A standard archetype since the very first Pokemon games and in most media is the rival character; A character that seeks to push you forward as the protagonist and give you a progressive challenge that climbs and grows alongside yourself. Temtem’s Max not only fills this role but advances it, taking the archetype in a direction the genre never has before.
I think it’s important to talk about how the characters in that role have evolved from the series that started it all and compare how the archetype has grown, at least when talking about this particular series and its spiritual successor. We will be exploring the evolution of the rival type!
We start with one of the most notable and recognizable antagonists in all of gaming. Although his name is completely different depending on who you ask. Green in Japan, Blue in English, due to the game versions released here, and Gary in the Anime.
The original rival of trainers seeking to become the best that ever was. Blue was callous, obnoxious, and prideful. He was a trainer that had a superiority complex because his grandfather was the Pokemon Professor and even after beating him several times, he still looked down on you. This was something that was meant to drive the player forward and make it feel satisfying every single time you beat his smug ass.
Along your journey, he constantly switched out his roster; finding new Pokemon to add to his team. That was until the end of the journey, where he became the final challenge that stood before you. No matter how far you were along in your journey, Blue would always be a step ahead of you, but by defeating him as the Champion, you finally win over him, making the victory feel even more triumphant.
As you defeat Blue, Professor Oak comes in to congratulate you, chastising his grandson about how he so quickly lost his champion position. He tells him that the reason he lost was that he treated his Pokemon like tools rather than partners and Blue seems to take this into deep consideration before you leave him with his defeat.
It’s not until Gold and Silver until you see the results of his character growth. He’s the last gym leader of the Kanto League, and the replacement of the now disappeared Giovanni. He comes across as still smug: However, he’s more charming and down to earth this time, not to mention a little bit more endearing. This is effectively his entire arc, as when he shows up in other games, he is still a bit cocky, but is willing to own up to his mistakes and is simply a trainer that loves battling.
Silver, in many ways, was a drastic step in the opposite direction than Blue. Rather than being a well off grandson of a well respected Pokemon Professor; the player meets Silver as being nothing more than a common thief. You fight him with a starter they stole from Professor Elm’s lab, although you don’t know it at the time.
He is obsessed with power, maliciously disrespectful, and even physically abusive as he will shove the player dismissively out of the way like they are below him. He, like Blue, also has the Pokemon that your starter is weak against, giving him an automatic advantage. However, while he acts like an antagonist, he loathes Team Rocket and everything they stand for. So, despite having many of the same characteristics as some of their leaders early on; he has his own standards.
Throughout the game, Silver pushes to become stronger, while also realizing what the true meaning of strength is. He never stops being serious but he starts to genuinely care about his Pokemon, as the game indicates when his Golbat evolves into Crobat, an evolution that can only be reached by a high amount of friendship. He even tries to return the Pokemon he originally stole, but Professor Elm lets him keep his starter simply because he can tell how much his Pokemon care for him.
That’s all we get but it wasn’t until HeartGold and SoulSilver that we got confirmation on why Silver initially behaved the way they did. A mythical Pokemon event with Celebi unlocks his past and shows the player that Silver is, in fact, Giovanni’s son. Yes, he’s the son to the original Team Rocket leader that Neo Team Rocket had been trying to contact throughout the game.
In a special game event, we even see that Silver was abandoned by his father when he went into hiding after he was defeated by Red in Pokemon Red/Blue. This explains a lot of his hatred for Team Rocket itself but also his original personality. He was simply an angry kid that had been abandoned by his parent and left to fend for himself. It also explains a lot of his original ideas and attitudes and makes his personal arc that much stronger.
Although your technical first rival in Ruby and Sapphire is either Brandon or May; I don’t really count them because they don’t have any drive to defeat you or even challenge you. This is due to your goals being completely different and they kind of just stop battling you halfway through the game. Wally, however, is an arc that gains a lot of points for how they introduce him.
Wally is introduced to you in a way of showing how to catch Pokemon. Because of this, you not only see him catch his starter (a Ralts), but also are a part of starting him on his journey. He’s a sickly boy that is moving to a location that will better help his health. As such, you don’t see Wally again until you come across him in front of the third gym leader’s gym and he challenges you to a battle.
He only has his Ralts still, but it has leveled up a bit. However, you still end up defeating him rather easily. He tells you how he wants to be stronger. Then, you don’t end up seeing him again until the end of the game.
This does two things: It helps you forget about him as a character, to make him show up at the end of Victory Road that much more surprising. It also has the effect of showing how much he had to go through just to get to the same place as you. Speaking of that, he even did it before you, really bringing home how competent he has become to get ahead of you. It is then that you then fight him in one of the most satisfying rival battles you can get.
Wally’s team is a legitimate threat, and this fight was even made better by Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. In it, Wally gets his own theme and battle screen. It’s certainly one of the best rival arcs you get in Pokemon, partially because you see firsthand where Wally came from and appreciate how much it took him to get there. While not in the same vein as a more antagonistic rival, Wally’s journey still hits all the right notes, because you root for him rather than against him because you know how far he came.
While N isn’t technically a rival character, more of a friendly antagonist. I feel like it would be wrong to not mention him on this list. He is one of the best-written characters that I think has come out of Pokemon and certainly ends up overshadowing the rivals that were supposed to be present in Black and White.
A child raised like a prince by Team Plasma, N is shown and raised like a messianic figure, he has the unnatural ability to talk to Pokemon. Because of this, his mission is to have trainers and people at large release their Pokemon into the wild. He considers trainers and those who keep Pokemon to be doing so at the detriment of the creature’s wellbeing.
This is a really mature theme to have in Pokemon and one of the reasons I consider Pokemon Black and White to be a high point for Pokemon storytelling. Everything about N is genuinely compelling and interesting. He talks about the state of the world; of Pokemon; of moral dilemmas; and even his understanding of the world itself.
Even before you learn he is the Team Plasma leader, he fights you in Pokemon battles and tries to bring you to his place of understanding. These simple talks with him really highlight how deep his character is. Not only that, but it makes the reveal of him as the Team Plasma leader that much more compelling.
However, this reveal also makes you feel somewhat conflicted. He’s doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons, and he himself isn’t really a bad person at all. His arc finishes when he realizes that yes, there are people in the world that are evil with Pokemon; but also people and Pokemon can live alongside one another and that not everything about that is bad.
He’s a hugely layered character that is brilliantly written and one of the reasons I recommend people playing Pokemon Black or White.
The Rise of Friendly Rivals
After Black/White (and it’s subsequent sequels), Pokemon started a trend that I think has only reached some potential in Sword and Shield: The use of friendly rivals. While the early rivals such as Blue and Silver were jerks that pushed you around and were kind of obnoxious; Rivals from games as they went on began to become simply….too friendly in my opinion.
They are always introduced as your best friend from childhood. They are always bright and optimistic with you even if you run through their team with ease every single time. Also, a lot of them don’t really have arcs other than “I need to become stronger!”
The fact that I can name several from many of the later games is part of this and is another reason why the rivals later become so forgettable. Barry in Diamond and Pearl has the arrogant confidence in him, but never to the point that Blue does. In turn, this defeats the entire reason you would want to defeat him. He also usually steps behind you, rather than Blue who is always ahead of you, part of the reason you feel compelled to win.
Brandon/May from Ruby and Sapphire are just the Professor’s kid and simply want to complete the Pokedex. They don’t have any drive to get better or to defeat you. In fact, this is why you end up fighting them a few times and then… that’s it.
X and Y really highlight this issue by having four different trainers acting as “rival” characters but never fleshing out any of them. As such, you never get any development on who they are as people and they’re not challenging enough to take them seriously.
Sun and Moon had Hau and Gladion. Unfortunately, Gladion is the only one that I would consider a proper “rival”. Even then, he only shows up to fight you four times in the entire game. Added to this is the fact that he never even has a full team to really challenge you. There isn’t anything wrong with any of these characters, but they miss the point of what makes a rival figure great, and which is why this next character on the list was disliked so unanimously among the fanbase when Sword and Shield were first released.
The best example I can give of this is Hop from the newest entries of Sword and Shield. Hop is simply obnoxious: His penchant to repeat the same phrases repeatedly; His endless optimism despite you basically brushing him off every time he fights you; Literally everything about him early on in the game shows you why a friendly rival simply doesn’t work.
He’s not a challenge, he’s an annoyance; a roadblock; an obstacle that you just plow through with little to no effort. To add insult to injury, he feels like he wastes your time.
Bede and Marnie however, are infinitely more interesting. Bede himself takes a lot of arrogant traits and combines them into a simple cocktail of trash talking to you no matter what which makes beating him every time that much more satisfying. Marnie has a rough edge to her along with a team that is somewhat of a challenge at least while having a lot of sass and wit.
These three characters aren’t the rivals of past games, but they become interesting characters in a different way. They make an impact on the world itself. Hop, while annoying early on, quickly realizes he isn’t a match for you. He struggles with this, so completely he loses the will to battle for a while. It’s not until he realizes that he was trying to be a copy of his brother rather than do his own thing that he realizes why he liked Pokemon battling in the first place. So, instead of trying to imitate an image of his brother, he decides to take his own path and become a Professor assistant for Sonia.
Bede’s arrogance ends up getting him expelled from the league, however, once the Fairy type gym leader gives him a second shot, he takes it seriously and matures. He chooses to train to become the replacement Gym Leader under her wing. Marnie also decides to take her brother’s place as the Dark-type Gym Leader. Why? So she can train and become stronger from challengers and challenge the championship again.
This is the best way that Pokemon can write these types of characters, giving them not only something to strive for despite being defeated by the player but giving them a solid place in the world that shows their growth and the fact they are stronger despite not being as strong as the player.
But while these characters are great, rivals like Blue and Silver are much more compelling, there is a lot more drive to defeat someone that is viewed as a proper challenge than a small annoyance or obstacle, which is why Blue and Silver are such memorable characters even so many years later. But there is a new character to maintain their legacy of antagonism.
Temtem and Max
Temtem has certainly generated a lot of buzz, and for a rightful reason. Everything about it is trying to make something new while maintaining and improving on a familiar formula. Because of that, its characters and writing will be compared to its roots. While the other characters I have met so far in Temtem haven’t left that big of an impression on me in terms of actual impact; the rival character, Max, has shown a lot of potential.
Max starts off as a lot of rival characters do, with them being introduced as your childhood friend. However, they don’t really act all that friendly to you. They have a friendly face on, but they demean you and act like they are better than you. This harkens back to Blue and Silver and their need to demean you, to prove that they are better than you, and immediately gets you annoyed with them.
You are given a starter and then Max proceeds to challenge you. Off you go to your first battle and….you are practically one-shot. This establishes a few things that make Max different from any other rival early on.
- They have a Tem that is a super rare type that beats yours.
- Despite having an advantage, they don’t want to admit to it, and just want to say they are better than you.
This has the effect of making you, the player, really dislike Max just off the bat. He is being quite a little piece of garbage for saying he is better when he practically sucker punched you. Thus, this development makes you want to beat him, it makes you want to beat him real bad.
You don’t even get a chance to fight him again until you are leaving the island of Deniz. However, he’s much more threatening as he went from 1 monster to a full team of 6 and they are all super leveled. You can still win against him in this fight, but if he beats you, you don’t even get a chance to fight him again.
Instead, he just makes a snarky comment and runs off again, prompting the fight to either come off as hugely gratifying or even more infuriating. You would think this is the maddest you can get at this character, but it gets even more extreme once you finally get to Tucma.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE CURRENT ENDGAME OF TEMTEM
You get to the third island by way of your ship being attacked by Clan Belsoto, and they crash your ship into the island of Tucma. It’s a toxic wasteland where the only major city is underground due to the surface normally requiring a gas mask to breathe.
Your airship is decimated and you are tasked with finding rescue for the injured crew, but once you get to the underground city, you find that you are somehow wanted for crimes against the citizens there, despite never being there before.
You then are thrown in jail, and after getting a chance to escape due to one of the crew members breaking you out, you fight the Dojo Leader who recognizes you aren’t the same individual committing these crimes. After tending to your crew and fixing the situation in the city, you have to find a relic that will help open the other entrance to the mines, as your impersonator sealed off the proper entrance with explosives.
This is when you are given a revelation. Max has been impersonating you and has been doing so as a member of Clan Belsoto. You were given some hints early on that it might have been Max, but this simply confirms their motives.
Max impersonated and committed major crimes to frame you, simply out of spite because Professor Konstantinos seems to like you more than them. This crosses a line that Pokemon has never crossed with their rivals before, and that’s turning them into a proper antagonist.
Max is set on the idea that joining Clan Belsoto is the right idea, despite Clan Belsoto not caring much for anyone, even their own members, and they ask you to join, which you stand against. They then challenge you with a restructured team, and you have to beat them in order to progress.
Once you do defeat them, they tell you that Clan Belsoto will be their way to power and runs off. This is all you see of Max in the current game, but it frames a lot of things about them that are interesting and unknown.
SPOILERS END HERE
Max is simply a child looking for approval and because they never got that from the Professor, they lash out at you for getting it. It also brings up a bunch of questions of how Max got to this point, how they got a rare Digital Tem, and from whom.
I’m guessing many of these questions will be answered, but right now they already compelling, and I find them to be very interesting and already completely unique compared to any rival we have seen so far.
Our editor, Ule Lopez, drew a comparison to Porky from Mother 3, an antagonist that is constantly an annoyance but not much of a threat. But, I would argue that Max is being built up as not only a threat but your counterpart, meant to challenge you and drive you forward, in very much the same way Blue did in the original games.
A rival that properly challenges the player helps naturally entice the player to pull out all the stops, to really improve and make the player want to beat them and to give a character that the player really sees grow alongside them during their journey, and I look forward to seeing how Max fulfills that role because honestly, I’m not sure where they will be going as a character, and that’s exciting.
Thanks for reading, and what are some of your favorite rival characters? Did I miss any obvious inclusions in your opinion? Feel free to comment below, and please check out my Temtem Early Access Impressions article if you haven’t had the chance already!