I've been watching the Extra Play videos of one of the Dans doing the Nuzlocke Challenge. First episode is here.

In case you don't know what that is (I didn't before the video was posted), a Nuzlocke Challenge is when you play any Pokemon game using these two self-imposed rules:

  • You can only capture the first Pokemon you encounter in any given zone. (Dan is houseruling that he gets one more try if the first is a duplicate.)
  • If any of your Pokemon faints, you must consider that Pokemon dead, and immediately release it.

Now, I should mention I've never been into Pokemon. All I've ever known of it, I learned through osmosis. I have played some JRPGs, though mostly indie ones; none of the big names like Final Fantasy. So this is a new, if vicarious, experience for me. A couple things jump out at me:

First, Pokemon strategy seems kind of orthogonal to a lot of JRPG standard strategy. In most JRPGs an entire team of usually four faces off against a whole set of opponents, and often I end up relying on skills that either damage or protect an entire group at once. Or, if someone has an overpowered poison ability (Dark Eternal, anyone?) then they first hit each enemy with it in turn, and chances are the poison will do most of the work. And someone always ends up being the "item healer", spamming potions on everyone because their AoEs aren't as effective as those of the rest of the party, or because the wacky initiative rules make using items far faster than spell-based healing (Dark Eternal, again.) I plowed through a lot of Aveyond with an insanely-powerful AoE confusion ability. Just stand back and watch the enemies fight each other.

I've always known Pokemon was basically a game of rock-paper-scissors, but this is the first time I've seen it in action. Rather than focusing on general utility or AoEs, the player is focused on beating down individual foes as effectively as possible. I was pleasantly surprised to see that XP awards are given at the fall of each foe, allowing Pokemon to level up mid-battle when fighting against a trainer. That feels reminiscent of Shining Force.

Dan comments on how the extra rules of the Nuzlocke Challenge change strategy even farther: over-leveling is essential, and pulling Pokemon out of fights even when not terribly hurt is common, because one unlucky crit could end the little critter's fighting career forever. It also forces the player to use Pokemon they wouldn't usually bother with (Dan's party includes a Bidoof he was not too thrilled with at first; it's certainly not the cutest in the menagerie).

Dan doesn't mention this part, but it really darkens the tone of the whole experience. Are these Pokemon still considered friends? "Love you like a son"? How glory-hungry would these little beasts have to be to go along with this, when every fight is to the death? And yes, I mean the trainer, too!

My overall impression is this: it gives the game a distinctly roguelike feel. In hardcore Roguelikes it's common for success and strategy to hinge on rare artifacts: things that only occur on one level, and if they don't appear, they never will; items that can only be used once and then are lost forever; spells that have permanent consequences; the list goes on. Roguelikes also traditionally employ permanent death, and often random stat generation for new characters. Traps that instantly kill careless players are common. It's not intended for every game to be winnable, except in cases where attempts are tied together because you can loot past characters' bodies or consider them part of a larger story, as in Rogue Legacy.

I often see Dan pause for several seconds, pondering the decision: let this Pokemon stay in for one more hit, or no? The risk is a serious one. That's the kind of between-turns agonizing that happens in an old-school ASCII roguelike.

If Pokemon had started in the 1980s or earlier, it probably would have been Nuzlocke from the beginning. Forgiveness in games has steadily increased since the days of Rogue and Adventure, as they strive to draw in wider audiences, so Nuzlocke is sort of a back-to-the-roots style of Pokemon.

...Actually, an ASCII-based Pokemon game, playable in a standard terminal window, would be pretty cool. Wonder if anyone's made one.

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