Pokemon’s Rival Problem
Pokemon is one of the most successful series in the world, and you’d be hard pressed to find somebody who doesn’t know who Pikachu is. While it started as a video game series, it’s expanded to movies and TV shows, with constant releases in the game series. In fact, there are two new games coming out later this year, those being Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee. These are remakes of the original Pokemon games, but using some features from the widely successful Pokemon Go. However, one thing shown in a trailer for these games shows off a major problem with many Pokemon games, the rivals.
When you think of a rival, someone who your trying to beat probably comes to mind. In the earlier Pokemon games, this is exactly who your rival was. But as Pokemon has continued through the series, and gotten more popular, there has been a stark change in the personality of your rivals. This is because instead of challenging you to be better, and having you want to be better than them, they have just become your friend. To really show this drastic change, I’ll show you the transition across all of the games.
Starting off with Pokemon Red and Blue, you’ve got one of the most popular rivals, Gary/Blue. While he may be your friend, that’s mostly because he’s the only other kid in your town. Overall though, he acts like a complete jerk, which makes you want to get stronger and be able to beat him. Crazy, it’s almost like that’s what rivals are supposed to do. Once you finally beat the Elite Four, you have become the Pokemon Champion, except for the fact that your rival got there first. Once you finally beat him and become the champion, you’ve truly beaten your rival. But not only do you beat your rival, but he also learns from his defeat, which can be seen in the next games, Pokemon Gold and Silver. Once you beat the main story, you can travel back to Kanto, where Blue/Gary has become a Gym Leader, showing he’s grown as a person.
Speaking of Pokemon Gold and Silver, you get a rival who’s even less like your friend, and is actually a criminal. Your rival is Silver, and he honestly doesn’t care about you as much as he cares about being a strong trainer and beating Team Rocket. However, he through the game he learns to not just focus on becoming the strongest there is. During this transition he becomes less of a jerk, becoming just a serious person instead.
After that is Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire, which really kicked off the friendly rivals with May and Wally. Just like Blue, May is your neighbor, as well as your rival. She’s also the professor’s daughter, which can be seen a lot, as she teaches you how to do many things. Throughout the entire adventure, she stays friendly, and always informs you of game mechanics. Towards the end of the game she just falls to the wayside though, showing the beginning of the end. There’s also Wally, but his arc is different from the standard friendly rival, and actually benefits because of that. He starts as a meek kid, but through his adventure he learns to be courageous, and by the end of the game, he’s a competent trainer with determination. This arc is what makes him a good rival, even though he’s a friend of yours.
The next games are Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, which start the nose-dive into friendly rivals with Barry and Dawn. Barry is your hotheaded friend, and Dawn is the typical shy professor’s assistant. Through the game they each grow though, as Barry learns to calm down and be more mature, while Dawn learns to break out of her shell and do things other than what’s necessary. Even with these arcs though, these two were the horsemen of the friend apocalypse.
The friendships were continued in Pokemon Black and White, which basically reused Barry and Dawn in Bianca and Cheren, respectively. Bianca is very flighty, but she also has to prove herself in the story, even having to convince her father to allow her to continue being a Pokemon Trainer. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the much more quiet and introspective Cheren, who starts his journey wanting to be the Champion. However, when asked why by the current champion, this starts Cheren on a journey to find himself.
These two return in Pokemon Black and White 2, and have both matured. Cheren has become a gym leader, while Bianca has become the professor’s assistant. However, there was another rival in these games, Hugh. Hugh has one focus, and it’s not to become champion, but to get his sister’s Purrloin back. It was taken by Team Plasma, so Hugh is trying to get his Pokemon and himself to become stronger, so they can finally rescue his sister’s Pokemon.
When the series finally reached 3D in Pokemon X and Y, the friend rivals reached its highest point, with four different rivals, none of which were rude or even semi competitive. For the most part all of the rivals can be easily summarized. Shauna is energetic but clueless. Serena is skilled and teaches the player. Tierno is the funny dancer. Trevor is the standard nerd. The characters also never get any arcs, or if they do, it’s rushed through completely. This is an addition to the fact that they all give you tutorials throughout the entire game, even when players should theoretically already know what to do.
The most recently released games, Pokemon Sun and Moon, bring the rival count back down to two, but doesn’t change anything when it comes to the friendliness of the rivals. It also comes back to the fun loving neighbor kid, and the shy professor’s assistant. Hau is the fun one, and one of the main things with him is that even when he loses, he’s still happy. While this could be interesting, he never changes, even when the stakes become more dire. Luckily Lillie, the shy one, actually has a character arc in which she becomes more confident and even stands up to her mother, who ends up being the main villain of the game. But throughout the game until that moment at the end, she just acts like a walking tutorial, and is also super nice to you.
Finally, the crux of this issue comes in Pokemon Let’s Go, which are aimed for younger audiences. They’re also remakes of the first games, but have a few changes. One of the biggest changes is the fact that Blue is no longer your rival, instead it’s just “Your Friendly Rival.” While I’m not saying that all of the rivals should be jerks, there should be a distinct difference between your rivals and your friends. The problem arises with friendly rivals though because they’re never to challenging, intimidating, and act like tutorials for the most part. We’ve seen that Pokemon games can have good stories, just look at the likes of Pokemon Platinum or Ultra Sun and Moon. These stories get bogged down though by these characters that, even when dire circumstances arise, stay cheerful and help guide the player. Seeing as the Let’s Go games are aimed towards younger audiences, this could open up the path to more serious and story driven Pokemon games, as opposed to the standard fare that people are starting to get tired of.