The world presented by the Pokémon franchise is becoming closer and closer to our own. But is that really a good thing?
When it first debuted for the original Game Boy, Pocket Monsters/Pokémon presented a new, enchanting world full of mysterious, lovable creatures. As the years and additional Pokémon generations have waxed on, the world of Pokémon and the creatures therein have become steadily more emulative of elements, creatures, and even inanimate objects in our own world. With an index of critters numbering 649 already and more on the way in the core series’ first three-dimensional entry, that trend is starting to become worrisome.
In the earliest Pokémon games, everything was fresh and new. Granted, the game’s initial Kanto region was based on its namesake area in Japan, but aside from this, everything was unique. Real-world flora and fauna provided loose bases for a great number of the Pokémon you could catch, but even those based on real world animals had a great deal of originality and interpretation inherent in their designs. Some fans still debate whether the “saur” portion of Bulbasaur is a reptile or more toad-inspired. Beedrill’s ridiculous forearm spikes set it a world apart from any real-life stinging insect. Mankey and Primeape both walk the line between simian and porcine and Poliwag’s evolutions toward its eventual Poliwrath form comprise one of the strangest interpretations of a tadpole ever conceived.
Accompanying these unique twists on nature were plenty of more original creations as well. The peculiar, musically inclined ball of pink squishiness dubbed Jigglypuff in North America. A serpent made of rocks called Onix. Whatever sort of schoolgirl’s nightmare Tangela is supposed to be. Muk, little more than a nondescript purple blob of poison goo, and Ditto, the amorphous “meh” face that invariably became a breeding tank. The character designers over at Game Freak went well out of their way to blend elements of the familiar, the fantastic, and the folkloric to populate their world’s tall grass.
Pokémon Gold, Silver, and eventually, Crystal came along and added another 100 Pokémon to the games’ overall roster. Aside from the handful of new forms connected to evolutionary chains from the original games, these new Pokémon bore a bit more resemblance to real creatures in some cases, due in part to increased graphical fidelity. Still, this new batch was subject to the same sort of design ethic as their older siblings. Sudowoodo, the shimmying “tree” made of rock. Scizor, a steel-coated winged lobster thing. The happiest coral… rock… whatever the hell Corsola is. The Pokémon created for Silver and Gold bore just as much originality as the original 151.
As the generations have moved through new platforms, leaving the Game Boy for the Game Boy Advance, up through the Nintendo DS and, soon, the 3DS, this originality and inspiration seems to be waning. Beautifly shows a much greater resemblance to a butterfly than Butterfree ever did. Octillery is a dead ringer for your average Japanese-style, cartoon octopus. Wingull and Pelipper are about as far removed from seagulls and pelicans as soda is from pop. A similar lack of real-to-Pokémon differentiation can be found in Ducklett and Swanna. Animal-based Pokémon are seeing less originality worked into many of their designs.
On a parallel note, the number of Pokémon based on inanimate objects is on the rise, and getting sillier all the time. Sure, the original games had Magnemite, which was a cute blend of magnets and some spare parts. Voltorb could also fall under this designation, but the idea of a Pokémon that emulated an everyday item in the game’s world lends it some credence. Lunatone and Solrock were early examples of object-based Pokémon being a bit of a stretch, being little more than rocky representations of the moon and sun. Generation IV gave us Chingling, nothing more than a tiny bell with a face. The worst offenders to date have to be from the most recent games, as Pokémon Black and White have served up Pokémon based on ice cream (Vanillite and its evolutions), interlocked gears (Klink, Klang, and Klinklang), flame-based lighting (a candle, lamp, and chandelier), and bags of garbage. Literally. Trubbish and Garbodor. You can’t make this sort of thing up.
To be fair, that’s not to say there’s still originality present in the series’ fauna. Each generation’s Pokémon show some directions and combinations no one could have predicted, and that work surprisingly well visually and as a basis for their abilities. Bouffalant, a bison with a ridiculous afro, is pretty much the greatest thing you will ever see. Each iteration’s Legendary Pokémon become more and more abstract, moving many of them closer to the role of unique, cosmically essential beings the series’ lore has been trying to depict them as since day one. However, this abstraction seems to be bleeding into the realm of more easily caught Pokémon. Because of this, walks through the tall grass and the occasional fishing trip are starting to get downright weird.
I’m aware I’ve been complaining about slowly developing signs of wear regarding originality in Pokémon design this entire time, but the latest generation seems to have swung the pendulum back into the creative realm so forcibly that it’s as if they’re hurting for ideas. Aside from the odd choices of object-based Pokémon listed above, here are some of the more nebulous concepts that have been worked into Pokémon form in Pokémon White, Black, and their sequels:
- the “V for Victory” hand sign
- humanoid figures holding different construction materials
- Gothic Lolita fashion
- cellular division
It’s a slow creep, admittedly, but it makes one wonder just how obscure things are going to get in the newest batch of creatures in Pokémon X and Y. It’s a hard thing to judge from what’s been released thus far. The starting trio and their evolutions fulfill the obligatory “three elemental animals that get steadily cooler” quota, and the game-exclusive Legendaries fit their titular context (in that they resemble the letters X and Y) and appear likely inspired by some existing mythology or cosmological outlook. Beyond that, who knows? We’re just as liable to see Pokémon based on soup, allergy medication, or obsolete forms of media as we are anything reasonable at this point. Picture it, won’t you? What’s this? BETAMAXIMILLIAN evolved into HD-DAVIDE!
What needs to happen to retain the interest of those of us who’ve been following Pokémon since the earliest days and to keep bringing in new fans is a return to balance. Finding the happy medium between the fantastic and the recognizable would safely steer the Pokémon franchise toward further longevity, rather than risking devolution into absolute weirdness or uninspired rehashing. Nintendo and Game Freak have done an okay job of it so far, but Pokémon is beginning to show some signs of aging and potential senility in its nearly twenty years as a franchise.