When you jump into a new Pokémon game, your first point of contact is invariably your starter Pokémon – often, in fact, before you even play the game; the starters always get a lot of publicity before the games themselves are released, and plenty of people choose their starters well in advance of the release date (as for me, my permanent love affair with the Grass type makes Chespin pretty much non-negotiable for when I first play X or Y). For many of us, the starters are what defines a game’s character; on-and-off fans may decide whether or not to buy a game based on the designs of the starters, some players go so far as to use only their starters for battle with a couple of utility Pokémon on the side, and Charizard’s flame still sparks nostalgia in people who last played Pokémon in the 1990’s. This makes them very powerful ideas, and Game Freak, bless their little hearts, know that, which is why the starters have for a long time now been some of the most intensely scrutinised Pokémon of the lot during the pre-release design process, second only to plot-relevant legendary Pokémon. I spent a great deal of time early last year discussing the starter Pokémon of the past and present; I will refer you in particular to the last entry in that series, which discussed many of the concepts I’ll continue to play with now, though hopefully I’ll pin down something a bit more concrete today, given the nature of this series. Now, without further ado – how would I handle starter Pokémon in this hypothetical game I imagine myself directing?
Before we go anywhere else, we really have to talk about Grass/Water/Fire, since that’s the traditional model. Game Freak’s designers have reportedly considered and rejected the possibility of changing this system. It works. You have three rare Pokémon with three completely different sets of usually dramatic elemental powers. Chances are everyone is going to like at least one of them. More to the point, it’s a new player’s first introduction to the type system. Ordinarily, the rival character has the starter Pokémon with an advantage over the player’s, and this is something you need to get to grips with fairly quickly if you’re new to the game – theoretically, by choosing teammates that cover this weakness, which is ultimately what playing Pokémon is all about. The way this trio works is also very intuitive, and I think that if you have first-time players in mind, it’s important not to underestimate the advantage here. Fire burns grass. Water puts out fire. Grass thrives on water. People don’t need to be told these things, and this is what makes it a good first step to understanding one of Pokémon’s most central game mechanics. That’s all I really want to say about Grass/Water/Fire, though. Honestly, I think people get hung up on type far too much when thinking about starters. Everyone loves to suggest different trios to replace Grass/Water/Fire; Dark/Psychic/Fighting is one of the more popular choices, but I have come to wonder, would this really make anyone happy? It’s actually not that much of a break from formula. Sure, it’d give different types a bit more exposure, but the underlying scheme is unaltered: three Pokémon, each with a three-stage evolutionary path, forming a rock-paper-scissors style circle, with one going to the player and another going to the rival. It’s change for the sake of change, not change because something can actually be done with it. I’m entirely happy to keep Grass/Water/Fire – or ditch it, whatever. I am entirely apathetic on this point. Just as long as we take a break from Fire/Fighting; I think we can all agree on that. I’m sure there are some much more interesting things we can change.
As I’ve said, I believe that starter Pokémon are, for many people, the heart of the game. Why not embrace that? Yellow version made Pikachu and your relationship with him paramount amongst all of your Pokémon with features that, at the time, no other Pokémon shared – he followed you around in the overworld, would occasionally pass comment on people, Pokémon and events around you if you spoke to him, and was the only Pokémon in the game to use the fledgling happiness mechanics (though these had extremely limited effects beyond changing Pikachu’s reactions to being addressed). While games such as the Pokémon Ranger and (after a fashion) Mystery Dungeon series have attempted to build on this basic idea, the franchise’s flagship games have never again tried anything similar. The ‘walking Pokémon’ of Heart Gold and Soul Silver seem to be a sort of homage to Yellow version’s Pikachu, but they are largely a cosmetic addition, and do not prioritise the starter either. This is a shame, because a deeper, more complex relationship like this, even with only a single Pokémon, would go a long way towards healing one of the big rifts between Pokémon’s gameplay and message – the relatively impersonal way players relate to their individual Pokémon. The flip side is that a lot of players might not necessarily want to prioritise the starter in this way. Some might just not like the ones on offer; others might get bored of their starters after multiple playthroughs. What I suggested when I first discussed starter Pokémon was making it possible to keep the starter with you even when you have six other Pokémon, in a sort of inactive seventh slot, but I confess I don’t really like this idea very much. I’m now more inclined to suggest giving the starter Pokémon a special role not only while it’s with you but also while it’s in storage – this, of course, naturally works well with my wish to turn the Pokémon storage system into something more interactive and dynamic, with habitats that have to be managed and expanded. More on that later, though. Let’s get to the details.
Yellow version, of course, had only one starter Pokémon, no choice. I believe that this was actually a bad idea, but worked anyway purely because of Pikachu’s massive popularity. There’s only one other existing Pokémon I’d be comfortable using as a sole starter: Eevee, who boasts a similar degree of widespread appeal, largely thanks to her smorgasbord of possible evolutions which give Eevee-trainers all the choice they could want in just one Pokémon. If I were going to give a game with just one starter Pokémon, I would probably take a leaf from Eevee’s book and split its evolution, though not to the somewhat ridiculous extent of Eevee’s; three is probably still a good number, though I’d be just as happy with two or four. This could result in a Grass/Water/Fire trio, or any number of other combinations. The interesting part is how we evolve them. What I’d really want to do is have the starter’s evolution be determined by how the player acts around it. This could be tied to my new happiness/respect mechanics, with the split in the Pokémon’s evolution being determined by the ratio of the two when it reaches a certain level: if its happiness is much higher than its respect, it evolves into a gentle support Pokémon; if its respect is much higher than its happiness, it evolves into a battle-hardened attacker; if the two are the same, or quite close, it evolves into an even-tempered tank. Each, presumably, would belong to a different type, and each would evolve once more at a later point. As an alternative basis, I’ve been thinking about these games as being divided into three major spheres: the Pokédex quest, the badge quest, and fighting the regional Team Evil. The starter could be influenced by your relative devotion to each one, evolving in one way because you chose to work closely with Professor Tree and catch a lot of different Pokémon without ever setting foot in a Gym, another way because you chose to collect two or three badges before ever looking into the supposed criminal activity in the game corner. Bringing back contests, perhaps integrating them with the filming activities of Pokéstar Studios, could add a fourth area for a fourth branch to focus on. If I were allowed to indulge my personal whims and include a long storyline about exploring the ruins of an ancient civilisation of Pokémon Masters, that could provide a fifth. As for what this hypothetical starter could actually be… I would like, as I mentioned in my older article on starter Pokémon, to pick an animal which already has strong connotations of partnership with humans. The obvious choice is a dog, but dogs are overdone and Eevee is already quite doglike. Cats could work, but there are, again, quite a few catlike Pokémon already, and cats have a bucketload of other symbolism that gets in the way. You know what works? Horses.
Assuming the use of all five ‘spheres’ of the game I suggested above, I think I’d have the evolutions be as follows. For the quest to defeat Team Evil and restore justice to the region, we can have a bulky, six-legged, armoured charger, on the model of Sleipnir, the legendary mount of the Norse god Odin (probably a Steel-type, but I’d be extremely tempted to play with the six-legged thing and create a really offbeat Bug-type horse). For exploring the ruins and solving the mysteries of the Pokémon world’s past, you are rewarded when your little horse evolves into a Pokémon based on the Kelpie, a shapeshifting water spirit from Celtic myth – yes, Keldeo’s name already references the Kelpie, but he doesn’t really embrace what the Kelpie is all about, namely deception and cunning, which this Pokémon could do with an array of support moves and perhaps even the Illusion ability or something similar (possible type combinations include Water/Dark, Water/Fairy, or even Dark/Fairy with some Water traits). Focusing on Pokémon contests results in a winged horse based, obviously enough, on Pegasus from Greek mythology, with additional powers related to being generally flashy and ostentatious (a Flying-type, obviously, though the secondary type is up for debate). Exploring the world and catching a lot of Pokémon species in an effort to improve your Pokédex leads to a unicorn, reclusive and wise, with powers related to learning and knowledge (probably Psychic or Psychic/Grass). Finally, for the badge quest, what I’m very tempted to have, though it would need a very clever name to make it work, is a horse with the head of an ox, in reference to the horse of Alexander the Great, Bucephalus, whose name means “ox-head” in ancient Greek – a fast, brutal glass cannon (most likely a Fighting-type, although alternatively this might be one of the better options for including a Fire-type without too obviously ruining Rapidash’s life).
Similar ideas could be used with a more traditional three-starter set up: each starter will push you in a particular direction, appropriate to its personality. You might have, for instance, a curious, analytical Grass-type starter, who will express a preference for helping with Professor Tree’s research, and whose evolution is tied to meeting certain benchmarks in Pokédex completion – say, first evolution at 15 Pokémon caught, second evolution at 25, and a powerful signature move at 35. The enthusiastic, dynamic Fire starter might encourage you to travel and challenge Gyms, evolving once after earning your second badge, again after earning your fifth, and learning its signature move after the eighth. Finally, we could balance them with a calm, determined Water starter Pokémon, which would motivate its trainer to investigate reports of crimes and root out members of Team Evil, evolving after (or during!) major confrontations with said team, and learning its signature move after their final defeat. These evolutions could possibly have minimum levels attached as well, but quite low ones – their real purpose would be to keep other starters obtained in trades from evolving at absurdly low levels after the game is already finished. If we take this route for the starters – having the Pokémon encourage certain paths through the game rather than vice versa – there are ways in which your choice of starter could affect and assist your playthrough still further. The starters might, for instance, provide some constant bonus to your entire team as you play through the game (this more or less requires that the starter Pokémon you receive at the beginning of the game be untradeable, and have some special marker like the ‘Fateful Encounter’ tag to distinguish it from Pokémon you obtained through breeding or trades). Give them three traits: for the Grass-type ‘scientist,’ Rapid Insight, which gives the player bonuses towards learning new moves from time to time; for the Fire-type ‘warrior,’ Intense Training, which causes all defeated Pokémon that grant at least two effort points (before any modifiers) to grant one more; for the Water-type ‘hero,’ Glorious Evolution, which causes all Pokémon with level- or happiness-based evolutions to evolve sooner. These traits could all potentially improve as the Pokémon evolves (speeding the acquisition of moves even more, granting more effort points, or allowing even earlier evolutions), and could persist whether the Pokémon is with you or not – or, potentially, be replaced by other benefits if the Pokémon is in storage. All three starters, provided they are happy themselves, could increase the resting point for the happiness of other Pokémon in the same area. In addition, the Grass-type can improve the yield of any berry trees being cultivated in the area, the Fire-type can allow eggs to make slow progress towards hatching (though they will not actually hatch unless in your party), and the Water-type can cause the respect of stored Pokémon to increase gradually.
Ash’s Pikachu isn’t just another one of his Pokémon – he’s a leader among Ash’s Pokémon, invariably taking command whenever they are separated from their trainer, defines Ash’s own fighting style, with his preference for speed and power, and is the Pokémon whose happiness and wellbeing Ash watches out for above all others. Our partner Pokémon have the potential to be the same. Exploring that can only help the feel of the games – and that’s what I would most want to do with my starter Pokémon If I Were In Charge, far more than just picking a new trio of types.