…surprised? You shouldn’t be. I think a lot of people dismiss the Unown so completely as to forget that they even exist, which stands as a testament to what awful Pokémon they are. I’m going to reverse my usual order of dealing with things and talk about their gross incompetence first, then move on to my distaste for their flavour and design, because, believe it or not, it’s the latter that I really take issue with.
I already spent a paragraph of my entry on Sigilyph last year discussing my opinion of the Unown; in short, that creating them is not a reasonable or even a sane response to any concept brief that does not include the phrase “absolutely no practical use or value.” No harm in going over it again, though. Unown is almost certainly the worst adult Pokémon in the entire game. Luvdisc arguably comes close, but that’s about it. Even most unevolved Pokémon are probably better choices than Unown. The reason for this isn’t Unown’s stats, which are dreadful, or his element, which is unfavourable, or his ability, which is actually useful and the only reason even to consider using him (he can Levitate and is therefore immune to Ground attacks). It’s his movepool – or, more accurately, the fact that he doesn’t have one. Unown can learn exactly one attack: Hidden Power, a move which is available to so many Pokémon that it’s quicker to list the ones who can’t learn it (Caterpie, Metapod, Weedle, Kakuna, Wurmple, Silcoon, Cascoon, Kricketot, Burmy, Combee, Magikarp, Ditto, Wynaut, Wobuffet, Beldum and Tynamo – and it’s worth noting that all the Pokémon on that list, save Ditto and Wobuffet, are juveniles). Hidden Power’s strength and element vary between individual Pokémon, but even the best Hidden Powers aren’t very strong; normally it’s used by Pokémon with poor movepools who desperately need an attack of a specific type. So, basically, Unown gets a single lacklustre special attack, which can be of any type. If you can be bothered hatching dozens of the things until you get one with the right Hidden Power, you even get to choose which type that is! You’ll do the most neutral damage with Psychic, since Unown is a Psychic-type, but you’re more likely to get super-effective hits with a type like Ice, Fighting, or- wait; why am I even talking about this? If you’re even contemplating using Unown then you’re probably going to lose anyway, because just mentioning that you might pick him in preference to one of your other Pokémon will annihilate your whole squad’s self-esteem so completely that they might never speak to you again, and if they do it will be to tell you that they’ve all decided to go into rehab for alcohol abuse.
That’s why the world at large hates the Unown. Now it’s time to talk about why I personally hate them. If you’ve read a lot of this blog, you might have gathered that I am an utterly shameless fanboy of anything connected to the history of the Pokémon world – Pokémon like Claydol and Sigilyph, locations like the Ekruteak towers, characters who study history like Cynthia, Lenora and Morty, you name it. The Unown are part of that history; there are twenty-six different forms of Unown whose bodies bear a striking resemblance to the twenty-six letters of the modern Latin alphabet (plus the “!” and “?” forms introduced by Fire Red and Leaf Green), the implication being that they provided the inspiration for the first alphabetic scripts. You can still see Unown-derived inscriptions in places like Johto’s Ruins of Alph. In the anime (most notably the third movie, Spell of the Unown), the Unown are depicted as enigmatic and powerful extradimensional beings capable of altering reality. Their motives are absolutely inscrutable. Although they live in their own unobservable dimension they are very protective of certain ruins and artefacts. They seem to have a tendency to abduct people who try to study them, but also use their incredible powers to fulfil a young girl’s every desire in the movie. They’re among the most alien creatures in the entire Pokémon world, as well as intimately connected with one of the most important developments in human history (the origin of writing). In the games… well, in the games, they’re just twenty-eight Pokémon for you to capture: an extraordinarily tedious and ultimately pointless side-quest. You only need one to finish the Pokédex, and the rewards for catching the other twenty-seven have always been remarkably underwhelming; Diamond and Pearl, for instance, give you alphabet stickers to put on your Pokéballs. In Heart Gold and Soul Silver, which are admittedly much better, the scientists studying the ruins eventually figure out more about them and uncover the meaning of some of the (annoyingly cryptic) inscriptions once you capture all the Unown: you learn that the people of the ruins had a special relationship with the Unown, and the Pokémon statues in the area were built to honour them, but the human inhabitants eventually abandoned the site because they realised that the growth of their community was hurting the naturally reclusive Unown. This is interesting stuff, but we still don’t actually learn anything about the Unown themselves, or why they were so important to the people of the Ruins of Alph in the first place, or how they came to be connected with writing, or what the nature of their supposed power is. These Pokémon are completely irrelevant to battles, which are the games’ primary focus, so I expect rather a lot of them in terms of lore and plot relevance, which they don’t really deliver.
I’m not even going to try to turn Unown into a usable Pokémon, like I’ve been doing with everyone else on my Top Ten list. I have literally nothing to work with; they can’t do anything and there’s nothing to indicate what they should be able to do. Besides, their flavour text indicates pretty clearly that a single Unown is all but powerless; the mysterious reality-warping powers we see in other media are a result of the interaction between two or more Unown. In a game where the standard format is one-on-one combat, there’s little room for Pokémon who are only effective in swarms. Instead I want to share my thoughts on how to integrate the Unown into the rest of the game in a way that doesn’t feel tacked-on and irritating.
A single Unown is nothing. Two or more Unown together have power. This seems like it must be a reference to letters, which are meaningless on their own, forming words. But why would an ancient civilisation make that comparison and base its alphabet on the shapes of the Unown? To answer this question, I’m going to draw on an idea from the Pokémon trading card game and what it seems to imply about how their abilities work. I don’t actually play the trading card game, but I bought a few booster packs while I was in Italy because they came in these awesome collectible tins with pictures of Reshiram and Zekrom on the front, so now I have a few dozen Italian Pokémon cards, and one of these is an Unown card. It features four Unown spelling out the word DARK and has the following ability: una sola volta durante il tuo turno, quando metti Unown nella tua Panchina, puoi cercare nel tuo mazzo una carta Energia Oscuritá, mostrarla al tuo avversario e aggiungerla alle carte che hai in mano. Poi rimischia le carte del tuo mazzo. For those of you who can’t read Italian or don’t know how the card game works, the point is that a group of Unown can come together to spell a word and create a supernatural effect in line with that word. I gather that other cards featuring Unown work according to a similar premise, with a whole range of words and corresponding effects. What this seems to imply is that the Unown are broadly analogous to the idea of a “language of the universe” that you get in a lot of high fantasy (implying in turn, oddly enough, that the universe speaks a slightly old-fashioned dialect of English, but the Unown require a fair bit of suspension of disbelief from a linguistic perspective anyway). The words they form quite literally tell the story of the world, and they can rewrite that story by forming new words… if there are enough of them to create the sentences. What does this have to do with the ancient alphabet? Simple. A lot of the oldest scripts in the world are pictographic – that is, a symbol represents a word or concept rather than a sound, and the symbol for, say, a goat is probably developed from a picture of a goat. For a culture with a pictographic script who encountered the Unown and observed their powers, it wouldn’t be a huge leap to start representing darkness with the sequence DARK, and gradually, word by word, they get used to representing their entire language in the form of sequences of Unown.
As I mentioned, it’s not easy to make use of Unown’s ability to alter reality in a fight since the vast majority of Pokémon battles are one-on-on-one, and most of the rest are two-on-two, leaving room for only a handful of pronouns and prepositions. But what could the Unown do for you outside of combat? Here’s my suggestion. In ruins where Unown are present, researchers sometimes find small blank tablets. The Unown you capture can be coaxed onto these tablets in groups of three to five, spelling out short words. The number of words you can spell is limited by the number of different Unown letters available to you, with more letters appearing over the course of the game (possibly when you solve puzzles, as in Gold and Silver). Arranging the Unown into certain words, which can be determined by clues around the ruins, can cause them to unleash their powers in a predictable fashion to create various utility effects when a tablet is activated. You can’t use your Unown in battle while they’re on tablets, but hey, they’re Unown – why would you want to? – and they don’t take up space in your party. What I’m driving at here, obviously, is replacing HM techniques like Cut and Surf with the actual words CUT and SWIM (for example), since HMs are a huge pain in the neck and the bane of every trainer’s existence, but I can think of other possibilities too, like a CHASE or TRAP tablet that prevents wild Pokémon from running away, or a FIND tablet that reveals the locations of hidden items. The number of effects you can create is limited by the number and size of tablets you can find (longer words produce more powerful effects, but larger tablets are rarer). Villains attempting to learn how to use the Unown themselves might provide an opportunity for a nice side plot (or even part of the main storyline).
So, there we have it: that’s the top ten worst Pokémon ever and what I would do with each of them to make them less… worst.
“But wait!” I hear you cry, “What happened to Farfetch’d?”
Don’t worry. He’s next.