We all know the Pokemon formula all too well. You’re a random 12-year-old kid setting off a journey to become the greatest trainer ever with the best wishes of your single mother (I know you see your dad in Generation 3 but he’s never home). All the while beating Gym Leaders, the Pokemon League, and any random terrorist organization that shows up for world domination, who all probably never lost a battle before you showed up. It’s the bread and butter that’s kept Pokemon afloat, even today in Sword and Shield. There’s been little to no deviation in the formula over the years, maybe with a few extra themes added in here and there, especially in Black and White. But in 2004 (or late 2003 in Japan), we got a glimpse into the grittier side of Pokémon, a side we would never see again. That being Pokemon Colosseum.
Every Pokemon game starts out more or less the same. You start out at home, talk to the Professor, get your starter, battle your rival, and head off on your journey to be the best there ever was. Simple, sweet, and gets the job done. However, it is a bit slow right out the gate. How does Colosseum start out?
Balls to the wall. You’re not a kid, you’re a grown ass man (or teenager it's kinda hard to tell) named Wes (default name) blowing up a gangster hideout, stealing an unknown invention, and taking off in a V8 hover motorcycle straight out of Mad Max with an Espeon and Umbreon. All of this in one minute, then you’re off in the game. This is Usain Bolt pacing right here, and it wastes no time getting you started.
You later find out that you were an ex-member of Team Snagem, a criminal organization that steals Pokemon from trainers with a machine, and that you were THE elite Pokemon snatcher. That very machine you stole from Team Snagem is the one that allows you to snag Pokemon. But you’ll be using this Snag Machine for good by snatching “evil” Shadow Pokemon that have been experimented on to be more savage in battle and taking down the terrorist organization Cipher, who started this Shadow Pokemon charade. Overall, the story can be seen as a more grandiose Team Rocket subplot seen in the base games. It isn’t mentally challenging by any means but it’s serviceable and brings some unique themes to the table. The story makes sense with the region, which is easily one of the most charming aspects of this game.
Usually, most Pokémon games feature a bright and colorful region with a specific theme. Kanto: a good mix of nature and industrialism, perfect for the first generation and based on the real-life Kantō region. Johto: connected to Kanto to show that this is a true sequel and based on the Japanese Kansai region. Hoenn: Water, (too much for IGN) knowing the region is based on Kyūshū, which is an island region in Japan. By this point, you get it. Most regions are based around areas in Japan and given a great coat of paint to look impressive and colorful. So with three generations done with, what region of Japan would Colosseum take inspiration from?
Any guesses as to what area of Japan this is? I’ll give you a moment to think.
Any guesses? If you think it’s none, you’re correct. It’s the home of the Arizona Cardinals, Phoenix Arizona. That’s right, a U.S city was used as the inspiration for Colosseum. Consider that a dub for America. The Orre region, the region for Colosseum and it’s sequel Gale of Darkness, is a mostly dry and desert region with some highly modernized areas much like the cities in Arizona. Due to how dry and hot this region is, there’s no wild Pokemon (at least in Colosseum), which makes the Shadow Pokemon scheme believable knowing they were imported by Team Snagem. If a trainer wanted a free Pokemon, say as a reward for defeating the Pyrite Colosseum challenge, they were gonna get one with no heart and savage instincts.
The designers mention that this region is a glimpse into the adult world. By far the biggest glimpse into that is The Under. As you start exposing what’s going on in Pyrite Town, a town filled with thieves and scoundrels the police can’t control, you find out more of the same stuff is happening in The Under. The Under is an underground city right below Pyrite, filled with neon lights to illuminate the otherwise dark safe haven for those same criminals. It’s like a major city at night, without it having to even be night.
The town gives off Midgar from Final Fantasy vibes, and it’s fitting knowing how Colosseum took inspiration from both Final Fantasy VII and Persona 2. Even the music instills that feeling where you walked into a dark alley and you have no idea where you are. This was a brilliant and unique town for Pokemon, but it sadly never returned in XD: Gale of Darkness, which I will later point to why I prefer Colosseum to XD.
There are small little details that show this game’s more mature take on Pokemon. Certain female trainers will flirt with you before a battle. Some places have a bar with bottles that 100% look like liquor bottles. Then there’s the concept of Shadow Pokemon in battle. If a Shadow Pokemon uses Shadow Rush, a move with 90 base power and self recoil, there is a moderate chance it’ll enter Hyper Mode. If you choose to do a move other than Shadow Rush, there’s a high chance it will disobey you in numerous ways. Per Bulbapedia…
- It may disobey and use another move (usually Shadow Rush).
- It may turn and attack its teammate.
- It may attempt to use its item, even if it isn’t holding one.
- It may hurt itself as if it were confused.
- It may attack its Trainer or the opposing Trainer.
- It may do nothing at all.
- It may return to its Poké Ball.
- And you can’t use items on it.
Hyper Mode comes with the advantage of having a very high critical hit ratio, mostly for Shadow Rush knowing other moves will usually result in a disobey. This was removed in XD in favor of a more tame version named Reverse Mode, where it hurts itself until you call out its name. No other effects. Hyper Mode actually showed the Pokemon being savage as a result of having its heart closed, unlike XD.
The difficulty in Colosseum is a unique experience. With every battle being a double battle, freshly introduced in Generation 3, there are brand new strategies involved never really seen in Pokemon. Knowing double battle tournaments weren’t available until Journey Across America in 2006 and the official unveiling of the VGC (Pokemon Video Game Championships) in 2009, many of these tactics were a foreign language, especially to the casual fan. From the simple things like a team having a Pokemon use Earthquake but its partner can’t be affected by it, to the extreme such as using Will-O-Wisp on your own Pokemon to activate their Guts ability (which gives a 1.5 attack boost if the Pokemon has a major status affliction, and it negates the attack reduction burns usually give you). Tons of possibilities. For many, this game served as an introduction to competitive Pokemon.
Another unique aspect of the difficulty in Colosseum was the Pokemon available to catch. Knowing you can only catch Shadow Pokemon, options are going to be limited, so you’ll have to settle on a few Pokemon you usually wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Especially when most of the ‘Mons available are Generation 2, which house some of the worst Pokemon ever stat-wise. This is a result of devs wanting trainers to have some Gen 2 Pokemon to transfer to the Gen 3 games. So, take a gander at Dunsparce above. It may have the ability Serene Grace, which ups the chances of move’s secondary effect, such as flinching, to land, but it’s stats are ass. The only thing you have going for it is spamming headbutt for flinch to cheese your opponent, then there's the chance you have the Run Away ability, which is absolutely worthless since there are no wild battles. Dunsparce isn’t the only garbage Pokemon available. There’s Ledian, Delibird, and even Meganium, which is seen as the worst fully-evolved starter, to the point of becoming a meme. All about making the best out of a terrible situation.
Now I mentioned that I prefer Colosseum to XD: Gale of Darkness. But I can’t deny that XD improved on some of the flaws that bogged down Colosseum a bit. From speeding up the purification process on Shadow Pokemon, being able to save anywhere like in the base games, no pointless side characters like Rui (she was the one pointing out the Shadow Pokemon for you), to having better animations for the NPCs. On that note, Pokemon animations were already absolutely brilliant, so much so that I feel that it puts Sword/Shield to shame even if the Gen 1 and 2 Pokemon still had their Stadium models. But there were some choices that took away from the grittiness Colosseum had. I mentioned The Under being gone and Hyper Mode being reworked, but the game also slightly tweaked the art style to be more cartoony, if you will. Its nothing major but there is a difference, especially if you compare certain trainers that appear in both games.
One major, if even fatal choice was making the protagonist of XD yet another kid with no backstory whatsoever. It made it feel like another run of the mill Pokemon game where you’re a random kid single-handily taking down a terrorist organization. With Colosseum, it was at least interesting to play as Wes knowing he was a former criminal, even if his story was underdeveloped and that he was a mute (like in every Pokemon game). But it was something different. In terms of difficulty, it became more along the lines of cheating, such as bosses having 7 Pokemon and Shadow Moves (several new moves were added but many trainers would have 2 or more Shadow Pokemon on one team so it got tiring quickly) being super effective against standard Pokemon. Double battle strategies seen in Colosseum were more so ditched for the sheer number of trainers, at least in the main story. So while XD had plenty of quality of life changes and arguably made it more accessible for beginners, it came at the cost of a lot of the charm Colosseum had. It did have a fire soundtrack though.
Pokemon Colosseum is one of my favorite games of all time. I played it as a kid and beat it with the skin of my teeth, and I still enjoy today as a young adult, now with the knowledge of competitive Pokemon. It made me appreciate how unique of a game it is. From the animations that sadly outclass modern Pokemon, the electric soundtrack, the strategic boss battles, and the different themes introduced. I even like the fact you have to use Gen 2 ‘Mons nobody in their right mind would use. It has its flaws sure, but nothing fans can do about it (I made a semi-randomized version of Colosseum and it was a breath of fresh air for a game I love). With how Pokemon is right now, I can confidently say that Colosseum is the grittiest and potentially hardest Pokemon game of all time.