DISCLAIMER: ALL PICTURES FOR THIS ARTICLE WERE TAKEN FROM GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH OR SCREENCAPPED FROM YOUTUBE VIDEOS OF GAMEPLAY. I’D CITE SOURCES BUT THERE ARE LIKE 40 DIFFERENT PICTURES HERE AND THAT IS WAY TOO MUCH WORK FOR AN ARTICLE I AM WRITING IN A FIT OF PASSION. IT’S ALL OFFICIAL ARTWORK ANYWAY SO IT’D JUST BE CREDITING A PERSON WHO TOOK ART FROM SOMEWHERE ELSE. LIKE THE ORIGINAL ARTIST FOR HALF OF THESE PICTURES IS KEN SUGIMORI AND THE REST OF THE POKEMON DESIGN TEAM – AND TRUST ME, THEY’RE GETTING CREDIT AND MONEY FOR THEIR WORK.
I didn’t know if there was going to be another Monster Spotlight article. I love monsters and monster design, as the numerous articles about specific monsters and entries in my various bestiaries can attest. However, there’s another, much more famous blog that does articles about monster design – a blog that the vast majority of my audience is familiar with, a blog that predates mine, a blog that partially inspired mine, and most importantly, a blog I don’t want to be accused of ripping off. So despite this being something that’s very much in my wheelhouse, I was hesitant to continue it. I don’t want to be living in someone else’s shadow – I don’t want Horror Flora to be the store-brand soda of monster-centric blogs.
But a lot of people dug that first Monster Spotlight article on some of the monsters from Marvel’s heydey of sci-fi and horror comics, so I’ve been thinking about doing another one for some time. Inspiration eventually struck, and here we are. And with supreme irony, the topic of the second ever Monster Spotlight article is Pokemon. If you guessed the name of the blog I was alluding to in that first paragraph, you can probably guess why this is kind of hilarious.
But the Muse wants what she wants, so here we are. Let’s talk about Pokemon!
There are a few odd and very glaring gaps in my 90’s kid experience. Despite being the target demographic during their heyday, both in terms of age AND my preferences in fiction, I never read Animorphs or Goosebumps. It is AMAZING to me to think that I, a kid who loved old Godzilla movies more than anything else in the world and constantly wanted more of that sort of storytelling, not only didn’t watch Power Rangers, but actually thought it was dumb (which is super baffling since Godzilla vs. Megalon, easily one of the dumbest entries in the Godzilla franchise, was my absolute favorite of the movies for the longest time as a kid). I didn’t watch Batman the Animated Series until I was in college (but to be fair that was because my parents didn’t want me watching it because they felt it was too violent).
But Pokemon? Oh, no, I was on that bandwagon. I was on that bandwagon HARD. From the minute it came out, Pokemon was EXACTLY my jam. It’s what actually got me to finally play a video game – kid me absolutely loved monsters, and hated video games because they were, in my eyes, monster killing simulators. But a video game where you BEFRIEND the monsters? Where your primary motivation is to gather as many monsters as possible and make friends with them and go on adventures exploring the world with your MONSTER FRIENDS? That was excellence. That was high art. That was basically my life goal.
Pokemon was a major player in the 90’s Anime boom as well, and like a lot of 90’s kids that was also a big event in of itself in my childhood. There’s enough to unpack there to make a different sort of article on its own, but I’ll try to summarize the relevant bits here. Anime was different than other cartoons – different in all the myriad ways a mostly separate culture with centuries of its own unique history and trends would obviously be. The action was different, the comedic wild takes were different, and the character design and world building was SO different. The stylization of Anime character and set design is so unique that to this day it still feels unique from other cartoons, even when you get Western cartoons influenced by it – even when you get Western cartoons made by 90’s kids who grew up with that boom.
Pokemon weren’t just cute monsters. They were unique. They were monsters unlike any other before, and I loved them. This is a lot of preamble for an article that’s supposed to be mostly pictures, but I wanted to emphasize the personal element here. As far as my childhood goes, Pokemon is right up there with Godzilla (and a few other things) in terms of influence and importance. And like Godzilla, I’ve never really outgrown it – when I find myself in times of trouble, Pokemon comes to me, speaking words of wisdom: “Catch them all.” I have played every main series Pokemon game (well, ok, I’ve played a bit over half, since each game is split into at least two different versions with slightly altered stories and monster selections, but that’s splitting hairs). As of generation six, I had actually caught them all (I still need to pick up the Alola games again and finish the collection – but still, 718+ is a lot of fucking monsters). I just… I fucking love Pokemon, guys.
However, though I love ALL the pokemon, and though my official favorites list has entries from every generation of the main games, I, like many 90’s kids, have a special place in my heart for the original 151. They were my first, the All that I had to catch. I’m not a GeeWunner for Pokemon – again, let me reiterate that some of my favorites appeared in later games (my all-time favorite comes from Generation 6). But if I could only have one generation of Pokemon – if I had to stick to just one game’s bestiary – it would be the Kanto 151.
Why? Well, it’s not just nostalgia. As you have probably gathered while reading this blog, I’m a guy who really likes
reptiles lizards, snakes, turtles, crocodilians, tuataras, and other ectothermic scaly-skinned tetrapods who lay leathery-shelled eggs. And, as you’ll see, the Kanto pokedex has a LOT of pokemon who are at least partially reptiles lizards, snakes, turtles, crocodilians, tuataras, and other ectothermic scaly-skinned tetrapods who lay leathery-shelled eggs. I’ve often described Kanto as the pokemon region where lizards are the peak of evolution – the ultimate lifeform that all others strive to become.
Related to that is the fact that Pokemon is heavily rooted in the tropes of Kaiju fiction – the working title for the game was “Capsule Monsters,” which was a reference to one of the Ultraman TV series (if you’re a newbie to Ultraman like me, know that there are… a lot… of Ultraman shows. Have fun finding ways to watch them! It’s not easy!), wherein the titular hero summoned kaiju allies that were contained in small capsules. Sound familiar? Kaiju are baked into Pokemon‘s DNA, and I think the Kanto pokemon show that heritage more strongly – or perhaps just more obviously – than the generations that followed. While the later generations refined the unique “voice” of Pokemon’s approach to monster design, there’s something to be said for the kaiju-riffic feel of the Kanto monsters, especially if Godzilla was your first fictional love like he was mine.
But more on all this in a bit! This article isn’t going to cover all 151 Kanto pokemon – I’m not ripping off that other blog ENTIRELY. Instead, we’re gonna jump around covering my personal favorites, just like the previous Monster Spotlight did. And we’ll start with my absolute favorites. My most sentimental of sentimental faves. My Top Six.*
(*note: if we count pre-evolutions as separate monsters, this is actually more than six.)
I have played Pokemon Red, Pokemon Fire Red, and Pokemon Let’s Go: Eevee. I’ve played the former two several times each, in fact (Let’s Go just came out so give me a break). These are all, more or less, the same Pokemon game. Same basic layout of trainers, same basic plot, same pool of 151 pokemon to choose from.
I chose these six every time.* And here they are, presented in the order that I add them to my team.
(*except for in Fire Red, where you can only get Aerodactyl VERY late in the game and for some reason he’s only LEVEL FUCKING FIVE and grinding is already a huge pain in the ass so you have to skip him for your own goddamn sanity)
MY FRIENDS, MY FAMILY, MY TEAM: MY TOP SIX KANTO POKEMON
My First, My Dream Pet, My Starter: The Charmander Line
In general I’m going to focus on fully evolved pokemon, but Charmander is special. I knew that from the moment my nine year old self first laid eyes on him. Charmander wasn’t just any pokemon – he, more than any other, was the pokemon that was made for me. He was almost everything I adored as a little kid. He’s a lizard! He stands upright like a Theropod dinosaur! He breathes fire like a dragon! He’s FUCKING ADORABLE! He’s friendly! He wants to be your friend! He wants to be MY friend! He was made for me!
The other two starters were nearly as good – Bulbasaur and Squirtle also cover a lot of little kid me’s aesthetic bases. A friendly turtle and a friendly frog? Awesome! Every subsequent generation of Pokemon has made it fairly easy to choose between starters – there’s generally only option that’s based on a
reptile lizard, snake, turtle, crocodilian, tuatara, and other ectothermic scaly-skinned tetrapod who lays leathery-shelled eggs. And sometimes there isn’t one but there is a frog so that’s ok. One time there also wasn’t a frog but there was a black cat and an owl and those were ok too. Also the options that are reptiles lizards, snakes, turtles, crocodilians, tuataras, and other ectothermic scaly-skinned tetrapods who lay leathery-shelled eggs are almost always grass type and in general it feels like more work to keep a grass type pokemon alive than it does with a fire or water type but
ANYWAY BACK TO CHARMANDER.
My point in the above ramble is that Charmander had unusually stiff competition for being My Starter of the Game. But he won the contest. He’s won it decisively. My first pokemon toy was a plush Charmander I scoured a college anime convention for (which might even be a knockoff – I don’t care, I love him, he’s one of my favorite childhood toys). At the height of my pokemon toy collection’s existence, I had dozens of Charmanders – big ones, small ones, two that were literally the size of a toddler (I really regret giving most of them away during my dumb “I’m a teenager I can’t have THIS many toys” phase). When Pokemon Silver came out and let you breed pokemon, I filled four boxes with charmanders I bred for no reason other than my desire to have a SHIT TON OF CHARMANDERS. One of them was probably shiny, not that I knew shiny pokemon were even a thing back then. Hell, chances are one had perfect IVs too. SO MANY CHARMANDERS.
And though time has changed both Charmander and me, he is still held very close to my heart. To this day, I still have a sizable Charmander toy collection, including (but not limited to) that first plush I bought all those years ago AND a Build-a-Bear toy that I put in Boba Fett’s costume, because Charmander, like Boba Fett, is a character I still love even though the fandom for the story he originates from now views him as highly overrated.
Before we move onto his final evolution, which I love equally as much as Charmander (and who’s the reason the Charmander line is held in Boba Fett-ish lack-of-fandom-esteem), I want to talk about how Charmander’s design evolved a bit, because Charmander has changed in small but substantial ways since the debut of Pokemon.
The earliest Charmander artwork emphasized the lizardy aspects of the design a bit more than the more modern artwork you’re probably used to. More notably, however, it also featured a big spike in Charmander’s back, which one of my plastic toys from 1998 actually had! By the time Pokemon came to the states this design detail was dropped, and while the official U.S. plastic Charmander merch didn’t have the back spike, one I found later on at an Anime convention did, and I valued it highly as a rare Charmander variant – a prehistoric charmander, if you will.
(If you follow the Midgaheim Bestiary entries I post, you might recall how I snuck a reference to this bit of monster design trivia in one of them!)
As the pokemon design aesthetic has evolved, Charmander’s become more streamlined and a bit less explicitly beastly – a little closer to a human kid in shape – but I still love the cute little lizard. I love him so much. I just… I need a moment, guys, I fucking love Charmander so much. He’s my friend.
…ok, back to the article.
Charmander’s final form is Charizard, and Charizard is fucking rad. That used to be a very popular opinion. It was so popular, in fact – so rabidly popular, so insufferably popular – that now it’s an unpopular opinion. Charizard’s virtues were so overstated by the overzealous and annoying Charizard fandom that it is far more common to see people undercut them. He’s a boring design, they say – just a dragon with a bit of fire on its tail, ho hum. Far from the most creative thing in Pokemon – by a longshot! An average monster at best.
I’m not saying those criticisms are necessarily wrong. Charizard definitely isn’t the most creative design in Pokemon. Hell, he wouldn’t even be in the top fifty of just the Kanto mons. He is, ultimately, a very obvious design with no real unique twist – a standard dragon, barely different than the millions of dragons that predate him, save for the fireball on his tail. Ho hum.
But this isn’t the “most creative” pokemon design list. It’s not the “objective best” pokemon design list (because that shit doesn’t exist). This is my list of favorite pokemon in the Kanto region, and Charizard reigns supreme on that list.
Part of my love for Charizard stems from my childhood desire to catch a dragon. Child-me desperately wanted to prove that fantastical things existed, because child-me (like adult-me) desperately wanted to escape from the mundane terrors of the real world, and if he could just prove that some of that made up imaginary shit was real, then maybe he could escape. And the Charmander line kind of played with that fantasy – you start with a normal(ish) lizard and, through love and care, help it grow into a real goddamn dragon. That was my dream! And while I knew it wouldn’t come true (even while laying hilariously ill-conceived dragon traps that consisted of a milk crate with some graham crackers in it), being able to play a simulation of that fantasy – of finding the fantastic in the mundane, of seeing a lizard become a dragon – was comforting. Charizard was sort of a fantasy within a fantasy – fantasy squared.
Also, as you have most likely gathered, I love the “traditional” dragon approach. The “boring” dragon designs people complain about tend to be the ones I love the most, and if Charizard is “just a boring old dragon,” then goddamn is he one of the best boring old dragons I’ve ever seen. He’s distilled essence of boring dragon. He’s the platonic ideal of boring dragon.
Also, more than that, he’s my best fucking friend and has been since 1998.
I’m not going to talk about the various Mega evolutions here since those really come from Pokemon’s more refined modern aesthetic, but just like with Charmander above, I’m making an exception here, albeit just for ONE of Charizard’s Mega Evolutions. Mega Charizard X keeps the quintessential boring dragon-ness of the original while adding a few bells and whistles to make him more distinct, from the sicknasty blue and black color scheme to those utterly rad jets of fire that perpetually seep out of the sides of his mouth. It’s an absolutely hardcore design, and while that ultimately contributes to Charizard’s reputation as the Pokemon That Only Stupid GeeWun Edgelords Like, I still love it – both on its own merits, and because it had a big role in Pokemon: The Origin, an anime miniseries that, like the Charmander line as a whole, felt like a love letter the Pokemon franchise sent specifically to me.
Also, Charizard’s Japanese name is LIZARDON and that is one of the coolest monster names of all time. So is Charizard for that matter. This monster got two of the coolest monster names of all time and you know what? It deserves them.
My Second, My Underdog, My Serpent: The Ekans Line
I grew up in an area with a large population of Fundamentalist Christians, and a lot of them told me that liking snakes was immoral because the devil took the form of a snake to tempt Adam and Eve, which meant snakes were inherently evil apparently. This ultimately led me to write an entire novel that, amongst other things, retcons Adam and Eve out of the Abrahamic narrative, but more generally it led to me doubling down on my fondness for snakes. That bullshit line of reasoning wasn’t going to make me abandon perfectly innocent snakes, goddamn it. Fuck you you fucking fundies, more snake friends for me.
Ekans and Arbok are exceptional snake monsters – elegant in their simplicity, they fully capture the appeal of snakes in their myriad forms, mixing bits of viper, boa, cobra, and possibly even a bit of monitor lizard (Arbok’s head looks a little Komodo Dragon-y to me). The purple coloration, almost crocodile-like segmented scale patterns, and bright markings sell them as “monsters” without losing any of the snake vibes in the process. They’re the kind of monster designs that make me jealous for how effective they are while being incredibly subtle.
Arbok’s stats aren’t super great, and poison type is high on the list of types that are fucked over by the woefully broken elemental typing system (about on par with grass type, but nowhere near as fucked over as poor bug type). This was especially true in Generation 1’s games, where poison type were especially weak to psychic type pokemon, who in turn were basically undefeatable monsters thanks to a glitch that made them immune to ghost type (who psychic is supposed to be weak to) and the fact that there isn’t a single bug type (the other supposed weakness of psychic type) attack that was worth a shit back then. For those of you who just glazed out, my point is that picking Arbok for your team is generally not your best option.
Well, fuck that. That’s as shitty a reason as the Adam and Eve nonsense. I made Arbok work. And you know what? I didn’t have to work that hard to do it. Love, and Arbok’s ability to learn a pretty wide variety of moves, including a few important HMs, did the work for me. Arbok is worth it.
Also, the best human character the Pokemon franchise has ever produced used an Arbok, so clearly Arboks are for people with refined tastes.
My Treasure, My Late Bloomer, My Diamond in the Rough: the Dratini Line
Man I’m breaking the “only talk about final evos” rule a lot, huh? This is the second to last exception. Dratini had a lot going for it in child-me’s eyes. First, it’s a snake. Second, look at it it’s one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen oh my god I want to hold it close and make sure no one ever hurts it forever. Third, it was the only pokemon (at the time) whose elemental type was DRAGON. In a game that had a lot of dragony creatures (including one whose dragon-ness makes it boring apparently), this was the one they deemed dragon-y enough to be DRAGON TYPE. Fourth, it was super rare and super hard to get, which made having one on your team a point of pride. Dratini was SPECIAL. Maybe not Charmander special, but close.
And then, after a middle stage that shares most of Dratini’s virtues while being a bit more elegant and powerful looking, Dratini blossoms into Dragonite! Dragonite, like Charizard, radiates a quintessential dragon-ness – hell, it even looks like it could be Charizard’s sibling. They’re both orange dragons with blue wings and yellow bellies! But while Charizard was a fierce, protective dragon, Dragonite radiated friendliness. In the parlance of our times, Dragonite is shaped like a friend. Though Dragonite was bigger and now RIDICULOUSLY strong (as the battle against Lance at the end of the first pokemon game would prove), it still has every ounce of the sweetness that Dratini radiates. More than any other fully evolved pokemon in the game, Dragonite showed the appeal of Pokemon – this was a game where the big, powerful monsters were your friends and protectors.
Both approaches had their appeal to me as a kid, mind you – Godzilla was my hero, so having a monster friend who looked angry and fearsome appealed to me just as much as a monster friend who radiated kindness and compassion like Dragonite. Honestly, Dragonite and Charizard worked best as a pair, each outwardly showing one of the two traits that made pokemon appealing. Charizard displayed their fearsome power, and Dragonite their warm loyalty.
A lot of people hate Dragonite for being a big, round, goofy dragon instead of the slick, elegant, beautiful dragon they wanted Dragonair to become, but honestly Dragonite always felt like a satisfying evolution for the same reasons Charizard did. You take a snake and, with love and care, turn it into a big, friendly, supremely powerful dragon that protects you. That’s the dream.
My Mystery, My Protectorate, My Sailor: Lapras
Lapras is a lot of things – plesiosaur, sea turtle, snake, snail too maybe? – and yet the thing it most feels like is, oddly enough, nebulously defined, because what it most feels like, what its design screams to me, is the Loch Ness Monster. Given that no one quite agrees as to what the Loch Ness Monster IS, that’s a hard aesthetic to grab. Maybe it’s because Lapras is almost always shown in a pose that mimics the famous Surgeon’s Photo hoax, where Nessie’s head is held up at an almost perfect right angle with its hump-backed spine. Or maybe it’s because Lapras is this mishmash of animal features all wrapped in a package that feels prehistoric while only having a passing resemblance to any real prehistoric creature, much as most pop culture depictions of Nessie do.
The game makes a point that Lapras is special. It’s one of the few pokemon you can’t catch in the wild (until the sequels, that is) – instead, you’re given it for safe-keeping while fighting off a bunch of mobsters who specialize in stealing and abusing rare pokemon. Lapras’s pokedex info solidifies this idea by pointing out that laprases are facing extinction because of overhunting, and noting that they are gentle creatures by nature who avoid conflict and live in large families. The overall impression is that, in a world full of living, breathing monsters, laprases are a wonder that may one day be lost to human cruelty. They’re kind, beautiful, sweet creatures that are being made scarce, and that need to be protected from humanity’s unchecked ambition.
If you make the investment in Lapras, you find its a POWERHOUSE of a monster. Its ice/water typing gives it great offensive range, its vast HP pool makes it hard to take down, and while its slow speed means it’s not quick to attack, its hefty defenses and decent attack stats make it a force to be reckoned with when it has a reason to fight. If you defended Lapras, Lapras repaid you with interest.
Lapras’s original design had a few sharp teeth, which I like very much, though I think their absence in later artwork better shows the fact that Lapras is a gentle creature by nature. Maybe, like many snakes and lizards, Lapras’s teeth are only noticeably visible when it’s doing a threat display. Either way, you have to appreciate the serene grace of this monster design. It takes a whole bunch of different animal features and wraps them up in a design that feels both fantastical and yet utterly possible – a creature that doesn’t exit, but possibly could – while also conveying a very calm and sweet personality.
My Brawler, My Jack of All Trades, My Mom Friend: Kangaskhan
I want to take a minute to talk about this monster’s name. Kangaskhan’s distinctive head armor and shoulder scutes are apparently based on Mongolian armor, so the monster’s name is a combination of kangaroo and Ghengis Khan. And, like, it rolls off the tongue so well that if you’re a nine year old kid who’s never seen Mongolian armor and is only vaguely aware of who Ghengis Khan is, you don’t even question why. You just see this bigass lizard with a pouch and think, “Oh, yeah, that looks like what a Kangaskhan would be alright.”
Kangaskhan is a hard to catch and somewhat rare monster in the Safari Zone, which was my absolute favorite area in the Kanto games (I fucked up my first playthrough by spending literally ALL of my money on the Safari Zone – I loved being able to catch pokemon without having to hurt them, and the wide variety of pokemon available made it fun because I never knew exactly what I’d encounter each time). And if you got the fucker, by god was she just a powerhouse. Raw muscle with a moveset that, like Arbok, could incorporate a lot of type coverage. She could even surf! Plus she had an adorable baby that she carried around everywhere, again emphasizing the “these are big gnarly monsters who protect vulnerable kids” appeal of the franchise to child-me. Momma Kangaskhan wouldn’t let anyone hurt her kid.
Also, it’s a fucking crime that they made a whole bunch of baby pokemon in later generations but NEVER made one for Kangaskhan. The design was ALREADY THERE! At least the Mega form kinda lets us see what a baby Kangaskhan looks like once it gets out of the pouch.
We’re gonna have more on Kangaskhan here in a bit, but let’s move on for now.
My Fossil, My Badass, My Jurassic Park Crossover: Aerodactyl
A lot of the Kanto pokemon give a prehistoric monster/retrosaur vibe, but Aerodactyl was the only one that was explicitly intended to be a prehistoric reptile. As the name and appearance implies, the main source of inspiration here were the pterosaurs, though as I’ve grown up I realized more and more that they’re only a fraction of what Aerodactyl’s design ultimately draws on. There’s a bit more dragon than pterodactyl here, right down the iconic dragon tail-spade (which other dragon-inspired pokemon notably lack). The shape of the head and its proportion compared to the body really feels more like a nod to T.rex than any other prehistoric creature for that matter – honestly, the more I look at Aerodactyl, the more it feels like a flying T.rex than it does a pterosaur.
And, as my most iconic original monster creation probably shows you, I am VERY fond of T.rex monsters. Hell, I’m very fond of dragons too. And Aerodactyl is, essentially, a dragon/t.rex hybrid. That’s right up my alley.
Aerodactyl also had an iconic moment in the anime where he tried to eat the useless and terrible protagonist, Ash Ketchum, who even child-me despised because Ash was just, like, the worst pokemon trainer. That fucker wanted to be the best? By the time he beat every gym, he had only caught, like, maybe fifteen different pokemon species? You should be catching/evolving that many roughly every GYM, Ash! There were 151 pokemon back then! There are over 800 now! You’re never gonna be a master! I wish Aerodactyl had eaten you. The only good thing about you surviving, Ash, was that Charmeleon finally evolved into Charizard, and then proceeded to burn your face every time you let him out to fight. Should have let Charizard finish the job, Ash – you could at least live up to your namesake, even if you’d never live up to your dreams, you fucking waste.
…anyway Aerodactyl is really cool. Also terrifyingly big in that screenshot from Let’s Go. Like, Aerodactyl could swallow me whole and that’s both cool and scary as hell.
The Runners Up
I almost always have a Nidoking on my team for part of my playthrough, both because his design is boss as hell and because he helps Charmander survive Brock (part of being a Charmander fan is spending the first fourth of the game desperately fighting the odds, as the first two bosses are both at an advantage against you – it makes Charmander’s evolution into an awesome dragon all the sweeter). Though I eventually box him, he’s a valued member of the team, and if Pokemon teams could consist of seven members he’d be right up there with the rest of the fam.
Nidoking is also notable because he’s one of the most blatant kaiju homages among the Kanto 151. A lot of people have noted his obvious resemblance to Baragon, a monster from the Godzilla series, and it’s pretty obvious when you look at their ears. Baragon is super popular in Japan, so a Japanese monster design homaging him isn’t exactly ground-breaking. However, far less people have noted that Nidoking also resembles Naronga, a monster from the Ultraman series – more specifically, one of a handful of monsters from the Ultraman series that was made by renting and then modifying the original Baragon monster suit. It’s kind of a tradition to have a modified-Baragon monster in an Ultraman show, and Naronga itself was further modified to make another Ultraman monster as well. So Nidoking, who bears Baragon’s ears and Naronga’s prominent lower jaw tusks, is basically another in the grand tradition of monsters that are basically a variation/modification of the original Baragon design – a pokemon that homages Godzilla and Ultraman in one fell swoop!
Nidoking isn’t the only explicit nod to the Kaiju Classics either. Kangaskhan and Gyarados both have Godzilla-like “Christmas Tree” dorsal fins, and, as Pokemon Let’s Go shows better than any other media in the franchise before it, the overall size and shape of pokemon like Nidoking, Kangaskhan,and Rhyhorn heavily resembles a classic Man-In-Suit kaiju actor. They might not be Godzilla-sized, but they’re certainly Guy-In-A-Godzilla-Costume-Doing-a-Press-Tour-For-the-Latest-Kaiju-Film-or-TV-Series size, and I imagine for a lot of Japanese kids that is more than close enough to feel like the fantasy of having Godzilla (or any of the other lovable Japanese retrosaur kaiju) for a friend.
I used Gyarados in a couple of playthroughs as a fill in for Lapras, who can only be caught roughly halfway in the game, and you really need a water type as soon as possible. Early in the game you can buy a Magicarp which, if you didn’t choose Squirtle, is the only water type you’re going to encounter for a long while. But Magicarp is also kind of useless – not only are its stats terrible, but it only knows two moves, one of which is weak while the other is literally useless. All in all Magicarp seems like a waste of money.
But if you raise that fish to level 20, it becomes a sicknasty asian dragon sea serpent with GODZILLA SPIKES and power to match. More than any other pokemon, Gyarados rewards you for taking care of it while it was small and weak, because it starts out as the weakest of the weak only to evolve into a goddamn leviathan in every sense of the word. Its design is beautiful and menacing, as flashy as Magicarp is mundane, as terrifying as Magicarp is pitiful, as furious as Magicarp is terrified. If you were a bullied kid – and I was – then Gyarados is a glorious power fantasy, the weakling who becomes a storm dragon. It’s a nod to sea serpents, Godzilla, and the Chinese myth of a carp being able to turn into a dragon if it jumps over a waterfall. An awesome monster and one of my absolute favorites from the series.
I don’t know enough about Ultraman to pin down a specific kaiju that Rhydon references, but this design still strikes me as just very Ultraman-y. Not just kaiju-y, but made in the very specific vein of kaiju design that Ultraman kaiju are made in. In the one playthrough where I didn’t choose Aerodactyl because seriously I would have had to grind him up 45 GODDAMN LEVELS JUST TO GET HIM ON THE LEVEL WITH EVERYONE ELSE CHRIST, I chose Rhydon to round out my team, since its Rock/Ground typing covered a lot of my vulnerabilities. I wasn’t disappointed, as the big beefy lizard was not only a good team member, but also had this wonderful quality to evoke so many monster designs I love – a little Anguirus, a little Godzilla, a little Red King, a little Gomora, and yet a lot of distinct elements too. It’s Rhydon, and Rhydon is wonderful.
I tried to make Scyther work out because 1. it’s green, my favorite color and 2. it’s a lizard with a mantis’s ass, wings, and arms (sorta), but goddamn did its moveset suck HARD in generation one. Scyther just couldn’t dent anyone in any way that mattered, and was weak to a lot of common types. I didn’t like seeing Scyther get beat up, so I boxed it. Maybe someday bug type will get its due, Scyther. Someday.
Scyther’s design is also an example of what makes the Kanto pokedex so wonderful in my eyes – EVERYTHING is a lizard. Well, ok, not everything, but a lot of things – a significant percentage of things! This mantis? Well, it’s more lizard than mantis – lizard head, lizard neck, lizard legs, lizard feet. It’s got a bug ass and bug wings and giant knives for hands, but it’s still 60% lizard by volume. How about the rabbit-like nidorans? Well, they evolve into lizards – lizards by way of Baragon, but still lizards. The rhinoceros-inspired rhyhorn? Turns into a lizard named Rhydon. The pouch-bearing, kangaroo inspired Kangaskhan? BIG FUCKING LIZARD.
Hell, even Golem, who evolves from a rock with arms, is a lizard! Or maybe a turtle, but a lizardy turtle if that’s the case! Lizards are what peak performance looks like in Kanto. You may not like it, but that’s the way it is.
…man Golem also has a vaguely Ultraman Kaiju-y vibe to it now that I look at it. If I had any friends to trade with as a kid I might had had one on my team.
I never had a Cubone or Marowak on my team because they were even more frail than Arbok, stats wise, but I adore their designs. Even as a kid I had morbid sensibilities, so the idea of a lizard that wears a skull and weilds a bone as a club struck me as super fucking cool, and it sucked that Marowak couldn’t hit as hard as its design was cool. At least these two were involved in arguably the most emotionally stirring part of the original games – the Lavender Town sidequest to calm the spirit of cubone’s deceased mother was and still is a heart rending moment in a game that’s otherwise fairly light, and as a kid I caught every cubone I encountered to make sure they had someone to love them.
While my love for the Charmander line has kept me from ever picking these two when presented a choice between the three, both the Venusaur and Blastoise lines are VERY good – there’s only three starters from the later games I’d choose over either of them, and even then it would be a hard choice. Venusaur evolves from a sweet, tiny frog with a bulb on its back to a big, gnarly, warty frog with a whole fucking tree, which is right up there with Gyarados in showing how much you help your pokemon reach their potential by training them. It goes from a seed to a tree! YOU HELPED! Blastoise, meanwhile, is a big bipedal turtle that gives me slight Gamera vibes and hides FUCKING CANNONS in its shell – perhaps the most badass thing a turtle could hide in its shell that isn’t a jet engine. Pokemon Yellow was great because it was the one time you didn’t have to choose between the three starters – the one time I didn’t have to reject these excellent fellows. I could have it all.
Onix has one of the coolest designs in the series and probably would have replaced Aerodactyl and Rhydon in my playthroughs if its stats followed through. Like, it’s a GIANT snake made of BOULDERS with that glorious face that is exactly what a snake’s head would look like if it was also a rock and also had one glorious, deadly-looking horn. It’s one of the pokemon designs that really stood out to me as a kid as something unlike anything I had seen before in the series – this was NEW.
Sadly, Onix’s stats are worse than Arbok’s. They’re worse than Marowak’s. Hell they might even be worse than Cubone’s. The game makes you fight an Onix at the first gym, where it’s huge and impressive and its stats are good enough compared to everything you have to make it fearsome. When you can actually catch one, though, everything you have kicks its ass up and down. From a story-telling standpoint, it’s clever – by the time you can catch the monster that gave you so much trouble before, it’s become a weakling. It’s a joke to you – you’ve come so far that the challenge you faced so long ago is barely a blip on the radar. It makes you realize how far you’ve come.
But, also? It makes Onix basically unusable, and that’s sad because Onix looks so goddamn cool and distinctive. Later games gave it an evolution that IS usable, but that evolution also alters Onix so much that it doesn’t really have the same charm, at least not to me. It’s sad, but at least Onix still LOOKS cool.
FINALLY, SOME THAT AREN’T LIZARDS
Mewtwo has the most buildup of any monster in the game, being the Ultimate Strongest Monster at the time. Hell, it’s even psychic type, which, as I previously mentioned, meant that in the original game it has NO WEAKNESSES. It was the highest leveled enemy in the game too, AND it had a whole scary backstory in an abandoned mansion that the player is forced to explore to progress through the game, which explains how Mewtwo is this frankenstein-like clone of a legendary pokemon whose psychic power was so overwhelming that it broke free of its restraints, destroyed said abandoned mansion, and probably killed at least a few people. This monster was HYPED UP is what I’m saying, and it manages to live up to the hype in the way only an anime character can.
Instead of a huge, fearsome, lumbering brute, Metwo is a gangly, misshapen creature, especially in its original appearance. It’s lumpy in ways that, while not necessarily unhealthy, don’t appear natural. It has an extra neck/spinal column to support its huge head and transfer signals from its super advanced psychic brain. It looks vaguely fetal, as if it wasn’t completely formed when it broke free – like it wasn’t ready to be BORN yet. And yet despite all these physical flaws, it looks like it could kick your ass. It’s a monster who is unstoppable through sheer force of will – a creature whose failing body can’t hold back its tenacious spirit.
Modern art tones down the “flaws” a bit, opting for a sleekness that still conveys a sort of “I’ll kick your ass despite not being a traditional brawler” vibe, albeit in a different way – sort of the difference between first and final form Freeza, for you DBZ fans out there. Mewtwo is an unexpected choice for the Ultimate Pokemon, but a fitting one nonetheless.
Butterfree was the first pokemon I evolved all the way (by game design – Butterfree reaches its final form at level ten, while most don’t reach their final stage until the thirties), and I loved it so much. Sadly, like many pokemon who weren’t in my final team lineup, Butterfree’s stats are too low to keep up in the later game levels without some SERIOUS grinding, and my butterfree ultimately had to be boxed for her own safety. I still feel a lot of affection for the monster, though, and the design is absolutely adorable – one of the few bug monsters in fiction that uses humanoid anatomy in a pleasing way.
I would pass over Alakazam for two reasons: one, this game gave me enough options to make an ALL REPTILE team without significant type redundancies, and I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to do that again (SPOILER: you can’t without mixing pokemon from different generations), and two, you can only finish this line via trade evolutions, and I had no friends as a kid. But the whole line looks so cool – Abra’s got this adorable sleeping fox vibe (and the lack of visible hair tufts, combined with the oddly segmented look of the pokemon, allowed me to think it could be a fox LIZARD), Kadabra is a pretty rad middle stage, and then Alakazam has this full on psychic-wizard-fox-goblin look, along with some mild demon/witchcraft imagery that I wouldn’t recognize until I was older. All in all, a cool friggin’ pokemon, and if it didn’t require trading to evolve fully AND debuted in any other generation it would probably have been on my team.
I have no idea what exactly Electabuzz is – the stripes and fur give off a tiger vibe, but really it feels like the sort of nondescript furry mammalian monster that little kids dream up – y’know, like a Sully from Monsters Inc. or a My Pet Monster and what have you. A bugbear. It’s a rad as hell whatever-it-is, and another one I always considered using despite my plentiful reptilian options.
Also, while there’s nothing super on the nose I can point to, I’m pretty sure there’s a little of Ultraman‘s Eleking in this guy’s DNA.
While the three ghost pokemon that make up Haunter‘s line were done dirty twice over in the games – first by the glitch that made their attacks ineffective against psychic types when they were supposed to have an advantage, and second by them having poison as a secondary type, which meant psychic attacks would be super effective against them – they still had some of the raddest designs in the game. Though Haunter is the middle stage, it’s my favorite of the three – Gengar and Ghastly are stiff competition, but Haunter’s disembodied hands and jack-o-lantern grin are so goddamn cool. Jack-o-lantern grins are one of my favorite design tropes, and Haunter’s is especially cool in its original sprite.
To end this article, I want to showcase Tentacruel, Fearow, and Arcanine. Each of them is a hodgepodge of a lot of different creatures – squids and jellyfish, cranes and roosters, wolves and tigers – and each is just super cool looking. In the words of Marge Simpson, I just think they’re neat.
ALL of the Kanto pokemon are wonderful, because ALL pokemon are wonderful, but these pokemon? These are my Kanto faves.