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The Nuzlocke Challenge is a time-honored tradition that makes Pokémon way harder

It’s great for those looking to up the difficulty of a Pokémon game

a still of nuzleaf in the pokemon anime Image: OLM/Toho
Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

Pokémon has long established itself as a family-friendly franchise. With its adorable creatures and its steady formula of turn-based combat, the games have long been accessible to a wide range of ages and ability levels. The RPG franchise has largely stayed true to its original premise of catching and fighting Pokémon since Pokémon Red and Green came out in Japan in 1996.

While the friendliness and overall approachability of the franchise likely has contributed to its vast appeal, it can also leave a lot to be desired for longtime players. Fans who have played Pokémon since they were kids might not find the challenge present in more adult-oriented modern RPGs. Pokémon games don’t have any built-in hard modes, so players have invented their own ways of upping the difficulty; that’s where the Nuzlocke Challenge comes in. It’s a beloved way of playing that allows players to self-impose rules in order to create a more difficult experience while playing Pokémon.

What is a Nuzlocke Challenge?

A Nuzlocke Challenge is a way of playing Pokémon using rules enforced by the players themselves. There are only two primary rules to a Nuzlocke Challenge.

  1. Every time you enter a new route or area with Pokémon, you have to catch the very first Pokemon you encounter. If you fail to catch the first Pokémon you encounter because it wins the fight or runs away, then you won’t earn a new Pokémon from that route.
  2. Once your Pokémon faints, it’s treated as a permanent death. You can no longer use that Pokémon if you let it faint even once in a battle.

There are many variations on the Nuzlocke. Some players also nickname their Pokémon so that they feel more attached to them. Others play modded Pokémon games that alter the spawns of Pokémon so a wider variety of Pokémon appear in the grass — so if grass on a route usually has Zigzagoon, it’s changed so you have a chance at seeing a stronger Pokémon like Kyogre. There’s an endless variety of ways to personalize a Nuzlocke run even though the challenge is primarily defined by its two main rules.

How do I start a Nuzlocke Challenge?

All you need to pull off a Nuzlocke Challenge is a fresh save file on a Pokémon game, and to start playing while following a set of specific rules. That said, getting started is the easy part. Conducting the challenge will be more difficult. Here are some general tips to get you started:

  • Pick a game you’re familiar with. You’ll want to know as much as you can about the game so you can adequately prepare for potentially dangerous events like a rival battle or particularly challenging trainer. That way, you’ll also know which Pokémon are available on which routes, so can anticipate which Pokémon you might catch — and you can make sure to keep the right Pokémon at the front of your party to optimize elemental matchups.
  • Make sure you level up your Pokémon as much as possible; that way, you have a higher likelihood of success in battles.
  • Carry antidotes. You don’t want a Pokémon to faint from poison damage (especially when it’s a permadeath!) while walking around, which can happen in gens 1 through 3.
  • Switch your Pokémon out of battle if you’re the slightest bit worried. If you have a Pokémon that’s low on health, then swap them out. Don’t risk it; always switch out sooner than you think you need to.

These are some very bare-bones tips; however, a great resource is Nuzlocke University, which has more detailed tips and as well as guides to Nuzlocking specific Pokémon games. These guides will help you pick a starter Pokémon, which is an especially crucial decision in Nuzlocke, and will walk you through each section of the game and flag specific trainers or Pokémon to be aware of. Another great idea is to watch successful Nuzlocke streams of the game you pick, so you can see how other people completed each section.

What is the origin of the Nuzlocke Challenge?

The idea came from a webcomic artist named Nick Franco, who goes by the moniker Nuzlocke. Franco created a series called Pokémon: Hard Mode and drew a comic illustrating the concept in 2010, using 2002’s Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire as a foundation.

The challenge goes against the series’ slogan of “catching ’em all.” Still, the challenge has since gone on to become a fan-favorite way of playing. Although popularized with Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, fans continue to undertake the challenge with more modern generations of Pokémon and have even ported the idea to other video game franchises.

Why is it popular?

It’s not just that it’s more difficult, it makes Pokémon more strategic. You need to focus on the strongest qualities of each Pokémon rather than just catching a batch of baddies who can wipe the floor with any gym leader. You need to know specific details, like whether your opponent’s Pokémon have better physical attack or special attack, so you can use a Pokémon with a high physical or special defense stat to match — because even a simple trainer battle can have you fighting for your life depending on the scenario. It’s less mindless grinding and more a game of chess, where you’re calculating the moves of AI-controlled opponents and shuffling your Pokémon appropriately.

In an interview with Know Your Meme, Franco described what he saw as the core appeal of the challenge. He said that the core Pokémon game isn’t that interesting in itself, but that after each challenge, people have stories to tell. “With a Nuzlocke challenge, you never know what will happen,” he said. “People want the world to know about their fallen bros and victorious comrades, and how exactly they overcame all the odds or failed trying.”