#ive been in this fandom for almost a decade but i think the true levels of pain are only hitting me now
khaedis · 8 months ago
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“Then Maedhros alone stood aside, but Fëanor caused fire to be set to the white ships of the Teleri.”
I’m experiencing Silmarillion feels again somebody help
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theycallmeshaggyrogers · 4 years ago
Essay Two: The Pokemon League Champion Archetype
March 25, 2018
This post will contain MAJOR spoilers for all mainstream Pokemon games. There, I'm guiltless. You'll thank me later.
I can't stress the importance of the previous disclaimer. Since the inception of the Pokemon franchise, the league champion effectively acts as the game's final boss. By design, a final boss should be something we are emotionally invested in, whether it pertains to a crucial plot point in a game or is a character we are able to feel strongly towards. I think I speak for the majority of gamers, casual or not, when I say that the plot of a video game matters to the overall experience we will have playing said game to begin with. If a game's story is good, or at the very least memorable, we are more inclined to remember it better and more fondly than say, a game whose story is bland or otherwise poorly-written. There are exceptions of course. In my opinion, the three games that make up Fire Emblem: Fates have particularly awful storylines. At best, they are bland and rely on the standard narrative trappings which Fire Emblem games are known for. At worst, they are so narratively broken that their exceptional terribleness is remarkably memorable. That said, FE Fates' “Conquest” route is salvaged only by challenging level design and game mechanics. The degree of polarization regarding Conquest's quality between the quality of its story and gameplay is remarkable to say the least, but it is simply from said polarization that the game is memorable to me personally.
Pokemon, however, is much, much different than Fire Emblem, which prior to 2013 was just a niche series for introverted elitist weeaboos like myself, and the popularity of both franchises in the two decades both have been around very much determines the memorability of an individual title. Perhaps I speak from bias when I say that every mainstream Pokemon game is equally memorable to me, given my twelve or so years as a fan of the franchise. I even started with one of the blander installments, Pokemon LeafGreen, a remake of the original Pokemon Green from 1996. That said, Pokemon is very much a formulaic series. Very little changes from iteration to iteration, from its story to its battling system. As the fandom likes to poke fun at time and again, you often play as a prepubescent Asian child who starts off in a small boonie town that happens to be within proximity of the laboratory of some biologist whose last name is in reference to some kind of a kind of plant. Said plant-named biologist offers you a Pokemon to start your adventure in exchange for collecting more of them to fill up a digital encyclopedia as you travel throughout the game's map (a task you will likely never complete). Oftentimes you have a rival who is also a prepubescent Asian child and also on the same journey to keep you in check as you build your party. You are both likely challenging gym leaders in hopes of one day reaching the penultimate title of champion. There's also at least one organization of bad guys wearing impractical uniforms whom you and your rival have to curb-stomp whenever they pop up in the story, but you've likely trashed them and emasculated their leader by the time you get to the champion themselves. I'd say every game has exceptions to these tropes, but the fact that I am able to give a succinct idea of how these games function narratively should probably queue you into the fact that Pokemon is a franchise rarely allows itself to change. And sure, helpful mechanics have been added over time to service the metagame, such as abilities, natures, IVs and breeding, but once these mechanics are in place, they are there for the long haul. Perhaps that is why I keep coming back. The games never feel incredibly alien even if I don't play one for more than a year.
I don't think the same could be said for these games' plots however. Every game leads up to battling an incredibly strong trainer, usually referred to with the prefix of “Champion”, and the reveal of the champion is meant to be a shock to the player. In almost every game, the champion is a recurring supporting character who at times helps the player on their journey to varying degrees of frequency. Oddly enough, the acting champion never tell the player about their high status in the Pokemon League, and this never has never been explained or justified within the canon. I completely understand this merit from a mechanical standpoint though. In the case of Pokemon, you don't know who the champion is because the game itself is encouraging you to build a well-rounded team to take them on, diverse in species, movesets, type and function. It is worth noting that while some champions specialize in a certain type of Pokemon, the majority of them tend to diversify their team for the very reason I stated.
This deliberate withholding of information also works from a storytelling standpoint too. Like any good JRPG, fighting the final boss of the game needs to feel earned to be memorable. These fights tend to be long, difficult and exhausting, but to ultimately prevail over them is deeply satisfying. In the case of Square Enix's Chrono Trigger, arguably one of the greatest JRPGs in the history of the genre, the final boss has three stages, incorporating movesets from all previous bosses while also possessing its own attacks that the player has to figure out as they continue to fight it. Final Fantasy 6, while less impressive in both aspects than Chrono Trigger, also has a multi-stage final boss fight, whose epicness is amplified with choirs and vaguely Christian imagery, as the boss himself is effectively the reigning god of a now-ruined world, one whom you would not initially expect to be the final boss until the original candidate has been eliminated. The fight is also very much a grudge match, as the final boss, Kefka, is a power-drunk psychopath. To date, Pokemon has only used the grudge match-type final boss fight twice, one of whom is not even the final boss, but a fake-out miniboss of sorts.
The exception to this unspoken rule of not disclosing the champion's identity is Alder, the Pokemon League Champion of Pokemon Black and White's Unova Region (which incidentally, is the first game where you are in fact no longer a prepubescent Asian child, but rather a teenager of indeterminate race because we're in New York City now, baby). In fact, he is introduced as the champion the moment you meet him! Going into Pokemon White in 2011, I knew that Alder was going to be the game's champion because I had listened to a rip of his battle theme posted on YouTube, but I did not expect him to be revealed outright as the champion. I only learned later as I progressed that Alder was not the true final boss of the main game, but instead your mysterious, slightly autistic wunderkind rival, N. By the time you defeat the four obligatory minibosses, dubbed the Elite Four, you find that N has already defeated Alder, and as the proclaimed chosen one by the dragon thingy on the opposite game's box art, he challenges you to a penultimate battle on the top floor of his massive Long Island castle as proof that he is the true king of Unova or something.
And then!
And then!!!
After you catch the guy from the boxart and defeat N, Ghetsis, the leader of the evil team (who is incidentally N's Machiavellian paternal guardian) throws a shitfit and battles you, revealing him to be the game's real final boss. When you defeat him, you reconcile with N, who sees the errors of his ways and leaves Unova on the guy from the other game's box art, then the credits roll to awesome fanfare. (Sidenote: I seriously consider Black and White's credits theme to be one of the best songs in the series). But there, you have finally completed the game, which was in my opinion had Pokemon's most ambitious and best plots to date. Alder can still be battled as champion, sure, but at this point he technically counts as a postgame boss, similar to Red at the end of Pokemon Gold, Silver, Crystal, and its remakes, or Steven in Pokemon Emerald.
I think Generation V was when the writers over at Game Freak realized that the series was getting predictable. Not counting the Gold and Silver remakes, the plot of Generation IV's Pokemon Diamond, Pearl and Platinum versions very much adhered to the same story beats as its predecessor, Generation III. Similar to Gen III, in Gen IV, the big ol' dragon from the boxart makes an appearance because they are summoned by the evil team's leader, seeking their powers for himself. After you beat said leader and catch the boxart-Pokemon for yourself, you are allowed to finish up your adventure, collect whatever gym badge(s) you still need to get, then you head on over to the league to fight the Elite Four and then the champion, who has shown up to help you in small ways throughout your journey. This had also been done to a lesser degree in Generation II, as assisting Lance in uncovering Team Rocket's hideout in Mahogany Town and later liberating the Goldenrod Radio Tower is what ultimately prevents you from reaching the eighth and final gym badge required to challenge the Indigo League. Generation V decided to do away with this formula entirely by making N the rival, evil team leader and de-facto champion, only to throw a curveball by making Ghetsis the real threat, when he had been established this whole time as someone who had long since released his own Pokemon as per the moral duty of Team Plasma's Seven Sages. Black and White's plot makes me happy for all sorts of reasons, but departing from Pokemon's traditional roots of setting up final boss fights made the battles between N and Ghetsis more memorable overall, but I'll get to that later.
From what I've observed, the champion archetype in your mainstream Pokemon story goes as follows: the player encounters the champion early in the game, usually after winning their first gym badge. When encountered, they express their interests a bit, then give you an item with a varying degree of usefulness from game to game. Their appearance throughout the story usually triggers other scripted events required to progress the game along and give you access to the next city or objective you must travel to. Regardless, the story reveals very little about their background, exchanging personal history for a brief explanation of their ideals or motivations. They are often absent from your adventure, but pop in at times to give advice or another item. They will be present for, or at the very least involved in the final confrontation with the evil team as a supporting character while the player confronts the boss. They thank you afterwards and do no appear again until the end of the game. As it stands, this formula applies to four champions, but components of it are subverted in the more recent games (discounting remakes of course).
I want to argue that this champion-reveal archetype started with Generation II rather than Generation I. In Gen I, the champion was your smug, cocky rival who was always three steps ahead of you despite starting at the same time that you did. He belittles you on your whole adventure, even after you beat his over-leveled team. During your run-ins with Team Rocket, he is not involved in those confrontations save for one time, where he battles you in an enclosed area in the Silph Co. building before your second battle with Team Rocket's boss, Giovanni. It is also worth noting that there is no eleventh hour crisis in Red and Blue; that trope doesn't start becoming a thing until Ruby and Sapphire. If anything, the champion archetype of later generations isn't applicable to Gen I because Red and Blue have very different story goals. While it is very much an adventure RPG with the set goals of filling the Pokedex for Professor Oak and becoming the strongest trainer, the core of the narrative is the dynamic you share with your rival. His reveal as the champion works because it has already been established that he progressed through the league challenge faster than you did, not to mention his ceaselessly deprecating attitude towards the player character makes dethroning him all the more satisfying a conclusion to the story.
I personally think Gen II did the champion reveal the best. Lance was established as a strong trainer who asks for your assistance in investigating a strange radio signal, which in turn reveals that the culprits are in fact Team Rocket from the previous games. After you help Lance out, he more or less just disappears without any hint of returning until you challenge him. If you played Generation I or its remake, you would know that Lance was a member of the Elite Four, so assuming that he is still part of the league is warranted. It is only by the time you defeat Karen, who has taken Lance's place as the fourth member from the previous game, that the notion that he may be the champion is not far-fetched.
Gen III's Steven Stone shows up a few times to progress the plot in some arbitrary way or another, is around to express concern when the Hoenn Region starts flooding or drying up (depending on which version you're playing) and he is established as a very strong trainer, but his lack of any spoken association to the league makes his reveal a little less powerful in contrast to Lance. Part of me thinks Wally could have worked as a champion just as well, if not better than Steven did. Here you have this timid, waifish kid who you meet early in the game and encounter about as infrequently as with Steven. He may not deliver on a memorable battle in the two instances he challenges you, but his presence as a champion would have been a nice surprise considering his outward frailty, not to mention given the face that the Hoenn Elite Four's typing is strikingly similar to that of the original Elite Four from Gen I, the rival posing as the champion would have been a nice little thematic reference to the original games, even if it would probably make the reveal more predictable. Regardless, I appreciated Steven as a champion in Ruby and Sapphire than Wallace in Emerald, a character who, while breaking parts of the formula, we do not meet until the evil team-induced crisis is in full swing. The most we know about him is that he was once the gym leader of Sootopolis City, but stepped down and was replaced by some cheesy artsy French fop with a Spanish name. He really only makes a lasting impression in the remakes.
Gen IV's Cynthia meets the archetype beat by beat, and even more so in Platinum when she joins you on your search through the Distortion World to find and confront Team Galactic's Cyrus. Barring Alder, the first champion to subvert the archetype established by Gen II, Cynthia is probably the most plot-active champion to act within it, with the exception of Steven in Gen III's remakes, Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. She also delivers one of the most challenging champion battles in the series, as her team will likely be 10-20 levels higher than that of your entire party unless you decide to train your Pokemon and challenge the league later. She also makes use of some of the most powerful and rare Pokemon in the series, namely Garchomp, Spiritomb and Milotic. From what I can tell, Cynthia is also extremely popular as far as champions go within the fandom, having appeared in every main series game since as an optional postgame encounter. I want to attribute this popularity to both her design and the intense difficulty of your battle with her.
Alder, as already discussed, broke the slowly encroaching archetype set for champions, but is explicitly the champion in name only because it is crucial to the plot for him to possess that role. By the time you battle him, the main story is over and you are likely well into the postgame at this point. I don't consider Alder to be a champion-proper because to be a champion in a strictly gameplay-based sense would imply that his battle isn't optional, which it very much is. The Gen V games in general give you a remarkable amount of stuff to do once the main story has concluded, all of it completely optional. The battles against both Alder and Cynthia in Black and White, along with their sequels, are completely optional too. Hell, I'm pretty sure on a playthrough of Black in 2015, I never bothered to challenge the postgame league. What Alder primarily serves within the games he appears in is that of a role model. He's this lighthearted, virtuous old dude who loves his Pokemon and is not opposed to challenging the worldviews of others, as he does with your milquetoast smart-guy rival Cheren, in order to help them grow as people. He is not nearly as threatening as Cynthia, but he is far and away the most multifaceted champion to date.
However, for the sake of argument, let's say Ghetsis counts as Black and White's champion, even if he is not one in name like Alder. While he fits the archetype well, he is also a subversion of it. You first encounter him delivering a speech in Accumula Town, encouraging the locals to question the morality of owning Pokemon. His speech is offset with a foreboding piano piece, indicating that he will inevitably be a threat to the player in the future. Much of his role on your adventure throughout Unova is to discourage and intimidate the player, but not by way of battling. Anyone who has played the previous generations prior to Black and White will likely assume that Ghetsis will be revealed as the boss of Team Plasma, and while he is the mastermind using N as a puppet leader, the game does not present it this way until you reach N's castle and learn about his upbringing as Ghetsis' groomed successor. Ghetsis' unique design sets him apart from the Seven Sages and establishes him as their leader, but then that would only imply that he would be a higher-ranked admin of Team Plasma, not the leader itself.
Because Gen III and Gen IV had very similar story beats, I honestly thought Ghetsis' arc was going to play out as Cyrus' had in Gen IV. I assumed that you would have to raid the hideout of Team Plasma and face Ghetsis down and fighting/catching boxart-guy afterwards, and only then would you be allowed to complete the gym challenge and subsequently face the league. This was of course flipped on its head when N reveals to the player three gym badges in that he is the king of Team Plasma, and Ghetsis serves under him, not the other way around. This makes Ghetsis' reveal as the final boss shocking, but not too much so that it feels forced. We know that Ghetsis is threatening, emotionally manipulative and of higher standing within Team Plasma's administration than the Seven Sages based on his actions and character design, so the possibility of facing him after facing N becomes a realistic expectation. To be blunt, Ghetsis doesn't fuck around. His team very much feels like a properly-balanced champion team, with Hydreigon acting as his team's resident pseudo-legendary, and his theme music is composed of foreboding drums and choir vocals. He feels more like a champion than Alder does. Ultimately, I would say Black and White has two champions: a story champion and a  gameplay champion. Alder fits the former while Ghetsis fits the latter, and while I love this dynamic for its creativity in a very formulaic series, I wish we had more of it. None of the Pokemon games since  Black and White had this degree of ambition in integrating and subverting the series' narrative and game-play trappings by way of a fake-out final boss, even its direct sequels, who perhaps played it a little too safe.
In Black and White's sequels, Black 2 and White 2, Alder's role as a mentor becomes literal, as he helps the player character get better accustomed to the game when they reach Floccessy Town (which incidentally is supposed to be based off Newark and I think that's hilarious). Instead of acting as the Unova League Champion, Alder is revealed to have stepped down from the league and has been replaced by the former Opelucid City gym leader Iris instead. Now, Iris adheres much more to the champion archetype than Alder does, but that really isn't saying much. In B2W2, she appears in Castelia City at the same time and for the same story function as she did in the previous games: you have to help her track down Team Plasma. That's it. You could argue that she meets the archetype better if you take her role within the predecessor game into account, since in Black and White, Iris is present during the eleventh-hour time of crisis, along with the gym leaders from all of Unova's cities (barring one) rallied up by your other, comparatively less annoying rival Bianca. If you are playing Pokemon White, you will have to face Iris in order to win the final gym badge, which makes her somewhat more relevant as a character, though only in White alone, as you fight her mentor Drayden in Black instead. In spite of this, I wouldn't say that Iris is a very memorable character within both stories she is in, and the time between these encounters are massive. By the time you meet Iris again in Opelucid City in White, it is to challenge her, whereas in Black she acts as a move tutor without any relevance to the plot. In B2W2, she will appear in Opelucid City to wish you luck with your battle with the city's current gym leader, but you won't see her afterwards until her big reveal as the new champion of Unova. While her theme music is catchy, I wouldn't really say the battle itself is incredibly memorable. To this day, I can't recall her team save for her Druddigon without having to look it up on Bulbapedia. It is worth noting that B2W2 have incredibly large postgames that near-eclipse the amount of content provided from the main story, which itself was less ambitious than Black and White and took a more Diamond and Pearl approach regarding to pacing the story with gym challenges, so Iris' memorability can easily be overlooked in a game with so much content.
Now if any champion meets the archetype the least, it is Generation VI's Diantha, and when I say “least”, I don't mean the least faithful to the archetype, because as previously explained, that title goes to Alder. Rather, Diantha's lack of screentime within the main story leads to a weak champion reveal by the end, even more so than Iris or Wallace. In Pokemon X and Y, your two encounters with her prior to the Pokemon League are incidental, as you run into her first at a cafe in the not so subtle stand-in city for Paris, and then at a monorail stop in where I can only assume is Normandy. She doesn't give you any important item or clears any obstacles for the player to advance the plot. Rather, she talks about herself a bit and expresses a desire to battle the player in the future. I probably wouldn't have remembered her leading up to taking on the league were it not for her character design, which fans have likened to that of Audrey Hepburn, and I can kind of see it? It's a fitting comparison given that Diantha is supposed to be a well-respected actress, but that aspect of her character alone is problematic from a storytelling standpoint should you choose to turn off your brain; if Diantha is this insanely famous actress, why wouldn't she immediately be identified as the Kalos League Champion as well by NPCs whenever she's out in the public? Last I checked, Parisian cafes and monorail stations aren't necessarily private venues, and it's not like Diantha is attending these places incognito. One line that particularly annoys me in her first encounter is, “I'm a Trainer myself, in my off time. I look forward to us battling someday!” To me, this line feels like a deliberate misdirect on the part of the writer, because what kind of league champion would brush their battling career aside as a hobby despite being the named strongest trainer in the entire region? There's just something incredibly dishonest about what is ostensibly supposed to be a throwaway line. It implies that we are not meant to assume that Diantha is an exceptional trainer of note, and are meant to see her primarily as an actress instead. This makes her reveal as champion ultimately fall flat, and you as a Pokemon fan could probably assume from thematic shorthand that she was going to be the champion simply because she had nothing better to do in the story.
Diantha's lack of presence in the narrative is what ultimately sells her short. Unlike previous champions, she does not appear during the obligatory time of crisis, though I wouldn't call this subversive, nor is she present during your recurring run-ins with Team Flare (aka the French fashion mafia). To be honest, I think some extra screentime in the vein of Cynthia would make her reveal less forced, or at the very least some hints on the part of random NPCs hinting of her battling prowess. This isn't to say I don't like Diantha as a character, or even X and Y's story for that matter. I actually quite like it. I just wish I saw Diantha more frequently. She is implied to be acquainted with Lysandre, who is revealed to be the boss of the French fashion mafia. Why couldn't that be explored? Hell, I even would have taken a part in the game where you wind up on a film set and you see Diantha performing! Pokemon X and Y took a much stronger influence from the part of the world it is based on than Black and White did, so it's kind of a shame that an aspect of French culture as a famous as their cinema was more or less pushed to the wayside.
At the time of this writing, I had recently finished my playthrough of Pokemon Sun. I accidentally spoiled myself to the champion reveal via YouTube, discovering that your final obstacle before becoming the first ever champion of the Alola Region was Professor Kukui. Compared to Diantha, my battle with Kukui was incredibly memorable, because I lost twice against him before finally emerging victorious. Of course, recency bias is very much a thing and my feelings regarding the quality of the battle are subject to change, but I think it's telling that a lot of thought went into how difficult this final challenge was supposed to be. I have issues with Pokemon Sun and Moon's balancing system, namely the fact that most trainers don't have more than one Pokemon until you're halfway through the game. I understand that the contrary would make the Exp. Share as insanely broken as it was in Gen VI, but in hindsight it appears to have been a necessary evil. By the time I challenged Kukui, both of our teams were almost perfectly balanced, making the battle less about sweeping the opponent's Pokemon as quickly as possible with the right type matchups and more about the strategy it takes to get there.
I would also be remiss not to mention the uniqueness of Kukui's champion reveal, because he is not the champion at all! Technically, you, the player, have become the first champion by being the first to beat the Elite Four, a feat achieved only by your rival in Red and Blue. This final battle you have with Kukui is a formality, as it is explained in the story that he has spearheaded the efforts to establish a Pokemon League in Alola, integrated in with the traditional Island Challenge. Kukui makes it very clear that he studies Pokemon moves, making battling an integral part of his research. It makes him a little one-note at times, but I don't think Pokemon has had as active of a champion character within the main story since Cynthia, and I mean champion in the sense that Ghetsis could be considered one. That said, I don't think anyone would have a problem if SuMo went the route of Black and White and making Lusamine in her drugged up possession form the final boss. My biggest issue when battling Kukui is that I didn't really feel strongly about the character himself.
Obviously I'm speaking from bias, but I think the past twelve years of playing Pokemon have conditioned me to champion trainers who, if they weren't depicted as calm and collected, were at the very least formidable and intimidating. Kukui is probably one of the most high-energy characters in the entire game! Previous champions all had an air of mystery behind them, whereas you practically spend 1/3 of SuMo's 3-hour tutorial being guided by Kukui. You pick up his mannerisms, you find out what he's all about, you find out he's married to a physicist, etc... Even if the game threw a curveball and actually made you the champion before anyone else could make a claim, Kukui's reveal as the final boss feels... underwhelming. This guy has been holding your hand and supporting you practically through your entire journey, and while Alder had a similar role in B2W2, it was not nearly as pronounced by comparison.
That spark of intensity you feel battling a champion like Steven and Cynthia just isn't there. What do you have to prove about yourself as a trainer if there is no champion to challenge at the end of the long road? This is honestly a shame because I was actually hoping around the time of Gen V that we would get a game where the story throws a curveball you become the first champion, albeit with the caveat that you have to compete with someone for the penultimate title. I still think this is possible, but from what Kukui has shown us, it needs to executed differently. I have not picked up Ultra Sun or Ultra Moon yet so I don't know whether or not Game Freak decided to switch up Kukui with someone else (though I'm gonna assume now that it's either Hau or Gladion), but I would honestly welcome a change, not to mention better battle music.
This current generation of Pokemon signals a shift in the way these games will likely be made for the years to come, both in terms of gameplay and narrative. I wasn't a huge fan of the Island Challenge in hindsight, but it was a fresh take from the past 20 years of  gym battles. While the story of B2W2 may come close at times, I don't think we've had two successive generations that followed similar story beats like Gens III and IV did. That said, I very much adhere to the notion that Pokemon needs to continue making memorable final battles for the player. Each story in a mainstream Pokemon game has remained memorable to some degree, but I strongly believe that the games which hold up better are the ones who execute their champion reveals the best, even if it means adhering to a pre-established archetype. Archetypes aren't a form of bad writing, but their overuse turns them into cliches.
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