Pokemon Rivals Are Always Better When They’re Assholes

I feel bad for beating Hop, but taking down Gary felt like a favor.

Fanbyte freelancer Kenneth Shepard posited that, despite being a bad trainer, Hop is still a great character in Pokemon Sword & Shield. You can read that account here! Now, for an opposing take, freelancer James O’Connor explains why he thinks Pokemon rivals are better when they’re jerks.

I feel bad for Hop: the enthusiastic, guileless rival character in Pokemon Sword & Shield. Whenever I meet him on my travels, I annihilate his team with ruthless efficiency — sometimes sending in my weaker Pokemon just to give them some experience against his under-leveled, underdeveloped team. He winces when I land a super effective hit, and as a man in his 30s wailing on this poor child, I’d much prefer to make him a nice sandwich, sit with him for a bit, and ask him to tell me about his favorite movie instead. That way the poor lad doesn’t start crying. Hop is a good kid; he is not a good rival.

This has been the case with Pokemon for several generations now. The modern “rival” character is always a well-meaning but weak friend whose grand ambitions falter in the face of your obvious, mathematical superiority. During my most recent battle with Hop in Shield, he offered to heal my team at the end, despite having barely scratched them, and I found myself wishing that I could take more satisfaction in my victory. The success never feels earned; it feels mean.

Hop has made me nostalgic for the days of Pokemon Red & Blue, when that jerk Gary (he’ll always be Gary to me, not “Blue”) would strut around with bravado and confidence, ending most encounters with a mean-spirited “smell ya later!” At the beginning of the game he would purposefully pick the starter that strongest against yours. For a newcomer to the series, he represented a serious skill and level check whenever he opted to challenge you. If you didn’t know what type each member of his team was, and how to combat it, a fight against Gary was a legitimate challenge. I didn’t always win on the first attempt, either.

More Pokemon Sword & Shield:

The Pokemon games are interesting RPGs, in that your goal is never particularly altruistic. You might save the day along the journey, but that’s never the point. As the theme song for the English dub of the anime put it, it’s about how “I wanna be the very best, like no one ever was.” At the end of most Pokemon games, you don’t vanquish an evil spirit, or prevent the apocalypse, or anything like that. You just prove you’re the best.

I’m not enough of a revisionist to argue that Red & Blue are better than Pokemon Sword & Shield, though. Eight generations worth of quality-of-life improvements have led to a significantly smoother, less frustrating, more ambitious series. But I’ve held onto a lot of nostalgia for Gary — a rival who truly exemplified the appeal of being the best — specifically. It’s not just because beating him at the end of the game was immensely satisfying, but because you got to show him that there was a better way than being an arrogant jerk.

Gary’s appearances throughout the game, complete with his jaunty theme and constant assertions of his own greatness, allow you to build up a genuine rivalry with the kid. He’s the nephew of Professor Oak, and as such there’s an air of nepotism to his meteoric rise. He calls you “pal,” gives you condescending advice, and never seems phased when you manage to beat him.

Pokemon Gary Oak

Who’s the Very Best?

When you see him in Cerulean City, he greets you with a snide “you’re still struggling along back here?” When he sees you aboard the S.S. Anne he questions “Were you really invited?” That’s before he brags about catching 40 types of Pokemon already. There’s a sense that Gary sees you as an acquaintance, but does not take you seriously. Playing the game as a kid, there was something relatable about wanting to be able to beat the golden boy of the Kanto region — about proving yourself against the other kid who everyone assumes is going to grow up to be champion.

The world itself was always quick to remind you that Gary was always one step ahead, too. Every gym you arrive at in Pokemon Red & Blue has a sign just inside that lets you know who’s already conquered it. Naturally, Gary’s name is always on it. You are constantly chasing him, right up until the bitter final reveal when you defeat the Elite Four at the end… and discover Gary has already done it. He’s waiting in the next room to take on whichever members of your team didn’t collapse during the previous four battles.

“Hey! I was looking forward to seeing you,” he exclaims. “My rival should be strong to keep me sharp!” Part of the joy in taking Gary down, and becoming the league champion, is that it never seriously occurred to him as a possibility that you could win, even though you could have beaten him several times in the lead-up.

“I am the most powerful trainer in the world,” Gary exclaims just before you throw down. He believes that being the champion is his right; your victory, once you manage it, proves him wrong.

Pokemon Rivals

Climbing the Mountain

When you finally, truly take Gary down, he can’t believe it. You’ve broken not just his team, but his very assumption that he was unbeatable. You assail the notion that him being the champion was his right and correct. Oak tells an annoyed Gary that he lost because he “forgot to treat his Pokemon with trust and love,” and while there’s really no mechanic for tracking “love” in Red or Blue, you believe it. It’s easy to believe that you won not just because you trained hard, but because you cared more, and formed a deeper connection with your team. Gary and his 40 different species — coldly, mathematically accumulated like the tagline says — can’t compete with that.

This is easy to believe because it’s so obvious that it’s not how Gary operates. Perhaps, by beating him, you’ve truly helped him to improve too. In fact, Gary is carrying the torch for being a responsible trainer by Pokemon Gold & Silver. He’s there leading the Viridian Gym, whereas Red, your character from the first game, has gone all Colonel Kurtz and now sits atop Mt. Silver, training alone with his small army of Pokemon. It’s an interesting arc to dig into and theorize about. Perhaps Red lost touch when you stopped controlling him? It’s all part of why the rivalry dynamic from that first game remains so compelling all those years later.

As Pokemon has moved away from jerk rivals, it’s tried to compensate with secondary recurring characters whose priorities are out of line with your own. N from Black & White was the most daring, with his assertion that Pokemon should be free, but the ultimate resolution to his narrative arc is disappointing. Sword & Shield has Bede, but he’s so weak and willfully misguided from the very start that it’s hard to take their rivalry serious, either. You feel like if you could just take him out for dessert and show him a nice Spider-Man movie he’ll forget all about the weird ideology he’s spitting. The rival in Gold & Silver was a successfully fleshed-out antagonist who struck a darker tone, but they’re simply nowhere near as iconic as Gary.

As much as I have enjoyed subsequent Pokemon games (and I really have enjoyed them a lot) I don’t know that becoming the champion has ever been as satisfying as it was in Red & Blue. Never again has my final victory in the league felt like it was proving a point. I think Gary made me a better trainer in the first game. I’d also like to think, on some cosmic level, that being beaten ultimately made him better, too.