Pokemon games these days can feel a little similar. Sure, the graphics are different, and there are new ‘mons roaming the world, but otherwise it’s the same game. You pick a starter, your rival chooses one, and the third one is left to rot. You go off on a journey where you start with an overly basic tutorial that implies you know nothing about Pokemon, and end the game as the champion of the region. All while being ten years old.
You do this by defeating eight gym leaders, outwitting an incompetent evil team, and capturing a Legendary Pokemon that teams of dedicated researchers have been trying for literal centuries to discover. Not capture, not even communicate with it somehow - people worked their entire lives just to prove this thing existed, only for you to stroll into a cave and catch it. Worse yet, most attempts to change the formula have taken things away. The rivals are no longer mean. The Legendaries are no longer behind complex puzzles. The evil team hasn't even been properly evil for the last two generations.
I’ve tried to play Pokemon in a variety of different ways (Nuzlocke, soft Nuzlocke, all native runs, new Pokemon for each gym), but because they’re all confined by the base game’s formula, they all either feel too similar or too convoluted. The main problem with this is that I still need to fight eight gym leaders that each stick to a typing, but I’ve finally realised the solution - I have to become the gym leader.
Gym leader runs are a refreshing way to play Pokemon, especially since they task you with being much more thoughtful about building your team - they place active restrictions on who you can run, often position you at an immediate disadvantage, and can help you feel much closer to your ‘mons, exactly as a real gym leader does.
Gym leaders aren’t just the strongest trainers in town, they stick to one type and become a master of it... in theory, anyway. The early game gym leaders are hardly an authority on their type, although I do like the theory that they deliberately field a weaker team because of your low badge count. I actually think gym leaders could be much more creative in how they assemble their team instead of just by type over and over and over again, but if you can’t beat ‘em - join ‘em.
To complete a gym leader run, you too must choose a type and stick to it, using dual typings to give you better coverage. Obviously, you aren’t going to rock up at the first gym with a full roster unless you’re doing a Normal gym leader run, but the idea is over the first few gyms you build your team up, and by the time you hit mid-game, you should have a full lineup. You’re allowed a few imposters right at the start. Recently, I did the Isle of Armor DLC with an all Fighting team, as this was the best fit for the Dojo theme. That meant Toxicroak for Poison coverage, Poliwrath for Water, Hawlucha for Flying, and so on. Fighting is one of the more restrictive types, which is why I only used it for a DLC, but after doing it I found I appreciated Fighting types - usually one of my least favourite typings - a lot more.
There are drawbacks to this approach, of course. You need to have decent knowledge of what Pokemon are where, so you can build a viable team early enough - this means it’s much harder to do on your first run. Still, even with the repeated formula, there’s some freshness attached to the first playthrough of every game. Also, unless you’re going to transfer over weak Pokemon from rare types, some teams (Dragon, Ghost, Fairy, Steel) take significantly longer to build because they’re often not featured in the early game at all. Once you do though, you’ll likely end up with a weird mix you’d never usually run, so that’s the payoff.
I’ve found gym leader runs to be more engaging than Nuzlockes, because even while a Nuzlocke comes with the constant pressure of a game over, there are ways to game the system. We’ve written before about how once you get a Magikarp in a Nuzlocke, it’s over for these hoes. These hoes, of course, being the gym leaders and the Elite Four. Gyarados is a Nuzlocke beast and you can essentially guarantee you’ll catch a Magikarp whenever you want one thanks to the Old Rod. Sure, you could be a Water or Flying type gym leader and still end up with Gyary on the squad, but you won’t be able to fully cover its weaknesses because most - if not all - of the party will share the same weaknesses anyway.
There’s no right or wrong way to play Pokemon; that’s why the same basic game has been universally popular for 25 years, why I’m still excited for the remakes, and why we all have different favourites. But if you’ve kept up with every game in the series, it can all feel a little stale these days. Soon, we’ll have an open world adventure to freshen things up, but until then, being a gym leader might just be the best way to go.
If Arcane sparked your interest in League of Legends, there are better ways to experience Runeterra than playing the game.