Two years ago, Matthew Johnson started a new save file in Pokemon X. Instead of playing it as one normally would, collecting badges and monsters in tandem with one another, a thought crossed his mind. How many Pokemon could he capture without making any in-game progress?
To embark on the "no badge" challenge, Johnson came up with a few rules. He was not allowed to trade with himself from a different game. Naturally, he couldn't use a cheating device, such as a PowerSave, to help himself out, nor could he accept hacked Pokemon from other people. And to top things off, no single person was allowed to trade him more than 10 Pokemon at a time.
"I started small, [capturing] all of the Pokemon surrounding Santalune [the starting city]," Johnson told me in an interview. "Then I started training those [captured] Pokemon, and fully researching when they all evolve, and what it takes."
Of course, the starting area Pokemon can only fill a Pokedex up so far. Fortunately, Pokemon X & Y are also blessed with robust online features. Specifically, Johnson made ample use of Wonder Trade, which allows players to blindly trade monsters for something random in return.
"I got a lot of Zigzagoons, Pidgeys, and other basic area Pokemon," Johnson said. "On rare occasions I would get a Pokemon I was hunting for for the Dex."
But without the ability to progress through the game and win battles, even capturing crappy Pokemon for Wonder Trades didn't go as swimmingly as you'd expect.
"Money was tight, and initially those Pokeballs aren't cheap," Johnson said. "So I would go for a low level Fletchling, or Pidgey. Then I wonder trade that away, and if I got another Pokemon I did not need back, then the trading continued. Sometimes I could trade 15-20 times before I got something 'good' or useful to me."
Whatever Pokemon he gained, he would train and evolve using just that starting area. Given that those starting monsters only appear at level seven or below, it was a very tedious process, especially for higher-level monsters. Some creatures don't evolve until after level 40, but the only opponents Johnson could grind didn't give out much XP at all. And without a badge, the Pokemon he sent into battle weren't guaranteed to actually listen to his orders.
Johnson estimates that he ultimately conducted around seven thousand trades at the time, which was great, but after the year mark rolled around, his progress slowed down significantly.
"I began to lose faith," Johnson said. "I was out of money in-game, I was out of Pokeballs, and I was on my last Pokemon to wonder trade away." Instead of giving up, however, Johnson simply got more creative.
Johnson decided to sign up for the Pokemon Global Link (PGL), a service that gives players "Pokemiles" for trades. With enough Pokemiles, the player can trade for items, such as Rare Candies, which raise a monster's level by one. By playing online games through the PGL, Johnson was able to accrue points, which led to items that enabled him to further evolve the creatures he already had. This process was crucial, since typically you can't really mess around with Pokemon beyond your badge level. Johnson figured out a way to circumvent all of that.
"The [PGL] games also provided occasional evolution items like Fire Stones, or Happiness Berries, AND POKEBALLS," Johnson said. "Now all of my trading was paying off, as I was able to get back and train even harder."
Johnson also made use of r/PokemonTrades to nab what he could from Pokemon classified ads. Slowly, he was amassing a formidable collection of critters, which then allowed him to trade for better and better stuff. It was the Pokemon equivalent of the one red paper clip story, where someone traded their way to an actual house despite starting with basically nothing.
"I started to trade for slightly bigger Pokemon," Johnson said. "Then an event at a local Gamestop landed me a code for a Legendary. I traded that for a bunch of great Pokemon."
Johnson chipped away at his goal, little by little, and after two years of trading and grinding, he evolved the last Pokemon neccesary to complete the regional Pokedex — Vanilluxe. The journey took 837 hours in total.
"Finishing just lifted a weight off my shoulders," Johnson said.