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Pokémon randomizers give the series an endless life on PC

The classic Game Boy Pokémon games are comfort food that players return to again and again. But because most Pokémon games have no difficulty options and are full of static, unskippable battles, what should be a trip down nostalgia lane often grinds to a boring halt. The path to becoming a region’s champion isn't very hard when you've memorized the exact team compositions of each opponent standing between you and the title of Pokémon Champion.

Tired of the same old same, seasoned trainers are taking matters into their own hands and randomizing their Pokemon adventures. They use tools like the Universal Pokemon Randomizer to remix ROMs into brand new versions of the classic games, then play them on PC emulators (through a more complicated method, some even modify Pokémon Sword and Shield on the Nintendo Switch). While these aren’t bootleg versions or hacks of the games with entirely new plots, these randomizers inject a powerful sense of unpredictability that makes playthroughs more difficult and exciting.

"Randomizing is the main way that Pokémon community Youtubers play the games at this point," said Patterrz, a popular Youtuber and streamer. "It keeps the game fresh. At this point, a lot of us have been playing these games for over 15 years, so we know the ins and outs—it’s not really exciting anymore. Randomization adds that surprise factor that you lose after a few playthroughs."

The randomizer allows you to pick and choose which bits to change to customize new files. A simple randomization would merely change up the Pokémon you can find in the wild, for example. But that's just the beginning—you can go much further, making every moveset, type, ability, evolution and trainer battle a total surprise.

Who's that Pokémon?

Everyone knows original starters Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle, but what if those choices were spiced up a bit? With randomization, your choice of a first Pokemon could be between already evolved options Krookodile, Togetic and Arcanine instead. If you’re up for new choices but still want to start slow, there’s an option to start with only first-stage evolution Pokémon. You can even introduce Pokémon from other generations into a game. Say you really love the art style of Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver, but you love generation 4 Pokémon that came later. It's simple: Just add them into the Poké pool.

During a recent randomized playthrough of Pokémon X and Y, Patterrz ended up starting with a Mega Lucario that was also holding a masterball. Talk about a good start—both the masterball and mega ring (required for Mega Evolutions) are items that can only be acquired once, more than halfway through the game’s campaign, and the Mega Evolution requires finding a Pokémon capable of Mega Evolving and gaining a specific stone to do so.

"Every playthrough is completely different now," said Callum Mortimer, a Youtuber and streamer who goes by HoodlumCallum. "It’s almost the same as going into a new version of the game blind—you don’t know what to expect."

If you want to go a step further, throw every established Pokémon rule out the window.

With completely randomized movesets, you can run into wild Pokemon that have absurd attacks they typically aren’t able to learn. A wild Abra that should only know Teleport might suddenly blast your unsuspecting Pokémon with Fire Fang, or Drill Run, Overheat and Volt Switch. 

Some settings can randomize learned moves as well. Leveling up an Ampharos until it learns Thunder? Well, sorry to disappoint, but that move is now Quick Attack.

Random abilities can create some weird situations. A grass-type Pokémon that would normally be devastated by a strong fire-type move could spawn with the Flash Fire ability, making it immune to fire moves.

And if you don’t care about any sort of continuity in the Pokémon universe, you can randomize evolutions. A Caterpie could evolve into a Charizard. Alternatively, Pokemon can downgrade at random as well. That Magnezone that’s been carrying your team from one victory to the next might suddenly evolve into a Ditto.

Static and held items can also be set to wild, allowing players to pick-up helpful power-boosting items or rare healing tools instead of standard items like Pokéballs and potions.

In perhaps the best example of how all these aspects of a randomized game come together, take this battle where Patterrz’s Cacnea survives a near-fatal encounter with a Growlithe. This only happens because that randomizer assigned his Pokemon the ability Pick-Up, which allows Pokémon to occasionally find items as the player walks around, and that item happens to be the one berry in the game that cures Pokemon from burns.

"Obviously, you run into a lot of odd and exciting battles with a randomizer, but that’s definitely the most emotional roller coaster of a fight I’ve had playing," said Patterrz. "It’s just … absolutely insane that all those things lined up."

Every battle is a challenge

The way most key battles are designed in the Pokémon games, your opponents don't change. This allows players to easily prepare for battle and wipe out mono-type teams with even the most basic strategy. But with a randomizer, any opportunity to plan for a gym battle goes out the window.

"Pokémon is a game of memory. Once you learn all the type advantages, where to get the Pokemon you need and who you’re fighting, you’re in the clear," said Mortimer. "But randomization can lead to some really tough fights. Randomizing takes away any chance to prepare properly, because you could be going up against anything."

No longer are gym leaders and Elite Four members limited to a specific type of Pokémon—now every trainer in the game has a varied team like Ash Ketchum, ready to take on anything that comes at them. Training up a specific Pokémon for the sole purpose of exploiting a specific gym leader's one weakness is no longer an option.

"Battling in Pokémon isn’t the most difficult thing in gaming—the game was initially and still is aimed at kids," said Matt Revill, who runs a Pokémon Youtube channel under the name HDvee. "Being able to turn up the difficulty by changing the trainer battles makes for more interesting gameplay. You don’t know what to expect. All this knowledge of the game that you used to have isn’t as useful anymore."

Randomization nation

Randomization makes the game more interesting for players, and also for anyone watching the game be played. "Whenever a new Pokémon game is released, it’s a race to see who can start randomizing it first," said Patterrz. "People have come to expect it. They’ve played these games over and over again as well, so it’s a new experience for everyone. I definitely wouldn’t be enjoying playing these games as much without this added element of surprise with each playthrough."

With new randomized playthroughs being streamed and uploaded on Youtube each day, players often combined these randomized runs with additional rulesets, like Nuzlockes, to make them even more difficult. While there are plenty of different established challenges, most revolve around not being able to heal your Pokémon and letting them "die" upon losing a battle. 

If you’re a Pokémon fan looking to spice up the adventure with some added difficulty and variety, jump on the game on PC and play around with randomizing your game. Make becoming a Pokémon champion a real challenge.