As I’ve begun my journey through Pokemon Sword I have shared my thoughts on many aspects of the game’s early hours. I’ve talked about camping and catching, raiding and Poke Jobs, but there’s a particular topic I haven’t touched on yet. Luckily you’ve got me covered, adventurers! As part of my Charming and Open community event, blogger Hobbits of Hyrule has asked me to touch on the very subject which I have not yet discussed: Pokemon designs.
Each generation of Pokemon adds at least 70 or so new Pokemon to the ever-growing number of these fantastic creatures. In recent generations Pokemon are themed based on the part of the real world that inspires the region in which they live. Sometimes it is easy to see the larger design ethos that inspires a whole generation – other times it’s a little less straightforward. Today I’m going to discuss the designs of each generation. It’s not practical for me to talk about literally every single Pokemon (if GameFreak can’t do it then I certainly can’t!) so instead I’ll focus on some key designs shared by every generation – the starters and the legendaries – before then discussing some of my favorites and some of my flops from each gen.
GENERATION ONE – RED AND BLUE – KANTO
Ah, the OG. There is a brand of Pokemon fan who would tell you that this generation is the greatest one of all time. That these Pokemon designs are flawless, that this is back when GameFreak only had good ideas and never gave us literal garbage in their games. I am not what other members of the Pokemon fandom would call a “genwunner,” and I don’t agree that this represents the golden age of Pokemon design. Nostalgia is a powerful force, friends, and it’s a powerful force that convinces people that Trubbish and Vanillite are bad but somehow Voltorb and Electrode are god’s gift to brilliant design.
It’s hard for me to say anything bad about these starters. At various times in my life I have loved each one – I started with Squirtle as a kid, became a Charmander fan throughout my teenage years, and currently would advocate for more Bulbasaur love. Each of them evolves I think into something that makes sense based on what their youngest form promises. When it comes to legendaries, Mewtwo of course is every angst-ridden teenager’s Pokemon dream. They did a pretty good job of designing Mewtwo and Mew in such a way that the former is convincingly an edgelord version of the latter. I’ve never been a big fan of the legendary birds, personally, particularly Zapdos. I get that its wings are supposed to look like lightning but they just look so ridiculous when they flap.
One of the weird themes with the first generation of Pokemon is having the evolved form of a Pokemon just be more of the first Pokemon glued together. Magnemite to Magneton and Diglett to Dugtrio are the most obvious examples of this, but there are other Pokemon who follow that same aesthetic. Doduo evolves into Dodrio? Slap on another head. Koffing evolves into Weezing? Slap on another head. While there is plenty to make fun of in gen one, there are plenty of good ones too. Seeing a Gyarados in the water is still very cool to this day, and the fact that it evolves from wimpy, floppy Magikarp continues to be fantastic. While many animal-based Pokemon might look too much like their animal, Beedrill is not “just a bee” – those wicked javelin-like stingers on its torso make this a bug Pokemon I would never want to meet in real life.
GENERATION TWO – GOLD AND SILVER – JOHTO
The second generation of Pokemon is one of my personal favorites, but is that due to the designs? Let’s start (as Pokemon often does) with the starter Pokemon. Honestly I think these starters are on the more forgettable end of the spectrum. Part of their problem is that as Pokemon who only have a single typing for all three forms, they lack anything that truly works to make them stand out. The secondary typing is often the feature of a starter that inspires the little bit of extra flair, and none of these little guys have that flair.
Now the second generation features my favorite legendary Pokemon, Lugia. As a kid I loved Lugia because of its role in Pokemon 2000, and then as a teenager I liked it because of Pokemon XD: Gale of Shadows. And while the legendary dogs don’t necessarily speak to my soul in the same way, I think that Raikou, Entei, and Suicune have much better designs that the legendary birds and they stand out well. Suicune in particular is a legendary that I would say has a lasting, iconic design thanks to its sleek form and the cool ribbon-like features that flow behind it like water when it moves. So many water types are fish, so having this dog-like Pokemon change the game was a great choice.
Some of my favorite Johto Pokemon are Heracross and Spinarak, both of whom made appearances in my bug type gym back when the social media gym challenge was popular. As the second entry in the Pokemon series, gen two tried to expand on the first game by adding new forms to Pokemon who already existed. This brought us baby Pokemon like Pichu, Igglybuff, and Cleffa, but it also gave us some cool evolutions like Scizor and Steelix. Gen two wasn’t perfect, of course. Gen two I think really started the trend of having the generic route one rodent-and-bird Pokemon be just as boring as could possibly be. And as I look at a list of the gen two Pokemon to find designs I don’t like, I honestly forgot just how many of them are actually iterations on gen one Pokemon. 17 out of 100 new Pokemon are connected to a pre-existing evolutionary line – that’s almost 1 in every 5. But when you consider that many of the newly-added Pokemon were rock stars like Murkrow, Houndoom, and Misdreavous, I personally think it’s hard to be upset about the repeats.
GENERATION THREE – RUBY AND SAPPHIRE – HOENN
I can still remember the day I got Pokemon Sapphire. I don’t remember the circumstances of why I got it, but I remember taking it to my grandfather’s house and sitting in the recliner in his living room. I remember selecting Torchic as my starter and experiencing the first few hours of Sapphire, totally immersed in how great this new Pokemon game looked and felt. From a mechanical and story perspective I don’t think these titles aged particularly well, but we are here to talk about designs, and I think gen three does have some good ones to highlight.
Each of the starters has one form in their evolutionary line that I really love. Mudkip is my favorite basic, Grovyle is my favorite middle form, and Blaziken is my favorite final evolution. So all three have something good to offer. We could possible blame gen three for starting the fire-fighting trend but Blaziken itself is a neat Pokemon. Where legendaries are concerned, this generation has the Regis, and I am not a fan of those things. Somebody at GameFreak was playing too much D&D and decided it’d be fun to put golems into Pokemon.
While for some of the other generations it is easy to find some kind of general theme in the designs, I’m not sure that gen three has a clear philosophy driving it. Wurmple wins the award for “cruddiest early-game bug of all time” thanks to Silcoon and Cascoon being both random yet the same, and Beautifly and Dustox being worse versions of Butterfree and Venemoth. Actually, maybe that’s the theme of gen three: crappy versions of Pokemon we already have. Compare Spheal to Seel, Plusle and Minun to Pikachu, Gulpin to Muk. That said, generation three did add some great Pokemon like Milotic (even if it is just pretty Gyarados), Gardevoir, and Breloom. Gen three perhaps suffered for trying to hard to have Pokemon that were like the previous generations rather than doing its own thing, but when it did do its own thing it excelled.
GENERATION FOUR – DIAMOND AND PEARL – SINNOH
Confession: gen four is the only generation of Pokemon I have not played. I didn’t really skip it on purpose – I’m not sure why I never ended up picking up a copy of Diamond or Pearl. But these days I’m holding out for a gen 8 remake of the gen 4 games, hopefully with HMs removed since I heard that gen 4 was the worst for HM shenanigans…anyway, we’re talking about the designs here, so let’s focus on that aspect of the game. I may not have played gen 4, but I still know the Pokemon thanks to a combination of having seen them in the other games, and having had one of the nicest strategy guides I have ever owned for this generation of Pokemon. Even though I never played it. Seriously, how did I never have this game?
I think gen four may be the winner when it comes to starter Pokemon designs. Each line is unique and brings something cool to the table for its typing. While it is a bummer that Infernape is yet another fire/fighting starter, it has a great design reminiscent of a Sun Wukong sort of character. Torterra calls upon the legend of island turtles shared in games like The Legend of Zelda, and Empoleon is a perfect pun on the idea of an emperor penguin. Fantastic designs all around when it comes to the starters. The gen four legendaries are the ones I am the least familiar with, so I won’t really spend any time talking about them.
Like gen two, gen four has a lot of Pokemon that build on existing ones. Actually, it has a lot more – 27 out of 107 Pokemon are evolutions or baby forms of previous Pokemon, making a full 25% (or one in four) of gen four Pokemon an iteration of something that already exists. That’s quite a bit more than Johto, so I suppose I’ll have to hold gen four to that same criticism. That being said, some of those new forms are awesome ones, such as Gallade for the Ralts line or Mamoswine for the Swinub line. And for every flop like the memeworthy Bidoof or true-to-its-name Purrugly, you have Pokemon like Shinx, Drapion, and Toxicroak holding the line.
GENERATION FIVE – BLACK AND WHITE – UNOVA
Generation five dared to do what no Pokemon sequel before it would – it soft-rebooted the franchise by introducing a whole new set of Pokemon. This means all the gen give designs are fresh material; to keep with our trend, 0% of them are iterations of previous Pokemon. Some folks really enjoyed this while others of course hate when their favorite Pokemon is not available in a particular Pokemon game. But for the purposes of this discussion, gen five is a gold mine of stuff to talk about.
Time for a take of an as yet unknown temperature: the gen five starters are my least favorites. Gen two may be bland but gen five is flat-out bad. Maybe its Ganondorf’s fault that I’m tired of flaming pigs, but Emboar is easily my least favorite fire starter. Serperior is kind of cool I guess, but the Pokemon you have to live through to get there are definitely not worth it. And Samurott just seems like a water version of Dialga or Palkia – all these big four-legged steel-looking Pokemon are way too samey. Speaking of samey, gen five’s legendaries are the main source of my total exhaustion with legendaries. Half the time I can’t even tell Thunderus and Tornadus apart, and which ones are the incarnate forms and which ones are the therian forms? Don’t ask me which one is Azelf and which one is…that thing that isn’t Azelf. And is there a third one? Ugh, I hate this.
Now while I just spent an entire paragraph dissing the starters and legendaries, I don’t think all of gen five’s designs are bad. This is the generation that really started the whole “GameFreak is running out of ideas” discourse. People cite Pokemon like Trubbish, Vanillite, and Klink as evidence that all the good Pokemon designs are gone. Here’s what those people are missing: the design philosophy behind gen five is that Unova is based on the United States. The Pokemon those fans hate are literally social commentary about them. GameFreak was like “gosh, what do I think of when I think of America? Welp, it’s heavily industrialized, they all eat ice cream, and there’s garbage everywhere. Also eagles, I guess.” Maybe I’m just a contrarian but I actually enjoy gen five’s designs for this reason. So while I think the starters and legendaries could have used some work, in general I think gen five has some really fun Pokemon designs.
GENERATION SIX – X AND Y – KALOS
“What, did they run out of colors?” Pokemon X and Y is the generation of Pokemon where I really jumped back in. I skipped gen four (for whatever reason) and while I started gen five, it is to this day the only Pokemon generation where I never finished the game after beginning it. What really turned me on to X and Y didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the game itself, but rather my newfound love of the Nuzlocke challenge. But what about the designs of the Pokemon of the generation that brought me back?
The gen six starters have a sort of fantasy RPG theme with Froakie becoming a ninja, Chespin becoming a knight, and Fennekin becoming a magician. Just like in fantasy RPGs I preferred the rogue character with Froakie being my starter of choice, but I did enjoy Chesnaught as well. While I don’t love how Delphox looks, there aren’t many magician Pokemon out there so it at least brings something unique to the table. The XY legendaries are pretty forgettable in my opinion – I’m sure there were ones beside Xerneas and Ylvetal but I don’t even know what they are. I did like Xerneas’ design, though – it has a bit of Princess Mononoke energy with those crazy weird horns.
Gen six is the generation that so far has added the smallest number of new Pokemon and it certainly absorbs some criticism for that. What’s really unfortunate is that despite so few new Pokemon, they really didn’t bring their design A-game in my opinion. The brand new fairy type got such “exciting” additions as Swirlix, which is literally just a wad of cotton candy, or that one floating rock Pokemon whose name I can’t even remember. Or there’s Dedenne, who is literally just Pikachu if Pikachu looked more like a real-life mouse. That being said, I will love Pancham and Pangoro forever and ever, and while Aegislash may be overused in the competitive meta it still was cool to finally have a Pokemon that is a sword.
GENERATION SEVEN – SUN AND MOON – ALOLA
I’m going to try really hard not to let my bias against generation seven to impact my judgment here. If you don’t know, Sun and Moon are my least favorite Pokemon games. I don’t like the island trials system, Ultra Beasts are the worst, and Totem Pokemon felt like the wrong way to increase the difficulty of Pokemon. But not liking the game doesn’t necessarily mean the designs are bad, right? Let’s find out together.
I was Team Rowlet from the moment I saw that little owl and Decidueye just strengthened my love for gen seven’s grass starter. A cool ranger Pokemon with ghost arrows? Heck yes! I was less interested in the designs of Popplio’s evolution and Incineroar, but I do think they are good designs. We only had one wrestling Pokemon before Incineroar in the form of Hawlucha (well, I guess Hariyama since sumo would count as a form of wrestling), so he brought something new to the table. And hey, he was a wrestler without being fire/fighting! Heck yes! I already mentioned that I hate the Ultra Beasts, and my reasoning is because I hate the concept of legendaries in Pokemon in general and Ultra Beasts just added a whole ‘nother way for them to exist. That said, some of the Ultra Beast designs actually were pretty interesting. Nihilego’s ethereal design was perfect as the featured Pokemon for the game’s villain, and I really liked the Ultra Beast that was made of paper.
There’s a lot I do not like about gen seven, but the Pokemon are not one of those things. Gen seven brought us Wimpod and Gollisopod, Salazzle, Cutiefly, Rockruff – freaking Mimikyu. Talk about some great additions to the world of Pokemon! Sure, not everything is a winner – I don’t care for the Tsareena line and neither of the monkey Pokemon appeal to me at all. And goodness did we not need Gumshoos in a world that already has too many generic route one Pokemon. But overall gen seven took the concept of Hawaiian Pokemon and really delivered. Oh, and let’s not forget Alolan forms. Alolan Vulpix and Ninetales alone justify Sun and Moon’s existence. Imagine a world where we were not gifted with that!
GENERATION EIGHT – SWORD AND SHIELD – GALAR
We’ve finally made it to present day, the designs of Pokemon Sword and Shield. I’ve discussed my thoughts on the game’s new features, but what do I think of the Pokemon designs so far?
I really like the starters of this generation. Note that so far I have only seen the full line for Sobble and the middle evolution of Scorbunny. I know what Grookey’s middle form looks like in theory but have not actually seen it yet. Still, I think the first forms of all three Pokemon are really solid, and I think Sobble’s middle evolution checks out. The final one I need to look at a little more before I make a final decision. I thought Scorbunny’s evolution Raboot to be a bit of an odd choice. I thought they were going for a soccer player vibe with Scorbunny but I guess we were supposed to think Naruto? I don’t know. I haven’t seen all of the Sword and Shield legendaries yet but just based on the box legendaries, I am not impressed. Zamazenta or whatever the Shield legendary is called has to be the most ridiculous looking Pokemon I have ever seen.
I love how colorful and weird some of the new Pokemon are. I just added Toxel to my team and its bright purple is so vibrant and unique. That weird elephant Pokemon that Rose shows off in the beginning has an unusual texture that I think looks really cool. I’m excited to see the final forms of some of the Pokemon in my party such as Dottler and Applin. While Rookidee and eventually Corviknight are a nice change of pace for route one bird Pokemon, Skwovet once again fails to add anything interesting to its archetype. I think the baby form of Alcremie has a bit too much in common with Swirlix for my tastes.So not everything is perfect, but overall I think gen eight does some great things from a design perspective.
Thanks are due once again to Hobbits of Hyrule for this Charming and Open question, and if you want to read even more about Pokemon be sure to go check out his answer to my questions about what his Pokemon gym would be like!