A bulb-backed dinosaur, a flame-tailed salamander, and a bubble-blowing turtle — can any pocket monster match the iconic looks of Pokémon Red and Blue’s starter trio? Some players would argue no, believing that modern Pokémon designs have taken a turn for the worst. Sentient ice cream cones and literal piles of garbage just don’t make the kids excited like the critters of yore, they say. But what if we take nostalgia out of the picture? What if Pokémon designs really are different from how they used to be, for a reason? What if the Pokémon of today are instead being designed with a different goal in mind?
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Playing With Your Emotions
Let’s compare the starters of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl to those of Black and White. In the first pair, you’ll see the terraformed turtle, Turtwig; the princely penguin, Piplup; and the charbroiled chimpanzee, Chimchar. While some of these have a dash of “personality” (eg. Piplup’s royalty and Chimchar’s eventual fighting prowess), they are similar to the original starter trio in their focus on distinct silhouettes and visual indicators of elemental Type.
In contrast, Black and White’s starters ooze personality. Snivy turns its nose to the world, snobbily trotting through Unova as it evolves to take on a royal grace. Tepig’s brutish playfulness eventually swells the sweet swine into a wrestling boar. And Oshawott’s affinity for carrying razor-sharp seashells without a license culminates in Samurott, a quadrupedal otter that sheathes shell-swords in its arms. These designs do not merely add fire, water, and grass to normal animals. They clearly contain a deeper meaning — a panache, a charm, a distinctiveness that serves as a hook.
This extra layer continues to pervade through each new starter trio. With X and Y, we saw a fire-wielding fox witch, chestnut-shielded chipmunk warrior, and a ninja frog with a tongue-scarf. Sun and Moon gave us a “lit” relaxed kitten that became a wrestler; a clown seal that became a siren; and a polite owl that became a devastating archer.
It’s no coincidence that the addition of personality coincided with the addition of mid-battle sprite movement in Black and White, and deepened with the addition of 3D models in X and Y. Similarly, newer 3D titles have included cuddling-and-loving modes such as Pokémon Amie and Poképelago. We’re meant to fall in love with our animate, living pocket monsters as we fight towards victory, then act on that love through a touch screen.
We can establish that Pokémon is now attempting to craft its creatures with personality in mind rather than simply looks, but what does that mean? It implies that each monster is packaged with its own story and relatability. They’re all created with a target in mind, someone with whom they may connect. Every Pokémon is a potential “perfect partner” for someone to connect with.
Banging the Old Nostalgia Drum
Part of this difference has come from a shift in gameplay over time. In the beginning, Pokémon on your team were chosen partially based on their looks and partially on their stats. Red and Blue didn’t contain many monsters that overlapped one another’s battling niche. If you needed a solid attacker, you chose Charizard. If you wanted defense, you had Rhydon. The personal attachment to each creature started with their trustworthiness and usefulness to your team. Their badass spikes were secondary.
In a way, Pikachu was the first Pokémon to be sold as a “friend,” rather than another animal. It debuted as Ash’s partner in the anime, it became the cheerful mascot of the series, and now serves as an adorable costumed buddy in many different merchandise lines. Pikachu was given a personality, and at times, can be much more captivating than a “blank slate” Pokémon. It represents a separate way to connect with an audience: with an emotionally complex friend, rather than a battling critter. Perhaps such an attachment or relation to a new Pokémon can overcome a nostalgic obsession with older favorites. The current promotional materials for Sword and Shield illustrate this philosophy perfectly.
Take Sobble, the new water lizard starter. As its name implies, it cries a lot. This sobbing, bubbly baby boi is constantly anxious, shown by its wide eyes and uneasy grimace. It can also camouflage itself when in contact with water. According to the official Pokémon site, “Sobble will secrete the water in its body like sweat when nervous or embarrassed.” It will also “bawl if it feels threatened,” which makes people nearby “start crying uncontrollably.” In the ensuing chaos, Sobble uses its own tears to disappear and sneak away from its discomfort.
There’s something about Sobble that speaks to my soul. From the moment I saw its nerve-wracked gaze, I was in love. I had found a companion: someone as anxious and sad as I am on a bad day. I want to hug it with all my might, nurture it, and pray it evolves into something much happier. I care for it on a deeper and more intricate level than I ever cared for Cyndaquil, Treecko, or Froakie.
Sobble does feel like a “woke, depressed millennial” joke until you learn that the new sheep, Wooloo, similarly rolls away from discomfort. Game Freak and The Pokémon Company are serious with their endeavors into creature emotion. In some strange way, the anxiety portrayed by these Pokémon is cute. It’s relatable — there’s something comforting about a little sheep that wants to run away from its problems just like you do. “I’d die for this sheep,” you say in a quote-tweet. When was the last time you were excited to catch a Route One Normal-type? Bidoof could never.
Wooloo is your perfect partner, just as you’re its complement. It was designed to draw you in. It helps that such design efforts exist in an age where everything is instantly shareable, memeable, and relatable. Sword and Shield’s new critters are presented so users on Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and other social media can quickly announce their love for these quirky, new personalities. If The Pokémon Company wants me to rep the #SobbleSquad, retweet a cute pic, and pledge to protect a stressed-out lizard, then so be it. I’m stanning Sobble, damn it.
Blazing Forward Into a New Future
In Pokémon games and shows, most monsters have a dual purpose a purpose in daily life. Mr. Mime battles and cleans houses, while Gogoat fights and acts as a taxi. Similarly, personalities and stories allow every Pokémon to relate with specific niches, while still functioning as the same fighting monsters we’ve always known.
Sobble and Wooloo are for anxious trainers. Grookey is meant for players who like energetic designs; music, and the way people inherently groove to it; druid magic; the growing trend of virtual animals using human tools. Scorbunny is for those who love pep and spunk; running and kicking; cute rabbits; feet; the faint hope that we may not have another Fire/Fighting line.
We can only hope that Pokémon Sword and Shield continue to give us better designs and personalities, as each one requires extra thought and care. This will ultimately birth multilayered partners: true Pokémon friends, resonant of our actual emotions, that Trainers worldwide will fall in love with. In time, perhaps they could replace the spots of a certain dinosaur, salamander, or turtle in our hearts.