I've had a long love affair with the Pokemon universe. It started when I was looking over the shoulder of my childhood best friend's brother while he was playing. I remember it very distinctly: he was at Bill's House in Pokemon Red and was fishing in the lack outside, not yet realizing that all you could catch with the Old Rod was Magikarp.

I went home and bought the game that night. To me, Pokemon was fascinating because unlike most games, it tried to actually create a world for you to live in rather than just a game for you to play through. This is at the core of my growing dissatisfaction with the direction of the series, but that feeling of being immersed in a real, working, dynamic game world has never left me.

One element that contributes to the power of that feeling is the impression that, in this world, there are real and powerful individuals who are respected and praised by the in-game characters. This is the notion that there are actually celebrities in the game, and that you'll encounter them, battle then, beat them, and become them. Pokemon may have never gone so far as to make the player really feel like an in-game celebrity, but the emotion and feeling behind beating these powerful in-game trainers still has its significance.

For that reason, I decided to hunker down and right a more light-hearted list than the ones I've written in the past, detailing what I see as the Top 10 Pokemon Trainers from the Pokemon series of games. Top 10 here doesn't mean most powerful, but rather most notable, most plot relevant, and most memorable. This list aims to recognize the Top 10 trainers you'll think about when recalling your trip through the Pokemon universe -- and, perhaps, the Top 10 trainers that characters within the universe would recognize as well.

Note: items that contain spoilers for that particular game are marked with an asterisk (*).

Honorable Mentions: Maxie, Archie, Koga, Steven, Caitlin, Alder, Jasmine, Rui, Justy, Cail, Vander, Evice, Nascour, Gordor, Blake, Societea, and apologies for under-representing Generation III and the Pokemon Ranger spin-off. Special thanks goes primarily to Bulbapedia for the in-game quotes used in this list.

"Not only that, I assembled teams that would beat any Pokémon type! And now! I am the Pokémon League Champion! Do you know what that means? I'll tell you! I am the most powerful Trainer in the world!"

Actually for me, his name was always Cameron. I'm not sure about anyone else, but I personally always named him according to my real-world rival, who, at that point, was a guy named Cameron. Anyway, to understand Gary's significance, we have to travel all the way back to the early days of Pokemon, to where having a rival wasn't taken as just another iterative thing in every game. His tendency to pop out of nowhere always seemed to emerge at the worst possible times -- I recall a major tendency of his to arrive after a long trek through a route, just before the player can reach the Pokemon Center. I'm pretty sure he planned it that way, too. That jerk.

But there was more to Gary than just that. He was the first rival to introduce us to our rival's annoying tendency to choose the Starter Pokemon that could dominate our own nine times out of ten. At the same time, he gave us a meter stick against which to measure ourselves, even if he somehow found a bizarre jump in levels between the last pre-Elite Four battle against him and the first battle against him as the Champion. That final battle itself was the climax of Gary's significance -- remember back then, we didn't know there was a trainer after the Elite Four. After four grueling battles, we expect to rest on our laurels -- but no! The toughest trainer still awaits.

"Because the human spirit is weak and incomplete, strife has appeared... This world is being ruined by it... I find the state of things to be deplorable...

By the time Pokemon Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum rolled around, the Pokemon franchise had adopted a fairly standard formula; this formula always included an evil team bent on taking over the world. With four installments under their belt, how was Game Freak to spice this up? By altering the motive of that evil team; and thus enters Cyrus. While the previous teams were primarily concerned with their own selfish gains, Cyrus was concerned with a deeper issue. Antisocial, emotionless, and nihilistic to a fault, Cyrus does not claim to want power solely for power sake: instead, he wants to actually destroy the entire universe.

Cyrus's god-complex comes in to play when he views the universe for being fundamentally flawed largely for being so unlike himself; while he is emotionless and logical, the universe he sees is subject entirely to the whims and thoughts of individuals. Cyrus dismisses the power of the human spirit entirely; on the subject of Pokemon, Cyrus views them neither as friends, partners, or tools, but rather simply powers for him to adopt as his own. In the third game of the trio, Pokemon Platinum, Cyrus even can be said to succeed, finding himself trapped in the Distortion World, a place where perhaps he can make his dreams of a world without spirit come true.

"Could this triangle of lights actually represent a different trio? Could they be Dialga, Palkia, and Giratina instead? And the large light at their center. Does it represent something else? Could it be what created this world of ours?"

Cynthia is a somewhat interesting figure. In many ways, one might see her as a carbon copy of Lance from the first to generations of the game: although the champion, she helps the player to stop the evil corporation of the game before the player is fully aware of her identity. Her role throughout the game is significantly larger than Lance, appearing quite often to give the player a new Pokemon, items, and other advice. One might even say that she mentors the player character throughout the game, setting up the final battle against the champion to be something more than just another battle, but rather something with an actual personal investment.

Adding to Cynthia's character dimension is her apparent interest in legends and folklore, which fits right in with the Pokemon universe and its rich history. It's for this reason that she often finds herself where major developments are taking place -- for example, she ends up in the Distortion World alongside the player when they encounter Giratina. She also plays a key role in the fateful encounter Arceus sidequest, letting the player know of the offer of another legendary Pokemon. Finally, she makes one last appearance in Pokemon Black and White, referencing the events of Pokemon Platinum (and leaving us to wonder if the events of Pokemon Diamond and Pearl really even happened at all).

"Next, I plan to create an army of Shadow Pokemon that work independently on my orders alone. When this second step is done, I will take over the world without having to rely on bothersome people."

As far as evil bosses go, Greevil has a substantially more in-depth plan for how he's going to take over the world, aligning well with Pokemon XD's more out-of-the-box plot. In Pokemon XD, it is revealed that it was Greevil in charge of the organization responsible for the events of both Pokemon Colosseum and the upcoming events in Pokemon XD. From the beginning of the game, Greevil's plan is clearly different. Rather than just stealing Pokemon, he sets about converting them to their Shadow forms, turning them from inherently trusting creatures into mindless, vicious fighting machines, with the intent to create an army of his own to take over the world.

To defeat him, the player must set about purifying the hearts of the Pokemon that have been corrupted by Greevil. This process is predictably easier said than done, as among the other Pokemon Greevil has corrupted is the now-iconic Shadow Lugia that represents Pokemon XD. It's only after defeating this, and six other Pokemon on top of it, that Greevil is defeated. The plot, however, still stands out as one of the more innovative plots of any evil team in the Pokemon universe, presenting a very refreshing change from the classic notion of stealing Pokemon and taking over the world.

"What's to be gained from letting go of useful things like Pokemon? Certainly, manipulating Pokemon helps people expand their possibilities. That much, I can agree with. So, it naturally follows that only I should be able to use Pokemon!"

Perhaps the most significant contribution of Pokemon Black and White to the Pokemon portable universe was its focus on the game's plot. Although Pokemon Colosseum and Pokemon XD held fairly significant plots, the plot of the portable games had remained fairly standard: defeat the evil team trying to take over or destroy the world by capturing a legendary Pokemon, for some fairly insignificant motive or another. On its surface, that appears to be Ghetsis's motive as well: but the way he goes about it is very different than the antagonists of previous games, with a much deeper, more nuanced, and less brute force plan to go about it.

Rather than simply catching a legendary Pokemon, Ghetsis tries to manipulate the old legends. While the other bosses want to grab the Pokemon and use it, Ghetsis instead manipulates his son -- N -- into having an earnest and pure motive, which will ensure that a legendary Pokemon places its trust in him. N's motive is pure because Ghetsis has spent his son's entire life manipulating his circumstances to point him in a certain direction, but N's motive still serves Ghetsis's purposes: to rid people of their Pokemon. And although it turns out that Ghetsis's motives were power after all, he does introduce the closest thing the Pokemon universe has to a moral question: is it ethical to capture Pokemon? You won't find that in Pokemon Red, that's for sure.

"Hold it. Are you going to take the Pokemon League challenge? Don't make me laugh. You're so much weaker than I am. I'm not like I was before. I now have the best and strongest Pokemon with me. I'm invincible!"

The Pokemon series has never been much for character development. It's hard to have character development when the main character doesn't even talk. The rival from the second generation of games, however, shows a surprising amount of depth. At the beginning, he comes across as a mindless thief, but the player is quickly confronted with a different twist to the character: he does not simply steal, but rather opposes anything he sees as weaker than himself, including, surprisingly, Team Rocket. For this reason, Silver even appears to ally himself with the player in some instances, though he claims it is solely out of hope for a rematch with Lance.

The character's development really starts to show toward the end of the game. After the previous encounter with Lance, wherein Lance berated Silver for his rude and uncaring attitude toward Pokemon, Silver actually takes a turn for the better. By the time they player reaches the end of the game, his objective is to show he's changed as a person -- that he holds that objective now at all is itself substantially indicative of the change. After this, the player can find him training, and can even team up with him in a battle. The final element of plot development occurs, however, when it is revealed that Silver is actually the son of one of Pokemon's most iconic characters, Giovanni.

"I knew that you, with your skills, would eventually reach me here. There’s no need for words now. We will battle to determine who is the stronger of the two of us. As the most powerful Trainer and as the Pokémon League Champion… I, Lance the dragon master, accept your challenge!"

Lance would probably be one of the most recognizable characters in Pokemon game history if only for his initial appearance in Pokemon RBY. In order to really grasp why, let's take a nostalgia-filled trip back to the early days of Pokemon. This was back when Dragon-types really were a rather rare mystery: the fifteenth type on the chart possessing what at the time seemed like an invincible set of immunities, odds were the player would go through the entire game barely encountering the type. Adding to its lore was that the player's only major opportunity to grab a Dragon-type was for an exorbitant amount of money at the Game Corner. Encountering a trainer that thus specialized in the type was pretty immense.

But Lance's place as one of Pokemon's most recognizable trainers was solidified by his appearance in the next generation. Rather than just the fourth member of the Elite Four, Lance actually becomes your own ally in taking down Team Rocket's new operations. Whereas Cynthia plays a similar role later, Lance's role in Pokemon Gold/Silver/Crystal is enhanced even further by the player knowing at the time of the character's legend and prominence. That, in turn, makes it even more remarkable when the player defeats the Elite Four and, perhaps surprised that Lance was not among them, discovers that Lance himself has (somehow) become the new champion.

"I... want to see things no one can see. The truths of Pokémon inside Poké Balls. The ideals of how Trainers should be. And a future where Pokémon have become perfect... Do you feel the same?"

I'll openly admit that I tend to view the Pokemon franchise through some Red-tinted nostalgia glasses, and that if I were to list the trainers I, personally, most remember, they would probably all be from Generation I. But N, introduced in Pokemon Black & White, is likely one of the deepest characters introduced in the main Pokemon franchise. Whereas Ghetsis's character was enhanced compared to his predecessors by the depth of his plan and the complexities and deception involved, the character N was actually the subject of this plan, giving the Pokemon universe the closest thing it has to an anti-villain, so to speak.

Throughout the game, the player's encounters with N are very strange. Numerous sites have commented on the impressive nerve of Game Freak to even pose the question of whether or not it is ethical to capture Pokemon, and although the game stops short of making it a real ethical dilemma (by basically giving the player the answer throughout the game), the character N still poses an interesting manifestation of the question. While the player, as a trainer, must obviously disagree that training Pokemon is unethical, one cannot help but relate to N's quest. For the first time in the Pokemon franchise, a villain is painted not as evil or misguided, but as legitimately posing an alternate worldview.

"Team Rocket captures Pokémon from around the world. They're important tools for keeping our criminal enterprise going. I am the leader, Giovanni! For your insolence, you will feel a world of pain!"

One problem the Pokemon franchise has always had, in my opinion, is that it does not take enough time to develop the lore of its characters. Aside from the normal gym leader bragging, you don't often hear NPCs talking about the legendary trainers that one day you'll defeat, and that strips out some of the possible impact that could come from defeating them. That is not the case with Giovanni, however. This was the early days of Pokemon, and a blatantly evil character was no longer overly stereotypical. Giovanni's power over the crime syndicate of Team Rocket also added an interesting dimension to the otherwise-light early Pokemon universe.

Giovanni has a leg up on his contemporaries in later generations simply by being the first created, and thus will always be seen as the archetypes for the main villains in later games. I would argue that Giovanni is still the best-designed of these characters, with what always feels like a quiet, understated, and borderline classy power, emphasized by his professional style and tendency to lose with grace. But what sets Giovanni apart is his reemergence. Having defeated him at Silph Co. in what actually feels like a significant and challenging match-up, the player is certainly surprised to see him return at the least likely place -- as a Gym Leader. The extra plot development that occurs in later sequels, revealing Silver as his son, is just icing on the cake.

"..."

Here's where I hop up on my soapbox. When you get right down to it, Pokemon is mostly an RPG. You're controlling a party of characters, you manage their abilities and equipment, level them up to make them more powerful, and beat the game. The slight changes to the dynamics -- "capturing" your party members, "training" them, etc. -- don't really change the basic fabric of the game. And yet, Pokemon is not usually brought up in discussions of great RPGs -- not because it isn't great, but because it just does not usually get grouped in with the crowded RPG genre. Why not? What is it about Pokemon that makes people treat it differently?

The answer is its treatment of the main character: you. You don't feel like you're following a script. You don't feel like you're playing out a virtual novel, or following a path you were guaranteed to follow because the script writers said you would. That may still be true, but the feeling is that you're legitimately in charge of your character's fate -- that instead of controlling Cloud or Link, you're controlling a virtual you. The Pokemon universe's ability to make the player feel like they are taking part in a broader world is what sets apart from other RPGs. You're not super strong, trained with a sword, or an expert in magic -- you're just you, doing what the real you probably could do. That's why you, the player, are the most important Pokemon Trainer. Unlike nearly every other RPG, you're not controlling the character -- you are the character.

It is exactly that phenomenon that I think presents the Pokemon universe with its biggest opportunity, and at the same time, is the biggest knock against each new fairly-cookie cutter generation. The franchise clearly innovated in Pokemon Black & White, but they innovated as the next logical step of the progression -- better graphics, better plot, more moves and abilities, new characters, etc. These are all very normal, very predictable ways to improve the series.

But the focus of the series on the player character and his or her role in a broader world is what presents Pokemon with an opportunity to do something truly great. Pokemon, more than most other games, creates a robust, static, and ongoing world in which the player character lives. What I mean by that is that when the player enters the game, they get the sense that there are mechanics in place that govern the world -- the eight gyms, the Elite Four, the Champion -- and that their goal is to live within these mechanics. That runs substantially contrary to what many RPGs do, which is create a world in which the mechanics themselves are in a state of flux and turmoil. Outside of perhaps the Harvest Moon franchise, I have never seen a game that creates a game world where the player feels like the world actually exists, day in and day out, in a temporally normal fashion.

But that kind of world is exactly the kind of world that lends itself to a rich online experience. This is the odd dichotomy with games like World of Warcraft -- the orcs and humans engage in an epic long-term struggle, but in order for World of Warcraft to exist, there must be a status quo that is maintained so that players can log on and expect the same experiences, the same opportunities, and the same mechanics. According to the World of Warcraft plot, there ought to be the threat that one day one faction will invade the other, and suddenly all those forging skills you mastered are useless. That does not exist, however, because the game ensures that the day-to-day status quo is maintained, even though that runs somewhat contrary to what the back story suggests might happen.

Nearly every MMO I have ever encountered has this problem, likely born out of single-player games. In single-player games, conflict is an absolute necessity: you need something created for you to overcome because otherwise, nothing is going to emerge. Your goal is to beat the plot, and in order for you to beat the plot, there has to be a plot. MMOs, however, exist in the exact opposite space. The player needs to be able to log in every day and enter the same world they left the day before. The world needs to stay static, and to that end, a global plot is not only not necessary, but it is actually counter-productive. Take The Matrix Online as another example: are we really to believe that the conflict between the two factions was never, ever to be resolved? That neither faction was never to make headway? Of course not. But yet, MMOs often use these as the backdrops.

Pokemon, however, does not have this problem. Its entire objective is to create a world with a normal status quo in which youngsters go on journeys with Pokemon. It attempts to establish mechanics that govern the world in order to facilitate the game. The plot of the games actually dictates the need for a robust and normalized game world. This is the kind of world that World of Warcraft struggles to create because it runs so contrary to its lore -- MMOs need order, but World of Warcraft lore is filled with chaos. Pokemon, though, is all about order and mechanics. Couple with that the fact that the game itself attempts to create a world that exists separate from the player and you get all the mixings of a natural MMO -- not an inherently great MMO, since that is heavily dependent on the development of it, but a natural MMO, meaning that it just feels normal to the player for this game to be translated into an MMORPG.

The franchise is already moving in this direction. The focus on online play is so apparently in Pokemon Black & White that the player cannot avoid it: even if one never plays online through the entire game, there are still clearly visible signs of the online capabilities. But so long as the franchise tries to bootstrap an online game onto a single-player game, both are going to suffer. Pokemon plots have always been shallow for the same reason that Pokemon so well lends itself to an MMO: the world stays constant, unchanged, and governed. Instead, in its current iteration, the single-player game is destroyed by the odd developments introduced by the multiplayer capabilities (yes, I can battle N's Zekrom with six Zekroms of my own thanks to trading capabilities -- how does that make any sense?), and the multiplayer is consistently held back by forcing players to prep for it in the single-player world. Both suffer, and neither make sense.

The Pokemon universe's greatest strength is that the player earnestly feels like they are entering and living within a world governed by rules and mechanics. The player feels like they are achieving something more than just beating the plot that the developers set out for them: they are achieving something in this virtual world. Technology has advanced to the point now where that no longer has to be purely simulated: we can give the player an actual world in which they can go about these journeys. All the online capabilities emphasized in Pokemon Black & White don't need to be additional features -- they can be the game. The gaming industry, the social networking phenomenon, and the Pokemon universe are all basically begging for this game to be created.

So, get on it Game Freak. Give us a Pokemon MMO. If you need some ideas, the fanbase has thousands of them, and I'll be the first in line. I've got a copy of my resumes and verification of my degrees ready and waiting. You know where to find me, and there are numerous others ready and waiting with ideas for how the ultimate Pokemon game might be created. It's an opportunity most franchises would kill for -- don't let it slip away.

List by DDJGames (04/13/2011)

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