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Artificial Hardcore: Difficulty & ‘Pokémon’ Nuzlocke



Games these days often seem easier than their counterparts from twenty years ago. A lot of modern titles have a myriad of choices to modify the difficulty of a game, but often the ‘normal’ experience is easy and almost entirely devoid of challenge, aside from an occasional sequence or boss battle. This is, perhaps, an economic decision; gaming is the fastest growing form of entertainment media. The theory would follow that the more accessible video games are, the more popular they get, and hence are more profitable. The wider the appeal, the better for the industry, in terms of economics–theoretically.

There’s no problem, inherently, with video games lacking challenging gameplay. Some of the best experiences available in the medium, such as Journey, are completely devoid of challenge outside of finding hidden collectibles, and yet are still beautiful, interactive works of art. However, I believe that there is a risk that inherently comes with lowering the difficulty in video games. Unless action is taken to maintain true interactivity in gaming we could end up with a medium in uniformity with cinema and other non-interactive mediums, with only the illusion of actual input.

This writer recalls watching a clip of a recent Call of Duty title, a chase sequence wherein the player did not fire a single shot, and yet the environment around him began to explode and deteriorate. The ‘gameplay’ was a scripted illusion, and the player beat the sequence without any sort interaction. This, to me, is a disappointing development. Every gameplay sequence ought to require at least minimal player input–otherwise its just a cut scene disguised as gameplay. Even the dreaded quick-time event is better than this.

Fortunately, in the last five years, there has been something of a resurgence in challenging gaming. This can, perhaps, be traced back to the surprising popularity of From Software’s Dark Souls in 2011. Its success, and the success of subsequent sequels seem to have served as a reminder to developers: there is room in the market for challenging games. We’ve seen an increase in challenging titles in years between Dark Souls and now, to give a few examples, Wolfenstein: The New Order and Doom 2016, are both challenging returns to the shooter genre from those classic franchises, and Horizon: Zero Dawn is a surprisingly deep open-world RPG with numerous combat options—the list goes on.

Still, despite that resurgence in difficulty in mainstream video games, thrill-seeking gamers often have to come up with their own solutions—a way to make an easy game more difficult.

This brings us to the Nuzlocke run.

The Pokémon games aren’t known for being notoriously challenging titles. The turn-based critter RPG is easily completed by design, with a child-friendly nature. The worst possible outcome of any battle is that your team could black out, get rushed to the nearest Pokémon Centre and pay out a fee for emergency treatment.

Not so with a Nuzlocke run. The Nuzlocke Challenge, popularized by a web comic of the same name and named after the hilarious fusion of a character from Lost with a Nuzleaf , is a set of self-imposed rules that heavily alter a playthrough of a Pokémon title. There are two main ones:

  • Pokémon do not faint; they die. If they die, you must either release them into the wild or store them permanently in a PC box.
  • The player may only catch the first Pokémon encountered in each area or zone. If the first Pokémon encountered faints or escapes, you do not get a second chance at catching a Pokémon in that area.

There is also a consensus among Nuzlocke players that a participant should nickname each Pokémon; the idea is that a nickname will personalize the battle monster, and hence a death will be even more crushing for the player. Although not used by everybody, another widely-accepted rule is that if the entire party wipes out, that’s a permanent game over—even if you have additional Pokémon stored in the Pokecentre’s PC. There are additional rules that can serve to make the Nuzlocke run harder still, or alleviate the difficulty somewhat; you can find them on the Bulbapedia page for the Nuzlocke challenge. This writer prefers using the core set, with an allowance for duplications; if you go into a new area and the first Pokémon you come across is a duplicate of something already caught, you can try again until you get a new species to add to your party.

This specific challenge really changes the playthrough. While I could take-or-leave the ‘first catch per area’ rule, the death rule adds a sense of real weight to the proceedings; one misstep and you’ve lost a powerful ally, one that might have been with you from the very beginning. This adds a real, XCOM-like sense of tension to almost every encounter. One unexpected critical hit later and you’ve lost your Charmeleon. A pit in your stomach hollows out.

I write from experience.

The death rule also makes every victory more satisfying. If you manage to beat the game entirely (which, usually, is beating the Champion of the Elite 4), there’s a deep sense of fulfillment. You did it. You survived the adventure. You came through for your team, and they came through for you. You cherish the survivors more than any previous Pokémon party and pour one out for the memory of the dead.

And then you move on to the next game.

This is just one challenge run for a specific title. I hope to explore self-imposed challenges for other games in the near future. If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment below and send me a message on my Twitter, listed in the biography below: I’ll be considering self-imposed rule sets and game mods.

George slumbers darkly in the wastelands of rural Wiltshire, England. He can often be found writing, gaming or catching up on classic television. He aims to be an author by profession, although if that doesn't pan out you might be able to find him on Mars. You can argue with him on Twitter: @georgecheesee