They might be anime monster fighters on the surface, but Pokemon are really sports games at their heart, and any sports epic needs a good antagonist. Rocky had Ivan Drago, Daniel had the Cobra-Kai bullies, and Space Jam had... well, critics and common sense, mainly.
Nonetheless, Pokemon games understand the need for a good rival to test and push our limits, whether they're friend or foe. They orbit you throughout the game and often become the greatest challenge within it, so we're here to look back through generations of opponents to see how they stand.
Oh, and keep in mind we're not doing all the rivals from each game, just the main ones. If somebody starts off picking a Pokemon alongside you, that's the rival. So get outta here, Bede.
9. Calem/Serena, Shauna, Tierno and Trevor
Game: Pokemon X / Pokemon Y
I'll be frank: I hate the Burger King Kids Club that trails around after you in X and Y. The idea makes sense in theory: to have one rival for each facet of Pokemon gameplay. There's one kid who wants to be champion, one who wants to fill their Pokedex... and then they clearly ran out of ideas, because the last two are a girl who's just hanging out with the rest and another kid who likes dancing.
Maybe it wouldn't be so egregious if they didn't pop up so often. With four separate characters all having to share the singular role of being the rival, they show up constantly and instantly drag the pacing down to a screaming halt. Fighting them is a tiresome chore, not a pleasure, and so for being annoying in a hundred different ways, they get to come last.
Game: Pokemon Black 2 / Pokemon White 2
Hugh? I mean, who? An easy joke, but no less true because of it. I had no memory of Hugh despite having played Black 2 a couple of times, and the fact that he slid off my consciousness so entirely means that clearly there's very little to the character. Going back to remind myself, I realized he's basically got one trait—hating the villainous Team Plasma—and it's not long before it gets old. It's a feeling that doesn't even relate to you in any way, and looking back at Hugh's role in the plot, you realise that you don't really have to be there for any of his story, that neither of you are meaningfully important to each other's goals. No wonder it's hard to care.
Aside from that, there's a conscious effort to make the character a little edgy and cool, in a way that usually comes across as eye-rollingly lame. One of his worst lines is, "My Pokémon seems to be in pain! My partner's pain is my pain!"
Oof. Guess Hugh was better left forgotten.
Game: Pokemon Sapphire / Pokemon Ruby
Brendan and May are marked this low for just being rather poor rivals. The last time you battle them is about halfway through the game, whereupon they suddenly decide to go home and barely show up again. From then on the role of rival has to be held by Wally, a much better character you helped grow as a person earlier on. Brendan and May are pleasant enough, but considering they quit halfway, like somebody at a party who's got work in the morning, it's hard to get really enthusiastic about them. Hell, they don't even reach the final evolution of their starter Pokemon in the original Ruby and Sapphire (Editor-in-Chief Kat really hates that). Why get psyched about rivals who can't even summon the energy to show up?
Game: Pokemon Black / Pokemon White
Cheren and Bianca have much of the same problem of the X/Y group in refusing to leave you alone for five minutes, but Black and White does a much better job of setting you up as close friends. It begins with the three of you hanging out in your room and breaking things by accident - a perfect summary of most childhood relationships. They're not particularly rich as characters, but they have their moments and even little arcs that make them more than just powerful trainers.
That being said, Bianca is clearly the more likeable of the two, with a strong sense of personality and a friendly demeanour, not to mention going on to have a burgeoning scientific career as a lab assistant in Black 2 and White 2. Cheren also returns as a gym leader, which seems cool until you realize he specializes in Normal Pokemon. Even the badge he gives you is called the Basic Badge. Hardly an imaginative sort.
Game: Pokemon Diamond / Pokemon Pearl
Barry is basically the prototype for Hop; a hyperactive trainer who happens to be related to an older and more powerful champion (in Barry's case, the Tower Tycoon Palmer). Barry has none of Hops's pathos, though. Instead, his defining character trait is that he's clumsy and in a hurry, frequently running into people in a rush to get to his destination. Okay, Barry isn't the most memorable rival—actually, the initial draft of this list omitted him entirely—but he does have a rather cute Piplup in Pokemon Masters, and he gets bonus points for his relationship to Palmer. Also, we like his scarf, and the Sinnoh region in general. Truly, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl doesn't get nearly enough love.
Game: Pokemon Sun / Pokemon Moon
Sun and Moon are pretty average games, but Hau is one of their better elements. A nice kid with a good demeanour, he develops notably over the course of the game, having a moment of uncertainty and resolving to become stronger in the wake of it. It's almost a coming-of-age story, though Hau could have afforded to have a bit more personality, often seeming to be little more than an unflinching smile on legs.
Another reason I find myself liking Hau is his team, which is pleasantly reflective of his home and his personality. Nearly all his team are Alolan Pokemon, with the exception of an Eevee-lution to balance out whatever starter he picked, which shows far more strategic thinking than most characters in Pokemon.
3. Blue (aka Gary Oak)
Game: Pokemon Red / Pokemon Blue
Ah, the classic of classics. It's often hard to differentiate Blue from the Gary Oak of the cartoon, but there's little need to: they're both massive douchebags and the game encourages you to put them in their place with every word. Blue has no sad backstory or complexity (Creepypasta theories about dead Raticates don't count); he's a complete dick and that's all the motivation you should need to kick his ass. The only downside is that you don't always get that satisfying feeling of truly beating him down, as he often blusters through his failures and somehow walks away with swagger intact.
But all that being said, a true rival should be there at the end, and Blue serves as a good final villain, as Lance reveals that another Champion was crowned minutes before you arrived. It all leads to a confrontation that ends the game and declares you the superior trainer, even as Blue whines and tantrums and gets chided by his grandpa. Now that's how you beat a rival.
Blue would remain throughout the series as a perfect symbol of rivalry, reappearing as a gym leader in Gold and Silver, and as a post-game boss fight alongside Red himself in Sun and Moon. I guess they got over their differences, or maybe Red just likes to defeat him every now and again when he needs to feel better about himself.
Game: Pokemon Gold / Pokemon Silver
Silver is an underrated antagonist to say the least, and all that works about him is in little details. His introduction is ominous, lurking around the lab with no name beyond "???", and when you encounter him again, he's fleeing a robbery/abduction that's only put into context when you see the scene of the crime. In the wake of a cocky loudmouth like Blue, Silver feels different, a real threat to be handled carefully.
Still, the rogue son of Giovanni ends up becoming a better person despite it all, reflected in the changes of his own team. Near the end of the game he has a Crobat, which Golbat can only evolve into if it has a good bond with its trainer. Good for him.
Yeah, Hop's the best. He's endearing, he's tenacious, and also happens to have one of the best theme songs in the franchise. Starting as the younger brother of the Champion Leon, Hop begins his journey looking to match that glory and goes through a comprehensive arc along the way, learning to step out of his brother's shadow and come to terms with his own limitations.
And yes, we'll say it: he's an idiot. He's shocked at the existence of type-advantages every time, oblivious to any notion of strategy, and yet that only puts him on the same level of intellect as every other trainer in the series. He perseveres nonetheless, and so gains a kind of lopsided underdog charm, determinedly fighting to keep up with the player every step of the way.
What's best is that Nintendo used the more detailed animations of Sword and Shield to add a layer of humanity to him. There's a moment where you beat Hop in the final battle that shows this perfectly: you topple his last Pokemon and shatter his dream of upending his brother; and for a moment Hop is framed from behind, his fists clenching, his face unseen, body tensing with frustration—and then the moment passes. And he looks up and smiles with honest appreciation, saying he's glad that you were the one that beat him, a far cry from the excitable child we knew at the beginning of the game. Good old Hop.