As you journey across the regions of the Pokemon world, it would be pretty lonely if you didn’t have anyone to share your journey with. As such, every game since the very first has had you share your journey with a rival who is exploring, growing and battling just the same as you. They’ve come in many different flavours over the years, but be they friendly, antagonistic or…just kinda…there, they stand to challenge you throughout your journey and hopefully bond with someone as you grow as trainers together.
Each game has its own versions, and they have widely varying personalities, so which ones left the biggest impact on me? Let’s rank ’em.
15 – Calem/Serena – X/Y
Serena may be a great character in the anime, but her game counterpart is the world’s blandest human.
As you’ll see in just a few entries, the rivals that are the gender-swap of the player character tend to be the worst. The problem is that because their identity is entirely dependant on which gender the player is, they had to create a personality that would fit both characters. Of course, the easy solution would’ve just been to create two different personalities, but that’s beside the point.
Calem & Serena are by far the worst when it comes to these situations because they’re SO boring. Everything they say is stupidly generic and just pointless prattle about becoming stronger and growing as a person. Running into them is an absolute chore because they never have anything interesting to say. Even exposition tends to be given to the other characters around them. No attempt went into giving them any kind of character arch. They just copy/pasted the base template they’ve always used for the rival and didn’t change anything.
Most importantly, they’re an awful rival. X & Y as a whole often get derided for being too easy, even by Pokemon’s standards, and Calem & Serena are one of the clearest examples of this. Their team is ALWAYS lagging behind yours in terms of levels, and they just don’t have very interesting Pokemon. I’m so disappointed that THIS was the rival that got an Absol as their strongest Pokemon because…Absol deserves so much better.
14 – Shauna/Tierno/Trevor – X/Y
These three are technically all distinct characters, but they’re so tightly linked to one another that I’m lumping them all into one entry. The general idea of travelling together in a big group was one I liked. It created a real sense of fun on the journey with so many people journeying with you. Unfortunately, the characters that are on that journey aren’t anyone interesting.
Since there are so many characters, and they all have limited screen-time, the writers went to the tried and tested trope of boiling their personalities down to a single trait. Shauna is “girly”, Trevor is clever and Tierno…likes to dance? Characters who only have one trait aren’t interesting at the best of times, but it’s made so much worse when the traits are stupid and generic like those ones. Encountering them is never anything interesting either, they’ll all say a line or two, maybe you’ll battle one of them, and that’ll be that.
Once again, they’re terrible as rivals. For one thing, you very rarely battle them, and when you do, they’re absolutely no challenge. Running into them feels like an interruption to your journey rather than a part of it, and that’s a bad sign. As I said, the idea of having a big group to journey with is a great one, and I hope they try it again, but this was an absolute failure of an attempt.
13 – Brendan/May – Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald
These two suffer from the same problem that Calem & Serena do, only they’re a bit better because they have at least a little bit of character.
While the friendly rival thing has been done to death by this point in the franchise, Brendan & May were the first time it happened in a major way in the series. As such, a lot of what they had to say felt fresh, and the friendly atmosphere was a nice change of pace from the antagonistic rivals of the first two generations. Sadly, that’s where the positives end.
When you actually look into their personality, there isn’t very much there. Most of what they say is just there to move the plot along, but they at least say it in a slightly more interesting way than in X & Y. In terms of their teams, there’s a lot more interest to be had, and they certainly feel like a more well-rounded trainer on that front. I never found any battle with them to be much of a challenge, and once again, I got that feeling they were always lagging behind me, not growing alongside me.
12 – Hau – Sun/Moon/Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon
To me, Hau is the epitome of the boring friendly rival trope that now plagues the franchise. He’s bright, energetic, all too willing to explain everything to you and always loses. Admittedly I’m not as against the friendly rival stuff as many in the fanbase are, but I’d like them to have a more complex personality than this. The Alola games had a powerful story, and many of the other characters were brilliant, so it’s a real shame that Hau was a character that just seemed to get left in the dust.
He’s a better rival than the ones I’ve covered so far, but not by much. His team is a lot more interesting and is quite well balanced; the levelling is the only real problem. The problem of a lack of difficulty is by no means exclusive to the rivals in the modern games, but it’s undeniable that I just kept destroying the guy every time we met because I out levelled him. What’s worse is he just let every loss roll right off his back in an “aw shucks, I’m just happy to take part!” kind of way that drives me insane.
Yes, there’s definitely value in teaching kids that winning isn’t everything, but real people CARE when they keep losing like that, and Hau just doesn’t.
11 – Hop – Sword/Shield
For the most part, Hop is just a copy/paste of Hau. He’s nice and friendly, piss-weak compared to you and will throw exposition in your face until you want to strangle him.
I could end this entry right there and be done with it, but what puts Hop a small step above Hau is that he actually gets a bit of character arc in Sword & Shield. It’s not an amazing one, but it’s certainly more than the rivals I’ve covered so far have got. Unlike Hau, Hop actually gives a shit when he keeps losing. The pressure of his unbeatable brother and you beating his ass at every opportunity weighs on him after a while. Granted, they don’t go very far with it, but it’s something, and I’ve really gotta take all I can get during these lower entries.
10 – Marnie – Sword/Shield
I wanted to put her higher based solely on how much I love her character design, but the truth is, Marnie just isn’t that interesting of a character.
My decision to put her over Hop is a bit arbitrary; I guess it’s because she’s less in-your-face and annoying, but that’s not saying much. Personality-wise, she’s got a bit more of an edge to her, but in reality, the game just treats her like any other friendly rival. The stuff with Team Yell is kinda interesting with how Marnie isn’t into it, but like with Hop’s story, they don’t dive into it very far. She just runs them off when they’re being annoying sometimes. Similarly, there’s her conflict with her brother overusing Dynamax Pokemon, which is interesting, but again, doesn’t go anywhere.
Her team’s a bit more interesting than Hop’s, but the lack of difficulty strikes her down again as someone who never presented me a challenge. She’s got the added disadvantage of only focusing around a single type due to how she becomes a Gym Leader by the end of the game. Unlike the others so far on this list, I didn’t hate it when I ran into her because it usually moved things forward quite quickly, but she still wasn’t all that amazing.
9 – Hugh – Black 2/White 2
Hugh is another who fits into the ‘friendly rival’ archetype, but I think he comes in a step above what I’ve covered so far by virtue of him actually having motivations as a character. He’s still extremely buddy-buddy and tutorialising to your player character, but he actually gets a decent role in Black 2 & White 2’s story. The Unova games emphasised their narratives, so even template characters like Hugh got a nice boost from being involved.
His determination to get stronger is all in service of his goal of recovering his sister’s Purlion from Team Plasma and, while it might not be the strongest of motivations, it means he’s got a clear goal from the outset, and you can see how everything he does is in service of that. It also plays well with his kind and helpful nature, both to the player and to other characters, as he doesn’t want other people to have to go through what he has.
His Pokemon aren’t the strongest ever, but his team is well-rounded, and the generation 5 games are still just difficult enough that battles with Hugh can be challenging if you’re not ready for them. He still doesn’t break out into being one of the best, but Hugh is definitely a tier above what we’ve seen so far.
8 – Barry – Diamond/Pearl/Platinum
Much like Hugh, Barry is a rival who still fits the ‘friendly’ archetype but has some stuff piled on top.
His hyperactive personality is simultaneously annoying and charming in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. I love how he immediately wants to go out and catch a legendary Pokemon before he’s even got a Pokeball; it actually makes him feel like the youngish child the rivals are supposed to be in this game. Of course, that’s where the annoying aspect can come in because it does get tiresome here and there. Additionally, he doesn’t really progress as a person at all, he becomes a bit more mature at the end, but nothing really noteworthy to make him super interesting.
Barry hits pretty well on the difficulty aspect, though. His levels normally match pretty well with the area he’s in, and his team is fairly well balanced (not the best, but still pretty good). A battle with Barry was almost always a welcome challenge rather than an annoying obstacle which is how it should feel.
7 – Bede – Sword/Shield
I’ve slated the Sword & Shield writing quite a bit in this list so far, but I’d say Bede is one of the highlights.
For one thing, antagonistic rivals tend to feel like better characters just because the writers can go a bit loser with it. They don’t have to be constantly patting the player on the back or espousing the power of friendship. This applies to the Pokemon anime too, just look at rivals like Gary & Paul. Bede’s self-important persona is one you can instantly recognise as dislikable, and the game has no trouble playing up to it. They’re extremely headstrong, and it bites them in the arse a couple of times in the story.
The place where they fall down is when you battle them. Like Marnie, they suffer from focusing on a single type, so things always feel a bit easier, not to mention the difficulty problems I’m mentioned already in later generations. They also don’t have a fantastic end to their story. It’s nice that they got something to do, but the Gym Leader thing came out of nowhere, and they don’t even seem like they want to do it.
Bede is definitely one of the better characters in Sword & Shield, but they just don’t quite follow through to the end.
6 – Gladion – Sun/Moon/Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon
Gladion is by far the most interesting character I’ve talked about so far. The dude’s actually got a back-story, which puts him head and shoulders above the rest so far.
The story surrounding The Aether Foundation and the family at its centre is an interesting one that’s split into many pieces across Alola’s story. All things considered, Gladion is one of the more minor parts of that story, but he still helps tie things together and give a much fuller picture of that life. His downbeat and untrusting personality stands as an essential contrast to Lillie’s open and kind personality. Both of them went through very similar trauma in their childhoods, but where Lillie used it as motivation to be good and kind, Gladion used it to close himself off from everyone but a select trustworthy few.
Aside from that, Gladion is ok as a rival. As I’ve said, the later generations have a problem with difficulty, and Gladion does fall victim to that somewhat, but I’d say he’s better than Hau. His team is a lot more interesting with some rather powerful Pokemon, which makes up for the fact that his levels often aren’t on par with yours. I also love the touch that three of his Pokemon have friendship based evolutions; it’s one of those subtle things that tells you loads about his character.
Plus, his battle theme is kick-ass, so that’s always a positive.
5 – Wally – Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald
Wally isn’t the primary rival in the Hoenn games, and in fact, you only fight him twice during the story, but he still managed to leave a notable impression on me. Initially, a kid you have to escort to catch a Pokemon, Wally grows surprisingly fast into a rather formidable trainer. His vague illness and quiet demeanour make him someone that I feel the urge to be kind towards. He starts off quite unsteady yet determined and eventually turns into a quietly confident trainer that I can respect.
Since you don’t battle him too much, he’s not an amazing rival, but he provides quite a challenge when you battle him at the end of Victory Road. His ORAS battle theme is bloody brilliant, but that aside he has a brilliantly constructed teams with some powerful Pokemon. Even though he goes down in defeat in that final battle with you, he still feels like someone who has achieved his goal. He overcame his hurdles and became the powerful Pokemon trainer he always wanted to be. It’s not a complicated character arc, but it’s all you really need.
4 – Blue – Red/Blue/Yellow
The original, but not quite the best.
While I may not rate Blue at the top, I can’t deny that he is the measuring stick for all the other rivals that came after him in the series. His in-your-face douchebaggery made him an extremely memorable character, and it’s no surprise that he’s still fondly remembered to this day. I’ve got many criticisms to level at Generation 1, but the writing isn’t one of them. I think they nailed this character and how he’s always a few steps ahead of you on your journey. You get the feeling that, even when you beat him, it could’ve gone the other way and, maybe if he had a slight attitude shift, he could actually surpass you.
In terms of strength as a rival, I think Blue does the best out of anyone on that front. His Pokemon are almost always a higher level than yours unless you’ve been doing a lot of grinding, and he does briefly manage to become the champion of the Pokemon league too. Before the games got their own dedicated champions, having to face off against the guy who’s been poking and prodding you the whole game in your final battle was a brilliant conclusion.
Blue is undoubtedly one of the most memorable trainers, and it’s no surprise that the fanbase points to him when asked how they want the modern rivals to be. However, I think there are a few that have more interesting character arcs.
3 – Silver – Gold/Silver
To my mind, Silver is like Blue, but with the intensity turned up. Where Blue is energetic and childish in how he antagonises you, Silver is more calm and collected. It’s not an in-your-face kind of hatred; it’s seathing below the surface and only comes out in dismissive and hateful remarks. His laser-focus on being the ‘strongest’ trainer is the kind of goal that we can relate to, but his methods are despicable, and it can get frustrating to see him constantly dismiss anyone who tries to tell him that opening your heart to Pokemon is how to become stronger. His thought process of those kinds of people being ‘weak’ is weirdly reminiscent of things we see in our society today, such as toxic masculinity, and it brings out similar feelings.
Much like Blue, he’s a pretty strong trainer, although I wouldn’t quite put him on Blue’s level in terms of challenge. His team is a bit less well-rounded, but the levels are still on-par if not above yours and require preparation. His growth as a character is what puts him over the top of Blue for me. While Blue does mature a bit, he doesn’t go through the learning process that Silver does.
His hatred for Team Rocket (which in HGSS we found out was because his father, Giovanni, abandoned him) is driving him to become stronger, but that hatred is what’s locking him off from reaching his true potential. It takes him a while, but he eventually begins to understand this and dedicate himself to diving deeper into the topic. His change in language from being the ‘strongest’ trainer to the ‘greatest’ trainer is a small change, but it’s the perfect encapsulation of the growth that he goes through.
While I think giving characters in Pokemon games a massive story arc is asking a bit much in the modern era, I still think it’s entirely possible to do things like this, even with the sporadic encounters we get with the rivals.
2 – Bianca – Black/White
While the generation 5 games are far from my favourites, I can’t deny that their narratives are what Pokemon games should be aspiring to achieve. Sure, when compared to the gaming industry as a whole, it’s not anything incredible, but it’s by far the best the main-series Pokemon games have ever put together.
As such, both of the main rivals in Black & White had really interesting character arcs that played to satisfying conclusions. Black & White are rather heavy-handed in their themes of ‘Truth & Ideals’, which both work in tandem and in conflict with each other. Bianca & Cheren are two of the clearest representations of this. It’s interesting to see how they go through very similar experiences but come to very different conclusions about their respective lives.
Bianca is more of a representation of truth. She starts off on uneven footing, partly because she can be a bit clumsy and forgetful, but also because she’s taking her journey against her father’s wishes. It’s never been shown as a big deal in the Pokemon world when children wander off around the world at 10 years old, but this finally touched on how it would actually work if they came into conflict. It’s key to showing that Bianca may be full of self-doubt and uncertainty about her abilities, but she still holds a powerful resolve to push towards her goals.
The second half of her story is interesting because she has to come to terms with the fact that she just isn’t good enough to hang with the best of the best (the player). It’s a weird balance because she’s still a formidable opponent, but her battles are by design a bit easier than Cheren’s, and it’s that narrative through mechanics design that I love to see, even if it is rare in this franchise. We actually get to see her reach the conclusion to go out and research instead of battling, and thanks to the sequels, we see the successful person she eventually turned into. I think the excellence of Bianca’s story is why I didn’t connect with Hop’s. Hop’s story just felt like a cheap imitation that the writers didn’t commit to enough.
She serves as one half of a pair of excellent rivals, and the highlights of her character truly sign when you contrast the two together. So, with that in mind…
1 – Cheren – Black/White
Where Bianca represents truth, Cheren represents ideals. Before you even set out on your journey, it seems like he’s got it all planned out. He has extensive knowledge of Pokemon (compared to Bianca & the player character at the start) and seems laser-focused on his goals. Where his conflict comes in is pondering exactly why he’s striving for what he’s striving for.
The generic “become stronger” goal of most of the rivals gets challenged significantly here, and while the game doesn’t push all the way with the examination, it does somewhat analyse what it even means to be strong. Cheren blindly pursues his goals without considering why, and it leads to a great deal of inner conflict with him. What’s great is how he changes his analysis of his situation. He starts out looking to others and seeing how they behave, but eventually turns his questioning to himself and pondering what would make him happy in his life.
Once again, the sequel does wonders for him, as we get to see what path he chose amidst the relative uncertainty we left him in the originals. A Gym Leader & Teacher is an interesting choice, but one that I think works. He gets incredibly frustrated at constantly losing the player in Black & White, and yet, as a Gym Lader – the first Gym Leader, no less – his role is to be beaten. He no longer seeks to increase his own strength but instead aid other trainers in finding theirs.
When combined with Bianca, we see the themes come through strongest of all. The idea that your ideals in life may not be what you think they are, but that’s ok as long as you learn to adapt and find happiness in where you end up. It’s not some earth-breaking revelation, but for kids who play these games and take on board this message, I have no doubt it did wonders for their world view. That’s what games with audiences that skew younger should be doing, and that’s what makes Cheren & Bianca Pokemon’s best rivals.
So there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. Please, let me know who your favourite rivals are, either in the comments below or on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Finally, make sure to come back here this time next week, where I’ll be running down the worst Royal Rumble winners in history!