Each generation of Pokémon games has introduced a variety of interesting Gym Leaders who all speak to the ideals of their home cities and try their hardest to make you a better trainer as you work toward becoming the latest regional Pokémon Champion. For the most part, gym leaders have led relatively static lives that don’t take them all that far away from their respective gyms, but every now and then you get a leader like Opal of Ballonlea City, who has much more pressing matters to tend to than handing out badges to children.
Like all of Galar’s gym leaders, Opal forces every challenger who visits her fairy-themed gym to play a game of sorts before she will battle them, but unlike her fellow gym leaders, Opal’s game is one of wits rather than physical prowess. Though it first seems as if Opal’s merely interested in hitting you with a bunch of random trivia questions, what she’s actually interested in finding out is whether you’d make a suitable replacement for her because at 88 years old, she’s ready to retire!
Pokémon’s delved into storylines about gym leaders calling it quits in the past, and the anime has frequently featured gym leaders who choose to leave their posts in order to journey around the world with Ash Ketchum. Opal’s story feels rather distinct, though, because of the particular moment we’re all living through right now where older generations are being rightfully called out for being kinda trash.
Opal never utters the phrase “OK, boomer,” but it’s the sort of idea she’d be very into because her desire to retire is grounded in her belief that leading a gym is a young person’s game. Opal’s perfectly capable of still running the gym and striking fear into the hearts of anyone foolish to roll up on her with a dragon type, but she doesn’t feel the need to cling to her title and she understands that the continued success of the gym will require things to change to a certain extent. Fun as it would be if Pokémon Sword and Shield’s post-game revolved around you running a gym, Opal ultimately comes to the conclusion that you’re not the right person to be her successor and she must continue her search.
Sword and Shield actually gets right to the point with Opal’s story after you defeat her in battle and she asks you to travel to nearby Motostoke City, where the two of you cross paths with Bede, a disgraced trainer who’s barred from competing in the overall gym challenge after he destroyed an ancient work of art with a stolen Pokémon. While Bede has nothing particularly nice to say to either you or Opal (mind you that he was once one of your rivals), Opal is downright astonished to see how much of the boy’s outfit is pink, a color she adores. Though a trainer’s sense of style has little to do with their skill in battle, Bede’s attire is all it takes to convince Opal that he needs to be her successor and because Bede’s got nothing better to do, he agrees to take the gig.
Bede becoming the new Ballonlea City gym leader is one of Sword and Shield’s more delightful plot twists because up to that point, it genuinely seemed as if the boy might end up becoming some sort of tragic villain, driven mad by a stupid mistake he made in a misguided attempt at becoming a legend. Whether Opal understands that Bede’s past transgressions weren’t rooted in evil is unclear but there’s a chance she genuinely doesn’t care. What she does understand is that she has a powerful affinity for the surly boy, and that’s reason enough for her to trust in her instinct that he’ll make her proud to have chosen him.
Opal’s ability to look past Bede’s mistakes and put her faith in him is reflective of the same wisdom that made her an excellent gym leader. The Pokémon franchise’s young heroes never really grow up, but Opal and Bede’s story alludes to the reality that the people playing these games will eventually change—evolve, if you will—and move on to bigger and better things in life. You wouldn’t necessarily think the games would wander into that kind of narrative territory in such a whimsical way, but Sword and Shield represent the new directions the larger Pokémon franchise is shifting towards.
In Sword and Shield’s final moments, you see that Opal doesn’t simply leave Bede to his own devices—she sticks around to oversee things somewhat and one imagines that she’s all too willing to lend him advice when he needs it. She’s not totally removed from the spotlight, but she understands the importance of passing the torch on to a younger generation that is committed to making the world a more interesting place.
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