Ghost of a Chance: Shedinja and the Spirit of Pokemon

Posted in The Screening Room by - September 22, 2016

Shedinja is a gimmick Pokémon. You can only get one by evolving a Nincada (itself patterned after a cicada larva) into its final form Ninjask (based on a full grown cicada) while you have an open spot in your party; Shedinja is based on the shed cicada skin and becomes its own Ghost/Bug-type Pokémon if you have room for it. Once you’ve got it, it has a unique ability that makes it immune to all attacks that don’t do double damage; the flip side, however, is that it only has 1 HP, meaning that if a hit does land (and considering its typing leaves it vulnerable to 5 out of 18 types, it won’t be long before one does), it’s knocked out immediately. Like I said, it’s a gimmick.

It’s also representative of the heart of the whole Pokémon franchise.

To Train Them Is My Cause

Let’s start with the basic premise of Pokémon as a franchise. Pokémon plays in a manner very similar to a lot of other RPG style games, where you journey out into a vast world fighting enemies along the way to level up and make your characters stronger. But there’s a twist; like other RPG’s, you’ve got a growing party of characters who participate in the battles, except this time your party is made up of enemies you’ve captured and leveled up. As a twist on an existing video game genre, it’s a pretty clever idea, but what makes it work is how the mechanic is applied to the world the characters live in. The enemies aren’t so much monsters or villains who try to hinder your quest; they’re just creatively designed animals you run into in the wild. You’re not killing them, you’re simply battling them off, and you have the opportunity to do what most kids have always wanted to do: catch them and make them your awesome new pet. You can train them, you can name them, and in later games, you can pet them and feed them cupcakes; it’s a weird combination of innovative new RPG battle system and pet simulator, and it works well.

And this sense of training and befriending these creatures is a recurring, stated theme of the games. Human bad guys do show up, bringing with them their teams of Pokémon that you must do battle with. The villains tend to pointedly view Pokémon merely as tools or weapons, as sources of power, to be used to overcome opponents as opposed to being treated as partners and friends. You, the protagonist, are encouraged to believe in yourself and your Pokémon and to overcome your enemies not with mere brute force, but with the strength of the bond between you and your Pokémon. It also helps that the game allows you to over level your Pokémon so that, no matter how weak the individual species or typing may be compared to those used by the rivals and bosses, you could easily squash them after enough grinding. But this is basic game mechanics; to make the game beatable by the relatively young audience it’s aimed at, the game must allow you ways to win when playing whichever way you choose to.

“Is There Any Human That Would Grow to Like Us Pokémon?”

To drive home the point that friendship is a major defining element of the franchise, the games actively include a ‘friendship’ meter in your own Pokémon. Certain activities, like leveling up or feeding them the right berries, can make your Pokémon like you more, while other activities, like letting your Pokémon faint in battle or feeding them the wrong berries, can make them like you less. There are tangible benefits to high friendship; almost all Pokémon learn a move called Return, an attack that does more damage the higher your friendship with it is. Additionally, certain Pokémon only evolves when they’ve reached maximum friendship.

While many of the statistics of individual Pokémon can be checked in game through the basic info on your team, friendship cannot be. To know your friendship, you have to go to certain NPC’s who will tell you. While the game keeps track of this gauge in numerical terms, it will only express it to you in broad phrases. Most of the friendship rater characters will tell you a Pokémon’s friendship through phrases like “It couldn’t possibly love you more” or “It doesn’t like you much at all.” Of particular note is the friendship checker of Gen IV, Dr. Footstep. Dr. Footstep, a dog-whisperer like figure who is meant to be translating into human, speak the exact words of your Pokémon, gives you a much more expressive description of the friendship levels, and these are even different depending on whether your Pokémon is considered tough, cute, slow, or scary. The responses from the scary ones are perhaps the most entertaining, and the most telling of the underlying themes behind this mechanic, with the phrases generally expressing the idea that an unfriendly Pokémon resents being captured but not used and is growing bored (and possibly violent) if its friendship doesn’t grow, while a friendly Pokémon feels happy that someone finally has been able to love it despite its fearsome appearance.

Keep in mind what Pokémon are considered scary; they can be anything from the Ghost/Bug-type Shedinja to the Legendary Pokémon of Generation IV, Giratina, who according to lore was sealed away, alone, in an anti-matter universe because it was so violent and dangerous. The Legendaries of each generation tend to represent some duality of nature; seasons like spring, summer, and winter, weather like storms and rainbows, and even biomes like land, sea, and sky. Gen IV decided to get weirdly metaphysical, and went for a creation myth; Arceus represents a creator Pokémon, essentially God, and Giratina, a massive, slightly horrifying Dragon/Ghost type, represents its accompanying devil. But you can catch it, you can train it, you can feed it poffins, and if you bring it to Dr. Footstep at max friendship, it will tell you that you make it feel sunny and cheerful.

The Game Above the Game

This focus on developing friendships as a theme of the game has obviously influenced the fanbase as well. As fans are waiting eagerly for the new Gen VII games Sun and Moon, each new Pokémon design to be released has been met with intense reaction. Among the biggest reactions are new Water type starter Popplio and Ghost/Fairy type Mimikyu.

Popplio is an interesting case. When the starters’ first forms were revealed, Flying/Grass type Rowlette and Fire-type Litten immediately stood out as the favorites, and poor clown seal Popplio began to be left behind. At first met with indifference and hatred, the reaction quickly turned to one of defensiveness, to the point that there is arguably more defense against hatred of Popplio than there is hatred. Mimikyu, on the other hand, was revealed to near immediate adoration. The little creature is described as having a terrifying appearance but just wanting to be loved, so it dresses up in a crappy Pikachu costume. This news came out in a fan translation of a Japanese magazine announcement, and the internet was inundated with fanart faster than Nintendo could even make the actual English announcement, and as a result, huge amounts of fanart are tagged under the Japanese spelling “Mimicyu.”

Now, it’s one thing to point out that fans’ reactions to a property reflect the important themes of that property, but this goes beyond just an appreciation of the ideas behind the series, it goes into the way fans play the game itself. Firstly, they’re the increasingly popular challenge runs. There are monotype runs, where you limit your team to Pokémon of all the same type, much like an in-game Gym Leader. They’re variations on random runs, like the random egg run where you find friends online to send you six eggs, and you can only use the Pokémon given to you, or else the wonder run, where you catch the first Pokémon you run into and Wonder Trade them until you get a randomly chosen team. But perhaps the most popular of the challenge runs is the Nuzlocke Challenge. For each route, you can only catch the first Pokémon you run into; if it faints or gets away, you can’t catch any more on that route; if it’s a crappy Pokémon even though the route has much rarer Pokémon, you’re stuck with it. This forces you to use Pokémon you wouldn’t usually use. When a Pokémon faints in battle, it’s dead, and you have to box it or release it. This is to make you value your Pokémon, and the sometimes limited amount of time you have with them, more. In addition to adding a little extra difficulty to the games, the goal of this challenge runs is to force you to play with a greater bond between yourself and the Pokémon you use. To drive this point home, one of the rules of the Nuzlocke Challenge is that Pokémon must be named. This is a way for players to play closer to the stated themes of the games, even more than the games’ rules.

Even more than that, however, there are the player battles. Pokémon is, after all, a game with an enormous competitive scene, and when fighting other players, ultimately, the goal is to win. In a real match against a real opponent, powerful attacks, strategic typing, and strong stats are absolute necessities, and that means that only a relatively small number of the 700+ available Pokémon are competitively viable. That is until you change the game itself.

The Pokémon metagame is a complex tier system that’s meant to make all Pokémon competitively viable using classifying Pokémon according to general power level and usage. The upper tiers, Over Used and Uber, allow for all (or almost all) Pokémon to participate; you’re likely to see way more of the strongest Pokémon in the games, but technically any can be used if the player wants to. If your favorite Pokémon is simply not strong enough to compete with the heaviest of hitters, just go down a tier to Under Used, where the more powerful, more frequently used Pokémon are banned, giving the seldom seen Pokémon a chance to shine. These tiers keep going down, all the way to the Little Cup, which only uses Pokémon in their first evolution and at level 5. And the rules change every time. The environment of each tier will allow for certain Pokémon to be more advantageous within that tier; ban those Pokémon to a higher tier, and a power vacuum is created that will be filled by another. Then there’s reactionary trends; one particular Pokémon starts getting used with increased frequency, it becomes necessary to shape your team lineup to counteract that. If a traditional strategy becomes countered on a regular basis, a new approach must be found. The evolving metagame and tiered structure of competitive Pokémon battling is a constantly changing animal, one that encourages innovation and fresh ideas and hopes to provide a space for all Pokémon to be used competitively. This changes the gameplay to reflect the idea of the games themselves: that strength alone is not what’s important, what’s important is the bond between you and your Pokémon.

The Sturdy Shedinja

And this is where Shedinja comes back. Shedinja can be boiled down to an all or nothing Pokémon; it’s not terribly fast, and it’s not terribly strong, so on its own, it’s not going to one hit KO too many opponents. You’re hoping that its ability can protect it just long enough to get a couple good surprise hits, and then it’s going to get taken out by a super effective attack or even damaging hazards or weather. In a normal, competitive version of battling, this makes Shedinja a waste of a perfectly good 6th spot on the team.

But that’s not how Pokémon players want to do things. When playing on the tier list, Shedinja finds itself with a surprisingly useful role in an Uber tier match; entry hazards and weather changing is less of a priority in the hard hitting, fast paced Uber matches, and Shedinja’s ability makes it immune to the most frequently used attacks of many of the powerful Pokémon in this tier; its strongest Bug and Ghost type attacks work well against the standard Psychic-type Pokémon of this tier as well. Due to the odd details of the metagame, Shedinja finds itself an imminent threat against a whole tier primarily comprised of Legendary Pokémon.

More than that, Shedinja can benefit from an admittedly gimmicky, but no less clever strategy, simply boosting up stats (primarily speed and attack) via other Pokémon, and then using the move Baton Pass to pass those increases onto Shedinja. Through exact setup and strategic item use, Shedinja can defeat a whole opposing team in a single sweep.

And if that’s not enough for you, there’s the Sturdy Shedinja. Shedinja is a Pokémon with 1 HP. Sturdy is an ability that prevents a Pokémon at full health from being knocked out in one hit, leaving it instead with 1 HP. Since Shedinja only has 1 HP, to begin with, a Shedinja with the ability Sturdy is invincible to all attacks. And sure enough, under the right circumstances in a Triple Battle, you can get the ability Sturdy onto a Shedinja.

This is just how Pokémon players have decided to play their game. Being the best through strength and high stats alone would be a little boring, so players have pushed the cutting edge of strategy within these games to completely unexpected places. The results have been technically impressive and often incredibly entertaining. We’ve seen the useless flopping fish Magikarp sweep entire teams. We saw the low powered electric squirrel Pachirisu wins the 2014 World Championship. And we saw the one-trick cicada husk Shedinja attain invincibility. The spirit of the Pokémon games is that determination and the bond of friendship can achieve anything, and with these kinds of frankly ridiculous results, they make a very strong case for it.

This post was written by
He is a staff writer for Kulture Shocked, specializing in comic books and superheroes. Part-time web comic writer and full-time insomniac, he lives in Texas and writes think pieces for fun. Approach cautiously; he is usually very tired and probably isn't paying attention.
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