February 28, 2020

LP1: Crystal Cakewalk

Game: Pokémon Crystal (Gen II)
Universal Pokémon Randomizer

Hi! For our first ever Let’s Play, we’ll settle for fairly conventional randomiser settings. I don’t like it when Legendary Dogs & Mewtwo show up on Route 2, so we’ll stovepipe ordinaries and mythicals. Wild evolutions are a definite yes, and opposing Trainer team shuffle is too. Youngster Joey can have all the Legendaries he wants – in fact, I encourage it! That brings us to movesets. These are always a sticking point for me, as randomising them does away with the cornerstone of game balance. Sure, I’d love for Whitney to have a Lv.17 Steelix, but do we want it to be a laughingstock with Bubble instead of a menace with Iron Tail? Moveset randomisation crosses the boundary of vanilla+ into the clownesque, and there’s no telling if it’s going to be hilariously awesome, furiously challenging, tragically underwhelming, or just plain silly. …We’ll brave it. Check. Base stats, typing and move power we’ll obviously leave intact. Overworld items and TMs are switched up for extra spice. And with that, I think, we’re good to go.

LP1: The Crystal Cakewalk
Our choice of starters is Magneton, Farfetch’d or Cloyster. Hmm. That’s actually a tough one. Magneton has stellar base 120SpAtk, but is also your stereotypical glass cannon with only 50 base HP. Plus it might end up stuck without a decent special move for quite some time until it randomly learns one or we get to slap Thunderbolt on it. Cloyster can leverage more rounded offenses (95/85), not to mention base 180Def is out-of-this-world robust, but anything special will rip right through base 45SpDef plus an equal 50HP base. We’re not Nuzlocking this, so I’m rolling with Cloyster. Hopefully we’ll stumble upon a special wall soon. Cross your fingers for Route 2 Blissey.

I’d nickname her Cloystrophobia, but that won’t fit. So CluClu it is. Yeah, that’s a ChuChu Rocket reference. I’m telling you up front since nobody would have guessed. CluClu knows Guillotine / Mean Look / Karate Chop and Megahorn right out of the gate. Wow. Mean Look & Guillotine versus physical attackers, that’s going be fun!

On our way over to Prof. Elm, we get a first taste of the early-game possibilities. We meet a Tangela, Horsea, Skiploom and… Jolteon. And a Ninetales. I have a feeling we’re going to be spoilt for choice in this run. Silver took Magneton. Wise choice. We disassemble it with Karate Chop.

Armed with some Pokeballs we venture back into the grass. We promptly catch a Lv.2 Ninetales and name it Kitsune. That’s Japanese for fox. The type with many tails that guards Shinto shrines. It knowns Barrier / Scary Face / Explosion / Headbutt. Boy would this thing rock in Doubles with CluClu. We also catch a Lv.3 Jolteon that we intend to name Volta, but accidentally miss inputting the T, so it comes out as Vola. Fine. Vola knows Heal Bell and Tri Attack. That Skiploom we saw earlier turns out to have Detect / Icy Wind / Mega Kick / Zap Cannon, and causes Kitsune and Vola so much pain we decide to catch one and take it with us. (Welcome, Skippy!) I’ve been on two routes and we already have 4 team members. Woops! I have no clue if their IVs are any good, but I’m not going to worry about it. If I can’t beat Crystal with a pre-evolved Jolteon and Ninetales, then I have no business playing it.

At long last, we fight our first Trainer battle. …And Joey has a Mew-…! Just kidding. A Bayleef. It’s actually pretty nasty, knowing Crunch and Bind, and Vola needs a Potion plus Tri Attack-induced burn to knock it out. At Lv.5, Skippy wants to learn both Octazooka and Rock Throw. Here’s the thing about our eventual Jumpluff: it’s not going to be very good. Base 55/55 attack stats aren’t going to secure a long-term place on the team. Its niche, should one exist, will be as a utility Pokémon. Zap Cannon has terrible accuracy (50%) but does offer guaranteed paralysis when it hits. Combine that with Octazooka (lower foe’s accuracy), and things could get interesting. Detect is great for scouting in the madness that is moveset rando. And Mega Kick is a powerful counter to bulky physicals. Hmm. Don’t count Skippy out just yet.

As we stroll onto Route 31 by Dark Cave, we find a Hitmonchan with Thunder, a Cyndaquil with Petal Dance (that we bag for later), and a Gengar with Present. If that isn’t the most splendidly diabolical thing ever… But we also scout Psychic on it. A half stack of PokéBalls later, we welcome Apparition to our team. I don’t need to tell you absurdly powerful Gengar is in Gen II, do I? Hint: base 130SpAtk and 110 Speed!

At this point I realise that we should be taking advantage of getting Headbutt way early. The road to Violet City has a bunch of small trees. Even if nothing useful is in them, these Pokémon are Lv.10. It’d be great to farm some EXP and get better moves on Kitsune. And if we can’t, we’ll make her our dedicated Headbutt-er, and look for another Fire type down the line. We hard-pass on the many Onix (Sludge Bomb / Blizzard) and Jumpluff (Thunder) we shake loose, but do get Ice Beam on Apparition and Supersonic on Vola, and enter Violet City looking rather worse for wear. I’m glad not to be Nuzlocking this thing.

Ah, Falkner. He has the Gen I Gary Oak “tuft of hair across the forehead” look going on. His henchmen’s Pokémon are all weak to Ice. Apparition’s running away with the game already! Itching to give us a taste of our own medicine, Falkner’s Tangela packs Ice Beam, too. Vola’s unimpressed however and lands Tri Attack after Tri Attack to score the KO. His Porygon2 hits surprisingly hard with Slash, and Skippy and CluClu both fall before we send in Apparition to clean up. Again, I’m happy this isn’t a Nuzlocke. Before heading out of town, we collect the Odd Egg from Prof. Elm’s aide? Is this randomised too? Stay tuned to find out…

Directly south of Violet we run into another powerful special attacker: Espeon. Unlike Gengar, who by virtue of his sky-high special can turn nothing into something, Espeon is a little more dependent on its move palette, and it has… Reversal and Wing Attack, both physical moves. Bummer. We catch it anyway, name it Espi, and send it to join Kermit the Politoed in Bill’s PC for a Sunny rainy day. The Fishermen on the bridge down to Union Cave are interesting fights now. Justin has a Sudowoodo with Moonlight and a Totodile with Morning Sun. Very Gen II PCNY. I’d love to have the other Fisherman’s Cross Chop Kingdra, too. Maybe we’ll find it around here somewhere.

In Union Cave, Hiker Daniel scares me with a Lv.11 Alakazam – a fear which fades when it attacks our waller CluClu with Barrage for chip damage. Yeah. A weak physical move calculated off poor base attack into a tank, that’s not gonna work, pal.1 Firebreather Bill complains how Zubat keep confusing his Pokémon, which is interesting – I haven’t seen a single one! On our way out we catch a Muk with Twineedle, Jump Kick and Dizzy Punch, naming it MukaMuka. (Can you tell I’ve played Yu-Gi-Oh?) We probably won’t use the Muk, but we will put onto our team… Steelixir, our freshly-caught Lv.6 Steelix with Crunch and Horn Drill. Shazam! I make a point of defeating Hiker Anthony’s Delibird with Apparition’s Present, which is easier said than done given Gengar’s poor physical stats. Delibird won’t play nice either, paralysing Apparition with Spark. But it works out in the end, and with that we roll into Azalea Town.

Kurt takes a tumble down Slowpoke Well, and female Rocket Grunt has a surprise in store for us: Lv.11 Mewtwo. Hello there, first Legendary! We send Skippy in to scout, and… It turns out to have Sacred Fire. See ya later, Skippy. CluClu puts in good damage with a super-effective Megahorn before falling. Vola gets the Supersonic off, still eats a Pin Missile or two (hey, that’s our signature move!) and then takes Mewtwo out with Tri Attack. Rocket Grunt thinks we’re a “rotten brat” for messing with her team. If I wanted to do evil with Mewtwo by my side, I’d think a little bigger than selling Slowpoketails. Just sayin’. Appropriately, the stray item behind the Grunt is a Sacred Ash.

Steelixir is beginning to pull his weight now, which is about time, because there’s a lot of it. You know, him being a 882lbs Steelix and all. He learns Teleport and Rock Slide, and we’re only truly fearful of random Fire moves… Or so we think, until we take a beating from BugCatcher Benny’s Elekid with Blizzard, and Articuno comes out. Thankfully it’s only Lv.9 and no match for Apparition’s Psychic. Bugsy proclaims she (?) “never loses when it comes to Bug Pokémon”. Well, it’s a good thing she doesn’t run them, then! Her Raikou is… What. Raikou? Yeah. It’s no match for Steelixir, I was going to say, locking itself into Rollout that we resist comprehensively while we Rock Slide it down. Her final Pokemon’s a Hyper Beam Starmie, and the unfortunate Vola takes one to the face (and lives!) before we get to Zap Cannon it with Skippy and, once we’ve established it has no scary special moves, finish it off with Steelixir’s Crunch. Our reward is the Hivebadge and a TM for Sketch. Hmm. I wonder how we can best use that.

We defeat Silver a second time (his Magneton knows Bubblebeam, how quaint) and head into Ilex Forest. Here we find Kabuto with Thrash and Spore. Permian would make a great addition to our team if he didn’t need another 30 levels to evolve, so he gets to chill with Bill for now. Ilex Forest is peaceful, and we emerge on its far side unscathed, where Picnicker Gina has somehow assembled the most incredible team of Tyranitar, Slowking and Entei. Wanna traaaade? Route 31 is otherwise uneventful and we arrive safely in Goldenrod. Do we head straight for Whitney’s Gym? I think so.

Beauty Victoria tries her hardest to make me regret that decision, fielding an utterly broken Lv.17 Crobat with Curse, Minimize, Confusion and DragonBreath that can raise all of its evasion, defense and attack by +6 stages. Yikes. We can barely hit it, and when we do, it takes next to no damage. I’m mightily relieved to have Steelixir for this one, who resists Crobat’s attacks, and patiently chips away with super effective Rock Slides until it submits. Thank Celebi it didn’t have Recover. Or Rest.

Powerful Blissey and Scizor both make cameos in the Gym but aren’t nearly as threatening as the Crobat, and then follows… Whitney. Well, girl, what’ve you got to replace your usual Metronome Clefairy and Rollout Miltank? …A Swinub. Kay. It knows Flamethrower and Thunder, so that’s something. But it’s still a Swinub, and gets ravaged by CluClu’s Megahorn. Then out comes a Sentret with Spark. Well, that was anticlimactic. Swinub Victoria stole your thunder, Whitney! We comfort the poor girl for running a Gym challenge with two hopelessly underpowered Pokémon, bag the Plainbadge and a Low Kick TM for our troubles and get out of here, still haunted by that Crobat.

It’s evident we have a couple of problems with our team, and it’s time to shore up the weak spots. Skippy (Skiploom) is on borrowed time. It needs mad utility to survive in gamemode where bizarre movesets are the norm, and at Lv.16, she’s learned nothing fit to replace Megakick and Zap Cannon, which are a great novelty but unreliable and nothing special leveraged off 55 base attack. Too brittle to scout effectively. CluClu (Cloyster) is better suited to that role, particularly since both Flamethrower and Sacred Fire are ubiquitous in this run. Second issue is how Kitsune (Ninetales) is now Lv.20, and hasn’t learned a new move since she joined at Lv.2! This is normal for Ninetales, and I should have foreseen it. We need a substitute for Headbutt, pronto, now that we have a purchasable TM. Barrier can eventually be useful, and Explosion is fantastic on Ninetales for our post-game ambitions, just not yet. Vola (Jolteon) is in a similar boat: he’s survived off Tri Attack’s utility, but going forward, that’ll be increasingly problematic. We need a move that’ll capitalise on Jolteon’s speed and great special attack.

For now, let’s see what’s behind the SquirtBottle. The “weird tree” turns out to be a Lv.20 Haunter. How peculiar! A ghastly entity posing as a firm and solid object, how does that work exactly? South of Ecruteak we come upon an ExtremeSpeed Eevee – the perfect candidate to become Flareon through that Fire Stone we found way back in Cherrygrove. We catch two and name them Crisp and CrispR; we’ll pick whichever has better attack. Does this solve our Fire-type problems? Somewhat. All Fire attacks are special type in Gen II, so even if Crisp(R) were to learn one, its power would be drawn from Flareon’s base 95 SpAtk, not 130 Atk. That’s decent, just not fantastic.

The prefab, fully-evolved Charizard we find an encounter or two later, on the other hand… It knows Mean Look, Jump Kick, Twineedle and Sacred Fire! O boy! Welcome to the team, Zordon! We also pick up a Forretress (TresBien), Elekid (LittleLad) and Marowak (BoneMarrow). Gosh, Charizard’s Crystal backsprite is gorgeous; we get to see it showcased so rarely. So what of the Crispies now? Flareon can still be a spectacular all-purpose attacker, depending on what other moves it is blessed with. Having two Fire types on the team may or may not be a problem; water attacks have been few and far between so far. We’ll see.

We defeat the Kimono Girls for the Surf HM. They’re pushovers without their Eeveelutions. As we head over to the Burnt Tower to set free Suicune, we learn Silver’s been busy – he now has Celebi on his team! Blink twice if you’re being held captive against your will, green onion deity! Well, that proves why we brought Zordon on board.

Ecruteak Gym Leader Morty has a Zordon of his own, but it’s frankly much less terrifying than his usual Gengar, and it’s at this point I realise that we’re “over the hump” and the game will from now on be easier than normal, not harder. Why? The AI simply uses whatever Pokémon and movesets were substituted in. There’s no programmatic adjustment for the discalibration of AI strategy this entails. It’s rando, after all! Which worked great in the early game, when Falkner’s Pidgey could be a Tyranitar with far superior base power regardless of the moves assigned to the Pokémon. But Morty’s Gengar isn’t any stronger as a Tyranitar with random, no-synergy moves – to the contrary, it’s less threatening. And it might not even be a Tyranitar, it could be a Cleffa! And the rest of his team might be NU tier, too, not to mention devoid of synergy within and across movesets. A human player will adroitly exploit the randomness, finding Pokémon least or positively affected by the changes. To keep up, the AI would need a significant power boost. But in this version of the randomizer, it hasn’t gotten one.2

In any case, we grab Badge 4 and head for Olivine City, where we collect HM04 Strength and immediately make for Cianwood by crossing the sea. There will be no Lv.30 DynamicPunch Poliwrath today – normally a true force to be reckoned with! – so let’s see what Chuck’s got for us instead. …Lv.27 Articuno, that’s a start! Pity its moves are terrible – no Ice Beam or Blizzard, just Super Fang. The once fearsome Poliwrath is now a Seel. Interestingly, it still knows DynamicPunch and can heal with Milk Drink. Not bad. He puts our team through the wringer with confusion status effects before CluClu puts an end to the whole shebang. Better luck next time, Chucky-boy. Somehow we haven’t caught a single Pokémon that can Fly and are consigned to Surfing back to Olivine to resolve the sick Ampharos arc. (I don’t want to saddle Zordon with an indelible HM for a STAB Flying-type move just yet, although it may just transpire to be our best option by default – time will tell.)

We race up the Lighthouse where Gentleman Alfred drops a casual Lugia. “I can see that you’re serious”, he observes after we take it out. I can only imagine Alfred’s contented bemusement about the folksy myths surrounding the Whirlpool Islands. A Legendary Pokémon? “Luigi-ya?” Hmm, no. Can’t say I’ve ever heard of it. *tenderly polishes an ultra-shiny PokéBall with velvet cloth*

Meanwhile, Steelixir learns Sky Attack, which by randomizer logic all but guarantees that Zordon won’t. As the lighthouse guardian Ampharos is cured of its mysterious ailment, Jasmine returns to her Gym. We’re the ones running Steelix now, Jasmine, so… What have you got? Rattata. I kid you not. And Togepi. Great choices, RNG. And finally, the almighty Lv.35 Jasmine Steelix has become death, destroyer of… a Growlithe. Brilliant. This run is at risk of fizzling out, and I don’t like it. I should’ve looked at forced evolution settings more closely, but any such lament is no use now – the die is cast.

It’s time to head east towards Mahogany Town, and tackle the Lake of Rage / Radio Tower subplots involving Team Rocket. Red Gyarados has been replaced by a shiny Girafarig, which gleefully self-destructs the second I consider catching and incorporating it into our team. I can’t help but laugh – I’ve never owned a shiny Girafarig. We rush through the Rocket Hideout and face Pryce, Mahogany’s Gym Leader. This fight, too, is a disappointment. In the vanilla game, Pryce is a tough opponent. His bulky Dewgong can be hard to take down. But here, Zordon makes short work of his Steelix. Cleffa falls when Apparition breathes in its general direction. His last Pokémon, Starmie, we’ve seen a few times now, and I know exactly what it has: Hyper Beam / Bite / Confuse Ray / Softboiled. As far as randomizer goes, this is the most amazingly balanced moveset in the entire run, but it’s nothing a patient Lv.26 Steelix with Crunch can’t handle (with a Super Potion or two). To be a real threat, Starmie needs what it can’t have: Bubblebeam / Psychic / Thunderbolt / Recover.

And this brings me to a decision point: do I want to continue this run, knowing that the hard part is behind us, that our party likely won’t learn any useful moves through level-ups, and that the race to the finish will be rote and devoid of challenge? And most of all, that if I tweaked a few settings and tried again, the journey could be more engaging? I had a blast up until Whitney. But at this stage, the only way any Trainer will offer serious opposition is through dumb RNG moveset luck, which is a thin platform indeed to sustain a strategic experience. I’d love to see a randomizer mode that preserves or even beefs up Gym Leader teams (while randomising everything else). Or, if rando is applied to them, does so within total-stats tiers. I definitely should have checked the “force evolution” rule to prevent, you know, baby Pokémon teams at later Gyms. And full moveset rando is a recipe for great surprise and hilarity at first, but disappointment down the line as the AI struggles to adapt. More than ever, I’m aware how Gyms are the game’s backbone – how their variable typings and smart-ish movesets normally inform a player’s entire six Pokémon party design. Without a proper substitute for that structure, the whole run becomes unhinged, and you’re left trying to learn the randomness itself rather than taking what rando happens to offer you and applying that to a sensical set of challenges.

With that, I think, the decision is made. Zordon, Vola, Steelixir, CluClu, Apparition, and Kitsune conclude their travels in Mahogany and return home to New Bark Town. Perhaps another chapter will follow.

  1.  This encounter stuck with me, and after finishing the game I looked in the randomizer log – did Alakazam really not have a better (special) move, or is the AI just terrible? Barrage really was his best option: Psychic not until Lv.18.
  2.  In the next rando I play, I’ll probably set the AI to force final evolutions from LV.20 or so.