Welcome to Exp. Share, Kotaku’s weekly Pokémon column in which we dive deep to explore notable characters, urban legends, communities, and just plain weird quirks from throughout the Pokémon franchise. This week, we’re looking at the history of Shiny Pokémon and how catching them became a huge pillar of the series’ fanbase.
Catching Shiny Pokémon is an entire pastime in and of itself within the Pokémon community. People are obsessed with catching differently colored versions of their favorite monsters, to the point of becoming a subculture around these games. Some people battle competitively, others want to learn more about Game Freak’s world, and others just spend hours of their day hoping to stumble upon a sparkly, alt-colored variant of rare critters. But if you’re relatively new to the franchise, you might not know Shiny Pokémon were a bit different when they first debuted over 20 years ago.
The first story instance of a Shiny Pokémon was a red Gyarados that appeared in 1999’s Pokémon Gold and Silver for the Game Boy Color. The player encounters the beast in the Lake of Rage just north of Mahogany Town, which they can either defeat or capture to add to their team. While the strange Gyarados was the first Shiny most players would encounter, Shiny Pokémon could appear in the wild throughout Gold and Silver. But what determined whether or not you got a Pokémon of a different shade? Well, it’s changed over the years.
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Initially, a Pokémon’s Shiny status was determined by each critter’s Individual Values. Without getting too in the weeds (though if you’re curious, I have a whole write-up on tweaking IVs), Individual Values are essentially Pokémon genetics corresponding to their battle stats that determine if your little guy is better or worse at certain things than others of its species. So this is Attack, Defense, Speed, etc. In order for a Pokémon to be shiny in Gold and Silver, its Speed, Defense, and Special IVs had to be exactly 10, while its Attack IV had to be either 2, 3, 6, 7, 10, 14, or 15.
If that sounds arbitrary, it was, but that’s how the designers ensured that Shiny Pokémon remained a rarity. Interestingly enough, because this is the system Gold and Silver used, it was possible to import a Pokémon from the first-generation games and find out it was shiny even though the original games didn’t yet have the concept of Shinies. Since IVs still existed in the backend of Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow, trading over a Pokémon to Gold and Silver could reveal their IVs were the right numbers, thus they would appear a different color in those games. But that system changed in the series’ next generation of games, which also didn’t allow players to trade forward again, anyway.
Ever since Ruby and Sapphire, a Pokémon’s Shiny status has been determined by a formula that factors in your Trainer ID (a number assigned to the player with each save file), their secret ID number (a second, invisible ID number used as a precautionary measure in case two players somehow end up with the same Trainer ID), and the Pokémon’s personality value (a number assigned when the player first encounters a specific Pokémon in-game). Again, that’s very convoluted but it’s done that way to ensure that Shiny Pokémon, when they do appear, feel like ultra-rare anomalies. That’s why they’re so coveted in the Pokémon community and why some players are willing to spend hours of their day resetting the game to find rare Shiny monsters in each subsequent game.
While this formula remains in effect today, the increasing popularity of Shiny hunting in the Pokémon community has led the games to introduce new ways to increase the odds of encountering shinies. These include key items like the Shiny Charm, which, once obtained, produces additional personality values, essentially rerolling your chance to encounter a Pokémon that looks a little different than the rest of them. With each subsequent game the Shiny Charm has increased the chances of finding Shinies by a greater amount. But that’s not the only trick Shiny hunters have up their sleeves.
Starting in Generation IV’s 2006 DS games Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, Game Freak introduced a new facet to the Pokémon breeding system that was meant to entice players to trade between other areas around the world using Diamond and Pearl’s online trading functionality. If two Pokémon originate from different language versions of their game and are made to breed an egg, the Pokémon born from these parents will generate an extra personality value, which will once again increase your Shiny odds. This is in addition to buffs you get from the Shiny Charm, so taking advantage of inter-region breeding is one of the most efficient ways to try and score a Shiny. More recently, the Switch games Scarlet and Violet’s new picnic feature lets you make sandwiches that increase your Shiny odds for a limited time.
Since their introduction in Gold and Silver over two decades ago, Shiny Pokémon have gone from a neat, almost hidden phenomenon to an entire metagame and subculture. Speaking personally, I’ve played every mainline Pokémon game and the first time I came across a Shiny was in 2022’s Pokémon Legends: Arceus on the Switch. It was two, actually: a Graveler and a Tangrowth. They were very ugly, and my team was already set, and they weren’t joining. However, the fact that I finally caught two of these in Arceus, in which Pokémon show up in the overworld with a distinctive sound effect and sparkle, made me realize how many unnoticed Shiny Pokémon I’d probably passed by in tall grass over the years (Arceus’ tells are sorely missed in Scarlet and Violet).
But despite Shiny Pokémon feeling like such a mainstay for the series, I was still surprised when I asked how people felt about Shiny Pokémon after all these years at how many players have still never seen one in the wild.
For some, Shiny hunting is a way of life. For most of us, they might as well be urban legends, so when they show up by complete chance it feels special and memorable. But now that there are so many ways to game the system, some might feel the sheen has worn off Shiny Pokémon. For those who found the entire process tedious and annoying, however, these changes make something that once felt exhausting and exclusive more accessible to everyone, even casual players.
That’s not to say finding Shiny Pokémon has miraculously become as easy as finding any rare Pokémon. But it has at least become more reasonable for the average trainer to find a Shiny version of their favorites, or perhaps find new favorites in a fresh color scheme. While the community is divided on the “value” of Shinies as they become easier to find, all the background math that goes into their unlikely appearances can’t account for the memories we make and the personal stories we write as we find, battle, and catch these funky little friends. Perhaps the real Shiny Pokémon are the memories we made along the way.