I have distinct and fond memories playing Pokemon Ruby. This was the first Pokemon game that I had planned on avoiding (after playing Red and Gold). I just wasn't interested in running through the ol' JRPG formula again. But somehow I found a copy of that little GBA game and got sucked right in.
RPGs are notorious for their design-space-time continuum. To be very reductive, the gameplay for many never really evolves past the attack-attack-heal tactic. Though there are a lot of unique attacks and abilities in Pokemon, many are just stronger versions of the same types. Also, using items in battle is a highly effective way to heal thus putting less emphasis on the consequences of battle. So in terms of the combat, for a gamer like me there's not a lot to enjoy in single player Pokemon battles. From the start one begins at level 5 and works their way through the stat "spread sheet." One of the main variable controlling the difficulty of all the battles in the game is Pokemon level. A few number values this way or the other can shift the difficulty level from way too hard to far too easy.
The game designers carefully tune these levels throughout the game so that the player can go from start to finish in a fairly smooth manner. So why does the 5th gym battle with Norman stand out in my mind? I can finally articulate why. At my under leveled state, I had to pull out all the stops, develop some powerful strategies, rely on my cheap items less, and embrace previously unused options.
skip to 4:00
From what I remember from my battle with Norman...
- I evaluated my team that included two grass and a bird Pokemon. I didn't have a fighting type to counter Norman's normal type juggernauts. So I used a few TMs and really looked at how each of my less powerful, non-attacking moves could be used. This moved my tactics away from the overused attack-attack-heal.
- I had the money to buy plenty of potions, but because my Pokemon were so under leveled and Norman's Pokemon were so strong, even repeated healing with items wasn't very effective.
- This was the first time and only in the game that I left the gym, explored the area, and captured new Pokemon to restructure my team. Fortunately, this process didn't involve much grinding, which I can't stand.
In the end, I think the strategies I pulled off were much closer to the type of play that you'd find in competitive Pokemon gameplay. Check out the youtube channel PokeMoshPit for high level Pokemon battles galore. Such high level tactics involve strategic switches, not relying on a single powerhouse Pokemon, using Pokemon for very specialized non-attacking roles, and "setting up" against opponents who won't or can't switch out.
There were few other battles in Pokemon Ruby that match my love for my battle with Norman. There's just something about how my familiarity with the game, my progress at that moment, and the difficulty of that gym battle that created a perfect storm of fun for me. After earning the Balance badge I continued through the game capturing stronger Pokemon, assembling a more well-rounded team, stuffing my wallet, and finding more effective items. In other words, I fell into my familiar Pokemode. I enjoyed seeing and catching new Pokemon. I enjoyed the story. I enjoyed the music. So the game was mostly enjoyable for non-combat gameplay reasons.