If there’s one thing a Pokemon game loves, it’s routine. Since the days of the first game, there has been a pretty strict blueprint which following entries in the main series have scarcely strayed from. One of these rules is that of the rival trainer; an individual of comparable skin that accompanies/dogs the player at every turn, acting at the measuring bar to gauge just how strong the player actually is.
With Sword and Shield coming out at the end of this year, it’s a certainty that we’ll be introduced to a new rival trainer, who just so happens to be one of the first people the player will interact with within the game. Over the years though, I’ve noticed a change in the tone and portrayal of the rival character, that from an utter bastard to one of a warm and fuzzy friend.
The Softening of the Rival
As the Pokemon franchise has grown, we’ve been introduced to over different 10 rivals from seven generations of games. With each new generation, I’ve noticed that the “rival” has become more of an ally and friend to the player and less of an antagonistic force.
Looking back at the first couple of generations of Pokemon, we had Blue (or Gary if you’re wrong) and Silver. Two guys whose most distinguishing feature was their pride in being utter douchebags, challenging the player at the most inopportune of times.
Even during dire situations or at the end of a dungeon, they’d pounce upon you with a goal of kicking you when you were worn down.
As the generations progressed, there was much less of this. Later generations gave us rivals like Barry, Cheren and eventually Callum/Serena: people you could rely on not to screw you over when the shit was hitting the fan. Even later we got the utter toothlessness of Hau, who seemed to be in a dream world at the best of times.
The final straw for me in this case being Trace; the rival from Pokemon, Let’s Go. Despite being a direct analog to Blue from the original games, he is a much softer presence. A nice, friendly and caring trainer who even goes so far as to adopt the Cubone whose mother was killed by Team Rocket. A far cry from Blue who loses to the player because he “forgot to treat his Pokemon with trust and love”.
Let’s get to brainstorming that Rival
As a thought exercise, I thought I’d look back and pluck my favourite aspects out of the existing rival trainers and stitch them all together, creating some kind of unholy monster as a potential character who could appear in Sword and Shield.
Dash of Silver
So let’s begin with the best: Silver. I love Silver’s character. For one, he starts out as a total antagonist. A stranger to the player, his connection comes from the fact that he steals a Pokemon from the professor who gives the player their first Pokemon.
From there, his striking appearance makes it easy to know what NPCs are talking about him, allowing for the player to learn of his mistreatment of his Pokemon as his continues to travel. Eventually though, through continued defeats, he goes through and arc, and ends up redeeming himself come the end of the game. Learning that power isn’t everything.
So from Silver, let’s pluck the fact that he is genuinely antagonistic towards the player, and the fact that he has a pronounced character arc after continued defeats.
Hint of Cheren
Speaking of which, let’s move onto Cheren; the rival from generation 5. Cheren is a trainer who is the player’s friend, but he has a haughty, standoffish air about him. My favourite thing about him though is his growing frustration at his inability to defeat the player. His rivalry starts out pretty friendly, but with each defeat, his frustrations grow, to the point where he starts questioning how he does things. It never really goes anywhere, but I enjoy that aspect of the character still, so let’s take that.
Bit of Blue
And then there’s Blue, the classic. The best thing about Blue is how he always seems to show up at the worst possible time. While he seems a friendlier presence in Let’s Go, in the original games, he straight up doesn’t care that you’re in the middle of taking down a major criminal organisation and will jump you in the middle of it. So a low moral grounding seems like a good thing from him.
Give it a mix
Otherwise there’s nothing that majorly jumps out at me from the other rivals, they seem pretty interchangeable for the most part. My biggest frustration being that they don’t have a big impact on the events of the game’s plot. So rather than taking something from the “best of the rest”, I’ll pluck an aspect that I feel is the most wanting from the majority of them.
Creating the Rival
Based on what I’ve listed above, it seems pretty obvious to me that I want a pretty antagonistic rival. Someone you love to hate. But to be a rival, they need some connection to the player, so let’s say that they still start as a childhood friend. In fact, let’s say the rivalry starts out friendly, or at least coolly amiable.
Let’s have them take a totally different approach to raising their Pokemon, having an obsession with winning or using Pokemon as a means to an end, giving him something of an edge. One that increases with each defeat to the player. And with their increasing frustration, have them show up to challenge the player at increasingly inopportune times. Showing them to be underhanded and not caring about winning in any way that’s “fair”.
So we have our basis. But we want him to have a bigger role in the story than rival’s tend to get. So maybe, at a low point, when he just can’t beat the player and starts to question himself, he is approached by an individual who invites him to join the game’s villainous team, which he accepts.
Then, with the support of the bad guys, the rival becomes ever more threatening and dangerous. Maybe have them actually be slightly too strong for the player or use cheap battle tactics. So losing to them doesn’t send you back to the Pokemon centre to try again, but allows them to feel justified in their choices.
Then, build them up as the game’s final challenge, weave them and the villainous team into the game’s final confrontation (Like Pokemon Black & White did). Maybe redeem them, maybe don’t. But make the rivalry feel justified and make beating them feel satisfying again.
A Derivative Result?
Y’know, looking back at what I’ve written. It does feel like I’ve just written Sasuke Uchiha into a Pokemon game. But it’s an aspect of the rivalry that never really gets touched upon in Pokemon games. I suppose that mostly comes from the fact that the player is a silent protagonist and can only interact with other characters in a limited way.
This also comes from my continued desire to see something a little more mature from my Pokemon games. I’m not saying I want an ultra gritty Pokemon game, but I feel like any edge the game’s had in the early days is harder to find in more recent releases.
We need some dramatic storytelling in Pokemon games again, and what could be more dramatic than a old school shonen anime rivalry. Tell me what you think anyway, I’d love to hear any more thoughts or ideas on this subject in the comments.