Although I hadn’t quite had it in mind originally, these entries on the Pokémon Power Bracket eventually evolved into something akin to a discussion of what I think legendary Pokémon should and should not be. Given the direction this project ended up taking, I suppose that I now ought to talk about these questions in more general terms and lay out, once and for all, what opinions I hold on these mysterious creatures and why.
So, what is a legendary Pokémon, anyway?
Put simply, a legendary Pokémon is one that breaks the rules. It is normally impossible to legally obtain more than one of the same species on a single game without trading. With the exception of Manaphy, none of them can breed in captivity; even Manaphy requires the aid of a Ditto. They don’t evolve, something Professor Rowan comments on in Diamond and Pearl; of more than six hundred Pokémon, about one hundred don’t evolve, and almost half of those are legendary. While most Pokémon are normally portrayed as partners (or at least potential partners) to humanity, legendary Pokémon are typically more aloof, appearing to hold humans in disdain, and will join their strength only to truly exceptional trainers. Most are figures of myth and legend; their existence is often difficult to verify. Many play roles in the balance of nature that are of global or even cosmic significance.
Let’s face it, though, you don’t care about any of that. You care about how good they are at bludgeoning your enemies into a bloody pulp.
Legendary Pokémon are significantly tougher and have more powerful attacks than the vast majority of ordinary Pokémon (Dragonite, Tyranitar, Salamence, Metagross, Garchomp and Hydreigon have stat totals that match or exceed those of some legendary Pokémon, and are often called ‘Pseudo-Legendary’ for this reason). Big numbers don’t make the Pokémon, of course: consider Articuno, whose type combination carries a number of crippling weaknesses and whose movepool is small and inflexible. Most members of the lowest ‘tier’ of legendary Pokémon are like this: theoretically powerful, but limited (there are also a couple, like Entei and Regigigas, who are just plain bad, but that’s really a topic for another day). That’s all well and good. It’s the really powerful ones that concern me: Mewtwo and Ho-oh and the like; Kyogre and Arceus most of all. These Pokémon clearly aren’t meant to be ‘balanced’ in any meaningful sense – possibly not even against each other. They don’t merely have a slight edge over mortal Pokémon; they can steamroll entire teams if played competently. Now, I’ve always contended that game balance has never really been a ‘thing’ in Pokémon anyway; I simply don’t believe it was ever part of the designers’ aims. However, it doesn’t take a genius to see that this legendary élite will quickly take over any context to which they are introduced; Nintendo themselves recognise this and ban most of them from official tournaments and in-game battle facilities. Outside of official contexts, however, any ban-list must be self-policing, which is a recipe for chaos – particularly since Nintendo’s ban-list, while a reasonable starting point, is riddled with flaws (they regularly ban Phione, for goodness’ sake). Some fan communities produce and regularly update tier lists to define which Pokémon should and should not be allowed, but one need only consider the vitriol directed against Smogon University for banning Blaziken to see that this is hardly a perfect solution. Some would consider it the height of lunacy to ban Celebi while allowing Excadrill (as Nintendo does); others would think it perfectly rational. As a result of all this, I cannot help but regard legendary Pokémon as a negative influence on the games’ ability to function as intended.
It is partly for this reason that I expect rather a lot of them elsewhere. Legendary Pokémon are, well, legendary; that is, they are the subject of legends, myths, traditions and tales. As a result they are a fundamental part of the culture, history and philosophy of the Pokémon world and serve to expand our understanding of that world. Provided they do a good job of it, tell a good story, I am generally willing to give them some latitude to act as game-breakers when they take the field; they’ve ‘earned it,’ in a sense (especially ones that aren’t actually game-breaking, like Zapdos and Suicune). This is not always an easy thing to judge. I maintain that it was the second generation that got it right, with the story of Entei, Suicune and Raikou, who were killed in the fire that destroyed the Brass Tower and drove Lugia away from Ekruteak City, and then resurrected by Ho-oh with incredible new powers. These Pokémon all have a history that ties them in with the past of their home region and its visible remnants, while hinting at fantastic powers beyond what ordinary Pokémon can harness. Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres contribute to the general feel of the games with their aura of mystery, but don’t do so with the same eloquence or sophistication as their successors, while many later legendary Pokémon simply go too far. Ever since Ruby and Sapphire, Game Freak seem to have gotten it into their precious little heads that a good plot must be ‘epic’ and that one of the requirements of ‘epic’ is an impending apocalypse (neither of which is actually true), so naturally they’ve been designing legendary Pokémon to match – Kyogre and Groudon, Dialga and Palkia, Arceus, Reshiram and Zekrom – as though their games won’t be complete without Pokémon capable of destroying the nation, the world, or even the universe. This isn’t even a flawed concept, in principle. The flaw is in the way it interacts with the games’ premise and central tenet: “gotta catch ‘em all.” If these Pokémon truly were as remote and aloof as they are often portrayed, present in the game as forces to be deflected or mitigated, I would not have any major objections to them; many of them have interesting stories, and they could definitely add something to the setting’s cosmology. The problem is that once something exists in Pokémon, you have to be able to catch it; otherwise the whole mess falls apart.
As I’ve mentioned in recent weeks, Game Freak seem to have in their minds a sort of dual conception of many Pokémon like this, a disjunction that must eventually be resolved. When we hear about them through myth, there seems to be a tacit suggestion that these Pokémon are powerful, but not gods as they are depicted in the stories; it is implied that there is an element of exaggeration in what we are told, and we are clearly intended to have this in mind when we capture them and use them in battle. When we actually see what they are capable of, however, these caveats vanish. Kyogre and Groudon are treated, by characters we have no reason to doubt, as an utterly serious long-term threat to the stability of not just Hoenn but the entire world. Dialga and Palkia really are capable of unravelling the universe at Cyrus’ command. On my copy of Black version, all of these Pokémon are mine. I cannot command them to unleash their full powers and rewrite the universe in my image, because their Pokéballs cut them off from their cosmic abilities through mechanisms that are never explained, but I still own them in a legally binding sense. When, exactly, did this start being okay? And how can it possibly be reconciled with their established backstories and characterisation? Reshiram and Zekrom, for their part, are a step in the right direction since their entire point is to be partnered with humans, but the writers still feel this bizarre need to talk up their power to apocalyptic proportions, apparently heedless of the fact that the plot still works without the possibility of Unova being wiped off the map. In Black and White, the threat N presents is primarily an ideological one: that he will use his partner dragon to claim the necessary moral authority to command all the people of Unova to release their Pokémon. The fact that he could destroy the world if he wanted to is a ludicrous embellishment that only undercuts what the story is actually about (especially since N would never do that anyway). What I am trying to get at here is that I feel Game Freak’s desire for legendary Pokémon to have this degree of cosmic power is totally irrational, and does little to add to a series that is, fundamentally, about partnership and discovery. Their existence, again, is not a problem per se; the problem lies mainly in the need to shoehorn these cosmic beings into the standard format of the Pokémon games when they could be left on the periphery, contributing to the background, aesthetics, character and stories of the setting, perhaps as enemies or allies, but not as ‘partners’ in the sense that mortal Pokémon must be.
Which legendary Pokémon are effective additions to the world, in my view (aside from the second-generation ones I’ve mentioned)? Mewtwo is one; though the extent of his powers is difficult to gauge, his backstory was clearly written with ideas of morality and identity in mind, and he also allows us to ask interesting questions about the relationship between humans and Pokémon. This, I think, is the sort of thing that Pokémon is actually rather good at, simply because the basic premises of the franchise are so interesting from an ethical standpoint. Regirock, Regice and Registeel, though I’ve always felt they are distressingly emotionless, making them difficult to relate to, have a fascinating backstory that gives us a new perspective on the way people related to Pokémon in the past, and what that might mean for the future (arguably, the very thing that bugs me about them actually makes them more effective, their alien countenance emphasising how far they stand apart from humanity). They recognise, as well, that the power to shape worlds is not actually a requisite for winning the fear or adoration of an ancient civilisation. Tornadus, Thundurus and Landorus, too, have destructive and protective powers that function on a local rather than a regional or global scale; they are deities of folktale, not epic, a smaller scale of things to which Pokémon, by its very nature, is eminently better-suited.
These, then, are my thoughts on the class which includes the most powerful Pokémon in the game. They are, in essence, Pokémon of legend, and so it is by those legends that I try to judge them first: by their power as stories, and their capacity to expand our understanding of the Pokémon world. I fully expect, as always, that many readers will disagree with my priorities and conclusions. I don’t aim to be ‘right;’ that is a lost cause in anything so subjective. I aim, as ever, to make you think, and I can only hope you have enjoyed my latest attempt as much as I have.
Thank you for reading, and to all, a good night.