Every Pokémon game starts with an important decision: which of these funny little monsters do you want to accompany you on your journey? The cute base forms of the starter creatures make for great mascots, and their final forms are typically powerful enough for experienced players to clear a game solo. But between these two extremes lies the forgotten middle evolution.
Often likened to the uncanny mid-transformation forms featured on the covers of the Animorphs books, these Pokémon don’t get the screen time or love they deserve. They only show up in-game for about 20 levels before evolving into their final forms, and they rarely get merchandise.
Following the recent starter reveals of Pokémon Sword and Shield, people have been sharing their favorite starters across the generations. As usual, the middle evolutions have been left out. And so, since nobody else is going to do it, I’m here to give these middle child syndrome victims their due, by ranking all 21 from Red and Blue to Sun and Moon.
What makes a great middle evolution? It should be clear step from a Pokémon’s initial form to its final one, yet distinct in its own right. It should honor what has passed while foreshadowing what is still to come. And it should not be a turtle with two bushes on its back.
I think the Turtwig line is underrated, but I can’t excuse Grotle. Only Don Bluth could do justice to this The Land Before Time reject.
If Combusken is intentionally phallic because it’s a cock, props to Game Freak for the fowl pun. Unfortunately, it is still ugly.
Braixen is more anthropomorphic than I like my Pokémon. If you’re into that, power to you, but I wanted Fennekin to evolve into another quadruped instead of breaching uncomfortably humanoid territory.
Not crazy about this beach ball thing. Appearing only one generation after Pignite, it feels like a retread of that same silly, round design.
The Unova games are some of my favorites in the series, but it’s not a hot take to say they have disappointing starters. Pignite may always be the most hated one, partially because it was the third Fire starter in a row to become a Fighting type.
I don’t really care for any of the Pokémon in this family, but Brionne’s identity crisis isn’t doing it any favors. It’s not as goofy as Popplio or as majestic as Primarina. Really, it’s just this ugly duckling’s awkward teen phase.
Marshtomp might as well be the poster child for boring middle evolutions. Its design is just the middle ground between Mudkip and Swampert, with no major distinguishing features aside from its size. I didn’t think it was possible to make an axolotl-inspired design so shruggable, but here we are.
When it was first revealed, Oshawott became one of the most polarizing starters, with its awkward design quickly becoming a love-it-or-hate-it deal. Next to it, Dewott is comparatively generic — making it inoffensive but ultimately forgettable.
The universally beloved Piplup is a tough act to follow, but I do still wish its evolutions were more impressive. The only thing that sticks out to me about Prinplup is the fact that it immediately learns how to use Metal Claw with those… flippers.
It’s not the wrestler version of Tony the Tiger yet, and it’s not as cute as its pre-evolution. It’s not even a Dark type. I actually forgot what this one looked like even though I used it in Pokémon Sun.
Dartrix is another middle evolution caught between two significantly more interesting designs. Rowlett is a lovable little barn owl, and Decidueye is a Ghost-type archer. Dartrix’s only defining feature is its asymmetrical bangs, which are alright for a human but kind of underwhelming for a Pokémon.
Essentially just a bigger Snivy, Servine is one of the most forgettable middle evolutions. It could have been more interesting if it looked more like Serperior, its final evolution that has a much more original (and limbless) design.
The big leaf on Bayleef’s head is a great defining feature for it and its pre-evolution, Chikorita. Because Meganium ditched the leaf for stamen-like antennae, its design is a pretty clear downgrade from Bayleef’s. I just wish Bayleef had a more creative name. It’s just a kind of leaf!
Quilava’s design doesn’t stray far from its pre-evolution, but that’s part of what makes it so good. Having two separate flames is a nice touch too. I’m biased towards the Cyndaquil family, so I wanted to rate Quilava higher, but my journalistic integrity is holding me back.
Unlike other middle evolutions, Croconaw’s design is actually more distinct than that of its relatives. Totodile and Feraligatr look like crocodiles with classic Pokémon-style embellishments. Croconaw has all of that, but for some reason it looks like a caveman, too. It’s doing its own thing, and I respect that.
Frogadier has been completely overshadowed by its evolution Greninja, who has become a huge fan favorite following its appearances in Super Smash Bros. and different Pokémon media. But Frogadier is still cool in its own right, with the bubble scarf giving it a distinct — and much less upsetting — look from its evolution’s tongue scarf.
Simple yet solid. I like Charizard as much as the next person, but Charmeleon’s salamander-inspired design is nice. Great shade of red too.
Super Smash Bros. may never include a moveset for Waluigi or Banjo-Kazooie, but against all odds, this humble middle evolution took the coveted spot of playable character. I appreciate how Ivysaur’s partially bloomed bud gives it a unique aesthetic, and it’s got a nicer mug than Venusaur.
The tail flame of the Chimchar line is admittedly unoriginal, echoing the classic design of the Charmander family. However, the mandrill-inspired blue marking on Monferno’s face is a creative way to distinguish it from other apelike Pokémon. Very underappreciated detail.
Like every Pokémon Mystery Dungeon fan, I’ve grown attached to Grovyle thanks to its role as a tragic hero in the Explorers story. But even ignoring that game, Grovyle is awesome. The grass blade motif makes its design even more appealing than its evolution, Sceptile.
Wartortle’s wing-like ears and big fluffy tail are unique design choices that distinguish it from every other Pokémon. Its origins are equally cool, likely stemming from the large seaweed tail of the mythological Japanese minogame turtle.
Based on recent discoveries from Pokémon Red and Green prototype data, fans theorize that Blastoise originally evolved from a completely separate Pokemon while Squirtle’s final evolution was planned to be more in line with Wartortle’s design. Maybe if we lived in that timeline, Wartortle’s mythology-inspired tail would get the respect it deserves.