Pokemon Needs To Make Gym Leaders Part Of The Town Again (2024)

Highlights

  • Gen 4 and 5 feature Gym Leaders who emobody their town's values
  • Elsewhere, this is too inconsistent a trope
  • Pokemon needs to give the characters stronger stories, as the anime does

If I had to rank every generation of Pokemon, I'd have Gen 4 somewhere near the bottom. Yet it, along with Gen 5 (which I'd have near the top), did something that Pokemon has struggled to get right since, or has maybe never even tried. Gyms should feel part of the town, and as Pokemon continues to drift through the motions of doing the same old, same old, it's a shame it can't even repeat the good stuff as well as it should.

In Gen 4 and Gen 5, it felt like the Gym Leaders were the physical embodiment of their towns. Roark is not just a Gym Leader who sits in his palace beating up children, he is a coal miner. He is a worker in a town of workers, and thus looked to as an example. Gardenia takes her role as a mentor seriously, and thus you must face all of her proteges before earning your badge. In these and other Gen 4 gyms, we get a sense of small, cloistered communities in which the Gym Leader is a figurehead not through stature but through the trust of the townspeople.

Gym Leaders Should Be Community Leaders

In Gen 5, Elesa's gym is a theme park that is the centrepiece of town. She represents Nimbasa's place as a tourist trap and cosmopolitan hotbed, and her Gym is key to its economic stability. She offers thrills and jobs for the locals by keeping businesses afloat, and it's impossible to imagine the town without her. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mistralton City is little more than a landing strip and some clustered buildings, and so the Gym Leader, Skyla, is a pilot. It's very clear to see how she fits into the city in ways beyond doling out badges for people who beat her pets in a fight.

And so on and so forth. There are various examples of this away from Gens 4 and 5 (Larry's restaurant in Gen 9 shows the idea is still there), but it never feels like a core part of the thinking outside of those two games. There's just a town, and in that town, there's a Gym. They're rarely even thematically linked. Cerulean City may have a blue tint to it and have a minor river near it, but it's not one of the many coastal towns in Kanto, yet it's the Water Gym despite being home to the Power Plant. Next we have Vermillion City, a port town with beautiful foliage and a nearby underground tunnel crafted by Pokemon exploration, and it's the Electric Gym. Why aren’t these switched?

In the anime, the Gyms feel a little more connected to the town (especially in Cerulean's case, with Misty a key companion of Ash), so Pokemon gets away with it a bit more. Most of the time Ash spends in each city is linked to the Gym Leader, so we see their backstory and how they fit into day to day life. Not only are the designs significantly better for Gyms in the anime, with far more scope for imagination than Pokemon's traditional 2D wanderings, but there's more of a story there too.

Pokemon has never been particularly narrative-heavy anyway, with the basic story for each game some minor set dressing around the tried and tested aim of catch 'em all, get all eight gym badges, and catch the box Legendary. But in the anime, that just won't cut it, and so the Gym Leaders get more fleshed out and establish themselves as memorable figures. The games, unfortunately, do not put that level of craft into things.

As a result, we end up with Gyms that feel out of place and Gym Leaders who appear entirely disconnected from the place they call home. And not even just their home, they are supposed to be the key figurehead of this town, the de facto mayor and community leader. They are who the town is supposed to look to for guidance and direction. Instead, most of them just stay in their dull ugly building until they get to mess around with children. Bring back proper Gyms and bring back proper Gym Leaders.

Pokemon Needs To Make Gym Leaders Part Of The Town Again (1)
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Pokemon has entertained both children and adults alike for several generations. Whether hit video games, anime series and movies, trading cards, or more, there's something for every budding trainer hoping to catch 'em all.

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Pokemon Needs To Make Gym Leaders Part Of The Town Again (2024)
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