating him, give you some cash, and wait around to challenge you in five cut scenes time without making any discernible progress of his own in the meantime (seriously: after each battle, the guy either doesn’t acknowledge that a battle even took place, or states some bland platitude along the lines of “I am disappointed but also I had fun and I am glad that I had fun because that is what matters because I like having fun”). Good writing this is not.
Hau is an unchanging, naïve child, and you’re the asshole who has to curb-stomp his sense of self-worth. Not that he really cares, mind you – and that’s sort of the problem. Unlike Blue, who doesn’t care about his losses because he genuinely believes he’s still better than you in spite of them, and unlike Serena, whose confidence appears shattered after each fight, Hau seems interested only in having a nice time. And since he’s always having a nice time no matter what, there really doesn’t seem to be much at stake for the guy, and therefore not much point for us to battle him. Although he does have his own goals within the game’s narrative (most of which do seem to revolve around having a nice time), when it comes to playing the role of your rival, Hau’s just sort of…there.
First things first: the guy picks a starter with type-disadvantage to your own. Like, I’m pretty happy for S&M crushing all those Poké-conventions that had been established by what was basically the same game every couple of years for two decades, but come on: if there was one thing that so perfectly represented the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mantra in this series, it was that. While of course the type thing never matters so much in the latter halves of the games due to players typically having established more well-rounded teams by that point, the impact in early battles is always significant. But more importantly, the starter advantage operates as a symbol of dominance that establishes that underdog narrative arc at the very beginning of the journey. If you start the game with an advantage, then what, really, is the point to the rival relationship? Even the Pokémon-for-Dummies-esque XY figured that one out.
There’s also the weird back-to-frontness of your respective Pokémon-journeys. Similar to the symbolism inherent in the type advantage, previous games often have you on the back foot, always just catching up to your rival after they’ve just brought down a gym leader you’ve yet to challenge, or just discovered a new area you’ve yet to find. In Hoenn, for example, Brendan/May is already on his/her journey before you even get started. Having the rival even a small step ahead still works as a means of having the player-character embody the role of the underdog. Conversely, Hau is never a step ahead of us. Hau is always catching up, breathless, about to take on whatever challenge you just breezed through. It’s impossible, therefore, to feel driven to get one over on Hau, because we’re always ahead of him. Heck, by the end of the game, you’re the League Champion awaiting his challenge – an obvious contrast to the ending of the first generation, the intended meaning of which is clearly lost on yours truly.
Let me take a brief detour before wrapping things up. As I mentioned earlier, one of my favourite new features of Sun and Moon is the elevation of what has otherwise been a cast of very minor characters into a group of well-rounded and memorable figures. While the player-character/Hau rivalry is of course more central to the narrative than most other relationships, the repeated interactions and battles between us and the likes of Olivia, Hala, and Acerola (just to name a few) establish similar, albeit smaller, rivalries which leads to the feeling that Alola is a far livelier place than previous regions. Here, it really feels like there are far more than just a small handful of trainers on significant, championship-driven journeys, and that’s something that I can appreciate. (As a somewhat ‘official’ rival, I would have included Gladion on the above list, but to be honest I wasn’t much of a fan of his bonus-stage-esque CatDog fights.)
I’ll end on one more observation about the Pokémon series as a whole, and perhaps the main reason why the Hau rivalry hurts the narrative more than it helps it. See, in every single Pokémon game, we don’t talk – that is, we’re in control of a (mostly) silent main character. As such, the character is constructed by the world around them, and importantly, by the actions the game system and narrative force us to take. These things come together to form what type of people the various silent protagonists of the Pokémon series are. As Red, your rival is Blue, who consistently denies you the satisfaction of a hard-fought victory. He is a brutal trainer who takes his Pokémon to their limits. He is a privileged snotbag who never seems to have to work as hard to get as far as you do. Now, even though Red never talks, we can come to an understanding of what he’s like as a person, simply because of his narrative opposition to Blue, and by his repeated (unsatisfactory) victories over him. He’s honourable. He’s a good sport. He’s driven. By the virtue of simply fighting Blue, of being disliked by Blue, of finally teaching Blue a lesson, he’s the kind of trainer we want as a main character.
Hau is a trainer who battles for fun. He doesn’t care about winning, and even goes as far to suggest that losing a fun battle is preferable to winning one that isn’t. He doesn’t even care that much about the island challenge, seemingly dropping the whole thing around the game’s halfway point. And yet there he is, always at our heels, ready to challenge us again. But the problem for us is that we can’t battle for fun; the game mechanics themselves ensure that the only way to move forward is by winning certain battles. If we lose, the screen goes black and we have to try again – there is simply no option but to win, which means the kind of carefree battles Hau tries to promote are battles we cannot possibly participate in. So here’s this kid who just wants to have a fun time, and even if we want to give him a fun battle where winning and losing don’t matter, we simply can’t do that.
Because this is a Pokémon game, and that’s just not how it works.
Sun and Moon’s predecessors give us reasons to battle and defeat our rivals, which means that we don’t really care about the lack of agency – we have to win, but that’s okay, because we want to win. We were always the underdog, and we always had something to prove. But with Hau as my rival, I’m just an OP douchebag who wilfully participates in the repeated demolition of a kid who will likely end up in a deep, deep depression, along with that Raichu with its frankly embarrassing defensive stats. And do I really want to play as that guy?