Gym battles have been a defining feature of Pokemon games since their inception. For 20 years, players have gotten a starter Pokemon and ventured out into the world with one main goal: to become the Pokemon Champion. In order to that, however, players must take on eight different challenges in the form of Gyms, where a strong trainer awaits to give them the ultimate form of achievement: a Gym Badge. Collect eight, and the Elite Four awaits, with the Champion just afterwards. Achieving victory has not always been easy, but there’s no feeling like being inducted into the Hall of Fame, as the partners who made it all possible stand at the forefront of your exceptional accomplishment. One can’t help but smile a bittersweet smile at the thought of everything they have encountered during their journey, the end in sight.
However, the newest entries in the series, Pokemon Sun and Moon, seem to have abandoned the infamous Gym feature for the Island Challenge, which seem to present a similar challenge, but with different steps. As far as we know right now, each island in Alola has a challenge that consists of multiple steps. Firstly, one must complete an Island Trial, which involves finding items or running an errand for an Island Captain. Next, one must battle a Totem Pokemon, which is far more powerful than any wild Pokemon. It can occasionally put you in the midst of an SOS Battle, as the Totem Pokemon can call upon a helper, resulting in a double battle. Finally, the final trial, or Grand Trial, involves battling the Island Kahuna, which essentially takes the place of a Gym Leader. In the case of the first island, Melemele Island, Hala will be the final person standing in the way of you and progression to the next island.
In a nutshell, the series has deducted the amount of leaders to four, but has added challenges along the way, prolonging your time before your final battle takes place. What exactly does this mean for your player’s goal? It’s too early to say whether or not the Elite Four and Champion will be returning, but with a mysterious fifth island, it is inevitable that there will be some challenge greater than the Island Kahuna. Does this, however, mean that Gyms are gone from Pokemon’s history forever? Not necessarily, and that can be concluded for a few different reasons.
Being as Alola is based off the real world location of Hawaii, a lot of traditional elements have been implemented into Sun and Moon to give it that original feeling. One can make the bold statement that Alola is one of the most diverse and unique regions we have seen so far, but that claim is heavily backed by the amount of cultural references we have seen. From Pokemon that embrace the Hawaiian culture, like Oricorio’s many formes and Comfey’s lei-like appearance, to Hala’s declaration of your battle with rival Hau as dedication to the mighty Tapu Koko, this is not your average Pokemon game. A place as rich in culture and history as Hawaii surely belongs in the Pokemon franchise, and implementation of what makes it so popular and interesting of a location is what will make Sun and Moon stand out.
With that being said, Alola can take advantage of an Island Challenge because the entirety of the region is based on separate islands. It is the first time in a Pokemon game that the region is not one locked piece of land, calling for diversity and a change in the game’s progression. It makes sense to have different challenges per island, to embrace that differentiation in Hawaiian culture and diversity from other locations. Not all regions will be based off of a chain of islands, so having an Island Challenge is not an option. Sun and Moon surely have done a lot of breaking tradition, from this new mechanic to the unique new Alola Forms. What could we expect from the future, however, in terms of a Gym system?
Well, it would not be a surprise to see Gyms return in our next paired titles or Generation VIII, due to its prominence in the Pokemon franchise. However, it seems that Gamefreak has taken a very independent approach with Alola, adding a plethora of elements that have never been seen and could never be applicable to any of the previous landmarks. Perhaps this trend will continue in the future, with players being able to explore more diverse regions, diverse and prominent in their lore and culture. Just imagine a title based on the wildly differing islands of Greece or the lush jungles of Africa–surely places such rich in their own lifestyle would not maintain the Gym feature.
Without any sort of bias, most have argued that Gyms have been getting stale after their appearance in every game for the past 20 years, but that claim can easily be justifiable. It seems as though there is very little independence and diversity in the plot of Pokemon games up until now. That eight gym -> Elite Four -> Champion concept was a part of every main series game until Sun and Moon, with few other changes to make the concept at least somewhat varied from region to region. For Pokemon’s 20th anniversary, making a change as large as this surely resonates differently with different people, but I am being completely open-minded for the sake of delivering both perspectives. Those who have stuck with the series for a long time can argue for either side–that of Gyms becoming stale, or that of Gyms being a necessary component of a trainer’s journey throughout a region. Both points can be justified very well, especially considering how Gyms gave players something specific to work towards, and was very focused in terms of putting an emphasis on battling.
There really is no way to judge the new Island Challenge until Sun and Moon come out, and players can compare this experience to the original Gym experience. Whether or not they return is completely up to how future regions will be displayed and introduced. Places rich in culture, mythology, and folklore like Hawaii are well due for a change when making up part of the Pokemon world, and replacing Gyms has done just that. However, going back to Japan-based regions or revisiting old regions may result in the revisiting of Gyms, which is perfectly fine. The concept seems to still be kept in mind with the Island Challenge, and it surely will be so if the concept is modified in any other way. No matter if they are called Gyms, if they look like Gyms, or even function like Gyms, it is important to have a set goal when starting as a trainer in a Pokemon game. For Sun and Moon, the Island Challenge seems like a very focused new take on an old mechanic, which is excellent news at this point in time. Will it still encourage players to train as hard and have that similar rewarding feeling of earning a Gym Badge? That remains to be seen, but something inside of me says that Pokemon’s roots will not be forgotten. We have come a long way in 20 years, but to completely abandon the core of an integral feature for something more traditional seems unlikely.
This includes the Elite Four and Champion as well. It could very well be possible that they have been replaced with those who were chosen by Guardian Deities, like Hala, or individuals from past regions who have conquered Alola like they have their home region. Whatever it may be, Alola is filled with Hawaiian culture up to this point, which is evident even from a pre-release standpoint. This may or may not have an impact on how the ending challenge plays out, but surely it will be driven by a part of Hawaiian customs and traditions. To be faced with these new challenges, and more or less a foreign experience, is something that we, as players, should be excited about. Since Gyms are as good as gone, players are going into Sun and Moon with no idea what to expect from the progression system as a trainer. This can be both a positive and negative experience, as it will leave many wondering where to start and perhaps wishing things were their old selves again.
As with any franchise, change is inevitable. As time goes on, there is a different view on what a franchise should stand for. In the case of Pokemon, 20 years have gone by, and without a doubt, the recurring, most prominent feature of a title has been the Gym System. However, new intentions have arised. Intentions that plan on bringing diversity to a region, by embodying the culture it is so renowned for in the real world. Of course, this does mean change, but it shows the sheer amount of effort and passion that Gamefreak has for creating a Hawaii-based region. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire very well could have been the final games with a Gym System, and Sun and Moon can very well be the only games with an Island Challenge. However, we are branching out. This is the year of change fo the Pokemon franchise, but it is much needed change. Mixing up the formula evokes this sense of enjoyment in veteran players, who cannot wait to see how the series has evolved over the course of time. It’s one thing to be expecting what your next challenge is, but with the variation that Island Challenges bring, it is truly a breath of fresh air for the series.
With that being said, what could we be seeing from Gyms in the future? Could there be different systems based on the region’s real-world counterpart, similar to Alola? Adding to my example of a region set in Greece, could we be introduced to a system that involves going through mythological rituals–meeting and conquering present-day descendants of the Gods? It would, of course, still need to maintain that prominence of battles and training, while mixing in the system with the culture of said region. Would there be different types of trials that trainers face along the way, before meeting the Elite Four and Champion? Could a plot be centered completely around a villainous team who has corrupted the system, or rebuilding a system that has been lost in history? These possibilities have surely been explored by leakers and fangame creators alike, though their fictitious presence may not be so for long. The breaking of tradition the Alola region has brought sets up a new level of expectations for the next Pokemon title–one that is just as rich in culture and tradition as the one before it.
The wise philosopher Socrates once said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” The time has come for us not to be disappointed over the end of an old feature, but to be hopeful about the inception of a new one. Surely, we will not be let down. Change can be difficult, yet it is something we must all manage at some point. The time has come for us to manage it, because surely, something greater awaits.