Oh, Bulbasaur; I know you aren’t as popular as Squirtle or Charmander, but my heart will always belong to you…
Today is basically going to be one huge nostalgia trip for me, since we’ll be looking at my first Pokémon ever: Bulbasaur, the first-generation Grass-type starter Pokémon. It’s hard for me to express how much I loved this little guy; I honestly don’t think I ever chose a different starter on any of my myriad playthroughs of Blue version as a kid (I branched out a little on Leaf Green, but Bulbasaur remained my favourite). It’s probably fair to say I’m slightly biased, but I will do the best I can to back myself up with sensible argument. Here’s why I think Bulbasaur is awesome.
What made Bulbasaur stand out amongst the Grass Pokémon of Red and Blue was his heavy emphasis on the idea of symbiosis. Most of the first-generation Grass-types (in fact, most Grass-types full stop) are plants – Oddish, Bellsprout, Tangela and Exeggcute may move, talk and fight, but they’re very clearly plants with a couple of animal traits rather than the other way around. The subsequent Grass-type starters, and a few other weirdoes like Leafeon, all reject the trend and are animals with a couple of plant traits. Bulbasaur is unique in being neither; his appearance gives the impression of two distinct but joined organisms, one animal and one plant, and this is explicitly what he is, with a seed “planted on its back at birth.” Even today, there’s only one other Pokémon that balances its plant and animal aspects in the same way, and it’s actually one that’s been around from the beginning. It’s Paras. Truthfully, though, Paras and Parasect with their story of parasitism are even stranger. They may be terrible Pokémon but they have one of the most fascinating designs of the entire first generation; they’re not the point of this entry, though. The point is, although Bulbasaur is the first Grass Pokémon many trainers will ever meet, he’s not at all archetypal; in fact he’s the best example of an idea that the subsequent Grass starters never quite caught onto. In Bulbasaur’s Mysterious Garden, Brock describes Bulbasaur, Ivysaur and Venusaur as a symbol of nature’s interconnectedness and the fundamental dependence plants and animals have on each other. He’s perhaps poeticising a bit excessively, but I actually quite like this way of looking at them; if you wanted to come up with such a symbol, you could do much worse than Bulbasaur. It might have been nice if the later starters had explored symbiosis in different ways to create contrasts with Bulbasaur – Torterra, actually, does this quite well – but he’s still fun on his own. As compared to the other starters of his own set, Bulbasaur is a little odd. Squirtle and Charmander follow broadly similar progressions from cute through tough to full-on badass; Blastoise with his heavy cannons and Charizard with his, y’know, being a freakin’ dragon. Bulbasaur is different. I think he is meant to be cute (well, I think he’s cute) but clearly not so overtly as Charmander or Squirtle; he almost seems to aim for the ‘tough’ aesthetic from the beginning (the fact that he’s the only quadruped in the group is probably a factor since it adds to his physical stability) and then just builds on it as he grows through Ivysaur to Venusaur. ‘Badass’ is a hard adjective to define, but I don’t think it describes Venusaur, or at least not as well as it describes Blastoise and Charizard. Instead Venusaur projects a sense of age, experience and self-control – this is a Pokémon that can fight, but chooses not to. Venusaur is not for everyone, but for me it was his differences that made him my favourite.
I’m sentimental, of course, but there are plenty of reasons to like Bulbasaur’s line other than their design characteristics. Venusaur is a starter Pokémon, and as such high stats are his birthright – solid all around, with a bias towards his special stats. Back in the olden days, Venusaur was the fastest Grass Pokémon in the game, which made him a good choice for using Grass’s two big trump cards: Sleep Powder and Leech Seed. He was also one of only two fully evolved Grass Pokémon (the other being Victreebel) with Razor Leaf, easily the best Grass-type attack at the time because of Red and Blue’s idiosyncratic critical hit mechanics and the absence of any way to speed up a Solarbeam. On the ‘con’ side, Venusaur was a Poison-type Pokémon in a world ruled by Psychic-types, an uncomfortable place to be, and Poison had no powerful attacks in Red and Blue. Over the years, Venusaur developed into a versatile tank who can focus on physical or special, offense or defence. With the advent of Sunny Day, Razor Leaf was replaced by Solarbeam as the Grass type’s strongest offensive option, then Solarbeam eventually by Giga Drain and Seed Bomb, but Leech Seed and Sleep Powder remained potent weapons in Venusaur’s arsenal. He gained the ability to rebalance himself towards slow, bulky physical offense with Curse in Gold and Silver; with the addition of Earthquake to his movepool in Ruby and Sapphire, he can act as a competent physical tank. Power Whip and Leaf Storm present devastating options for Grass-type damage. As a Grass-type, Venusaur is also one of the few Pokémon who actually appreciates having Poison as a secondary offensive element in the form of Sludge Bomb, since it can swiftly deal with other Grass Pokémon, who are immune to Leech Seed and resistant to Earthquake. Finally, Synthesis lets Venusaur heal – it may be unreliable, dependent as it is on fine weather, but it backs up his reasonable defensive stats nicely.
Black and White brought Venusaur two major gifts, the first of which is Growth. Growth has been a part of Venusaur’s movepool from the beginning, but its usefulness decayed after the special stat was split into special attack and special defence in Gold and Silver, since it then increased only special attack, not both. Black and White have given Growth – and with it, many Grass Pokémon – a new lease on life; it now increases both physical and special attack, giving Venusaur more diverse options for putting together an offensive moveset. Even better, Growth’s effect is now doubled in bright sunlight, allowing Venusaur to slot quite neatly into almost any sun team as a dangerous bulky sweeper. The other great blessing Venusaur received was his Dream World ability, Chlorophyll. When Ruby and Sapphire introduced abilities Venusaur, like all the other starters, received an ability that boosts the damage of his elemental attacks when his health is low (for the Grass-types, this ability is called Overgrow). While this is nice to have, it’s difficult to plan to make use of it. Chlorophyll, on the other hand, an ability available to many Grass Pokémon which doubles their speed in bright sunlight, compliments the newly-improved Growth perfectly to make the Grass-types that possess both extremely dangerous. Several other Grass Pokémon have this combination, but few of them can compete with Venusaur. Victreebel is stronger, but he’s also much frailer and doesn’t learn Earthquake, which limits the usefulness of his excellent physical attack score. Tangrowth is so slow that he still risks being outrun even with the Chlorophyll boost, and his special defence is shockingly bad (though it’s worth noting that Tangrowth can sit and get pummelled by physical attacks all day without blinking). Shiftry is fast and has a nice movepool, whether you want to go physical, special, or both, but curls up and dies after even the weakest attacks. This is not to say that all three don’t have advantages of their own, of course, but Venusaur is definitely up there with the strongest solar Pokémon. Getting your hands on a Dream World Bulbasaur may not necessarily be easy, but they are out there, so see if you can find something valuable to trade for one.
As my very first Pokémon, Bulbasaur has inevitably become something of a gold standard for me. A simple but well-executed design with pleasing symbolic connotations, coupled with measures of power and versatility that, for most of his history anyway (the additions from Black and White change this somewhat), have proven generous without creating an unachievable benchmark for the poor rank-and-file Pokémon. Even today, even if I must admit to having soft spots for many of them, given the choice of any of the fifteen starter Pokémon of the past and present, I would find it very difficult not to stop looking at #001.