I was rolling right along with my Charmander until I ran into Brock – the franchise's very first gym leader. For those wielding a Squirtle or a Bulbasaur, he wasn't much more than a speed bump. For a novice trainer with an under-leveled fire-type, he and his Onix were nigh invincible. I beat my head against that stone for an entire morning, only stopping when I was finally dragged out to breakfast.
I eventually defeated Brock and collected all eight badges. Then I did it again and again. If I'm not mistaken, there are 48 badges in all now. Forty-eight gym leaders! All of them different; all of them serving as the backbones of their respective games.
Gym leaders serve all sorts of different purposes. In the fiction, they are sort of like the town sheriff, serving as both a pillar of the community and a bulwark against troublesome villains like Team Plasma. Frequently, they help to advance the story in some way by helping the player solve a problem. In gameplay terms, gym leaders are convenient bottlenecks that keep players advancing through the game at the pace Game Freak prescribes.
As I said, there are now 48 leaders; and remarkably, almost all of them are in the new Pokemon Black 2 and White 2. That includes Brock, and psychic Sabrina, and the dragon trainer Clair from Gold and Silver, along with even the lesser-known trainers from Ruby and Sapphire. They all come bearing signature Pokemon from their regions, plus a few challenges, and some can be quite difficult to beat depending on your party composition. It's like a return home for longtime Pokemon fans.
The gym leaders are fought in a tournament setting, complete with brackets, a roaring stadium, and over-the-top introductions. Surprisingly, the presence of an honest-to-god tournament is relatively rare in the Pokemon games. Most of the time, you're fighting anonymous trainers in a tower; or in the case of Black and White, a subway. The towers are fun but not particularly memorable because ultimately you're just fighting a bunch of randomly-generated battlers who say things like "I LIKE SHORTS" (the caps are real).
In the Pokemon World Tournament, however, you're surrounded by familiar faces. For fans, every single battle brings memories crashing back, not the least because each battle with a leader features a remixed variant of their original theme. I remember fighting Clair at 3 a.m. while working security at a university hospital. The Sinnoh boss music from Pokemon Diamond and Pearl bring me back to the hundreds of hours I spent raising Pokemon while living in Japan. For that reason, and many others, the Pokemon World Tournament is already one of my favorite Pokemon modes ever.
The best part of the World Tournament is that it makes the gym leaders something more than rote storytelling devices. I'm a long way from the days when I struggled with Brock; and while I still enjoy gym leader battles, it has been quite some time since I've found them anything even resembling challenging. Even being able to rebattle a stronger variety gym leader after beating the Elite 4 doesn't have much appeal when all of your Pokemon are already level 100. Granted, I'm in the minority in that regard, but the lack of challenge outside of the Battle Tower has been one element that has turned me off the series of late. It's nice not having to hold back while fighting the gym leaders for a change.
The Pokemon World Tournament is only one of many things that Pokemon Black 2 and White 2 gets right – you can read about them in more detail in my review for Joystiq – but it's the element that resonates the most with me as a fan. After years of kind of nibbling around at the corners, it feels as if Game Freak is finally acknowledging that fifteen years and five generations of games has left a lot of people with strong memories of days monster training past, and that spark has been enough to jump-start my appreciation for the series after a long hiatus. I've gotta say – it's good to be back.
Lightning Round: Five Best Gym Leaders:
- Clair (Dragon): Clair is a dragon trainer, apprentice to Lance from the first game, and one of the toughest gym leaders ever. She's also hyper-competitive, even refusing to give up the badge after losing. It's fun to see in the often saccharine world of Pokemon.
- Norman (Normal): Father to the trainer in Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald. He hints that you're not ready to face him early on, and he's not lying. His Slaking is a real pain to take down with a vanilla team off the street.
- Misty (Water): Misty is the definitive wall for first-time trainers with a Charmander in Pokemon Red/Blue. Her Starmie destroys worlds.
- Lt. Surge (Electric): In addition to being something of a Guile clone, the "Lightning American" is every western stereotype ever. You half expect to see him eating a hot dog when he arrives.
- Crasher Wake (Water): He's basically a luchador who trains Pokemon. And that's why I love these games.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.