How ‘Pokémon”s Nuzlocke challenge has hooked generations of fans

Decades later, 'Pokémon' fans are still finding new - and challenging - ways to play their favourite series

Nick DeChicchis remembers when he became a Pokémon fan. Some of his earliest memories saw him hunched over a Game Boy, levelling up his Pokémon team.

“It was definitely before I should have been playing video games,’ the Brooklyn-based Twitch streamer explains. “I remember Pokémon Gold and Silver just came out, so my brother gave me his Pokémon Blue cartridge. I played it nonstop. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I could talk.”

Nick’s story isn’t particularly unusual amongst those growing up in the ’90s, when Pokemania had the world clutched in its vice grip. Exploding onto the video games market in 1996, Pokémon (short for Pocket Monsters) quickly became an international phenomenon.

Pokémon Snap 64. Credit: Nintendo.
Pokémon Snap 64. Credit: Nintendo.

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Franchise creator Satoshi Tajiri had been inspired by his own experiences of playing outside and collecting insects as a child. It was this rather simple idea that made Pokémon so intoxicating to children, and imbued the franchise with its universal and timeless appeal: it enabled youngsters to go on their own exciting adventure from the comfort of their sofa.
Pokémon’s wide popularity was only aided further by the numerous entry points into the franchise. Even if you didn’t have a Game Boy, you could still become swept away in Pokemania due to the volume of resources dedicated to this fictional world.

Pokémon has excelled at transmedia storytelling,” says Dr Rodrigo Perez-Vega, an expert in digital marketing and new technology at Henley Business School. “It began with video games, but then there was the trading card game, TV shows, films. They’ve built something surrounding the whole story, and they’ve had the knowledge and the budget to keep building to be bigger and bigger.”

In February 2022, The Pokémon Company recorded its best year in 26 years, pulling in £1.49bn ($1.6bn) in sales and making an operating profit of £429m ($460m) – up 115 per cent. Electronics retailer Curry’s reported that the latest game in the franchise, Pokémon Legends: Arceus, had the second highest pre-sale orders in the store’s history.

While each generation of Pokémon pulls in new fans who were too young for the Pokemania of the ’90s, there are still plenty of fans in their late twenties or early thirties who have remained loyal.

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond
Pokémon Brilliant Diamond. Credit: Nintendo

Perez-Vega describes the novelty of new Pokémon games as a key part of the franchise’s marketing strategy. “If franchises want people coming back, they need to adopt “the sticky journey,”’ he explains. “Pokémon does this by adding new elements.”

“Constantly innovating is important, so fan bases enjoy new experiences. This could be through new characters, or with emerging technology – think of Pokémon Go, and how it combined geolocation and augmented reality.”

But in between the sometimes long and arduous waits between each new generation of Pokémon games, the franchise’s OG fans have instigated unique and original ways to bring fresh life to a well-trodden story.

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While some of these PokeChallenges include ‘Shiny Collection challenge’ (catching the exceedingly rare different coloured variations of each Pokémon), speedruns and ‘Monotype challenge’ (only catching one type of Pokémon), the most famous and widely attempted is the Nuzlocke Challenge. Created by Nick Franco for his web comic (the name Nuzlocke is a portmanteau of Nuzleaf and actor John Locke) Nuzlocke challenges are built on the foundation of two basic rules: any Pokémon which is knocked out is now ‘dead’ and has to be released, and players may only catch the first wild Pokémon encountered in each area.

Pokemon scarlet and violet setting
Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. Credit: The Pokémon Company

Nuzlockes are exceedingly popular amongst the Pokémon streaming community, with numerous YouTube videos attracting hundreds of thousands of views and much discussion.
Nuzlocke playthroughs are characterised by helping experienced Pokémon fans develop more strategized ways of playing, developing move combinations, and a more tactical way of battling rather than just catching the strongest Pokémon and maximising the level.

Some of these battle combos were on full display at this year’s Pokémon World Championships, which saw some of the game’s most powerful Pokémon easily wiped out by weaker opponents using strategic moves and combos.

Nick is no stranger to a Nuzlocke playthrough, having played more than 50 over the past decade. “While I still have love for the traditional Pokémon style, it’s honestly difficult for me to go back to playing that way,” he explains.

“Even with new games being popped out every year, Pokémon can only get you so far when you’ve been a lifelong fan playing a decade-old game for the 10th time.”

Pokémon Scarlet & Violet. CREDIT: The Official Pokémon YouTube channel

RT Game (real name Daniel), a Youtuber who regularly streams Pokémon playthroughs to his 2.73million subscribers, agrees.

“The standard Pokémon experience can be quite easy when you’ve grown up with the franchise,” he says. “But in a Nuzlocke, you’re suddenly confronted with the danger and risk you had as a kid. Every battle becomes a challenge with quite heavy consequences if you don’t strategize or think things through.”

“I think they make for fantastic livestream-viewing given this risk. I’ve completed two Nuzlockes so far, and I think my anxiety needs a rest before I start my third.”

While a significant chunk of Pokémon’s fanbase now grown up, the game has not grown with them, with the general consensus being the games have gotten easier. Instead of running around in the long grass trying train up each of their Pokémon to a higher level, newer games have turned on the Experience Share, meaning all Pokémon level up far more quickly together, as opposed to one by one.

Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet
Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet. Credit: The Pokémon Company.

For RT, this made later games more simplistic. “I was able to beat all of Sword and Shield using only a Wooloo, which I had got to level 100 by the third gym,” he recalls. “It would be better if you could toggle that off.”

But that’s not to say the appeal of a Nuzlocke challenge relies solely in its increased difficulty. For Nick, it harkens back to the nostalgia of playing Pokémon as a kid, seeing each pixelated Pocket Monster as a friend.

It’s why in some Nuzlockes, we see streamers getting genuinely quite emotional if a miscalculation means a beloved team member is knocked out, or has to be sacrificed, in battle. They could just reload from their previous save point, but doing so is frowned upon, thought to be against the spirit of the challenge.

“Outside the games, the idea of companionship between trainers and their Pokémon is so important, but that isn’t something that you really feel in a traditional playthrough,” Nick explains.

Pokémon Go. Credit: Niantic/ The Pokémon Company

“By only getting a few wild encounters in the entire game and one life for each Pokémon, you really cherish them and create a deeper bond than you would otherwise. The idea of losing them can feel overwhelming and it really makes you think more critically about every move to ensure nothing bad happens to them.”

The concept that Pokémon are your pals is a concept Nintendo flirted with in Pokémon Go, which brings the anime to life in the closest way possible. Not only can you find your next Pokémon partner while off to buy a coffee, you can join up with friends and catch ‘em all together.

The Pokémon franchise now encouraging this sense of community is another indicator of its longevity and success, says Perez-Vega. “Unlike the ’90s, it’s now accepted and encouraged that adults play games,’ he explains. ‘Pokémon is accessible for all generations; I installed Pokémon Go on my seven-year-old’s phone – it’s an activity we can both enjoy together. The brand community aspect of Pokémon is super important.”

Elliot also enjoys Pokemon’s thriving community. “The gaming world can be really toxic and problematic, but Pokémon has always felt like a safe place for a lot of marginalised people,” he says. “It’s been my entire life and I don’t know who I’d be or where I’d be if I didn’t have it as an outlet. It gave me a way to relate to other kids growing up, and now as an adult it’s given me a community and a platform that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond
Pokémon Brilliant Diamond. Credit: Nintendo.

The hotly anticipated Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are coming out in November, which will bring some major changes to the franchise: for the first time, the core games will have numerous adjacent storylines and an open world to be explored in whatever order you so choose.

The changes have been widely applauded in the Pokémon community, but RT still hopes the new games pose more of a challenge than previous iterations.

However, Perez-Vega believes that, even if Pokémon is dialling down the difficulty, its real appeal is in how it chooses to tell new stories.

“This transmedia storytelling is essential in Pokémon maintaining this popularity,” he says. “As long as they keep telling stories through different media channels, and keep bringing new experiences, then potentially we could see Pokémon last for another 20 or even 30 years.”

You can get involved with the Nuzlocke community here.

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