This Blogpost will contain spoilers for Pokemon Sword and Shield read at your own discretion.
You know the drill by now, I know the drill by now, my editors are tired of my drill by now, but if you give me a chance to talk at length about something it’s still going to be Pokemon.
Ah Pokemon, love it, hate it, never touched it, everyone at least knows who Pikachu is. Last time I talked about Pokemon Semiotics and Battle Writing. If that sounds interesting to you or you just plain missed it, then I recommend checking out the September 2021 blog posts. This time around I’m going to discuss something that I never managed to get to in my previous blog post. My editors cut me off after I got out a good explanation about Oleana, and how her battle writing serves to properly expand on a rather unexplained character. This time around I’m going to do the opposite. I’m going to examine Hop, the controversial rival character of Sword and Shield, and find out where his battle writing served him well and where it went wrong.
For those of you that need a little reminder, I define battle writing as a subset of Pokemon Semiotics specific to the turn-based instances of combat within the core Pokemon game series. Battle writing does not include battles from the main anime series, spin-off animated series, or things like Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. Battle writing does include enemy trainer AI, pokemon choice, item usage (if any), pokemon move set, and battle style. For the purposes of this, I’ll also include any bits of dialogue that show up on the battle screen that doesn’t get said anywhere else.
In a continuation of a more recent series tradition, Hop is the nice rival of Sword and Shield. He’s a childhood friend of the main character who plans on participating in the pokemon league because he looks up to his brother, Leon, the Galarian champion. The “nice rival” is a tradition that was firmly cemented in Pokemon’s fifth generation. Pokemon Black and White introduced the player to two rivals. The mean rival was Cheren, an erudite boy who had a penchant for actually equipping his pokemon with battle items. The nice rival was Binaca, a flighty girl who seemed prone to trouble. Black and White did this to further its theme of truth versus ideals. Cheren was a representation of ideals, as he blindly followed the ideal of strength until realizing that strength for the sake of strength means very little in the end. Bianca, on the other hand, represented truth, as the numerous hardships she faced during her journey revealed the harsh truth to her that not everyone is cut out to be a great pokemon trainer.
What is important to note here is that Cheren received the starter that was strong against the player character’s, while Bianca received the one that would be weak against it. This meant that, when the chips were down in a rival battle, Cheren’s ace pokemon would always have an advantage where Bianaca’s wouldn’t. This form of Battle writing worked in favor of the characters’ representation. Bianca was most likely easier to beat where Cheren would be more difficult. Compound this with Bianca’s arguably weaker team compositions and Cheren’s use of items and one of the rivals in the game was simply better than the other.
Even after Pokemon moved on to themes other than truth versus ideals, the developers continued adding “nice rivals.” The nice rival is always quickly identifiable because they take the starter pokemon that the player character’s starter pokemon is strong against. Generation six introduced a whopping four rivals all at the same time, the nice rival among them was Shuana. In generation seven, Hau was your nice rival. You could also argue that he was your only rival, as Gladion is introduced later in the game and has very few actual battles with the player character in comparison. Usually the nice rival is also just that, nice.
So Hop ends up being the nice rival of the eighth generation. Despite this, he has his sights set on battling his brother and becoming the champion. Things don’t go quite so smoothly as that though. Hop faces multiple losses and setbacks in his journey, and his battle writing reflects this somewhat.
Hops team undergoes plenty of changes and sees a good amount of Pokemon Variety before it really stabilizes right around the seventh time you battle him. These changes do a good job of representing the wavering confidence he has over his own abilities after he faces multiple defeats from Bede and the player character tours the middle of the game’s story. This is all good and interesting battle writing, but unfortunately, Hop isn’t a character that is often remembered as fondly as all that.
An aspect of battle writing that I haven’t touched on before is the idea of multi battles versus single battles. Not to be confused with a double battle, a multi battle is when the player character is teamed up with an NPC (or occasionally another player character in certain moes). The player character has no control over the pokemon or decisions made by their partner but still has the goal of beating the enemies across the field. When battling alongside a character, the player is given a lot more to think about than they would otherwise have in a single battle. An effect of this is that any battle writing that goes into a multi battle with an NPC has a chance to really show off important aspects of that character. A good example of this would be any time the player character is escorting a follower, such as Cheryl from Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum. Cheryl asks the player character to accompany her through Eterna Forest because she is fearful of running into Team Galactic. Her partner pokemon that she uses to battle alongside the player is a Chansey, a Pokemon roughly base on eggs and axolotyls that has abysmal offensive capabilities, but makes up for it in defense and healing. The player doesn’t spend very much time with Cheryl, but her presentation combined with her battle writing gives her the characterization of a gentle soul. She is so gentle and timid that even in battle she does a better job healing and supporting then she does actually attacking. In Pokemon Sword and Shield, Hop gets some important moments of battling alongside the player character as well, and he absolutely flubbs nearly all of them.
Hops battle writing as a companion in battle is abysmal, the amount of deadweight he brings to the table is an annoyance at best and a breaking point for debatably poorly handled characters at worst.
The first time Hop battles alongside the player is actually rather late into the game. Once it is revealed that Chairman Rose and his company, Macro Cosmos, are the real bad guys, the player character and Hop are tasked with storming Rose Tower. A key element to this is riding an elevator up multiple floors and fighting off Macro Cosmos employees on the way.
In theory, this is fine, in practice, it is multiple battles that all serve to make Hop look like an idiot. This is mostly due to Hop’s signature lead pokemon, Dubwool. A lead Pokemon is a pokemon, a player or NPC sends out first, or the one they “lead” with. Technically speaking Dubwool is Hop’s actual first pokemom, it is a big round sheep that evolves from wooloo, a smaller round sheep. Hope originally had a dubwool before receiving a starter pokemon alongside the player character. Dubwool and Wooloo are important to Hop’s battle writing because he actually drops the meaningful pokemon off his team for a good portion of the game. When he re-adds it to the team it is a reflection of him regaining his lost self confidence. This serves to help along his story, but there is a glaring problem with it. Hop always leading with Dubwool when it is in his party is a good bit of battle writing when done against the player, when done alongside the player and against the Macro Cosmos employees it makes Hop look awful.
Every single one of the Macro Cosmos employees used steel-type Pokemon. Dubwool is a normal type. In Pokemon, the steel typing resists normal type moves. This shouldn’t be a problem because even if Dubwool is a normal type, every Pokemon can still come packing four moves to help them cover their weaknesses right? Wrong! Well at least in this case. During these battles Hop’s Dubwool is restricted to three moves, a tactic not uncommon to Pokemons NPCs. Usually, it is to streamline decision-making for the AI, nearly all the gym leaders in the sixth generation’s Kalos region operate like this with at least one of their pokemon. Here Dubwool’s moves are Body Slam, Zen Headbutt, and Reversal. Body Slam is a good normal type move with a chance to paralyze the opponent, Zen Headbutt is a psychic move with a chance to flinch, and Reversal is a fighting type move that does more damage if the pokemon that uses it has lower health. Now that may all seem complicated, but the importance of it is this: Both Bodyslam and Zen Headbutt are resisted by every single one of the Macro Cosmos employees’ Pokemon. Now fighting type is strong against Steel Types, but Reversal is a tricky move to use because it is basically useless if the pokemon using it is still healthy. Reversal is tricky to use if you’re a human, even more so if you’re an AI. Hop isn’t very good at using reversal.
This all means that for a large portion of every battle in this tower, the player character is stuck fighting alongside a partner who essentially can’t do anything. This is compounded by the fact that the player character will likely only be attacking one pokemon at a time, so they will nearly always get a chance to see Hop do nothing in a direct comparison to the player’s power. Storywise Hop is not a bad trainer, sure his confidence in himself is severely challenged by multiple losses, but by the end of the game, he’s shown to be facing down threats and battling at the level of plenty of other high contenders. Hop is supposed to be skilled, but his battle writing in this important moment absolutely kneecaps his character presentation.
What’s worse is that Dubwool isn’t particularly easy to take down, so it’s very likely that it’ll be the only pokemon you see from Hop in this part of the game. Even if Dubwool does go down, Hop’s backup pokemon aren’t doing him many favors. He has a Corviknight that essentially has the same issues dealing damage to steel types that Dubwool has, and two out of his three options for a starter struggle to efficiently deal with steel types as well (each of them is equipped with a ground type move, but the damage is already done by the time they usually hit the battlefield).
Well, this is only one part of the game right? You slog through battling alongside Hop, do it one more time to better effect during the climax of the story where you both take a place as heroes, and that’s it. It would be nice if only it were so simple. However, even when all is said and done, and Hop’s character arc is all but complete, he still manages to have his battle writing bite him in the behind one last time.
Pokemon Sword and Shield have an interesting post-game in which the Galar region faces a mini-crisis. Two brothers by the name of Sordward and Shielbert, have come out of seemingly nowhere and have laid claim to the sword and shield that Hop and the player character are attempting to properly return after their use in the climax of the game’s story. The player character battles one of the brothers and reclaims their stolen artifact, (both the brother and artifact that the player interacts with are based on which version of the game is being played) and Hop canonically loses to the other brother off-screen while the player’s battle takes place. While this does effectively make Hop look like a total chump, it isn’t technically battle writing because we never see it happen. It is purely a function of the story.
After that, the player character and Hop embark on a journey across Galar attempting to track down the brothers and putting an end to the various antics they cause. This eventually culminates in another multi battle with Hop as the player character’s ally. This is Hop’s chance to redeem himself, so what exactly happens? Would you believe it if I told you the exact same thing happens?
While they are very funny to look at, Sordward and Shielbert are not bad battlers, and, once again, they just so happen to mostly use steel types. Now they do have a bit more variety than just steel types on their team, but in this multi battle, four out of their six pokemon are steel type. Hop once more leads with Dubwool, but it has a different move set now. Dubwool, for some reason, now has three normal type moves which all overlap with one another ( two of which force dubwool to take recoil damage), and instead of Reversal it is now packing Double Kick. This is a fighting-type move that is exceptionally weak. It is a low-level early game move, which usually helps to round out type coverage until it is replaced with something better. Somehow Hop manages to be even worse than before. Not only can he not properly hit Sordward and Shielbert’s steel types with Dubwool, he now struggles to hit the non-steel types as well. Rinse and repeat nearly the same issue over with the rest of his team and Hop embarrasses himself yet again.
Hop is an unfortunate cautionary tale. He is a character that is presented one way but mechanically proven to be completely different from that presentation. Just as Battle Writing can add to and flesh out a character, it can also tear one down. There was a difficult tightrope that should have been walked here. This tightrope is one that every rival has to walk. How do you keep insisting a character is strong while having them constantly lose to the player character? One of the best answers you can give is to make their fights difficult, the second best would be to make them effective battle companions.
Dubwool is a pokemon that is important to Hop’s character. Having him lead with it in these battles didn’t have to go the way it did. In the battle against Sordward and Shielbert, Hop’s Dubwool is only carrying moves that it can naturally learn. Pokemon can also learn moves through these handy little disks most often called Technical Machines (TMs). This didn’t need to be a limitation because Zen Headbutt, a move this very same Dubwool had already known in the past, must be learned through a T.M. In this same generation, a move called Body Press was introduced. It’s a fighting-type move that does damage based on the defense stat of the pokemon using it. Dubwool is a pokemon that uses this move very well in general, and nowhere is the move ever found on Hop’s Dubwool. Doing something like giving this move to Hop’s Dubwool would have been one simple change, but it would have let Hop shine in battles against steel types. As it stands Hop struggles in his important multi-battles and manages to stand as an excellent example of poor battle writing.