The Pokémon Nuzlocke Challenge: Let's Go!

By Cian Maher on at

Many long-term Pokémon fans thought that the most recent iterations of the famous series – Pokémon Let’s Go Eevee and Pikachu – were a little too easy compared to earlier instalments. However, there’s nothing stopping you from adding an extra bit of flavourful challenge to your adventure. That’s why I decided to play through Let’s Go in accordance with the ruleset of the most notorious challenge in the Pokémon world: the Nuzlocke playthrough.

For those unfamiliar with the Nuzlocke challenge, the main principles are as follows:

  • You can only catch the first Pokémon you see in each area.
  • If a Pokémon faints, it’s dead. You must release it.
  • You must nickname every Pokémon you catch.
  • You cannot use items in battle.
  • If your entire party of six dies and you black out, you lose.

With Let’s Go, the ruleset needed to be modified a tiny bit to make up for some of the game’s easier elements. Since Pokémon spawns occur as overworld sprites, I decided to walk away from the route and then reload it until one Pokémon spawned alone. If there were five Pokémon and I had a choice between them, it wouldn’t really be a Nuzlocke; if you're down for it, you've got to be down for it. As I played through, several more alterations to the ruleset were made, mostly to make it even harder.

Don't ask me why I thought this was a good idea.

The first few Pokémon I caught weren’t great. I got a Bellsprout, a Nidoran, and a Pidgey. However it was mostly my Eevee, who I called Woody – after my dog – that did all the work. I hoped that naming him after my dog would encourage me to take extra care of him, as he was the Pokémon I wanted to share my destined Elite Four victory with most.

After getting a measly 9 XP from a Caterpie, I realised something would have to change. Let’s Go’s trainer battles don’t reward you with much experience, which really screws with one aspect of the Nuzlocke ruleset: so it was time to make another alteration. I could only use the first Pokémon I saw in an area, if I caught it, but I could continue to catch Pokémon to gain experience afterwards ( after which I'd release them straight away). Theoretically one could abuse this system, with infinite time, but bear in mind this report had a deadline and I had to work out how to authentically Nuzlocke Let's Go.

So I became the gonzo journalist of Kanto, fully immersed and determined to speak meaningfully about the application of outside rules to a closed system that wasn't designed for them. In-keeping with the gonzo spirit, it resulted in a frenzied hubbub from start to finish, hurtling headlong towards the goal and scattering aside all the craziness that stood between it and me.

Usually I just did the exp farming until I got close to the level of the nearest gym, and then immediately tried to press onward as quickly as possible. I was also secretly scared of getting a high chain and finding a Shiny that I wouldn’t be able to trade to my main account. If I had found one, I definitely would have sent it to Laura.

I arrived in Pewter City and took care of Brock without too much hassle. I didn’t lose anyone here, and although Eevee was much smaller than Onix, David beat Goliath once again. The next rule I established was this: although TMs can be used an infinite number of times in Let’s Go, I was only going to use each one once. So when I taught my Eevee Headbutt after defeating Brock, that TM would stay unique to that Pokémon.

I quickly had to implement yet another rule. I didn’t have to battle every Coach Trainer in the game, but I had to battle any Coach Trainer I saw as soon as I saw them. So once that purple ellipsis hit the screen, I was obligated to start the battle. The first Coach Trainer had a Bulbasaur, who was tough for my team. I got lucky here because Headbutt caused it to flinch. Woody always capitalises on his opportunities, so another Headbutt sent Bulbasaur soaring into the stratosphere.

I caught a Rattata on Route 3. Not a great catch, but let me introduce the Nuzlocke Dupes and Species clauses your honour, two of the clauses attached to the standard ruleset. Once you catch a Pokémon – say Rattata – you no longer need to catch that Pokémon if you see it first on a new route. That’s the Dupes clause. The Species clause is an extension of the Dupes clause, and it states that once you have one Pokémon from a family, you’re exempt from having to catch any other member of that family on sight.

So, resting my case, I didn’t need to catch Rattata or Raticate if I saw them first on another route. Rattata may be a rubbish Pokémon, but it was good to get it out of the way early, lest I had to catch it later on in an area that’s home to more interesting specimens. I then caught a Zubat in Mt. Moon, much for the same reason, and had my first full team:

  • Woody (Eevee)
  • Lestrange (Bellsprout)
  • Dany (Nidoran)
  • Gwaihir (Pidgey)
  • Nope (Beedrill)
  • Poobat (Zubat)

In order to balance out the rewards from the excess Pokémon I was catching for experience alone, I decided that the Candy I got in exchange for transferring (i.e. getting rid of) Pokémon was a benefit directly tied to catching more Pokémon. Therefore it was not in the spirit of Nuzlocke, and I would not use Candy obtained from the professor.

In Nuzlocke runs, gifted Pokémon and stationary Pokémon are allowed. So the Eevee in the original Gen 1 games that you get in Celadon City? That’s allowed. The Snorlax that blocks your path before you get the Poké Flute? That’s allowed, too. However, although some stationary Pokémon are allowed, Legendary Pokémon aren’t, which means that the Legendary Birds are a no-no.

I didn’t end up using any stationary Pokémon. However, because gifted Pokémon are allowed I was able to get the Arcanine from Vermilion City. Arcanine is one of my favourite Pokémon, not just in Gen 1, but of all time. It’s also an absolute powerhouse. I called it Cú Chulainn after the mythological Irish hero, which means “Hound of Culann” in Irish.

Let's roll! It took a few tries to only get one sprite to load in the Rock Tunnel, but eventually a lone Pokémon spawned before any others: Rhyhorn. I added it to my party immediately in place of Mr. Mime and called it Christy, as to this day I always hear Irish singer Christy Moore’s song “Ride On” as a tribute to its majestic evolved form, Rhydon.

After trouncing the early Gyms and having to catch enough Pokémon to get my Pokedex up to 50 species – such is the entry requirement for the fifth Gym in Let’s Go – I lost nobody to Koga. This was indicative of the fact that my team was shaping up into a champion’s party: Eevee, Gyarados, Lapras, Victreebel, Arcanine, and Nidoqueen. Not bad, not bad at all. I went straight to Sabrina afterwards and made quick work of that Gym, too. Arcanine bit and killed everything in one shot.

I feel obliged to mention at this point, however, that at least 10 Pokémon had died. Most of these were sacked, which means if a Pokémon I needed to keep alive – Eevee, Arcanine, or Nidoqueen – got low on HP, I’d swap in a Beedrill or a Zubat to take the hit for them. That way, I could make use of a free switch-in, instead of switching in to a Pokémon I needed and taking a hit right away.

Blaine and Giovanni were easy for my party, so I made quick work of them. Although I didn’t lose anyone to Gary on Route 22, he put up enough of a fight to leave my team in a sorry state. I had no foil to his Pidgeot, and that his team of four would soon be six once he became Champion. I was going to have to do some serious training before I took on the Elite Four. And although I reached the Pokémon League with no casualties, I had no potions left either.

It was time to grind – hard.

I went back to Victory Road to chain Rhydon and level up my team. Once the average level was about 57, I decided I was strong enough to give it a go – I would have preferred to have gotten a little higher for the sake of safety, but time wasn't on my side.

The only damage Lorelei did to me was with an Ice Shard that hit my Victreebel. I recovered this HP using Mega Drain and emerged victorious with my whole team at full health. I’ll admit I got a little cocky after this.

Although I have never had any issues with Bruno for as long as I can remember, I realised once the battle started that I had no Fighting counters. His Machamp landed a critical hit on my Nidoqueen and I thought all was lost – if Dany died, I’d have to take on the next two Elite Four members and the Champion with a team of five. However, a message popped up on the screen: “Dany toughed it out so you wouldn’t feel sad.” Oh Dany boy, Dany boy... I got incredibly lucky, and the cockiness dissipated immediately.

After that stroke of good fortune, I got through without losing anyone and moved on to Agatha. My Gyarados Earthquaked her Arbok and Weezing – there’s no Levitate in Let’s Go to protect it from Ground moves, ho ho ho – and my Arcanine employed the brilliant tactic of biting everything really hard. This was the easiest Elite Four fight by a long shot.

I fed Lapras four Rare Candies before taking on Lance. Now level 60, I thought Lapras would annihilate Lance’s dragons. But despite a strong start, Lance almost ended my Elite Four run. No one died but all six of my Pokémon came close, with nobody in the green after the fight. Somehow, I had managed to take a party of six through the first four members of the Elite Four. But the greatest challenge was yet to come.

I started strong against Gary, quickly making it 6-4 in my favour, but then his Slowbro killed Lestranger (my second Victreebel, as Lestrange died before Koga) with Psychic. Lapras avenged Lestranger, but it too was killed when Rapidash’s Flare Blitz took Lapras down with it. Thirteen Pokémon lives were now eternally etched on this Nuzlocke run's tombstone.

But others still lived.

I had four Pokémon left, and Gary had a Pidgeot at half HP. Licking my lips I sent loyal companion Woody, who had been with me since the start, in to finish this thing off.

Gary used a Full Restore. Then a second one shortly afterwards. And then a third. Triple bollocks. Before long Woody was low on health. I couldn’t let him die so I swapped to Dany, hoping to throw rocks at Pidgeot. Somehow the god damn bird managed to kill Dany too! Gyarados, I choose you! Using Waterfall, he finished the wretched Pidgeot off, earning his name of Starados.

Three Pokémon were left standing – Woody (Eevee), Cú Chulainn (Arcanine), and Starados (Gyarados) – and like that, it was over. I had defeated the Pokémon League and become the Elite Four Champion.

The question of why you'd want to do a Nuzlocke run has many answers. Some players are simply so obsessed with the series that this is how they keep it challenging. Some like the 'simulation' layer it adds atop the familiar moveset. Some simply like the fact that it changes-up a formula which, while fantastic, has been pretty much the same for decades.

As for me, I saw how difficult Let's Go would make a Nuzlocke run, and just had to do it. The idea of striving is one of Pokémon's big themes: a child leaving home, battling through impossible odds to become the very best, like no one ever was. And it gives you other perspectives too: I lost 14 Pokémon along the way, a queer feeling of failure that you'd never experience from playing the game 'properly'.

I made one promise when I set out: Woody would see it right through to the end with me. I felt great about being a Nuzlocke champion, but making it through with my Eevee-stroke-dog was the companionship that made this adventure special. Which just goes to show that, even in the most linear-seeming games, setting your own rules can create some unexpected magic.