I have an odd relationship with the Pokémon franchise. When the anime came out in the 90s, I watched almost every episode I could. And while everyone at school was playing the games, my family’s low income made it pretty much impossible to play any of the first games. But with every new game that was added to the series, there was always a new Pokémon anime that would be on just before it was time for me to head to school. In fact, I was so into the show that I’m fairly sure it’s the main reason why I missed a lot of my morning classes from Grade 2 to Grade 6 – that and my love for sleeping in, anyway. But, as it eventually happens to all of us, watching morning cartoons and started to seem a little too childish for me by the time I was in middle school. So, my childhood fascination with Pokémon came to an end.
It wasn’t until I was out of high school that I was able to start earning my own money, meaning I could finally start paying for not only my games, but also my consoles – the first of which being a DS Lite. Then one day in 2011, out of pure curiosity, I decided to pick up Pokémon White and play my first ever Pokémon game.
It was alright, I guess.
Now that might get the goat of a few of you to read that – in fact, I think I know some of those people personally. But to be honest, as a person who didn’t grow up with the series, it kind of felt like a fairly standard JRPG to me, having little surprise and an extra degree of grinding than what I was used to. But after the release of Pokémon X/Y, when certain changes were made to the game’s formula, such as the transition to actual 3D and the ability to share earned EXP, I did find myself enjoying the series a hell of a lot more – and I still do. So much so that I’ve got my just-purchased copy of Pokémon Sun waiting for me to play as soon as I publish this article. But even though it took me a while to get into the games, there was always one thing I loved, even after I temporarily let the series go: the Pokémon themselves.
So, with today marking the release of Sun and Moon in Australia, I wanted to take a look at a popular trend in the Pokémon community that, up until recently, has confused me for quite some time: The Nuzlocke Challenge.
When I first heard about the Nuzlocke Challenge, I thought it was pretty ridiculous. Hell, I still thought it was until I properly researched it for this article. Before then, all I knew about it was that it was a challenge that Pokémon players put on themselves – to throw away any Pokémon that reached 0 HP and never use them again. Practically, it made little sense to me. In a game that revolves around the idea of collecting every creature in it, why would players force themselves through a restricted version of it – especially when half the reason you catch Pokémon is to tactically exploit the weaknesses of the Pokémon you encounter.
But on personal level it made even less sense. As someone who is incredibly picky about the Pokémon he catches, usually because of their design and appearance rather than their move-sets, I get attached very quickly to the team I have. I wondered why on earth would a player want to go through a game where, not only would they have no choice over what they caught, but would also have to lose it in a random encounter after what could have been hours of training to get them to a decent level for a gym battle. As a player that ensured he had every kind of Bear Pokémon in Pokemon X, I’d be making damn sure that I wasn’t going to give them up.
But then, I decided to research it. And as I learned more, it all started to click. It started to make sense as to how it got so popular with the community. So, for those of you who are new to the challenge, here’s the basics:
What is a Nuzlocke Challenge?
Put simply, the Nuzlocke Challenge is a set of rules that a player self-imposes for a playthrough that are intended to make the challenge of the Pokémon games more difficult. Think of it as a self-imposed “ultra-hard” mode that you can try on any of the Pokémon games in the main series.
The golden rules:
In order for a Pokémon playthrough to be considered as a “Nuzlocke run”, the player must follow two rules:
- If a Pokémon faints, it is considered “dead” – it must either be released or put into the PC storage permanently.
- You are only allowed to catch the first Pokémon you find in each area or route in the game. If you accidentally defeat the Pokémon or it runs away, you have to move on – you cannot catch another Pokémon in that area.
- With the addition of double battles in dark grass, an addendum to this rule was added – that being that you can choose which of the two Pokémon you encounter to catch.
The implied community rules
As the challenge grew more and more popular amongst Pokémon fans, the community surrounding it also decided on additional rules that were strongly implied for challengers to undertake during their playthroughs:
- You must nickname all of your Pokémon.
- Whiting out/Blacking out is considered a Game Over, even if you have usable Pokémon in the PC storage.
- The player can only use Pokémon that they have either captured themselves or have been given to them freely by NPCs – an NPC trade doesn’t count. This means that traded Pokémon, mystery gifts, etc. are prohibited for use.
- However, trading for the sake of evolving a Pokémon is considered a grey area. Therefore, unless the player puts a personal restriction on it, they are allowed to this.
- The player is not allowed to reset and reload the game when things go wrong. If they did this, there is no point in doing the Nuzlocke.
Since the rules were self-imposed by players, rather than any sort of in-game function, Nuzlocke challengers started adding in additional rules for their own personal playthroughs. These could include refusing to use health items, not evolving any caught Pokémon, or even not catching or using any legendary Pokémon. Some would do this because they thought the challenge of the general Nuzlocke rules was too easy and wanted to try something a little more difficult. In other cases, players did this purely for bragging rights – basically the same reason you’ll see some people playing Dark Souls games in unconventional ways like with feet, guitar hero controllers, or a constant smile on their face.
So, how did Pokémon fans come up with such a popular way to give Pokémon a hard mode? Well, if I’m being honest, the answer may surprise you a little:
Where did it come from/How did it spread?
Believe it or not, the Nuzlocke Challenge originated on 4chan back in 2010 when a user named “Nuzlocke” posted the first page of his new comic to the website’s video-game board “/v/”. In this comic, “Nuzlocke” chronicled his personal challenge for his next playthrough of Pokémon Ruby, which he had dubbed “Pokémon: Hard Mode”. During this playthrough, he would follow the two rules that now make up the basic Nuzlocke run: Any fainted Pokémon were considered “dead” and needed to be released, and he could only catch the first Pokémon he found in every area or route. The artist came up with the name “Nuzlocke” based on the Nuzleaf he caught during the playthrough, which he had named after, and would depict in the comic as, the character Locke from the TV series, Lost.
As the comic became increasingly popular on the board, more people decided to have a go at the challenge – adding their own twist on the rules so that the run would suit their tastes, such as considering “blacking out” a game over. Thanks to the comic documentation, other comic artists started doing similar illustrated chronicles of their own challenge runs through the various Pokémon games, all of which had their own unique stories to tell – some even creating more grounded and realistic Pokémon universes as a result of making Pokémon death a reality.
The community began to spread even further after 4chan created a forum specifically made for Pokémon, “/vp/”, which became the new space for the Nuzlocke Challenge community. Challengers would use the new forum to create even more threads that contained discussions and documentations of their Nuzlocke runs. Some would go to ask for advice about how to tackle a gym they were about to face with their current team, while others simply wanted to ask for help in naming the Pokémon they had just caught. Eventually, the popularity of the challenge spread to other Pokémon forums and soon enough, the Nuzlocke Challenge had become almost synonymous with the online Pokémon community.
But I imagine that challenge found most of its current notoriety thanks to the growing popularity of emulators, allowing people to record their Nuzlocke runs for others to watch on YouTube. Suddenly challengers who were less confident in their art skills were able to share their experiences more directly with an audience, allowing even more people to share their experiences as a result.
Today you’ll find multiple series of Nuzlocke run videos from popular gaming YouTube channels such as my personal favourites: Team Four Star Gaming and ProJared. These ones especially go out of their way to add extra layers of quality for the sake of the audience’s entertainment, such as graphics and audience participation via stream chat.
Why is it so popular?
So why did the Nuzlocke Challenge spread around like it did? What made people want to play what was essentially a rougelike version of Pokémon? Well, some wanted a new way to play the old Pokémon games they grew up with. Some felt the games were too easy and wanted something a little more challenging. Really, everyone had their own reasons to start it. But I think what made people keep doing it was that it allowed for a more unique way to experience the Pokémon world.
Everyone had their own stories to tell from their Nuzlocke runs. Some saw success and triumph as they scrapped their way to the top of the Pokémon league, while others tasted bitter and horrible defeat before they even reached the Elite Four’s doorstep. Looking at any of the various way people told their story, whether it be via video, text or comic, and you’ll see that no two Nuzlocke runs are ever the same.
After finally looking into what the Nuzlocke Challenge actually was, I’ve come to realise that it’s not something undertaken by people who want to give Pokémon games the same level of challenge as Dark Souls. Rather, it’s a challenge that’s primarily undertaken by Pokémon fans who want to experience the games in a much more personal way that they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.
The challenge is for the thrill of the adventure. It makes players use new Pokémon that, in a normal playthrough, would have been neglected – leading to the discovery of new personal favourites and a better understanding of the games more deeper mechanics, such as passive abilities. Hell, the unspoken rule of nicknaming every Pokémon the player catches forges a deeper emotional bond with them that makes the player think twice before attempting to brute-force their way through a gym. It creates a new level of investment when the player knows that any second could be any of their Pokémon’s last, even during something as mundane as a random encounter.
While from the outside I can understand that it might appear as though the Nuzlocke Challenge is a little bit ridiculous, I think that anyone who’s willing to put themselves through that kind of experience deserves some level of respect for crafting their own Pokémon story. I know they’ve earned it from me.
Just don’t expect me to try it right now. With a new generation of Pokémon thanks to Sun and Moon, I’ll finally be able to make my new dream Pokemon team: Bear Squad 2.0! Now with Bewear!
Want to see a Nuzlocke in action? Check out ProJared’s Pokemon Y Nuzlocke Challenge:
Want to check out some of the comics? You can find some of them here.