By Thomas Page
Self-Imposed challenges exist in every corner of the internet. If you were to look back, you would find people planking on top of garbage cans, standing still while a camera zooms around them, and, supposedly, eating laundry detergent pods. While most of these challenges exist in tandem with hashtags that are beloved by the likes of the 6 o’clock news there are some that exist in the darkest reaches of the internet. Others call this place Reddit. The types of challenges that thrive on Reddit are video game-based. The one I tried is called the Professor Oak Challenge (POC). If you want what Reddit calls a tl;dr (a too long; didn’t read), it’s the modern era’s version of self-flagellation.
Some basics before we dive in:
1. The Professor Oak Challenge is based on the Pokémon games
2. Pokémon is a popular franchise of video games. It’s a collecting role playing game. If you don’t know what it is, think of a mix between baseball cards and Dungeons & Dragons. The goal is to catch the titular creatures and have them battle to advance
3. Most people have either heard about it in 1996 when the first games debut or 2016 when the mobile game Pokémon Go caused everyone with a smartphone to catch a bunch of digital birds and rats. If you are a parent of someone born in the 1990s, there’s a 85% chance you’ve sat through the movie associated with the television show.
4. One element of Pokémon is that you have a Pokédex which is an index of all of the Pokémon you have caught in the game. This element is at the heart of the Professor Oak Challenge because Professor Oak gives you the Pokédex in the fist game.
The challenge is to have the player catch and fully evolve every Pokémon available in a certain part of the game. Most of the games (except for the Alola games) use gyms as the dividers for each area. A normal play through of the game goes like this:
1. You are ceremoniously sent out with your first Pokémon and a Pokédex. You’ve been told that the best trainer (a person who uses Pokémon competitively) can be determined through the Pokémon League.
2. The Pokémon League consists of eight gyms or places of specialty in certain types. You receive badges for beating them. Types are described as the choices in Rock, Paper, Scissors. There are 18 types to keep track of but were only 15 in the original 1996 game.
3. Once you’ve beaten all eight gyms, you go on to the Elite Four (which exist in name in all but the Galar games) who are like gym leaders but harder. You have to beat them consecutively without a break. Then you have to beat the leader of the Elite Four, the Champion. The Champion can show their power by using more than one type but this isn’t always the case.
4. You may catch several Pokémon in order beat all of the Pokémon in the game.
However, many fans of the series find this formula to be boring. Most hardcore fans can easily beat the game using the above model without thinking about it. Whenever a new game comes, like the latest installments did in 2019, people are quick to find ways to make the game more challenging. These usually come from YouTube, Discord, and Reddit. Popular YouTubers for this include Mah-Dry-Bread, who likes to do singular, weak Pokémon runs, and Johnstone, who specializes in completionist runs. Johnstone’s video on the most recent games inspired me to try the challenge for myself.
Here are the rules:
1. The player must capture and evolve every Pokémon in an area
2. The player isn’t allowed to get Pokémon which are not available in a single-copy. Nintendo and Game Freak, the producers of the games, like to create two versions of each game which have “version-exclusive” Pokémon. Normally, you would have to find someone who owned the other version or buy it yourself to “catch ‘em all” but with the advent of WiFi they can be traded online
3. You cannot mess with the game in order to trigger certain events.
You’ll see why rule #3 exists.
The game I chose, Pokémon Sword, is set in a fictionalized version of the United Kingdom. The plot of the game is that an energy tycoon is farming geothermal energy in order to bring about the end of days with a giant “space chicken” Pokémon. This isn’t the first time someone has had this basic idea in the series: a tech genius and an eco-pirate wage an eco-war with their respect land and sea gods to terraform the earth to be better for either land or sea creatures (Pokémon Ruby, Pokémon Sapphire, and Pokémon Emerald), a cult leader tries to summon PokéSatan to destroy the current world so he can rebuild it (Pokémon Platinum), another cult leader (“a prince”) wants to free Pokémon from their oppression but is a puppet for another reshaping-the-world plot (Pokémon Black and Pokémon White), yet another cult leader wants to cause Ragnarök with a giant death laser (Pokémon X and Pokémon Y), and another tech genius wants access to wormholes by causing world-ending events (Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon). The first two games mostly dealt with petty theft.
One of the main problems with doing this challenge in this game is the geothermal aspect. The tycoon farms this energy from these power dens. In game, these dens have Pokémon in them. This makes the challenge, to be blunt, not very fun. How the game determines what is in the den stems from how much you have completed the game, the time of day, and whether the spawn is “common” or “rare.” Moreover, these dens exist in what the game calls the “Wild Area” which has access to most of the 400 Pokémon available in the Pokédex. Nintendo and Game Freak, in order to prevent playing from wielding top-tier Pokémon before the game’s story has really started put in two rules: 1) You cannot catch a Pokémon above a certain level and 2) Not every den spawns encounters unless prompted by an item called a “Wishing Piece.” For example, it is technically possible to catch a Charmander before the first badge but it rather difficult because it spawns in the “blocked off” area as well as being a rare spawn in a den. Another example is Duskull which can be battled normally but not caught because it is above the level cap imposed and has to be caught either in a den or by an random encounter in the grass. Most players will be playing a game of Monty Hall with the odds of 100 doors each time they try to encounter a new Pokémon. Several Pokémon spawn with these rules.
Another aspect is how it affects the numbers. In most POCs, the number of pre-badge 1 Pokémon is around 40-70. In Pokémon Sword it’s around 290 (there are conflicting numbers on Reddit). That is quite the hefty number for the first part. It also doesn’t quite reflect what exactly happens in this type of challenge: the leveling-up.
Pokémon uses an experience system to strengthen the power level of Pokémon as well as to evolve into other Pokémon. This is measured in an exponentially growing number for each level. For example, 100 points from level 1 to level 2 and 150 points from level 2 to 3. You get this either through battling or through items. Battling has varied output based on a variety of factors which boil down to difficulty while items have consist outputs (such as 100 and 500 points in the first area of the Sword POC). Normally the Pokémon you would be fighting would match the level of your current Pokémon but this isn’t the case in a POC. The level of the average Pokémon in this area in most games is around levels 8-10. Most Pokémon are fully-evolved around level 35. Many of the Pokémon in this area evolve around level 50. This is due to the game’s head designer being involved in Pokémon Black and Pokémon White which staggered evolution pathways based on when you encountered them. In their original games, Pokémon like Rufflet and Vanillite would take about the same time leveling up as earlier Pokémon because you would encounter them later in the game (around an hour or two of playing time). However, you would encounter these Pokémon in Sword at much earlier levels than in Black and White. In most playthroughs, it takes the player around 100 hours to complete the first couple of areas in the game.
When I started my new save file back in January, I figured that I could slowly work on the challenge. However, there was one detail that changed about the game between reading guides on it and when I played the game: an update. Nintendo likes to offer update patches to its games. These often fix bugs found in the game’s code. One of the patches took out a vital aspect of completing this challenge which altered how den spawns work. Pre-patch, a player would be prompted to put in a Wishing Piece and could see what an encounter was. Post-patch, the game would force you to save before each player-caused encounter. This effectively made most den encounters quintuple in difficulty. Looking back at the Monty Hall example, pre-patch, the player could see what they would be offered before making a decision while post-patch, the player has to do it blind. The new cycle looked like this:
- Spend around twenty minutes gathering enough energy to buy a Wishing Piece
- Go to the den and be forced to save before checking
- Get the wrong encounter
I actually got pretty far in the pre-badge 1 section before my sanity began to be questioned. I was able to catch and evolve 255/290 Pokémon before I hit the wall described above at around 50 hours of in-game play time. The moment that finally broke me was that I spent around 3 days of play without getting any spawns I needed. I looked up guides on how to make this process easier and then I found out that many players were sort of breaking rule #3 pre-patch by doing the save trick. There was no way I, having my patience wearing thinner by the day, could hope that I could do hundreds of these encounters to catch the last chunk of Pokémon left. The game had become a chore rather than a fun little challenge like it was hours ago when I started playing.
If there can be a takeaway from all of this, I guess that it is important to know what your boundaries of fun are. If you like to figure out every possible way to play a game then this challenge is for you. If you don’t then I would suggest playing the game how you want to be. A major problem in the Pokémon community is the focus on making the game more than it needs to be. Fans want the game to on par with the likes of Dark Souls or Battletoads of being legendarily difficult but I feel this takes away from why the game is so popular with people of all ages. I remember certain Pokémon I’ve used throughout the years such as a Walrein in Pokémon Ruby or a Torterra in Pokémon Diamond. I didn’t care whether the team I was using was the best or if I caught all of the Pokémon in a certain area. On my first playthrough of Sword, I used a rag-tag team of Pokémon I found by happenstance and managed to barely scrape by in the gyms with sheer luck. This is how I like to play these games and this is how I will approach these games with the foresight gained through attempting a challenge such as this one.