Pokémon’s Double Battles were added to the games until Ruby and Sapphire in 2002. They have since become an integral part of the franchise. These two-on-two matches are the main format players use in online competitions and the VGC; they come with all sorts of strategies that can’t necessarily be applied to Single Battles that ultimately lead to a faster-paced metagame. In the anime, Ash has had a number of Double Battles in his career against trainers like Tate and Liza, Juan, Tucker, Olympia, and more. These days, everyone knows plenty about Double Battles, but this wasn’t always the case.
Back in the early days of Pokémon, before Generation III, Double Battles were seen as a novelty. The idea of two Pokémon fighting at the same time came off as highly unorthodox, which is probably why it took so long to actually be implemented. This mindset about Double Battles is difficult to imagine, but there are some old Pokémon media to give some insight on the subject.
One could argue that the real first Double Battles of the series were against Team Rocket. Jessie and James often send out both of their Pokémon to battle against Ash and his friends. However, this was more a case of each side using whatever Pokémon they had against each other in an all-on-all Pokémon battle.
Even in Pokémon Yellow, where one could actually battle the Team Rocket Trio, they were treated as a single trainer. Jessie and James shared a trainer sprite and sent out Arbok, Weezing, and even Meowth one at a time. Battles against this Trio wouldn’t become official Double Battles until Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! all the way in Generation VII.
The first official Double Battle of the franchise took place in Season 2 of the anime, Adventures on the Orange Islands. In the eponymous Archipelago, Gym Leaders wouldn’t necessarily challenge Trainers to straightforward one-on-one battles like in most regions. Instead, their Gym challenges were tests of skill. This could mean battles with unique rulesets, but it could also mean gimmicky challenges like target practice and bobsled racing. It’s as if these challenges were written to feel as detached from conventional Pokémon battles as possible.
In Episode 108, “Pokémon Double Trouble,” Luana of the Kumquat Gym had Ash face her in a double Pokémon battle. They never even shortened the term down to “Double Battle;” it was constantly referred to as a double Pokémon battle as if to emphasize everyone’s unfamiliarity with the format. The fact that a Double Battle was considered a gimmick in the same vein as target practice and bobsled racing shows how novel the concept seemed.
Another indication of how foreign the idea of Double Battles was comes in how Ash learned to understand them. Tracey had to liken the format to a doubles match in tennis for Ash to get the concept. The need for this analogy indicates that Double Battles weren’t just uncommon at the time, they were nigh-inconceivable.
As expected, the battle didn’t go smoothly for Ash. Even with Charizard and Pikachu, his two best Pokémon at the time, he had trouble getting with the program. The two of them spent the first half of the match getting in each other’s way and taking each other’s attacks. They were proverbially stepping on each other’s toes.
This unfortunate predicament of Ash’s is funny considering how rarely it happens in the games. It usually only occurs with multi-target attacks like Earthquake or Explosion. Even then, the other Pokémon can use Protect to avoid taking damage. One has to explicitly instruct Pokémon to attack their own side with single-target attacks like Flamethrower or Thunderbolt; it’s possible with incorrect button inputs or unorthodox strategies, but not common.
Meanwhile, Luana’s Pokémon were perfectly in sync for most of the battle. She even had the two of them coordinate their attacks on Charizard to take it out faster. This double-targeting is a viable strategy even in modern competitive Pokémon.
Thankfully, Ash managed to get his team’s act together before he lost Charizard. By learning to coordinate his Pokémon properly and getting a good sense of the whole field, he was able to get Luana’s Alakazam and Marowak to take each other out with their own attacks. This kind of strategy can only work in the anime, but it was at least enough to earn Ash the Jade Star Badge.
The battle with Luana is a fascinating one because of its context. As a Double Battle before Double Battles were a thing, there are a number of ways in which it both holds up and has aged poorly with regards to the metagame. It’s also interesting seeing Ash’s first ever Double Battle considering proficient he’s gotten in the format since it became a mainstay. Luana’s Double Battle being treated like some sort of black magic is a wonderful time capsule for the Pokémon franchise.