Pokemon games are almost never hard — at least not when you’re an adult who played them throughout your childhood and grew to understand the series’ type match-ups. This has been the case for me as I play through Shining Pearl. A lot of battles have been me just swapping between the same five Pokemon to whoever best exploits my opponent’s weakness. It got to a point where I actively avoided battles to prevent my party of pocket monsters from gaining levels too quickly, hoping we wouldn’t be able to simply one-shot the next big boss’ party.
Now that I’ve reached the Elite Four, all that sneaking past wandering trainers has come to bite me in the ass. But I’m not mad about finally feeling genuinely challenged after more than a dozen hours of bulldozing over the competition.
I knew I was in trouble the moment I began the first battle of the Elite Four. Aaron, a bug-type trainer, released his Heracross. I had planned on Palkia to safely tank through whatever Heracross threw at him while I healed my Beautifly, who I expected to use flying-type attacks to make quick work of Aaron’s bugs. But no: my Actual God of Space Palkia was knocked out cold after two Facade attacks.
I looked at Heracross’ level and it was, horrifyingly enough, below just about everyone in my party of five. My Raichu, Torterra, and Beautifly were in their early 60s, whereas Palkia and Houndoom were in their late 50s. This was only the first fight. There were still four more powerful trainers to fight, and the battle with Aaron was already more involved than anything I’d faced in Shining Pearl yet. His Pokemon were all lower levels than mine, but they were giving me trouble in ways every gym leader and random trainer I’d fought up to this point hadn’t. A game where I had been largely sweeping teams with one Pokemon suddenly became a coordinated, team-wide affair.
This trend kept going as I ascended through the Elite Four. Bertha’s ground-type team found ways to burn through Torterra, who had previously taken on full teams with his grass-type attacks. This meant I had to use less optimal Pokemon like Beautifly, who was immune to ground attacks but had one subpar grass attack, to hold off Bertha’s Golem while I anxiously tended to Torterra’s wounds. Despite Flint’s supposed focus on fire-type Pokemon, most of his Pokemon simply had fire-type attacks but occupied a different element themselves. This meant Palkia’s water attacks would only be super effective on a handful of them. Moreover, their movesets were versatile and they had ways of fighting off the Pokemon I’d most naturally use to counter them.
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These battles were the first time it felt like Shining Pearl was emulating the behaviors and strategies of a human Pokemon player. I realized that if I wanted to win these fights, I would have to get crafty. One of my favorite moments was fighting Champion Cynthia, who was down to two Pokemon — one of which was a Spiritomb. The only damaging attacks she had were ghost, dark, and psychic-types — none of which would do much to my Houndoom. I had him tank through all of Spiritomb’s attacks while I revived and healed the rest of my team, who had been put through the wringer by Cynthia’s party of powerhouses.
But no amount of healing could have prepared me for Cynthia’s Garchomp, who was faster than everyone on my team and so powerful that none could survive even one attack. After several tries, I was forced to accept I wasn’t going to defeat Sinnoh’s champion — at least not without grinding first.
And that’s where I’m at now. As of this writing, I’ve yet to defeat the Elite Four. It’s a frustrating roadblock, but it’s also the only time Shining Pearl has felt exhilarating to me like Pokemon games once did when I was a child. When I come back after grinding, defeating Cynthia is going to be oh so goddamn sweet.
A lot of playing through Shining Pearl has required me to interrogate what I want from a Pokemon game. I think fans are collectively having that conversation as the series looks to a new format and systems with the upcoming Pokemon Legends: Arceus. To find difficulty and strategic play as an adult playing Pokemon games often boils down to finding your own fun. Whether that be in something like a Nuzlocke Challenge or in how my stubbornness to stick with my favorite Pokemon has required me to find interesting workarounds for early-game deficiencies.
For the longest time, I thought Pokemon needed major revisions to be inherently challenging. What has most impressed me about these Elite Four battles in Shining Pearl is how clearly they convey the series’ systems aren’t the problem — the games just have to be willing to equip your rival trainers with the Pokemon and strategies that make its systems shine. I’m more interested than ever to see if the changes to Pokemon Legends: Arceus can make those thrills a game-long experience rather than merely a late-game surprise.