Before we begin today's rant, I'd like you fine folks to check this out. An old internet chum of mine has made a game, and wants to have Steam distribute it. It looks pretty cute and fun. If you agree that it seems neat, then do my friend a favor and hit that Yes button, and help convince Steam to carry it.
And now, on with the rant.
NOTE: For the sake of simplicity, I only mention HMs in this rant, but technically it applies to HMs AND any TMs that fit the bill (like Flash and Rock Smash).
For the love of Rempo, Game Freak! What the hell is up with the HMs in your games?
To explain for the benefit of all none of you who have never played a Pokemon game, HM is short for Hidden Machine. HMs are items in all main Pokemon games that teach specific abilities to Pokemon and can be used as many times as you wish. HM abilities are typically used to get around more easily through the game, giving Pokemon the ability to transcend or outright destroy obstacles in your path, traverse terrain they previously could not, instantly teleport to a previously visited location, blah blah blah why am I bothering with this you all know what HMs are. They’ve been there since the start of the series, they’re still there in the 6th generation games, and I’m sure that they’ll be in the next game, too. But whyyyyyyy?
Look, I know why HMs were put in the games to start with, the role which they continue to serve. They’re present mostly as a way of cutting a player’s access to the world off until the player has been to certain places and done certain things in the game. It’s an exceptionally common method in developing an RPG. How do you limit a player’s freedom to the extent necessary to tell your linear story, while still providing some illusion that they can explore the world to their satisfaction? Protect locations that come later in the plot with obstacles. Put them across the sea, so that the player can only reach them once he or she has gotten to the point in the story where the characters get their own boat--tons of games do this. Put a forest in the way, so that the player can only reach them once the nature-elemental character who can walk through forests joins the party, like with Breath of Fire 1 and 2. Block passage with rocks that require the player to have progressed through the plot to the point that they’ve got bombs with which to blow said rocks up, as with several Legend of Zelda titles. Create fissures and gaps that require the character to have found a whip, with which to somehow pull themselves over the empty space in a process that I assume must involve the invocation of some dark satanic power beyond mortal reckoning because there’s sure as hell no way that it meets with the approval of the laws of physics, like in Secret of Mana. Or just have a stupid NPC in a dungeon refuse to let you through until you throw food at him because apparently in addition to being world savior you’re also now the pizza delivery guy (old schoolers know exactly what game I’m talking about).
Yeah, so, obstacles like those that the Pokemon HMs circumvent are a pretty staple part of the diet when it comes to linear RPGs. Hell, they’re even pretty common for a lot of relatively non-linear RPGs--explore the Fallout 3 wasteland any which way and at any pace you like, but once the Enclave have occupied the Jefferson Memorial, you’re not getting back in there to complete the game without finishing the main plot events leading up to activation of Liberty Prime, as he’s the only one that can get through the Enclave barrier.
But the problem with the HMs is that the way they get rid of the obstacles in your path is to teach Pokemon moves to do it. When you want to get past the plant blocking your path in a Pokemon game, you don’t just open your menu and select the HM to do it, you need to have your Pokemon learn Cut from said HM and then have the Pokemon use it.
What’s the difference? Well, the difference is that if the HM just cut the plant down itself, you could just go forward with no problem. But having the Pokemon use the ability means that you have to inconvenience yourself by using up 1 of the precious 4 skill slots for your Pokemon on this stupid Cut ability, which is otherwise essentially useless. Consider the following facts:
- Most of the HM moves are mediocre to useless in combat (though not all; Surf’s pretty handy as a Water attack).
- There’s always 4 or 5 HM moves for passing by obstacles in each Pokemon game.
- You never know if you’ll need the use of any or all of these HM moves at your next destination.
- Once learned, HM moves are difficult to remove from your Pokemon, usually requiring a trip to a single particular NPC.
So, since you don’t know when you’ll need to use an HM move, it’s best to make sure you bring along a party of Pokemon who know most or all of the game’s HM moves available to you every time you set out into new territory, or else you may have to waste time returning later to explore paths you had to skip, or even have to turn around and redo your party because you find you can’t even continue along the main path without Cut, or Strength, or Surf, or whatever. And because HM abilities are such a pain in the ass to get rid of once they’re on your Pokemon, you won’t want to put them on your preferred combat Pokemon, both because you’ll have to eventually make a trip to the HM-removing NPC, and because the Pokemon might level up, be ready to learn a move that you actually want, and then be unable to add it to its repertoire/remove another ability you wanted from its repertoire because the slot this new technique would have gone to is steadfastly occupied by the useless HM move.
So the work-around for most people on this issue is to make an “HM Slave,” which is basically a Pokemon that can learn most of the HMs and who gets lugged around not for its ability to actually contribute to battles or any particular affection the player has for it, but rather just so that when one of these annoying obstacles comes up, the player can bypass it without having to waste time on return trips or take the risk of deleting/preventing actually useful abilities from his/her preferred Pokemon.
And yeah, this works fine, I guess, but at the same time, doesn’t it kind of strike a blow against a major part of Pokemon’s premise and draw? I mean, a huge selling point for Pokemon is the whole team customization thing. You can make a team of any Pokemon you like out of literally hundreds of options, fine-tuning which 6 you like best/think will be most useful, and deciding which abilities they’ll use. I mean, that’s sort of the natural, implied end goal to the much-touted concept of “Gotta Catch’em All,” isn’t it? You catch’em, and you then pick the ones you like from your ensnared menagerie for personal use. Whether you do it casually,* cheaply,** obsessively,*** or somewhere in the middle,**** it’s unarguably one of the largest draws, gameplay and aesthetics-wise, to the series. This HM nonsense is forcing you to stick mostly inferior moves onto your Pokemon, and/or forcing you to lug around at least one HM Slave in your party that you probably wouldn’t have chosen to be there otherwise. It’s actually obstructing one of the major parts of whole series, one of the things that people buy these stupid games for.
Making the situation worse is that these damn HM abilities and obstacles don’t even make sense more often than not. Why the hell is Cut the only ability that can remove the small plant obstacles? You’d think the ability Slash would work just as well. I mean, it’d be different if the HM taught a move called Chop or Saw or something, y’know, used a verb that implies the plant obstacle is made of stern enough stuff that it takes persistent work to get rid of. But “Cut” implies a quick and singular incision, not a strong and repeated action, so, logically, Slash should work just as well--as well as perhaps Air Slash, Guillotine, Leaf Blade, Night Slash, Sacred Sword, Secret Sword, and X-Scissor. And what about Air Cutter, Fury Cutter, and Psycho Cut? Those attacks even have “Cut” in their damn names! And why is “cutting” the only way to get rid of the plant obstacle? Shouldn’t one of the dozens of Fire Type moves be able to burn the plant down? Why can’t some of the unimaginably physically strong Fighting Type Pokemon grab the plant with something like Seismic Toss or Vital Throw and just rip the stupid thing out by its roots and toss it aside? If I’ve got a Pokemon that knows Fly in the party, why the hell doesn’t he/she/it just fly the party over this one small obstacle? The Dig ability lets your party instantly return to the beginning of a cave dungeon, implying that the Pokemon using it creates a tunnel back to that point that the party travels through--why can’t that Pokemon dig a tunnel under or around the plant to travel through? A Blastoise can shoot water with great enough force that it can punch through solid steel, so why the hell can’t it just Hydro Pump that bush into soggy sawdust? And so on and so forth.
You know, Honedge is a Pokemon that is seriously, actually just a giant, floating sword. You're telling me this thing needs a specific device to teach it how to Cut an obstacle? Literally every single time Honedge moves it creates a cutting motion.
And keep in mind, that’s just the illogical insanity of the Cut HM situation. They all have stupid, logical inconsistencies. If you have a Pokemon with Fly, why do you have to use Surf to travel over water? Couldn’t said Pokemon just fly low over the damn water? And then, for good measure, fly high enough to reach the top of any and all waterfalls, thus negating all need for the already insanely illogical waterfall-climbing Waterfall ability?
Why is Flash the only way to light up an especially dark cave? There are like a hundred Fire Type Pokemon that are literally on fire--why the hell can’t I just have one come out and light the way, or at least hold its burny part against a stick for a few seconds? I know it’s only been around for several thousand years, but I can’t help feeling like someone at Game Freak must have heard about that inventive modern marvel called a torch. Especially considering that Delphox is holding one.*****
I can have a Pokemon in the party that can actually move a mountain--that’s word for word what some Pokedex entries say about Machamp. Yet in order to get Machamp to move some rocks around, rocks that are often inside the mountain that Machamp can move with a single hand, I have to waste one of the skill slots on the HM ability Strength. Machamp may know multiple other moves that could easily be applied to moving the rocks, like Bulldoze, Fling, Seismic Toss, or Vital Throw, but Strength is the only way allowed. Hell, there are Pokemon who can learn a move that is literally called Rock Throw, but damned if any of them can manage to move rocks in your path without Strength and Strength alone. And I could basically copy-paste the last 4 sentences and substitute only a few words to explain the problem with the HM/TM ability Rock Smash, too.
On top of all that, the Pokemon that can and can’t learn these HM moves often make no sense, too. How does Venusaur Cut anything? It’s a big plant monster with stubby teeth and claws. I guess the implication is that since it can make leaves into razor projectiles, it can use those as the cutting implements, but then why the hell can’t a Pokemon just use Razor Leaf to get rid of the plant obstacle? Same deal with Raticate learning Cut--I guess we assume it uses its long teeth to do the cutting, but then why hell couldn’t it instead use Super Fang or Hyper Fang? Don’t ask me how an Infernape uses Cut. Are we meant to infer that it’s karate-chopping the plant or something? Because there are a half dozen karate chop moves in these games that could be used instead.
And why can’t Mewtwo learn Fly? It’s not like he isn’t shown flying around nearly every time he’s depicted in a movie/game, and he’s certainly got the power necessary to lift up whatever 10-year-old protagonist you’re playing as and float him/her wherever it is you want to go. In fact, considering the whole telekinesis thing, ANY sufficiently powerful Psychic Pokemon really ought to be able to use Fly. Plus, Mew can learn Fly! Mewtwo IS Mew, just genetically altered to be more powerful, so why can’t he learn the same move? Presumably he has whatever requisite it is that Mew possesses to fly around.
Jigglypuff is basically a living balloon, capable of inflating herself to stay an adorable little round ball of puff. Why can’t Jigglypuff learn Surf? She’s basically a walking, singing floatation device. Grabbing onto her and kicking to propel yourself might not be as ideal as traveling the waves on a Lapras’s back, but surely it’s not less feasible than having a human child be carried around by a single little Goldeen, Remoraid, Feebas, Luvdisc, Piplup, or any of the other Surf-learning Pokemon that don’t come up past a regular human’s knees. And Jigglypuff’d be a hell of a more comfortable ride than a Qwilfish, I’m sure.
Anyway, I’m rambling. Look, the point here is, the mechanics of Hidden Machines aren’t set up well. The list of which Pokemon can use them and which can’t is often nonsensical, and the issue of why these obstacles that the HM moves circumvent couldn’t be gotten by using other means is even more filled with logical inconsistencies. Making Pokemon abilities the key to getting around the obstacles just opens up all kinds of questions. Additionally, having to set aside ability slots and even team roster slots to squander on HMs is annoying and counter to the gameplay premise of Pokemon.
HMs are solely a frustration, not a feature or necessary balancing device, and it would be very, very easy to accomplish their purpose in a much less irksome fashion. Just do what a ton of other games do--have the obstacle-circumventing item just be an item you use when necessary! Replace the HM for Cut with a chainsaw or something, the HM for Surf with a small boat, etc. Simple, straightforward, with no more hassle than opening up the Items menu and clicking on what you need, when you need it! You don’t have to replace one of Ness’s powerful and useful abilities in Earthbound every time you want to get by a pencil monolith, you just use the Pencil Eraser item! You don’t have to force Fayt to forget an essential combat technique every time you need to get by an obstacle in Star Ocean 3, you just equip the Ring of Disintegration and let it rip!
I know I’m not the first person to gripe about this. In fact, I’d be fairly surprised if I’ve said anything in this rant that has not been mentioned before by some fan or another, probably considerably more than just 1. So why the hell is this always the same issue, over and over and over again, in every main Pokemon game published for the last, what, 20 years or so? Game Freak, the Hidden Machine nonsense is stupid and there is no excuse at this point for not improving it to be less of a tedious irritation. Get your shit together and get on it.
* “Go, Team of 6 Pikachus!”
** “A new Pokemon game? Time to import my 6 Arceuses!”
*** All that fucking EV Training, Nature-Breeding bullshit, with the Shiny icing on the cake.
**** This is me. My team is always 6 of my favorites, which include the cheap legendary Mewtwo, and I always plan out exactly how their moves compensate for weaknesses and make sure every Type an enemy can be is twice accounted for.
***** Okay, yes, Delphox was only introduced in Generation 6, and in Generation 6, Flash is used to see more of a single dungeon, instead of light places up. I still wanted to make the joke. Sue me.