This article discusses Norman only as he appears in the Pokémon games, not in his anime or manga iterations.
November 21st marked the one-year anniversary of the 3DS remakes of Pokémon’s third generation of games. After years of Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald (RSE) fans lamenting the unlikelihood of re-releases, the announcement of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire (ORAS) was met with much trumpeting and the battle cry of “Hoenn confirmed!” I was among those rejoicing and was thrilled to see the rise of fellow Pokémon masters who, like me, favored the third generation.
Back in 2002, RSE introduced trainers to Pokémon Contests, male and female protagonists coexisting within their generation’s world, friendly rivals (plural!), and perhaps the most revolutionary detail of all: a dad. No Pokémon game before or since third gen has featured or even mentioned the player character’s father. Not only does the Hoenn protagonist have a dad, he’s a gym leader! Yes, Norman of the Petalburg City’s gym is a rare find. Being the only protagonist dad in the franchise, Norman is buried in expectations, from the player’s expectations of facing off against a family member to achieve Pokémon Master status, to in-universe expectations of the protagonist’s abilities as a gym leader’s child. Is this rare dad a shiny catch as well?
Our introduction to Hoenn comes from the back of a moving van, where Brendan/May is riding to Littleroot Town. Dad has just been appointed gym leader in Petalburg City, and so the family is moving from Olivine City, Johto, to the Kyūshū-inspired region of Hoenn. From the moment Brendan/May’s Pokémon journey begins, comparisons are drawn between father and child. More than one non-playable character (NPC) observes that training is in the protagonist’s blood, so instead of being a random kid from a small town who takes the Pokémon League by storm, Brendan/May is expected to become a star right away.
Players of course expect to become Pokémon Masters from the get-go, but having that reaction from everyone from Mom and Professor Birch to gym leaders and other trainers changes the experience of achieving Champion status. At first, having your top-notch battle strategy attributed to your father’s blood may grate the nerves (I’ve been a Champion since before you were programmed!), but that all turns around when the player meets Norman.
Technically his introduction is a television spot that Mom catches but Brendan/May is too late to see, setting up the “distant dad” trope. Yet, if the notion of relocating his family to a whole different region and not even being there on moving day left a sour taste in players’ mouths, Norman’s excitement at seeing his child become a trainer when they meet face-to-face will alleviate it. He glows with pride over Brendan/May embarking on a Pokémon adventure and expresses enthusiastic belief in the importance of relationships between Pokémon and people. Norman shares his Zigzagoon and a Pokeball with Wally, a sickly boy who grows stronger and becomes a respectable rival by game’s end, to help him catch his first Pokémon and go on a journey of his own; Dad also advises the player to accompany Wally for his safety, already assured of his child’s ability as a trainer.
If NPC commentary is to be believed, Norman’s defining characteristic is fairness. True enough, his gym’s badge is the Balance Badge, and his preferred type is Normal, as neutral as Pokémon typing gets. Should the player try to challenge him before earning the four badges that come before his gym, Norman refuses, saying that they’re not ready to face him yet. When the time comes for you to challenge him, he bows to you as a respected opponent. Once defeated, Norman expresses immense pride that his child has surpassed him, even later saying that he’s seen his dream come true, though he also promises to train harder in the wake of the experience. It’s hard not to smile when the game announces that the player earned the Balance Badge from “[his/her] dad” instead of the standard “Leader Norman.” As you and Wally leave Petalburg City to surf into the next phase of your adventures, Norman and Wally’s father bond over the bittersweetness of seeing their children grow up.
Fairness doesn’t come as easily to other aspects of his life. Though Norman is noted to walk from his home in Littleroot Town to Petalburg City every day, he’s also an established workaholic who spends most of his time at the gym, even having to cancel dates with his wife to put in more time. While Norman’s foremost passion seems to be training, he at least prioritizes fatherhood; even before the more expressive 3D modeling of the ORAS reboot, it wasn’t hard to picture his beaming every time he interacts with his child or talks about Brendan/May to others. Being a good husband isn’t quite his forte. Norman has as much to learn about the importance of his badge as any trainer; balancing his career as a gym leader and family life is still a struggle. While his position as a leader would be more time-consuming in the beginning than later once he’s gotten used to the job, the game implies that Norman has trained extensively to become a leader and that his continued long hours are voluntary.
Norman does express regret at being away from home often. He reminds Brendan/May to go home and visit Mom when they can and laments how quickly their child is growing up and becoming independent. With regards to parenting, he refers to the player’s mother and himself as a team, but also acknowledges Mom especially for raising Brendan/May and taking care of the home. While Mom’s role isn’t as front-and-center as the mothers of future generations (i.e., Diamond/Pearl/Platinum’s former Pokémon Contest idol, X/Y’s Rhydon-racing champion), Norman’s recognition of all that his wife does for the family and the implication of what she’s sacrificed for his career pays more respect to the life of a housewife than previous Pokémon games.
Norman’s role in the player’s life influences relationships outside of their family as well. His childhood friendship with Professor Birch, arguably the most laid-back of the Pokémon Profs, has persevered to present day. Birch’s high opinion of Norman extends to his expectations of the protagonist as a trainer, and his relationship to the protagonist is far more casual than that of professors and trainers in previous gens. The goofy professor is part mentor, part honorary uncle. In contrast to Professors Elm and (notoriously) Oak discouraging use of key items at inappropriate times, Birch must be a chill dad, because it’s Norman whose guidance deters indoor bicycling in Hoenn.
Both Norman and Birch are pleased to see the friendship between their children, Brendan and May (the unchosen player character becomes Birch’s child and the game’s primary rival). At the end of the main story in ORAS, even though Norman cancels an outing with his wife because of work, he offers their tickets to a star show at the Mossdeep Space Center to his child with the teasing suggestion that they invite their neighbor, an authentically mortifying contribution from dear old dad.
Norman’s preferred Pokémon type, normal, is a particularly interesting choice for a father. Though normal Pokémon don’t have any typing advantages in which they inflict additional damage, they are weak only to one type of move: fighting. The most unwelcome Pokémon in Dad’s gym are the ones associated with brute force or conflict. Normal is also an endearingly fitting choice for Dad considering Norman’s personality and belief that anyone who puts in the effort can become a great trainer. It makes sense that he would favor a common type often taken for granted both in-universe and by players. In spite of his Slakings’ loafing around every other turn, Norman deals severe damage when his team hits its mark. Stability is the core of Norman’s strategy, and his lineup reflects preparation and awareness.
Additionally, Norman’s badge comes with the most important benefit of the game: the ability to use the move surf outside of battle. As Hoenn is infamously the region with the most water travel, Norman gifts his child with the ability to see the world and grow even more independent. Additionally, the Balance Badge increases the defense of all of the player’s Pokémon, a heartwarming upgrade considering that it comes from Brendan/May’s father. For players in the original RSE games, his parting TM gift is Facade, a move that deals double damage when its user has a status affliction such as poison or burn. In the ORAS remake, his TM gift is Retaliate, a hard-hitting move that increases in power if one of the player’s Pokémon has fainted. Norman passes down signature moves that encourage Brendan/May to fight back with all their strength and give ailing teams a boost of power.
Having a family member who is actively part of the Pokémon trainer community is a unique aspect that adds a little something to the plot and characterization of the Hoenn games. That extra look into the protagonist’s life fleshes out the whole adventure and makes Brendan/May feel like more of a character than the previous blank slate (“…”) protagonists. Norman appears to have influenced protagonist parents who followed, as the mothers in generations after Hoenn displayed expertise of their own in the world of Pokémon and gave those protagonists the legacy experience as well.
As the first generation of Pokémon players from the ’90s and ’00s remain loyal to the franchise nearly two decades later, adult characters become as accessible as the 10-year-old Pokémon masters were years ago. The development of their goals and personalities is as much a nod to the diverse demographics of Pokémon as it is to how far “gotta catch ‘em all” has come.