Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I went full-on casual in Pokemon, and I loved every minute of it

As anyone who's ever checked a Pokédex can tell you, Pokemon is a game that you can enjoy in two totally different ways.

Play through the main story - what you might call easy mode - and you can play pretty much however you'd like, so long as you have a basic understanding of the Type Chart that governs the basics of Pokemon match-ups. Water over Fire, Fire over Grass... that sort of thing.

Outside of the main story, however, lies the world of competitive Pokemon play.

This grim realm is governed by hidden stats and complex equations, and there's no whimsy or joy to be found here. Players spend weeks hashing out ideal strategies, and invest even more time breeding the perfect, most eugenically pure 'mon possible. In this version of Pokemon, a single percentage point between two otherwise identical Pikachus can spell the difference between victory and defeat.

This is, inarguably, hard mode. This is where the "real" Pokemon players live. And this, oddly, is a side of the game that holds absolutely no appeal for me.

And that's not for a lack of patience or understanding of RPG mechanics. I spent roughly four years in Final Fantasy XI and was part of a pretty elite endgame Linkshell for the better part of my last year in game. I've sunk well over 150 hours into Fire Emblem: Awakening, soft-reset Shin Megami Tensei IV 125 times to fuse Jeanne d'Arc, and spent a solid week of theorycrafting on how to score the most damage with an ablinked attack in Bravely Default.

Suffice it to say that I'm no slouch when it comes to understanding the careful manipulation and exploitation of a game's finer points. And I came close - precipitously close - to falling into the world of Pokemon's hardcore competitive mode.

But I stayed strong, I embraced my inner casual, and I loved it.

And I owe it all to this sassy lady right here:

That's right, Gothitelle - a Pokemon that actually has some strong potential for tournament play.

But I didn't know that when I first found her.  My party lacked any sort of psychic-type Pokemon, her secondary form was kinda cutesy, and so I stuck her in a box with the intention of levelling her up at some point.

That point came about 120 hours in to Pokemon Y, long after I had stomped my way through the Champion's League and entered the endgame.

My party was, by the most charitable standards, casual - but even I realized it lacked a designated Psychic-type to cover rare situations where it was needed. After benching my level 98 starter (team Chestpin, ftw!) to make room for Gothitelle, I pulled out every trick, exploit, and rare candy I could find to level her up quickly.

Shortly into this madcap campaign, I quickly noticed that her Special Attack wasn't packing the punch it should have. Knowing, dimly, that a Pokemon's nature could affect its stats and stat growth, I went in to see what the problem might be and - sure enough - she was a Careful.

To Poké-nerd out for a second here: a nature gives each Pokemon a 10% bonus to one of their five stats while applying a 10% penalty to another. Thus, a nature that's lined up to help an Attack stat of, say, 200 would raise it to 220 while a nature aligned against the same Attack stat would effectively lower it to 180.

Natures are assigned to a Pokemon when they're found in-game, whether bred or captured, and once assigned they can't be changed. Natures, then, can be pretty important to a Pokemon's overall performance, and my Gothitelle's was one that inhibited her most important stat - Special Attack.

She was, in MMO parlance, gimp.  Perhaps even gimpsauce given the circumstances.

So I did what any dedicated RPG enthusiast would do - I went to the area where I first captured her and set about grinding through random encounters until I caught 10 or so more other Gothoritas in the hope of finding one with a better nature.

Gimpery, thy name is my Careful Gothitelle

My first round of 10 yielded slightly better natures, but none that enhanced their Special Attack. I spent roughly two hours capturing more Gothoritas in the area until I finally caught one that had a Quiet nature.

Not ideal - sure - but it was at least in the right ballpark of what I was looking for - and it was even a male (Gothorito?) which was a pretty rare find. After finding this one, I figured that I'd swap out my original, gimp Gothitelle for her substantially superior replacement.

But when I got to the Pokecenter, I just couldn't pull the trigger.

I knew I had caught a better Pokemon than the first Gothitelle - its hidden stats (Individual Values) even helped it learn a more useful fire-type move, and it was only 25 levels lower than the one I had in my current rotation. An hour or two of easy grinding, and they'd be on equal footing - only the replacement would actually be stronger in almost every way that mattered.

Plus, it'd have a fire type move.

Still, I couldn't bring myself to make the substitution because I knew on a deep level that the minute I started down this path I'd be opening up Pandora's Pokébox.

What would start with a simple swap of a weak-natured situational Pokemon for one of a more ideal nature would start me down a road of breeding, black market Ditto hackingobsessive shiny-hunting, and reducing otherwise cute critters to a tally sheet of raw figures. I've done that in countless of other games - games I profess to love - and it always wound up ruining my enjoyment of the game in the long run.

And that, I knew, would make Pikachu sad.

You can't say no to this feels face.

Pokemon, on the other hand, was a relatively new experience to me and I loved it for the light-hearted, low-investment playstyle that it encouraged.

Sure, I'd never be taken to the storied heights of the Pokemon World Championships by going casual and tossing out the better Gothorita - and I knew on some level that the teenage competitive players at the local mall would (rightfully) laugh at me behind my back - but I don't care.

I want, and need, an easy game to enjoy at face value - one which can distract me from the tedium of adulthood and one which I could pick up and play for the sheer enjoyment of it. Pokemon is that game for me, and my woefully subpar Gothitelle is a reminder of this simple fact.

But more than that, she's an affirmation to myself that I *could* have gone deeper with Pokemon but I consciously chose not to.

Someone else can catch 'em all. I'm happy as hell with my gimp Gothitelle.