Ever since the first games, the Pokemon franchise has tried to include side quests and activities, things that change the game from the classic “beat 8 gym leaders and fight the Elite Four.” There’s the “end of game” content that only happens once you become champion. There have been ideas like the Safari Zone and the Bug-Catching Contest, which were alternative methods of catching Pokemon, as well as alternate venues for battling such as the Battle Tower and Battle Frontier, both of which function as a sort of arena for “advanced” players. But it was in Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald that they introduced a concept which came the closest to being a true alternative from the gym badge system: Pokemon Contests.
In Pokemon Contests, elemental types don’t really matter. Nor do things like attack power and hit points. Unlike the Safari Zone, the Battle Frontier, and all of those other extra features, the Pokemon Contest system is the only competitive activity which was so different from the rest of the game that almost none of the traditional rules applied to the way contests worked.
The goal of a Pokemon Contest is to win the votes of a panel of judges in a specific category, such as “Beauty” or “Intelligence,” and in order to do so you must have your Pokemon be more appealing than the others. To this end, every attack has its own unique features and functions entirely separate from battling and trying to KO your opponent. For instance, the attack “Flamethrower,” which is a Fire-type attack in battles, is a move which shows off “Beauty” in a Pokemon Contest. Contest Pokemon have to be fed strict diets and be groomed properly to win the visual portion of the competitions. They eventually even included dancing.
It might sound pretty boring compared to the intensity of taking on your rival in a flurry of lightning and sandstorms, and this might even be the reason that Pokemon Contests are non-existent in Pokemon Heart Gold/Soul Silver, but the big thing that Contests had that previous side games in Pokemon didn’t was 1) rewards and 2) increasing levels of difficulty. Instead of getting Gym Badges, you get Contest Ribbons, and as you go from city to city, the Contests get more challenging. In a way, it could be seen as an alternate path to the Gym system, something that wasn’t so much a game within a game as it was another activity entirely. It might even be perceived as something on par with battling. In fact, the anime tried to push this idea, by having characters like Haruka (May) and Hikari (Dawn) decide to forego the path of collecting Gym Badges and have them focus on obtaining Ribbons. The only problem is that in the anime, Contests resemble battling with a somewhat different flair, and the games themselves don’t give any rewards other than the Ribbons, essentially meaning that it’s still considered “inferior” to hitting the Gyms.
I think that Pokemon Contests could have become a really viable alternative to Gym Battles, and that it should be an option at the start of games to go on the path of a “Pokemon Coordinator,” the term the series uses to denote people who have devoted themselves to Pokemon Contests. There should be personalities you get to know and the opportunity to practice against opponents. Perhaps winning should net you TMs that are rare and powerful within the context of Contests. There should be an equivalent of the Elite Four to take down, and when you win over them, there should be an ending. Most importantly, you should be able to play against your friends.
I understand that it might be virtually impossible to try and balance two completely disparate systems running off the same basics in the same game. I also think the concept of the Pokemon Contest could stand to have some tweaking, such as making Type matter more, or perhaps even taking a cue from the anime and having it come down to battles where you’re judged on not only your ability to take down your opponent but to look good doing so. But I really believe that, done properly, Pokemon Contests could truly add another layer to the world of Pokemon by giving kids a different kind of opportunity to go off on an adventure.
Here’s hoping to their return in Generation V.