For a long time, Pokemon challenge runs have tried to up the difficulty of the game. The classic example is the Nuzlocke, a ruleset that forces players to only catch the first Pokemon they encounter in an area and considers any fainted Pokemon dead and unusable. These challenges took off because the added difficulty created surprising stories, which have been shared online for more than a decade.
But even Nuzlocke runs begin to feel easy with enough familiarity. Over time, increasing challenges have been laid down. Some of these are tweaks to the original formula, like limiting the amount of visits a player can make to the Pokemon Center. And some of them are Kaizo Ironmon.
The Ironmon challenge was devised by a Twitch streamer called Iateyourpie. Designed for Pokemon FireRed and LeafGreen. It has a lot of rules, but at its core it’s a randomized Nuzlocke. Only the first Pokemon per area can be caught and your Pokemon have permadeath, but everything including Pokemon, moves, and item placements are randomized. And if that wasn’t enough, all opponent Pokemon are 50% stronger.
That’s the standard ruleset. But Ironmon has two additional difficulty levels, and it’s the “kaizo” – a term for extremely difficult games popularized in the Super Mario community – that’s really taken off. There are many small changes that make Kaizo Ironmon much, much more difficult than standard Ironmon, but the main one is that the player may only use one Pokemon at a time. Although, spare a thought for the fact that killing wild Pokemon – and therefore grinding to a higher level to deal with that 50% power increase – is also banned.
“I’m on my 1969th attempt at this point,” says XWater, who streams attempts at Kaizo Ironmon runs many hours a week and showed off how it works on the GDQ channel back in May. He hasn’t yet won any of them. In the three days between speaking with him and the time of writing, that number had reached 2008, a testament to just how short many of the runs are. In the GDQ stream, XWater estimated that only 25% make it out of the gym, with the rest losing to the first rival fight.
The ruleset is “not meant to be fair, and possibly not even fun,” according to the official document. But it’s also the one that seems to have taken off most since Iateyourpie began showcasing Ironmon runs on his own stream a couple of years ago. And they are really built for streaming. While Nuzlockes can be played at your own pace, building up a story and getting attached to your Pokemon, Kaizo Ironmon takes things in the opposite direction. The buildup of failed attempts becomes a backdrop for community interaction. Choosing a starter Pokemon, for example, is done without looking, so there are strong factions behind each of the left, center, and right Pokeballs.
And every single fight being tense makes it a great spectator sport. Randomizing everything means there’s always something unexpected happening. And it’s easy to get invested in any run that makes it out of the lab, let alone past the first gym battle, just because it’s so rare. When things get even further, the tension only gets higher.
Even just hearing XWater describe his best, but ultimately unsuccessful run with an Alakazam was heartbreaking. It was hopeful from the start – Alakazam has high stats and a good type, but the randomization had also blessed it with the Drought ability, which boosts Fire attacks by creating Sunny weather, and Flamethrower, a powerful Fire type move. It made it all the way to the third to last Pokemon in the entire game, before being hit with Toxic – a stacking Poison move which deals exponentially increased damage every turn.
“These are long battles,” says XWater. “So it was just over at that point.” After the loss, he took a couple of days off Pokemon to play Kirby instead.
But ultimately, it’s the disappointment which makes “this big, shared moment between myself and my viewers, and it is just really, really, really enjoyable and exciting content,” he says. Plus, it’ll make it that much more satisfying when he does eventually beat the challenge.
And it is possible. Two of the streamers who have beaten the Kaizo Ironmon ruleset are Skybilz and SheltieSci. Skybilz’s success was her 1571th attempt and, after everything, came down to a 50/50 coin toss over a Zap Cannon, an Electric type move that her Milotic was weak to. The attack missed. “The experience was so much fun that I’ve continued to do the challenge,” Skybilz says. “I’m chasing that feeling of success again.”
SheltieSci was at around 4,400 attempts over seven months, and wasn’t expecting her Poliwrath to go very far. Its Speed stat was low, and it didn’t have the opportunity to learn many moves as it levelled up, both usually important factors in successful runs. She, too, had a coinflip experience in the early game where the Poliwrath was confused, and would probably have died if it had hit itself. But it didn’t, and she was able to take it all the way to become the champion.
The combination of luck, skill, and sheer perseverance needed to even try to win Kaizo Ironmon has built a dedicated community of streamers and viewers around the challenge run. “There are tons of silly and unexpected [events] that happen, and being able to experience and laugh along at it all with my community is part of the fun,” says SheltieSci. Having successfully won in FireRed/LeafGreen she’s now attempting it again in HeartGold/SoulSilver.
These challenges typically stick to older games so that they can be modded and tweaked with things like the randomizer. The streamers I spoke to said they were more likely to play the upcoming Pokemon Scarlet and Violet casually, to enjoy it for what it is. But with the escalating difficulty of Pokemon challenges and their increasing popularity, there’s still an eye to the future.
A challenge ruleset in Scarlet or Violet could come in the form of using the new moves, abilities, and items to create interesting restrictions, suggests SheltieSci. But there are also potential speedruns that she has her eye on. “I’m really open to whatever looks cool,” she says.
“We’ll see how it’s built,” says XWater. But ultimately, he thinks there’s a good chance that he’ll pick up or create something new to stream within the game. “Everybody’s really been enjoying the Pokemon content,” he says. “I’ve found a little bit of a home with it.”