Blaine is still my favourite example of Pokemon’s attempt at eccentricity. We usually get characters who are jumpy or jittery in some way, from stuttered dialogue to the sheer velocity at which they hurtle from one side of the screen to the other. I’m thinking of Pokemon Platinum’s Looker – who I also love, but he’s no Blaine – or even the likes of Peony in Sword & Shield’s Crown Tundra DLC. Ultimately, though, Cinnabar Island’s resident trailblazer will always be Pokemon’s best Gym Leader, precisely because of how consciously and intentionally absurd his whole charade is.
Blaine’s gym used to annoy me as a kid, long before I knew more about the world of Pokemon than I do about the one I actually live in. In case you can’t remember how his gym is laid out, you’re faced with a variety of trivia questions – get it right and you can move into the next room unscathed, but get it wrong and you’ll have to engage in a fiery battle to proceed. I used to have to battle everyone because I was four and didn’t care about whether Tombstony was a real TM or not, but now, years later, I can see the genius of this gym. While some gyms gave you the option to avoid trainers (Brock’s) and others made you face them (Giovanni’s), Blaine’s was based on a system of fairness that gave you a choice: face this trainer for experience, or push straight towards the gym leader without dealing with any of the riff raff.
It might seem like a relatively ordinary gimmick now that we’ve got a whole eight generations of Pokemon, but this is one of those ambitious designs that’s managed to outlive the series’ one-and-done treatment of niche features. There are loads of gyms that have interesting layouts now, as opposed to sticking two trainers in a gym that has its respective type’s color vaguely intertwined with its background. Oh, the Rock gym is brown – shocker! And speaking of shock, the Electric gym has bits of yellow in it – the leader even has blonde spiky hair!
I’m not trying to be cynical, I’m just saying that I’m grateful for how far Pokemon has come in terms of implementing fascinating gimmicks into its design, and how I think a lot of it is attributable to how much of a weird experiment Blaine was. It’s worth remembering that Koga’s gym in Gen 1 had invisible walls, while Sabrina’s one was based on memorizing teleporter routes – the latter in particular was revamped with an astonishingly good artistic flair in Pokemon Let’s Go. Neither of these felt quite as fair as Blaine’s, though – there was much more guesswork involved.
Plus, there’s the whole issue of actually reaching Blaine, whose weird gym is the whole way down the southwest of the map. To even get to him you have to backtrack either to Pallet Town or Fuchsia City, the latter of which brings you through the icily ethereal Seafoam Islands. When you finally arrive on the remote Cinnabar Island, the door to the gym is locked – you need to go into the weird Pokemon Mansion, filled with literal rats, to find the key. There’s all sorts of strange information here about Mew and Mewtwo, making it the most fascinatingly and isolatedly ambiguous place in Kanto. But then you’ve immediately got to go through all of the trivia stuff mentioned above, which is so atmospherically disparate from the serious stuff beforehand that the long and arduous process you had to endure just to open this one door feels retroactively ridiculous. Then Blaine makes his iconic joke about Burn Heal and it’s like, sure, there’s no grand conspiracy on this island, it’s just run by a weird old man (not too dissimilar from the amazing Viridian City old man, mind).
I also think it’s important to remember that Blaine is still there three three years later in Pokemon Gold & Silver, except Cinnabar’s volcano has erupted in the meantime. Now he sort of just lives here on his own, but he’s managed to rerig the quiz machines and he’s still stupidly giddy about burning both you and your Pokemon in a sweltering blaze. There’s just something about his character that brims with this massive presence – he’s more imposing than the active volcano he voluntarily lives in, because he’s larger than life but never above it, mostly because he leans into the ridicule inherent to both of those conditions.
There are plenty of great gym leaders in the Pokemon series, but Blaine is pretty much untouchable. He’s the top of the pops, and if you think differently – well, you better bring Burn Heal, cos I reckon Blaine wants a word.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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