Welcome to the first episode of Pokémon WITS. Where better to start than where all Pokémon adventures begin: the starter Pokémon!
So, the starters. Anyone who's played the games knows that they're going to be given a choice between a Grass, Fire, or Water Type. It's the player's first Pokémon, and the one they pick is probably going to be at the head of their team for most if not all of their adventure. There should be a special bond between a trainer and their starter, as they build fun memories together in the Pokémon world.
The design importance of these starter Pokémon CANNOT be stressed enough! I know it's hard, but imagine for a minute that you know nothing of Pokémon. You don't know what the game has in store for you. You don't understand the implications of Types. You don't know about Pokémon evolution (or maybe you've heard of it, but you don't have any notion what these starters will someday become). All you know is that you're being presented with a choice. You have nothing on which to base that choice except the simple visual appeal that the Pokémon hold. That's why it's SO important that all three have equal visual appeal, and lots of it.
Let's take a look back at starter Pokémon of the past. First gen, second gen, third gen... I love these Pokémon, all of them. Granted, some were better than others, for instance in each generation I tended to favor two designs more than the third, but the point is they were all solid, appealing designs. If I'd had the misfortune of having two older brothers who snatched up my two favorites for themselves and pressured me into picking the third for the sake of trading, I wouldn't have been devasted with the leftovers in any of these generations.
I wanted to bundle the fourth generation here as well, but I'm not a fan of Chimchar. Then again, I'm not really crazy about primates in general, so I'll pass it off as a personal preference and let this set of starters slide though unscathed.
Fifth gen, look out! Snivy's all right, if a bit detail-heavy for an unevolved Pokémon. Tepig, eh, he's all right too, even if he doesn't have the same charm as past starters. Oshawott? What the hell were they thinking? It's hideous! Now statistically, it seems like I may have just pissed off 1/3 of everyone who played these games, but in reality I wouldn't be surprised if the stupidity of this design makes it more like 1/5 of everyone who played these games. But wait, I bet practically everyone who actually chose Oshawott did it not for Oshawott's sake, but for his evolved form Samurott. Because who could like this thing?
Real otters are cute animals. When you take a cute animal and make a cartoon version, it should end up downright adorable. Oshawott though, it looks like some dweeby little kid just asking to have his lunch money stolen. What's this crap around his neck? Is it supposed to be fur? Looks more like fleshy growths or something. And what's with his humongous, bulbous head? It's big even by anime character standards. The color scheme could take a cue from his evolved form, Dewott, like making the hands and feet match, and making the seashell stand out more with the darker blue behind it. And why is it the smallest of these three forms has the biggest nose? A nose which, incidentally, doesn't match the rest of the design. It's not like otters are known for their bright noses. Run a Google search, they're all dark-nosed. Yeah... I still don't like it, but at least I don't hate it... Moving on!
As bad as Oshawott was, at least there were still two decent designs to pick from. Say goodbye to that luxury in the 6th generation. Let's take a look at what we've got. Chespin, Fennekin, and Froakie. Hmm...
So first up is Chespin, the new Grass Type starter, who doesn't really look like a Grass Type to me. He looks like your average, Normal Type rodent-esque Pokémon who just happens to be wearing a green hood. Seriously, the grassy nature of this Pokémon looks like a total afterthought compared to most Grass Types, where you have leaves and vines growing from their bodies. It really does look like they just slapped it on for the hell of it. That aside, look at this Pokémon. Look at it closely. Notice anything? No? That's because there really isn't much to notice. The design is mediocre at best. It's not ugly, but it really doesn't deserve its prominent place as a starter.
Then there's Froakie... Ugh... If someone had told me early on that a blue frog was to be one of the new starters, I'd have been excited and started picturing the cool Pokémon in my head. Fortunately, no one told me that so I didn't have to be disappointed when I first saw Froakie. However, that did NOT stop me from being horrified. Honestly, I don't know how they managed to take a concept with so much potential, and get this out of it. In the interest of time, I'll set aside all other potential tweaks and just focus on the biggest issue, which is this white... stuff. It looks like Igglybuff's little head tumors taken to the extreme. It gives the impression of hair, a moustache and a beard, which is all manner of wrong for a frog. What it is supposed to be? Well, seeing as it IS a frog, my best guess would be foam bubbles, and the Pokédex confirms this. Ugly though it is, I guess it works--except for the fact that there are two of these bubbles lined up with his nostrils, which is unpleasant to think about in an entirely different way. *facepalm*
So, between this design that makes me cringe, and this one that makes me yawn, Fennekin (which is a pretty cute design, actually) wins by default, and thus we come to a generation where my choice has essentially been made for me. I wonder how many people out there felt the same way without even realizing it, picking Fennekin not because they liked it, but because they didn't like the other two. Thanks Game Freak, you made life so much easier that way!
Moving on to the second part, let's talk evolution. Now, as we all know, Pokémon evolutions come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes an evolved Pokémon hardly changes at all, but other times it becomes so different you can't believe it's related to what it used to be. Which way is better? Well, it largely depends on the individual case, but where starter Pokémon are concerned, I strongly believe that you should always be able to envision what it may become. When players take their starters to the final stage, they should still be able to see a hint of the base form present in the final form. Why? Because like I said, there's a special bond with starters that makes them important, and it's really cruel to give players something they like and have it turn into something they don't. In previous generations, it seemed like the creators felt the same way as I do, and kept the evolutions from turning into anything too unpredictable.
Now let's take a look at the 6th gen starter evolutions, judging them on their own merits as well as by how well they retain hints of their prior evolutions. Again, pretend it's our first Pokémon adventure and we don't already know what these evolutions look like.
Let's begin with Fennekin, it being my theoretically chosen starter. Evolution time rolls around and, hm, that's interesting. Suddenly my cute, little fox is walking around on its hind legs, has a skirt, and generally looks very feminine. If it hadn't occurred to me to be selective about the gender of my starter, chances are good (87.5%) that my Fennekin is male, or rather my Braixen is male. Can't say as I like that. But, maybe I've heard that all starters evolve twice, so hopefully the final form will look more gender neutral. In the meantime, I spend twenty levels wondering why the heck there's a random stick stuck in my Pokémon's tail. Charmeleon sure didn't need a stick to start a fire.
All right, level 36, it's evolving again! This is the big moment! What have I got?! It's a fox witch woman with sudden Psychic powers! Wow, just what I was hoping it wouldn't be. Honestly, the Psychic type addition was pretty cool, and although not stellar, by this generation's standards the design could have been a lot worse, but as a starter, this is not at all the future I would have pictured for my little Fennekin. I would have pictured something more along the lines of this speculative version dreamed up and drawn by a fan, and I'd have been much happier with it. Didn't they learn ANYTHING from Gardevoir?! Little Ralts looked perfectly gender neutral, but then it evolves into Kirlia and finally into Gardevoir, both so obviously female in appearance that they had to go and make an alternative, more masculine evolution in the next generation. How could they make the same mistake again, and with a STARTER of all Pokémon?!
I can only assume they noticed the disturbing trend of masculine Fire/Fighting Type starter evolutions present in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th generations and went too far, hitting the opposite end of the spectrum in their attempt to be different.
All right, so next there's Chespin. You remember how a few minutes ago I said he looks like an average, Normal Type rodent-esque Pokémon wearing a green hood? Yeah well, his evolution suffers the same fate, only now it's more like he's wearing a big coat. Honestly, he looks like the younger brother in A Christmas Story--a tick about to pop--except he's actually happy about it. With the change from Chespin to Quilladin, a mediocre design gains a bit of originality, but ends up looking much worse.
So, level 36 hits and what have we got? Why, it's Chesnaught, and I don't care much for his design either. It could be worse, but it could be loads better, too. Oddly enough, the only thing that links this design to its two previous forms is the lingering feeling that he's wearing clothes. Honestly, his face, chest and arms make it look like he'd be all white but he's wearing a beige body suit, and some kind of weird shell cape. A better color scheme could have at least made him feel more cohesive with his evolution line. It's all very unnatural to my eye.
Back to that poor excuse for a frog, let's see what he's got going on. Frogadier's design is definitely a step up. The white balls claiming to be foam are still present, though less intrusive all around. Looks more like an ugly wool scarf than a bad assortment of hair. The expansion of the dark blue creates a pleasing color combination. I'd say Frogadier is a perfectly passable Poké, but still quite weak in the presence of starters past.
Wow, when level 36 finally rolls around, who would have guessed that the failsome frog would evolve into the coolest of all the starters? Honestly, in most regards this is a pretty striking design, with strong yet flowing form, nicely blending the attributes of the frog and ninja for a good Water/Dark Type combo. The massive tongue scarf bothers me to no end, but it's infinitely better than the foam, so I'm not gonna complain.
In summary, I feel this is a really weak set of starter Pokémon they've stuck everyone with. Knowing what all these forms look like, my choice would probably be to go with cute little Fennekin and simply not evolve it. I'd build my team without a starter, most likely, because these nine just don't have the appeal to warrant a spot on my team. It saddens me to think new players are being introduced to the wonderful world of Pokémon with these uninspired choices.
If this is the best Game Freak can come up with, it's time to find some new designers, or better yet get the fans to contribute designs. No really, I'm absolutely serious. Old Mega Man games used to have fans design their robot masters, so why not Pokémon? Take a look at these fan-designed starters created years ago. I'd much rather have had these starters to choose from than anything the 5th and 6th generations have handed us. Sad but true, the Internet is full of fan designs that trump the real things these days.
Join me in the next episode of Pokémon WITS, where I'll be discussing the new Fairy Type and what it's done to Pokémon.