A Brief History of the Nuzlocke Challenge

How two simple rules changed the landscape of Pokémon

A Brief History of the Nuzlocke Challenge
Source: Bahnijit Barman / Unsplash.

If you’ve been a fan of Pokémon for even the shortest amount of time, chances are you’ve heard somebody mention a “Nuzlocke” at least once. This self-imposed set of rules has been influential for an enormous chunk of the community, focusing on turning a children’s RPG into something thought-provoking, challenging, and consequential. Since the origin of the Nuzlocke in 2010, Pokémon fans have iterated on the rules even further and spread their ideas all over the internet. So come along as we observe the journey that is the Nuzlocke Challenge.

Bringing permadeath to Pokémon

Initially dubbed "Hard Mode," the Nuzlocke challenge is a self-imposed set of rules that players follow throughout their adventure.

  • You can only catch the first Pokémon on each route/area. If you fail that encounter, you cannot try again.
  • If a Pokémon faints, trainers consider it dead and must permanently release/store it in the PC.

Pretty simple, right? These two rules drastically change how a player would typically approach Pokémon games. Rather than building a team of their favorites, players must rely on the game’s RNG to build a team. This shakes up the mid-to-late game, especially considering how much wider the array of Pokémon becomes. Once players aren’t stuck to the standard early route Normal and Bug types, options become greater but limited by the restraints of only having one encounter per route.

The addition of permadeath changes the landscape of battles. Even the easiest battles can become a deluge of tragedy after a critical hit takes out the Pokémon you had been banking on to get through the next section of the game. Suddenly, you need to remain constantly aware of every encounter, playing around potential critical hits and doing your best to preserve the precious team that you’ve built.

The hallmark rules of the Nuzlocke Challenge. Source: Pokemon: Hard Mode.

The first iteration of the Nuzlocke Challenge appeared in the webcomic “Pokémon: Hard Mode” by Nick Franco. In the comic, Nick chronicles his playthrough of Pokémon Ruby and incorporates the first two rules of the challenge. The comic itself was cutely dramatic.

Franco’s art style was engaging, with MS Paint sketches that gave every character and Pokémon detail and clear emotions. Reading the comic also provided a real-time look into how Franco’s art improved, getting more and more detailed and even getting a color page in “Ruby: Hard-Mode episode 12.” Franco also made it a gag to have extremely detailed faces from pop culture references every few pages, including the infamous John Locke from Lost on Nuzleaf’s body, inspiring the word Nuzlocke.

The comic ran until 2019, with its last update being the 12th episode of “White: Hard-Mode.” Franco’s website has not been updated with any new posts since then, but he remains slightly active on other websites like X (formerly known as Twitter) and Twitch.

An inspiring challenge

One of the standout features of the challenge is its diversity in team building. Pokémon has always been relatively free in terms of which six monsters could be on a team. Still, the restriction of Nuzlockes allows for potential diversity that players may not always go for. Unpopular Pokémon have slowly become favorites amongst fans because of the bond they created with it. I’ve had Granbull and Skarmory shoot up the ranks due entirely to their importance in Nuzlockes. In a series with over 1,000 different monsters to catch, it’s fun to find other ways to take on each game.

Coinciding with the diversity of Nuzlockes, there is a plethora of additional rules to make runs more engaging. Rules like Species Clause and Dupes Clause prevent players from encountering multiple of the same Pokémon or their evolutionary lines. Some players forgo the option of picking their starter Pokémon and use the last digit of their Trainer ID to determine which one they have to bring with them on their journey. Other rules exist to make playthroughs harder, such as limiting Pokémon Center visits, withholding item usage in battle, level caps based on boss battles, and so on. Plenty of Nuzlocke variants have popped up to provide a collection of rules that give the challenge more life.

Source: YouTube.

  • Wedlocke Challenge: Created by Marilland, this variation involves Pokémon working in male/female pairs, battling exclusively with their partner. These pairs last until one of the Pokémon dies.
  • Soul Link Nuzlocke: A co-op take on the challenge. Two or more players play simultaneously, but each player's encounter is linked. i.e., if one player's Pokémon faints, so do the others.
  • Avatar Nuzlocke: Inspired by the animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender, this rule set limits the types players can use from eighteen down to five types (four per element + Normal).
  • Monotype and other variations: Players restrict the type of Pokémon they use to one type. Similar rule sets highlight things like egg groups, color, shape, and so on.

These rule sets and many others expand upon the immense replayability that Pokémon already offers. Nuzlocking has even gone far enough to expand into entirely separate games, such as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate's World of Light, Persona 5, and other games that simply have team-building and area-specific encounters.

The Nuzlocke challenge began on a whim. What was one artist’s fun time creating a webcomic and documenting his run of Pokémon Ruby would inspire generations to play their own Nuzlockes, creating unique rules and becoming a staple in the global phenomenon that is Pokémon. To this day, there are forums and message boards that have been active for nearly a decade and are centered on Nuzlockes. The Nuzlocke Challenge has made a significant impact in many gaming communities, and few other hard modes are quite so notorious.


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