A Ralts stands amongst the various ribbons throughout the Pokemon series
Image Source: Nintendo via Bulbapedia

PokeManiac Monday: Nuzlocke Challenges, Ribbon Masters, & My Misspent Youth

This is what I have instead of friends, incidentally.

Despite being targeted toward a younger demographic, the gameplay systems of Pokemon are rich and deep enough to allow various levels of commitment from the player.

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At its simplest, you can merely attempt to get from start to finish, clearing the Gym Leaders and beating the Champion. Roll credits, you’re done. Head to your local GameStop and trade it in for a tidy $3 in your pocket (while they resell it for $40). If you want to take things up a notch, you can try to track down all of the monsters in the region and complete the Pokedex. Game Freak have even made it easier than ever by removing most of your favorites. Thanks for that!

Maybe you want to go a step further and embrace the meta game. Competitive battling has become an event unto itself, and if you’re really talented you might be able to enter a tournament. See that surly twelve year old before you? They are the enemy. Crush their spirit and ensure they never dare cross your path again.

Some people want just that little something extra, however. They want to set ultimatums upon themselves, to add their own stipulations and create an experience that is equal parts fresh and traumatizing. Welcome to the world of Pokemon Challenges, a vibrant subsection of the community staving off the grim specter of death at every single turn.

Back in 2016, I elected to start a Nuzlocke Challenge while playing the classic Pokemon Red. The premise is fairly straightforward — part of what makes it so ingeniously enticing. Effectively, it’s Pokemon’s answer to Fire Emblem, where a fainted party member is considered to be dead forever. No Revives, no second chances. Once your precious little Paras gets sucker punched with a Critical Hit Hyper Fang, it’s toast. Send that blighter to the graveyard of the PC Box, never to be spoken of again.

To prevent you from refilling your coffers, there is a critical second rule: you can only attempt to catch the first Pokemon you encounter in each area. Doesn’t matter if it’s something cool like a Growlithe, or something lame like a Pidgey. If that’s the one that pops out of the long grass, you’ll have to catch it or go without. Some choose to add further caveats, such as a dupes clause (if you already have that monster in your possession you can get a do-over) or a shiny clause (if it’s shiny, you can catchy!) but for the most part, you’re locked in.

The third rule — optional and yet resonant — mandates that you are to name all of your precious catches, just to make it that much more painful when they are inevitably felled in combat. Remember precious little CHARLES? He trusted you with his life and you failed him. You failed him.

A Poliwag from Pokemon, alongside the "YOU DIED" text from Dark Souls
Here lies Charles. He is dead. | Image Source: Nintendo via Bulbapedia

Since the original run by webcomic artist Nick Franco in 2010, the Nuzlocke challenge has caught on like wildfire with players worldwide. Attempting this in Gen 1 is not exactly recommended, however, due to its limited selection of beasts and myriad of bizarre, unbalanced, or just plain broken mechanics. I would learn this the hard way, fumbling my way across Kanto’s townships with my Bulbasaur, and panicking every time I was locked into an inescapable Wrap or stricken with a debilitating sleep-inducing technique.

Even the most seasoned trainers may have to re-calibrate their brain to avoid making critical errors. Those Ghost attacks the game claims to be super effective against the Psychic-types of Sabrina’s Gym? It’s actually the opposite. Want to increase your critical hit chance with Focus Energy or Dire Hit? Avoid it, it will actually make it less likely to happen. Trying to recoup HP when your health has fallen too low, via the trusty Recover, Rest or Softboiled? If it just happens to be a certain number, it will outright fail as the calculator doesn’t accept it.

It’s weird and it’s messy when it’s working at its very best, so to throw the wrenches of a Nuzlocke challenge into the mix is more punishing than enjoyable. I was doing fairly well leaning on a tight rotation of useful Pokemon (again, the game is unbalanced, so if you can get your hands on one of the good ones you’re sitting pretty), only to be wiped out by Lance’s onslaught of Hyper Beams.

Oh yeah, if Hyper Beam successfully knocks out its target, it skips the recharging phase. Because of course it does. Genwun, am I right?

Following a complete party kill, I was forced to buff up the remaining units that I had never bothered with, ranging from an Onix with woeful eyesight and a Magnemite with a move pool so barren, an infant could safely wade through it. By some stroke of luck, they would avenge their forebears, toppling the rival whose expletive-laden name I cannot repeat here and ascending to immortality.

The rival from Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow
“What do you mean my name rhymes with ‘a duck’?!” | Image Source: Nintendo via Bulbapedia

The whole process took over four years to complete. I’m not even exaggerating, though in my defence I was arbitrarily chipping away in 20 minute intervals of gameplay. That sounds like a bad idea, doesn’t it? The whole thing was. But I was done. I was free. I had completed my first (and potentially only) Nuzlocke challenge.

So of course, that very month I started with my next project: to attain a Ribbon Master.

A little more self-explanatory, the goal here is to collect all in-game ribbons on a single Pokemon. Technically speaking, this is no longer possible, as several of the ribbons were tied to real tournaments or using the DS’ now-defunct Wi-Fi connection, but I was going to get as close as I could. Technically, because I didn’t have access to the GameCube titles and their unique ribbons, I had failed before I even started, so I opted to limit my scope only to the mainline titles. I felt a twinge of guilt for cheating in such a way, until it occurred to me that nobody was forcing me to do this godforsaken challenge in the first place.

After catching a Ralts out there in the plains of Hoenn, I dubbed my prodigy Iam (surname Legend) and started in earnest. The bulk of ribbons will be obtained either through the mighty Battle Towers or the various Pokemon Contests, and finding a balance between the two is rough. Especially as this particular copy of Pokemon Ruby was deep into the post-game, meaning various TMs had long since been spent, and various crucial berries had long since been consumed. The in-game clock was shot, too, thanks to a dried out battery — something this generation of cartridges was notorious for. What this meant, was that I couldn’t grow more berries. Ever.

Yeah, this sure is a hoot, isn’t it?

Trying to cobble together movesets for each of the five contest variations is a fascinating endeavor, desperately scanning for moves designated as ‘cute’ or ‘cool’, etc., and then praying that the AI opponents don’t outwork you in the talent contest. I won’t go into detail about my bitter rivalry against Karpag the Magikarp, but you’d best believe I was cursing that miserable fish in short time.

A Magikarp from Pokemon plays the role of Lilith from Diablo IV
Hail, Daughter of Hatred. Creator of Sanctuary. Our Blessed Mother. Karpag. | Image Source: Activision Blizzard/Nintendo via Bulbapedia

Should you somehow manage to succeed in all 20 contests (four stages for each of the five variations), you’ve then got to rejig the moveset all over again, because it’s off to the Battle Tower to test your mettle in mortal combat. Gen 3 offered two styles; a level 50 cap and then a level 100 cap, so you had to make sure you didn’t train your little contest star too much, lest you overshoot that first level cutoff and lose your opportunity to grab the ribbon entirely.

I consider myself a fairly competent Pokemon trainer, and even entered a tournament a few years ago where I claimed a victory (the amount of losses I had is inconsequential), but pitted against the computer’s abusive tactics is paramount to torture. They’ll hit you with crits frequently. You’ll probably miss on an attack of 90% hit rate. They’ll spam Double Team and other accuracy modifiers like it’s going out of style. It’s not fair, and the only solace you can take is that it doesn’t understand fundamental basics like not attacking a Pokemon after it uses Destiny Bond, or swapping out when it’s been Tricked into acquiring an unwanted Choice Scarf.

Through perseverance, I was able to claim victory and amass all of Ruby’s ribbons. And it only took 10 months this time! Full of confidence, I transferred the decorated Iam onto my Pokemon Pearl cartridge for the next batch of ribbons on offer in Gen 4, and here I have remained ever since.

November will mark two years since that fateful arrival in Sinnoh, and I fear it will send me to an early grave as if I was living out my own Nuzlocke Challenge. Despite all of the odds, I did eventually clear the dreaded, lengthy and obtuse Super Contests (similar to Hoenn’s contests, but with godawful fashion and dancing segments tacked on), but I have hit the proverbial wall with this generation’s battle tower.

A Kirlia competes in a Super Contest as part of Pokemon Diamond/Pearl
Iam feels as stupid as he looks right now. | Image Source: Nintendo via Twinfinite

Between the three active playstyles, the goal is to get a win-streak of 52 in singles, doubles, and multi, which pits you with an incompetent AI partner. One slip-up, and you’re back to the start. Those one-hit KO techniques that serve no practical purpose in-game? The Battle Tower has got ’em in droves, and they’ve got the devil’s own luck with how much they inexplicably connect.

Circling back to the earlier point I made, I haven’t really been giving this my all. Sometimes it will be months on end before I pick up the DS and give it another shot, but again, this is allegedly a hobby. Something I’m doing for fun.

I want to make it very clear, I’m not having fun at all. I feel enslaved by my own whimsy, and if I could go back in time to January 2021, I would put my hand on the shoulder of my younger self, give him a stern look, and ask him… are you really sure you want to do this, Anthony?

And I know exactly how he’ll reply.

He’ll probably scream in terror, thinking he’d been cloned or something. But maybe that’ll be enough to prevent him from embarking on this godawful Ribbon Master challenge. We can only pray to the almighty Karpag.

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Image of Tony Cocking
Tony Cocking
A miserable little pile of secrets. Unabashed Nintendo stan, Resident Evil fancier and obscure anime enthusiast who insists everything is funnier when the rule of three is applied. Oh, and once I saw a blimp!